Looking outside the Protestant bubble20 Nov 2012
Maureen Fitzgerald, Habits of Compassion
Habits of Compassion looks at the history of relief work in New York city by focusing on the efforts of Irish Catholic nuns, a focus that is part of a larger effort to address the tendency in women’s history to give insufficient attention to the ways “non-dominant cultures and poor women” influenced the efforts of the dominant culture (7). She highlights the competing gender systems between the Irish nuns and the Protestant reform workers and argues that the eventual adoption of scientific charity by Catholics is the largest loss to the general discourse about poverty and relief.
Karla Goldman, Beyond the Synagogue Gallery
Goldman examines the changing discourse around role and place of women in Jewish life by examining the changes in the physical space women occupied and the debates surrounding those changes. The study is brilliantly conceived and offer a particularly useful example of how, despite little written that directly discusses women, this issue of physical space makes the surrounding conversation apparent. Goldman traces the changes largely to efforts within the Jewish community to gain respectability and to incorporate, in some ways at least, Victorian ideas about female religiosity. The adoption of family pews and the end of the female balcony coincides with increasingly rigid understandings of gender roles and an increased focus on the domestic sphere for women.
Kathleen Sprows Cummings, New Women of the Old Faith
Cummings’ book is a study of four Catholic women as a way of discussing in a more nuanced way Catholic reactions to the “New Woman” of the early 20th century. Her project is to show how, despite harsh criticism, Catholic women used various strategies to claim some of the ideas promoted by “New Women” and reframe them within the Catholic faith. She looks at efforts to promote educational opportunities for women and the efforts to use Catholic women of the past to claim a powerful role for women within the Church. Her last chapter focuses on reclaiming the rhetoric of Katherine Conway, best known for her anti-suffrage campaigns. She argues that strong feminist beliefs, though different than those guiding those working for suffrage, guided Conway’s argument against the vote and that she should be seen as a much more complex figure than she is usually portrayed.
A couple of thoughts and concerns for discussion:
Fitzgerald also discusses Jewish efforts to provide their own relief for children and the poor. However, the main discussion in the book is the interaction between Catholic and Protestant organizations and individual people, so that this inclusion feels more like a bulstering of the arguments about Catholics than a sustained analysis. At the same time, expanding to a more thorough discussion of Jewish poverty relief would make the book unwieldy. I would like the think through that balance of bringing additional voices into the narrative in a productive way while also maintaining a well defined project.
A couple of little questions for Goldman. For one, her discussion on 192 about membership being granted to women only beginning around 1895 leaves me wondering what is required for membership in her discussion. She compares evangelical groups who also excluded women from leadership and voting roles, however, in these groups membership is understood differently – one can be a member and can be disciplined as one even without the ability to vote about administrative issues. Also, I am curious about pews. While she doesn’t address it, in one of the examples, pews were brought in as part of the reforming changes. It is not really important to the argument, but always interesting to me that sitting in pews is itself an innovation in religious practice, though one that occurs at different times for different traditions.
While I think I understand what “Americanism” is from the reading, it would be helpful to discuss this more. I was unaware of this controversy.
While I enjoyed Cummings analysis (though I wish the structure was different), the last paragraph of her introduction left me concerned. She is arguing here that religion plays a central role in religious people’s construction of identity. And yet she alludes that religion was less influential in the response to second wave feminism. With not knowing very well the history that she is alluding to, this seems to be a large, and unnecessary, step back from her framing claims about the necessity of taking religion seriously as a key influence, along with race, class, and gender, in identity formation.