Looking outside the Protestant bubble

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: