by Elizabeth Farians   Spring 1973


In the Roman Catholic Church the struggle for women's liberation is being waged on many fronts and at many levels. There have been demands for the ordination of women to the priesthood, and in fact women are studying in Catholic seminaries hoping one day to be ordained.1 There have been calls for the elimination of sex discrimination in Canon Law public protests and demonstrations over archaic liturgical rites which degrade, insult or exclude women.3 Women have organized to work on problems such as restoring the deaconate to women4 or withholding funds from an institution, a sexist church, which then uses those funds to discriminate.5 Nuns have become uppity, * first in their own internal affairs, refusing to submit any longer to male domination in their communal life6 and now, with raised consciousness, moving into the secular sphere and supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. 7 Along with this is what is perhaps the most important factor of all: the devastating attack by Catholic radical feminist theologians on the over-masculinized theology of Judeo-Christian tradition, an attack which may well be the final critique of Christianity.

It is not possible to pinpoint the beginnings of the movement for liberation. No matter what moment one chooses one can always find a prior event, for women have always protested oppression in and by the male power-structured church. Whether one speaks of a saint whose desire to be priested was so great that she wanted to die,8 the story of Pope Joan,9 the Women's Bible, 10 the authorship of the scriptures,11 denied and hidden previous ordinations of women, l2 or the new emphases on the supposedly much wider role of women in the church in the past, both in the early church and in the Middle Agesl3 --much of the struggle still needs to be investigated and recorded, with unprejudiced eyes. In any case, it is clear that the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican Council gave women the impetus needed to work for organized improvement in their status in the Church of Rome. As the necessary background for the task, the founding of St. Mary's (Notre Dame) Graduate School of Sacred Theology for women in 1944 by the outstanding and farsighted woman, Sister Madeleva Wolff, provided, for the first time, the education women needed to change their situation in the church.

St. Joan's Alliance, an international and independent (ie., not tied to church structures) feminist organization, has been active since 1911 for the cause of women. In the early 1960's, it made the first move in taking up the gauntlet for Catholic women by asking for women auditors to the Vatican Council.14 After several years' persistence and at the eleventh hour, Rome finally capitulated by allowing several women to attend the last Council session. Even then the women were not given the same status as their "lay" male counterparts.15

In 1963 St. Joan's made an historic breakthrough by resolving that "should the church in her wisdom and in her good time decide to extend to women the dignity of the priesthood, women would be willing and eager to respond.”16   Ms. Frances Lee McGillicuddy organized an American section of St. Joan's in 1965.17 It publishes a quarterly bulletin and recently formed an anti-defamation committee to make its work more effective.18  News reports of these events in the early 1960's brought a rash of articles and controversy about the role of women in the church. Much of it was reported in the pages of the then newly founded National Catholic Reporter, and the so-called second wave of feminism in the church began.

In 1966 the author founded the Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion to provide an ecumenical base for the problem of women's rights in the church. At the same time NOW (National Organization for Women) was being organized and the Ecumenical Task Force joined with it. 19 In contrast to the more cautious St. Joan's Alliance, the NOW Task Force immediately put out a list of demands calling for full participation on an equal basis with men in all areas and levels of church life and practice. The statement also enunciated an important principle for women's rights in the church: "We hold that discrimination based on sex is destructive of religious values."20

The NOW Task Force worked with Albertus Magnus College in planning what was probably the first public conference on women and the church in the United States. The conference was held in February, 1967, at the college in New Haven, Connecticut. It was so well-attended that closed circuit TV had to be set up to accommodate the overflow crowd. The author put forth the theological challenge:

"Embedded in the exclusion of women from the Catholic priesthood

is the insidious notion that Christ is the Redeemer in his maleness.

Therefore only a male can represent him... It is the total humanity of

Christ that enables him to be the Saviour, not his maleness." 21

The militant NOW group, looking for a way to call attention to the plight of women in the church, began to organize demonstrations. In 1968 NOW called for a "National Unveiling," urging women to refuse to cover their heads as a sign of inferiority in the church. In April of the following year this policy was dramatically carried out in the" Easter Bonnet Rebellion" which was probably the first church demonstration for women's rights. Many persons were deeply upset by the incident. The story is partially told

in the Revolt of the Second Sex. 22

In 1970, outraged by the continued insensitivity of the Catholic hierarchy toward women, the NOW Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion burned a copy of the newly issued, and supposedly reformed, Roman Missal.

The new missal contained a regulation. Canon No. 66, restricting the role  of women as lectors. After burning the degrading Canon the women sent the charred ashes tied in a pink ribbon to John Cardinal Dearden. who was in San Francisco presiding over the semi-annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The package was signed "Woman" and the following poem was attached:

Pink and Ash

The color of our caste is pink

But the color of our mood is ash.

We have burnt your sacred books

Your latest oppressive words.

We are sick with your pomp and male prerogative

We are weary or your callous stance toward women in the church.

You have raped us of our rights

And preached that it was in the name of God.

These are the ashes or your Canons or your instructions sixty six.

The color of our caste is pink

But the color or our mood is ash 23


Another protest which should be mentioned is one now called the "Exodus." In 1971, Dr. Mary Daly, the first woman to preach at the staid Memorial Chapel at Harvard University, marched the congregation out of the church in a new "exodus" from the slavery of the patriarchal church.24

The first group of women religious to organize and publicly recognize women's oppression by the male church was the National Coalition of American Nuns. The Coalition was founded in 1969 by Sister Margaret Traxler and has since made several important contributions to the cause of women's rights. In 1972 the National Coalition formulated a five-year plan in which full and equal status for women should be achieved, including ordination to the ministry and elected proportional representation in church voting bodies. They are also demanding reformation of the economic and power systems, full equality for women, and a greater austerity and simplicity of life styles.25

In May 1970, the author brought together several of the already existing women's groups into the Joint Committee of Organizations Concerned About the Status of Women in the Church. The purpose of the Joint Committee was to intensify efforts to get the American bishops to deal with the discrimination against women by the Roman Catholic Church and to show strong Catholic support for the Equal Rights Amendment.26 In August 1970, the Joint Committee succeeded in getting a meeting with the newly formed Liaison Committee of the National Council of Catholic Bishops (N.C.C.S.). This was an historic meeting, believed to be the first time United States Catholic bishops have met in committee with women about rights in the church--or anything else. The meeting culminated more than five years of organized effort on the part of women to get a hearing by the bishops. The Joint Committee presented the bishops with a proposal calling for the moral condemnation of sexism, an end to sex discrimination by the church, an affirmative action program for women and an office of women's affairs to oversee and promote the status of women in the church.27

As a result of the efforts of the Joint Committee, the N.C.C.B. set up an ad hoc committee of bishops to consider the problem the church has with women, and in 1972, the bishops added women to the committee.28  It should be pointed out that the bishops never did respond to the proposal of the Joint Committee nor has any of its members been appointed to the bishops' committee on women. 29 Ms. Bernice McNeela and Ms. Patricia Brunner now co-chair the Joint Committee. Recently, the Vatican set up a committee to study the role of women in the church. The only American appointed was a college sophomore and the Pope will not permit the committee to include on its agenda for study the ordination of women to the priesthood.30

When one looks back over the past years one can see progress in the role of women in the Catholic Church. Before the Vatican Council, women had no participation and no one dared mention their exclusion. Now they act as lectors, aspire to the priesthood, give out Communion, and sit on parish and diocesan councils while their status is under official study by the church.

But the progress has been uneven and the work difficult. Advancement has been made only after much pressure and protest and then there is double-talk, evasion, and insulting restrictions. For example, when a right is restored to women it is usually permitted first to women religious and then to "'lay" women. Also the decree is usually couched in special language granting the dispensation to "women known to be morally righteous" (no such adjectives describe male counterparts) and the dispensation usually depends on many restrictions: the unavailability of men, denial to stand in certain sacred places, or the nonconferrment of the proper title of the office.31

Besides all this, the opportunity for co-optation is ever present, thus Catholic women must always be on guard. For example, when bishops attempt to speak for the cause of women, as a few now have, they speak guardedly (and sometimes with "forked tongues" ), often arguing for special ministries, such as the deaconate, or some type of "mini- ministry" or "different" ministry, or of needing women to make up for the shortage of men.32

The bishops do not acknowledge that justice is the heart of the matter.33  Nor do they recognize women theologians: no bishop has appointed a woman periti. The bishops do not even consult female theologians on problems which especially concern women. And when a woman finally does obtain some official position, she may not be taken seriously.34

Also, the hierarchy is at best not consistent. Despite statements condemning sex discrimination by the Vatican Council,35 the American bishops do not support the Equal Rights Amendment.36 Neither does the National Council of Catholic Women, the official church organization for women. 37


Although the legislative history says the Amendment will not touch the private sphere, they claim the Amendment may disrupt the family.

When considering the activities for women in the church the work of feminist theologians is especially important because it provides the bases for change. Catholic theologians, Mary Daly, Rosemary Ruether, and the author, have been in the vanguard of this development38 Also, the Swidlers, Arlene and Leonard, have written extensively on the role of women in the church. These Catholic theologians were also the first to work on feminist studies.39


If the literature on the subject of women's rights in the church is any gauge of the extent, seriousness or depth of the movement, one has only to note that over the past several years the number of articles has quadrupled and that the titles and content of the articles have become increasingly more forceful and radical. 40

The theological theory in feminist religious studies is intensely interesting. There are two main schools of thought. One group would attempt to rescue Christianity from its misogynism by returning to what is considered the pristine purity of a non-sex ism inherent in the love preached by Christ and the Christianity true to his teaching. Much scholarly work is done by this group to rid Christianity of its cultural sexist accretions. The other group is more radical and holds that Christianity is patriarchal in its essence and therefore can no longer contain women and men seeking the true individual uniqueness to be themselves.41 Both groups are causing an exciting reevaluation of women in the church.


Copyright 1973 Elizabeth Farians


Elizabeth J. Farians. Ph.D., is a consultant on women and religion. institutional sexism and women studies and author of numerous articles on women and religion.


The word "uppity" is used in the women's movement as meaning "not passive." not in the dictionary sense of "haughty, snobbish" (Random House Dictionary of the English Language). Editor's note.




A listing of some important writings follows (arranged chronologically):


Daly, Mary. The Church and the Second Sex. New York: Harper and Row. 1968. Ruether, Rosemary. "Women's Liberation in Historical and Theological Perspective".

Soundings. Winter 1970.

Swidler, Leonard. "Jesus Was A Feminist", Catholic World. Jan. 1971. Daly, Mary. "After the Death of God the Father", Commonweal. Mar. 12, 1971.

Daly, Mary. "The Courage to See", Christian Century. Sept. 22. 1971, pp. 1108-1111. Farians, Elizabeth. "Justice: the Hard Line", Andover Newton Quarterly. Mar. 1972. Daly, Mary. "A Call for the Castration of Sexist Religion", Unitarian Universalist

Christian. Oct.-Winter 1972.

Farians, Elizabeth. "Phallic Worship: The Ultimate Idolatry", in Women and Religion

1972,. Judith Goldenberg, Editor. American Academy of Religion, 1973.

Swidler, Arlene. Woman In A Man's Church. New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1973.

Ruether, Rosemary, Editor. The Image of Woman In the Judeo-Christian Tradition.

New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father. To be published Fall 1973.




1. "Bishops Given 41 Demands", Chicago Daily News, Nov. 10, 1969 "She's getting ready for ordination," National Catholic Reporter, May 7,1971, p. 5.


"Two Female 'Seminarians' Study for Ministry Rule" by Ethel Gintoft, Catholic .Herald Citizen, Dec. 2,1972. --


2. "Petition Rome To Allow Women in Holy Orders", National Catholic Reporter, Jan. 29, 1965.


3. '''Read-In' Protests Ban on Women", National Catholic Reporter, Jan. 2. 1971. p. 3.


4. '" Want To Be A Deaconess" (Letters to the Editor) by Jeanne Barnes, National Catholic Reporter. Feb. 18, 1970.


5. "Women To Withhold Church Funds", National Catholic Reporter, Oct. 11. 1971,  p.2.


6. "Firm, Not Militant In I.H.M. Changes", National Catholic Reporter. July 24, 1968.


7. "Women Superiors Back Rights Amendment", National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 1973, p. 3. The recently formed National Assembly of Women Religious has begun to speak out for women's rights: "Say Bishops Need Timetable", National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 1972. p. 7. But there have been many problems with women religious and women's liberation. Sister Janice Raymond analyzes: "Nuns and Women's Liberation", Andover Newton Quarterly, March 1972, pp. 177 ff.


8. St. Theresa of Liseaux. Autobiography and Letters. Cited in The Catholic Citizen, Nov.-Dec. 1964.


9. Rhodes, Emmanuel. Pope Joan. London: George Redway. 1886.


10. Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. The Women's Bible. New York: European Publishing Co.,1898.


11. Hoppin. Ruth. Priscilla, Author of Epistle to the Hebrews. New York: Exposition Press, 1970.


12. Anson, Peter. Bishops At Large, London: Faber and Faber. 1964.


13. Morris, Joan. .The Lady Was A Bishop: The Hidden History of Women As Priests. Abbots and Bishops. New York: Macmillan, 1973.


14. "Women At the Council: Spectators or Collaborators?" by Eva-Maria Jung, The Catholic World Feb. 1965, pp. 277-287.


15. "Women" by Cecilia Wallace. National Catholic Reporter. Jan. 27, 1965.


16. Resolutions Passed At the Twenty-Second Council Meeting, Rome. No. 10C (adopted at Council Meeting, Freiburg, 1963), The Catholic Citizen, Oct., 1965.


17. Hale. Judith and Ellen Levine, Rebirth of Feminism. New York: Quadrangle Books. 1971. p.391.


18. "Form Women's Anti-Defamation Committee", Brooklyn Tablet, April 19, 1973, p.l.


19. "How NOW Got Religion", Genesis III. Jan.-Feb. 1972, p. 2.


20. Task Force Statement, 1967, Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion, NOW Papers on Women and Religion. National Organization for Women.


21. "Interfaith Debate: Women In the Church", Boston Pilot, Feb. 18, 1967.


22. Ellis, Julie. Revolt of the Second Sex. New York: Lancer Books, 1970. pp. 40-42.


23. "NOW Papers on Women and Religion", National Organization for Women.


24. "Memorial Church FIock Follows Feminist", Harvard Crimson, Noy. 15,1971,


p.1. "The Women's Movement: An Exodus Community' by Mary Daly. Religious Education, Sept.-Oct. 1972, pp. 327-35.


25. "Nun Fights Sexism In Catholic Church" by Carol Lacey. St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jan. 25, 1973, and "Nuns Criticize Bishops on Ordaining Women", National Catholic Reporter April 30. 1973, p. 3. Genesis III, May-June 1972. p. 3.


26. Brochure of the Joint Committee.


27. "Faith of Our Feminists". Newsweek, Nov. 2, 1970, p. 81.


28. "Five Women Named". National Catholic Reporter, Nov. 24,1972. p. 7.


29. "Women's Lib Swings At Catholic Bishops", Detroit Daily News, April 29, 1971,


30. "Pope Orders A Study of the Role of Women In Church and Society" by Paul Hofmann, New York Times. May 4, 1973. p. 6.


"Report: Women's Unit Can't Study Ordination," National Catholic Reporter. May 25, 1973. p. 3.


31. "Women See 'Segregation' In New Liturgy Roles". Camden Catholic Star Herald. Feb. 7,1969, p. 1; "Vatican Says Women May Still Read the Scriptures At Mass", National Catholic Reporter, Oct. 20, 1972, p. 4; "Bishop's Office Clarifies Pope's Decree on Ministries" by Serry Filteau, Cincinnati Post, Sept. 22, 1972.


32. "Bishop Welcomes Women in Liturgy....National Catholic Reporter, May 21. 1971. p. 4; "Women's' Equality Depends on Study' ", National Catholic Reporter, April 21. 1972, p. 17; "The Church's War on Women" by Teresa


D. Marciano, New York Times. Nov. 11, 1972; "Ordination Undesirable for Anyone: Sister Says" by Rick Casey. National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 1973, pp. 2-3. See especially the remark by Sister McGrawth on page 3.


33. "Theological Reflections on the Ordination of Women", A report of the Committee on Pastoral Research and Practices, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1972. last pane.


 34. Ms. Clare Henning was the first women canon lawyer. She resigned from her chancery job: "Ladies In Chanceries Look Pretty, Be Quiet", National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 25, 1970, p. 2; "Catholic Women in Ministry Report." Available from Ann Kelly, 20 Arrow St., Cambridge, Mass. 02138.


35. Second Vatican Council Constitution on the Church In the Modern World, Schema III.


36. "Bishop's Unit Raps Amendment on Women", National Catholic Reporter, Oct. 6, 1972, p. 3.


37. "Catholic Spokesman Wary of Equal Rights for Women Effort", Catholic Herald Citizen, Aug. 1, 1970.


38. "Toward A Feminist Theology" by Sheila Collins, The Christian Century, Aug. 2, 1972, pp. 796-799.


39. "Women's 'Lib' Hits Seminary", National Catholic Reporter, May 29, 1970; "Women's Study Courses: Meeting a Need" by Lynn Van Matre, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 27, 1970, Sec. 5, p. 10. 1965-72.


40. See selected bibliography on Women and Religion, 1973, 25p. Avail. from E. J. Farians,


41. "Church Blamed For Bias Against Women", by Eleanor Blau, New York Times, April 24, 1971, p. 31; "Tougher Issues Surfacing in Women's Lib Debate" by Marjorie Hyer National Catholic Reporter, March 6, 1971, p. 3.


Download printable .pdf version here

Animals, People and the Earth                                                  


Hosted by