The Laywoman Project
Remaking Catholic Womanhood in the Vatican II Era
- ISBN: 9781469654492
- Published By: University of North Carolina Press
- Published: February 2020
Conflicting ideas about gender have been stirring controversy with and within the Catholic Church for the last decades. During the rise and consolidation of movements demanding equal rights for women and LGBTQ groups, the Vatican’s traditional, and increasingly defensive, position on gender complementarity has been regarded by many outside and inside the church as backward, if not discriminatory. Pope Francis himself has been caught in the middle of the tug-of-war between groups that fear his flirting with so-called “progressive Catholicism” and those who think that he has not done enough for women and the LGBTQ community. While the Vatican has defended complementarity as the Church’s official teaching on human sexuality and gender, it is useful to remember that official documents do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of all the members of the Catholic Church. More importantly, ideas and definitions, even religious ones, change subtly over time, and differ from one community to the other.
Mary Henold’s The Laywoman Project: Remaking Catholic Womanhood in the Vatican II Era analyzes conflicting and mutating ideas on womanhood and the relationship between men and women within lay Catholic communities. Set in the 1960s and ‘70s, Henold historicizes discussions of gender and gender roles within American Catholicism, turning her eyes not on official church’s documents, but on female lay groups as they grappled with the changes brought by Second Wave Feminism and the Second Vatican Council. Interestingly, the book does not look at Catholic feminists, a group that gained prominence in this same decade and to whom Henold dedicated her first work, but to nonfeminist laywomen who nonetheless “came to challenge the very notion that the Catholic Church’s interpretation of gender, and that gender itself, were immutable” by asking themselves over and over again “what does it mean to be a Catholic woman” (3). By looking at five different female organizations that “were not particularly diverse” and held mostly moderate positions (5), Henold argues that “one did not need to be a feminist to rethink and even challenge the limitations placed on women” (11). She convincingly shows how lay Catholic women who did not identify themselves as feminists set out to redefine their own roles inside and outside the Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council through conferences, essays, and articles, uncovering what she calls “the laywoman project”.
The book’s strength lies in the archival work done by Henold, which gives space to the unheard voices of moderate laywomen, looking at them as agents, and not only objects, of change (4). Chapter 3, centered on the study of Marriage, “a magazine for Catholic couples” (105), is in this respect particularly interesting. In the rest of the book, Henold effectively shows the mutations in ideas of Catholic womanhood within female religious organizations, such as the Theresians (chapter 1) or the National Council of Catholic Women (chapter 2). However, as Henold acknowledges, most of the material on these associations comes from official documents, letters, and conferences, thus making it hard to know what female members actually felt about the changes going on within the organization.
With the study of Marriage, Henold brings into the conversation not only the writings of the editorial board, but also the responses and conversations that they fostered in their readers. This gives a much broader and complete picture of the different reactions to changing ideas on gender and gender relationships, showing the “complexity of moderate laywomen’s discourse on women, church, and identity” (71-72). It also helps portray change within religious communities as a gradual process that involves both advances and setbacks, such as the one the magazine experienced when a “mildly feminist piece” provoked an “overwhelmingly negative” flood of letters in 1965, despite the number of articles that had been published, and continued to be published after it, defying male dominance (124).
Marriage’s example also emphasizes the porosity of some of the terms used to define gender ideas. While many of its readers probably agreed that some ideas on male headship were outdated, they, it seems, did not fully want to challenge the notions of “complementarity” or “gender essentialism.” However, one might wonder if everyone (then and today) would define complementarity, as well as the essential characteristics of men and women (“essentialism”), in the same way. If, as Henold shows, “the magazine ceased to present a united front on the teachings of complementarity” (124), this could direct research to the fluidity of these terms, and to how their understanding can change.
In fact, if there is a critique to be made of Henold’s book, it is the un-problematized pairing of gender complementarity and essentialism on the side of the more traditional, non-feminist view. Even though most of these women did not identify themselves as feminists, feminism still seems to be the horizon against which their ideas on womanhood are measured. Thus, women holding views closer to female equality are explained due to the positive (though sometimes unconscious) influence of Second Wave feminism, while essentialist and gender complementarity ideas are negatively evaluated as being held by women still under the subordinating power of a male-dominated Church. Henold does acknowledge that early in the 1960s, “feminism” itself was not clearly defined.
However, the confrontation of feminism with “complementarily” and “essentialism” would benefit from a similar discussion of how the interpretation and application of the two latter terms could also have changed through the years and within different communities. This could foster questions about differences in the idea of womanhood within historical conservative laygroups, such as the Catholic Daughters of America studied in Chapter 4, who, as Henold shows, felt empowered enough to “reject a modern outlook, in part as a means of preserving their preferred gender identity” (189), and also deepen our understanding of struggles on gender ideas within the Catholic church today.
Sofía Maurette is a PhD candidate for the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Maryland, College Park.Sofia MauretteDate Of Review:September 27, 2022