Catholic women negotiate feminism: a research note

Elaine Howard Ecklund


When I told a professor at a major university that I was studying Catholic feminists she replied: “Catholic feminist, isn’t that an oxymoron?” Scholars often expect inconsistency between women who call themselves feminists and adherents of traditional Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, or Islam. (1) Yet, how does a woman who is a feminist and a Catholic negotiate living out both? This research provides insight into the dynamics of negotiation between the apparently contradictory identities of women who are committed Catholics and feminists.

I did extended interviews in one congregation and asked how women in this church responded to feminism. For those who identified as feminists, I asked how they understood being a feminist and an active Catholic. I found that women used various means of identity negotiation to express how feminism was lived out in relationship to Catholicism. Women re-interpreted feminism in light of Catholicism, re-interpreted Catholicism in light of feminism, or identified themselves as feminists and as Catholics, and created individual meanings for both.

My findings reveal that women have different ways of understanding negotiation between two seemingly contradictory identities. This research has theoretical implications for how women use individual understandings within the context of mainstream religion (Edgell Becker 2000). In contrast to other work, I argue that individualism does not necessarily lead women to practice religion separate from mainstream religious institutions, but rather is an identity that can allow women to remain part of religious institutions with which they disagree.


Scholars provide three types of insights for how women who are part of traditional religion respond to feminism. First, some women reject feminism in favor of more orthodox forms of religion (Manning 1999; Neitz 1987). Researchers illuminate the various ways women both embrace patriarchal religion and, at the same time, find areas of power within traditional religious communities (Brasher 1998; Davidman 1991; Griffith 1997; Kaufman 1991).

Second, others focus on the challenges that feminist ideologies bring to traditional religion (Stocks 1997). Some of this work looks at the women who bring these changes (Fishman 1993; Weaver 1985). For example, scholarship examines how conservative Jewish women negotiate understandings of feminism in ways that challenge more Orthodox forms of Judaism (Fishman 1993). In addition, the work of feminist theologians offers critiques of patriarchal religion (Fiorenza 1993).

Third, research on feminism and religion shows that some religious feminists leave traditional religious communities for new forms of religious expression or expend their principal energy outside of local congregations, in pro-change (2) groups (Berger 1998; Dillon 1999). For example, the Catholics studied by Dillon (1999) remain committed to Catholic doctrines, but are primarily involved in efforts aimed at reforming the Church.

Yet, little research on feminism and religion examines how women who remain part of traditional religious institutions and embrace a feminist identity negotiate these identities (Lamont 1992; Thumma 1991; Wuthnow 1991). (3) My work examines how conciliation of identities happens in one Catholic congregation for women who are both feminists and committed Catholics. This research particularly fills a gap in scholarship on the Catholic Church. Research on the Church generally deals with the ways doctrines and Church law change, and alternative expressions of Catholicism develop both inside and outside the official Church hierarchy (Dillon 1999; Seidler and Meyer 1989; Wallace 1992). Yet, exclusive attention to these issues sidesteps the core question of how Catholic women understand being part of a Catholic Church that at least doctrinally has a limited place for women (Winter, Lummis, and Stokes 1994).

The Catholic Church is a good case for the study of how women negotiate being feminists and adherents of traditional religion. Doctrinally, the Church has a uniform place for women’s involvement in Church activities. While gender roles have loosened considerably since Vatican II, and although there is a severe priest shortage, the Catholic Church remains unwavering in its commitment to a celibate, male priesthood. There is an ongoing struggle, however, over what place women should have within the American Catholic Church (D’Antonio, Davidson, Hoge, and Meyer 2001). For example, nearly sixty-three percent of Catholics think it would be a good thing if women were ordained as priests (Gallup and Lindsay 1999). Uniform doctrine within the midst of contested views over women’s role in the Church provides the possibility of diverse means of identity negotiation for women in local congregations.


From February 2000 through July 2000, I engaged in research studying women at St. Mary’s (4) parish (Howard [Ecklund] 2001). This analysis included extended interviews (5) with ten women in the parish, a focus group with three additional women, and interviews with three women who left the Catholic Church, for a total of sixteen respondents. The ten women with whom I did in-depth interviews ranged in age from thirty-five to eighty-six and all had a bachelor’s degree. Nine had a master’s degree or Ph.D. Six of the ten women (6) described themselves as feminists and all were primarily engaged in their local congregation, (7) rather than a pro-change Catholic organization (Dillon 1999). At minimum all attended Mass weekly and were involved in another congregational activity outside of weekly worship. Some chose work for their church as a vocation.

The interview data I collected and participant-observations I did for this research allowed in-depth analysis of choices and meanings surrounding choices (Strauss and Corbin 1990). Unlike other research, I allowed my respondents to provide their own definition of feminism (Winter et al. 1994). (8) The goal of this research was not to generalize from this small group to the universe of women or even to other women who were both active feminists and active Catholics. Rather, the goal was to illustrate several specific ways women negotiated action within these identities without giving up either.


Definitions of Feminism: Self vs. Other

I found the women who did not identify as feminists gave different definitions of feminism than those who did. Women who rejected the label feminist defined it as “putting women’s rights above the rights of others” or “making women superior.” For example, Cindy, 38, worked part-time for the congregation and part-time as a homemaker. She told me she did not agree with feminists who,

are preaching that women’s rights should be foremost in everybody’s

mind, over and above the family’s needs. I am not a subservient

woman but I would not describe myself as a feminist either. But I am

not out there saying that whatever your husband says should be. I

just see myself as an equal person.

Jessica, 44, an accountant, explained:

When I think of feminist it is from the seventies. I think of it as

making women more superior. I don’t think of myself as superior.

Feminism is women’s needs [or] issues as being the most pressing.

They are the ones who deserve the most attention at any time.

These accounts of feminism were similar to those made by traditional religious women in other studies (Davidman 1991; Manning 1999) and confirmed the tension that some religious women have had between feminism’s emphasis on women’s individual goals and the collective goals of family and community. Their definition of feminism paralleled definitions provided by feminists, who argued that women’s rights and personal development were often squelched because of family responsibilities (Friedan 1963). The women that I interviewed, who did not identify as feminists, saw an essential part of their gender identity as upholding family and viewed feminism’s supposed emphasis on self as incompatible with this (Kaufman 1991).

In contrast, all of the women who did define themselves as feminists had a similar view of feminism that stressed equality for all rather than an emphasis on women’s individual rights. For example, when I first asked Jill, 44, a professor, married and the mother of two children, if she identified with the women’s movement she explained:

I definitely think so. There is no equality and there is no

appreciation for children. It is a very unfriendly environment for


Later in our discussion, Jill explained that “equal rights for women” was crucial to her definition of feminism. However, her explanation started with a focus on children and not women. These definitions mirror those among some feminists, who have critiqued liberal feminism for its inability to reconcile individual and collective rights (Rothman 1989).

Women Who Re-Interpreted Feminism in Light of Catholicism

The feminist women differed in three distinct ways in how they described the intersection between feminism and Catholicism. First, some women interpreted feminism in light of Catholicism. When describing feminism, this sort of woman began by talking about spiritual things like the Bible and theology. For her, feminism was not a secular, academic construct, but very much a spiritual one, and one that was shaped by the scriptures and doctrines of the Church. For example, Beth was one of the pastoral associates at St. Mary’s and had joined the Church later in life. Although Beth was at first not sure she would be able to deal with the doctrines of the Church regarding roles for women, after becoming deeply involved in her parish and devoting fifty to sixty hours a week to parish work, she fell in love with her church. She told me, however, that she still considered herself a feminist. Towards the end of our interview, I asked Beth how she described feminism:

I think, everything, that if you are going to teach and preach,

people still come out of the old theology. Few come from a feminist

theology, which is to look at the gospel from the point of view of

those who are marginalized and who are on the outskirts. Who were

women? They are the disenfranchised. And also to remember all those

who are with us at the outskirts. It is to make everyone feel

completely valid and an equal recipient. God being there for all of

us, but certainly the poorest of the poor.

The women I studied saw spiritual negotiations of feminism as more than a theological project (Fiorenza 1993). Their identity-negotiation strategy consisted of selectively drawing on aspects of feminism that were in keeping with Catholicism. This allowed the women to devote themselves primarily to a local Catholic congregation and still feel as if they were expressing aspects of feminism.

Re-Interpreting Catholicism in Light of Feminism

Second, other women re-interpreted Catholicism in light of feminism. Instead of discussing the relationship of spiritual principles to feminism, when I asked them about feminism, these women talked about women’s equality in a more general sense. Catholicism had a very real place in their lives. But the idea that a woman should be treated the same as a man was core to how they understood themselves. Catholicism was one of the spheres into which this ethic of equality was carried. Below is Sandy’s explanation of feminism:

To be treated the same, not differently [and] to be given the same

opportunities. My kids were given the same opportunities. My eleven

year old, the boy, he thinks the world is sexist [and] that his

sisters have every advantage against men. Talk to him and it is a

woman’s world, but he will learn. It is not. My daughter has had

every opportunity at St. Mary’s and been well supported. The

problems, at this point, are really societal and creep into human

institutions, except women’s ordination, I am kind of mad.

[We have] post-modernism [and] why do we care about women’s

ordination? … you know, there is almost, in the more progressive

Catholic Churches, every opportunity for women, except women’s

ordination. And no one, these days, seems overtly upset. They see

it as injustice. Lots of men, who would never describe themselves

as feminists, will tell you, old men on the finance committee, will

tell you that women should be ordained. But can’t we get a retired

Bishop to just force the issue and ordain women?

Unlike Beth, when I asked Sandy what being a feminist meant to her, she did not immediately start talking about the scriptures. Rather, she explained that feminism was about a more general sense of equality. This ideal led her to fight for the same kind of equality inside the Church as she fought for outside the Church. This approach to identity negotiation confirmed other studies of religious women, in which aspects of religious tradition were criticized based on feminist insight (Dillon 1999; Fishman 1993; Stocks 1997). It was also similar to the kind of identity negotiation experienced by gay evangelicals (Thumma 1991). However, my findings further showed the possibility of activist feminists being committed to local congregational participation, rather than funneling primary efforts through pro-change organizations.

In addition, of the women I interviewed, only those who re-interpreted Catholicism in light of feminism talked about making changes in Catholic institutions and doctrines. Interpreting Catholicism in light of feminism may lead to a more activist stance than other strategies of identity negotiation.

An Individual Feminism and an Individual Catholicism

Last, some women called themselves feminists, but carefully defined their specific form of feminism. These same women had disagreements with Catholicism, and defined what it meant to be a Catholic in ways that they justified through personal interpretation. This type of woman strongly believed the Church should have a different doctrinal stance towards women’s leadership. But, when discussing feminism, they adhered to a qualified feminism. These women identified themselves as feminists, yet were not as outspoken as other women in their parish or the wider Church. Often they criticized other women for their more vocal attitudes.

Ellen, 43, was a homemaker and volunteered faithfully at St. Mary’s. She described herself as a feminist with some reservations:

I think I am uncomfortable with some of the anger that I have heard

expressed by some feminists. [The sentiment] ‘that all men are evil

and that all men suck.’ All men don’t suck, just some of them. I am

uncomfortable with those kinds of blanket statements that now we

have to blame everything bad on the European white male. They were

just following the traditions of their time too.

Although she attended church with those who did not hold her views, Ellen thought people would listen to her and accept her advice. She remained part of the Catholic Church because she felt a sense of community there. Ellen also defined Catholicism in the way that made the most sense to her. When I asked if she felt any inconsistency in not agreeing with some of the doctrines of the Church, she replied:

Not really. Because a lot of these doctrines [were] man-made. If I

think of what the basics are. If I say that I believe in God, what

are the basics? God is love. How you treat other people matters.

How you live your life matters. Those are the things that I agree

with [italics mine]. I think we should treat other people with

compassion. I like to treat other people how I want to be treated.

The basic things I am in agreement with. The things, like, ‘priests

can’t be married.’ Well, they were married for a long time. And

then, something happened. That’s a man-made thing. I don’t really

feel dissonance about that.

Part of Ellen’s individual interpretation of Catholicism was choosing what she wanted to believe and practise and what she did not. For example, she had trouble describing her involvement as a Catholic in terms of hours spent in church, but instead emphasized the time she spent at home memorizing a talk to share at a spiritual retreat. She explained:

It’s not like here at home, where I have to vacuum, and I don’t

understand the inherent value in vacuuming. I am not choosing

[what I do] here at home. Whereas at church, I am specifically

choosing, and I don’t choose all of the things that can be done. I

only pick specific things to be done. I pick them because I enjoy

them, I am good at them, or they are fun.

Women like Ellen saw both their feminism and their Catholicism in individual terms. Yet individualism did not imply a lack of responsibility or a completely private spirituality. Scholars have thought about this type of identity negotiation in a strict sense as “separation” (Goffman 1963). Manning showed that some conservative religious women dealt with patriarchal hierarchy by separating or privatizing their religious lives from the rest of their lives (Manning 1999). She thought that a woman who was part of a traditional church and remained a feminist conceivably had a different view of herself in the workplace than she had in church. However, Ellen and other women who engaged in this type of identity negotiation readily admitted they were feminists. They did not try to “pass” or hide their feminism when they were in church. Rather, individual Catholic and feminist identities both were openly acknowledged, yet at the same time re-defined.

What Wuthnow (1998) calls “practice spirituality” may be a better way than privatization or compartmentalization to understand the type of individual identity-negotiation women like Ellen experienced. Practice spirituality emphasizes internal spiritual pursuits, such as prayer, meditation, and examining one’s desires, rather than strict adherence to a religious institution or set of core doctrines. Even within a Catholic congregation, there is room for a feminist Catholic to create an individual sense of herself that allows for an identity as both a feminist and a Catholic without conflict.


There were several different ways women lived out their feminism within the same Catholic congregation. I outlined three. First, there was the woman who, like Beth, thought of feminism itself as a spiritual matter. Catholic feminist theologians demonstrated this in their work (Fiorenza 1993; Weaver 1985). Yet, I found this perspective, not in the halls of theology schools, but within the walls of congregations and among individual women who primarily devoted their work to local congregations. Women like Beth developed a way to describe feminism and a way to be feminists within the confines of what they saw as a traditional religious structure.

Second, I found women who saw feminism as shaping identity and interpreted Catholicism in light of feminism. Research indicated that women who viewed egalitarian gender roles as of central importance in their lives often left traditional religion to become part of more progressive denominations and faith communities. Women like Sandy, however, showed there was also a way of negotiating identities that allowed a woman who was a feminist to remain a Catholic and participate actively in a local congregation. Sandy made sense of this by working for change within her congregation, her diocese, her children’s lives, and teaching about egalitarian gender roles. The above two categories of women had a consistent rhetoric for understanding Catholicism and feminism. They chose a spiritual or feminist rhetoric and interpreted feminism or Catholicism in light of the other.

Last, I found women who negotiated identities by identifying as feminists and Catholics on their own terms. While the other women argued for doctrinally consistent positions on women’s roles in the Church, these women were not concerned about feminism and Catholicism being consistent with one another. Their view of spirituality was not about a coherent set of beliefs, but a set of practices from which they could pick and choose within available Catholic practices. This type of identity account emphasized the diversity in the Catholic Church, not just at the organizational or congregational levels, but also between individual progressive Catholics.

This research fits into a larger body of literature on negotiation of religious identities (Davidman 1991; Dillon 1999; Manning 1999; Wuthnow 1991). Remaining committed to a highly institutionalized religion, such as Catholicism, while actively living within the confines of another ideology, such as feminism, requires a cultural account to explain why this is a legitimate decision (Wuthnow 1991). At one level attention must be paid to the larger American cultural rhetoric. American notions of individuality provide something of their own justification.

A usual account of individualism does not tell the whole story for the feminist in the local Catholic congregation, however. While some of the women I interviewed had individual negotiations, such understandings did not imply an individualism that fostered practising spirituality separate from mainstream institutions (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton 1985). This way of looking at individualism and religion begins to challenge the “Sheilaism,” which scholars like Bellah et al. (1985) argued were characteristic of an individualist attitude toward religion, and made individualist religious beliefs synonymous with separation from traditional religion. Practice spirituality did not lead my respondents away from organized religion. Rather, believing that personal understandings of doctrines were possible even allowed them to remain committed to a Church and a congregation that had doctrines with which they disagreed (cf. Winter et al. 1994).

(1) See Daly (1985). By traditional religion I refer to the monotheistic faiths and, in particular, those that doctrinally limit the role of women in leadership of congregations or denominational structures.

(2) By pro-change groups, I mean Catholic organizations that regularly petition the Vatican for change in Catholic doctrine (Dillon 1999).

(3) By identity, I am addressing specifically rhetoric or accounts. My data does not allow discussion of the specific internal processes of change that occur through movement from one identity to another or the interaction of two apparently incongruent identities. See Thumma (1991:334-336), for a discussion of identity negotiation. For an explanation of identity as accounts, motives, and moral boundaries see Lamont (1992:5-8) and Wucthnow (1991:49-51).

(4) I used pseudonyms for all respondents and the congregation I discussed in this paper.

(5) Each of the interviews lasted at least forty-five minutes and one tasted over two hours. I personally transcribed each interview.

(6) Keeping the women who did not identify as feminists in the analysis allowed me to situate my feminist respondents within the context of other women, of a similar educational background, who rejected the label feminist.

(7) St. Mary’s was similar to other Catholic congregations in that only a man could serve as an ordained priest and thus administer the “official” mass. Yet, it had numerous egalitarian roles for men and women in leadership outside the role of the priesthood, with girls as altar servers and women as committee heads.

(8) Winter et al. (1994) studied feminist women who remained committed to their religion despite serious disagreements with their religion’s core doctrines. Different from their work, I asked women to provide their own definitions of feminism and examined women who both identified as feminists and women who did not.


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–. 1998. After heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Elaine Howard Ecklund *

Cornell University

* Direct all correspondence to Elaine Howard Ecklund, Department of Sociology, 323 Uris Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, 14853. E-mail: Many thanks to Wendy Cadge, Penny Edgell, Dean Hoge, Jennifer Wiley Legath, Jerry Park, Kristen Schultz, Joan Walling, Tisa Wenger, Robert Wuthnow, and the editor and three was presented at the Association for the Sociology of Religion, 64th Annual Meeting. Funding for data collection was supported by the Lilly Endowment, grant # 1996 1880-000, Penny Edgell, P.I.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Association for the Sociology of Religion

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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