St. Joan’s International Alliance – A Short History 1911 – 1977
A Catholic Feminist Movement · Founded in London in 1911
by Anne Marie Pelzer, Brussels 1977
published in The Journal of St. Joan’s International Alliance, 1992, pp. 1-16
English translation by Françoise Awre, Bath (UK).
1. Is Active Feminism In the Hands of Atheists?
Towards the end of the last century, the feminist movement, in full swing, tried to unite all, irrespective of differences of religious and political opinion, who wished to defend the rights of women. In many of those countries, under the Napoleonic Code, women were by law, classified with minors and foreigners. Yet, rarely did Catholics join the crusade.
All religious ideologies refused to question the subordination of women. It seemed improper to give women civil and political rights; or grant them entry to universities and public office; the Divine Will demanded the preservation of an all-powerful husband; the creation of creches was considered a threat to the family; Catholic opinion at that time, totally orientated towards the middle and rural classes, had for a long time not recognised the crying need of women workers and mothers without support.
It is true that in all classes women were subjected to great constraints. However in the Catholic world, this subjection of women was not a simple sociocultural matter: it was apparently written into the divine law and all the faithful felt bound to respect this pious state of affairs. In the western world, therefore, feminism had to develop, for the most part, outside christian influence, and against a Catholic mentality enshrining male domination. Many feminist groups today are still anti-Catholic, even totally anti-religious. Is not this hostility the logical consequence of our ignorance and blindness? It is a question we must all now ask ourselves… Is not the message of Christian justice a travesty in the Catholic world and hateful to those who, with regard to the feminist question, see things much clearer than we do?
The purest and most complete Christian doctrine totally protects all the rights of women and declares then to be identical to those acknowledged for men. However, who, in the first half of the century, dared proclaim the truth about this? No bishop, no theologian… only a shall handful of Catholics, who, since 1911, organised themselves to fight against the prevailing prejudices as: “feminists and Catholics”. In taking up the defence of a group of persons legally deprived of having any voice in the matter, these militants knew they were following the way of Christ. The task was hard and delicate, and there were innumerable obstacles, but the Holy Spirit was at work! Profoundly Catholic, faithful to the hierarchy, this Association, today called “St. Joans International Alliance“, has fulfilled its title by the spread of Christian feminism, by its pioneering action, its unique and unequivocal objective, its untiring and varied activities in the service of women, and also by its audacious, competent and faithful approach, as nature daughters of the Church.
2. A Long-Standing Endeavour
In London, in 1911, a group of British women, assembled under the name of “The Catholic Woman’s Suffrage Society”, with the intention of fighting for the vast suffragette movement. Women, to-day, easily forget that most of the basic rights they now enjoy are due to these militants at the beginning of the century.
This Catholic group soon established sound International relations; it had members in 24 countries from 5 continents. In 1923, it expanded its activities to include all aspects of the feminine question and renamed itself “St. Joan’s Social and Political Alliance”. Remarkably, despite wars and disturbances, its journal, “The Catholic Citizen”, has appeared regularly since 1915. Since 1973, two editions have been published simultaneously, one in English and one in French; since 197?, 1t has been called “L’Alliance”. Regional bulletins are published in French, English and Spanish.
3. A Clear and Unequivocal Objective
The Alliance fights for the acknowledgement of the equality of rights between women and men; this does not necessarily mean that women and men are the same! The Alliance does not wish women to imitate the men of to-day in their characteristics, their choices, their style of life; it does not wish to make society all male or all female. The Alliance strives that men and women be able, according to their personalities and individual talents, to freely choose what they do from the range of tasks useful to society. It wishes to remove the stereotypes, which, arbitrarily, confine women to certain roles and which deter men from those labeled “feminine”. Far from impoverishing humanity by leveling the sexes, feminism preserves individual identity: this fight against the debasing of people enriches and expands all humanity.
The Alliance has always remained exclusively dedicated to this aim, taking care to keep its feminist action completely free of any political or religious involvements, however laudable they may be.
Within these limits, the scope of study is extensive: philosophical and biological anthropology; psychology; demography, sociology of the family; the study of work and leisure; civil and political rights; pay and social security problems; organisation of domestic work and the upbringing of children; family, school and post-school education; career and professional preparation Hot forgetting systematic, moral and sacramental theology; biblical and patristic exegesis; canon law; the ecumenical aspects of the access of women to the ministry; the attitude of non-christian religions towards women; women in the cultural, literary and artistic history of mankind. All these branches of study offer ample scope for reflection for those who wish to understand and correct the unjustified inequalities that exist between the sexes in society and in the Church.
In many countries the Alliance has known how to obtain the commitment and cooperation of people, highly-qualified in many and varied fields. All branches of knowledge, all abilities experience of all human work have their place in our organisation. Up to now, the big human problems have been studied with a biased outlook, from the masculine viewpoint. The Alliance wishes to project a more balanced outlook on the world and on the ways ahead for it. It is a vast undertaking!
4. A Wide-Ranging Programme for the Advancement of Women
The first Catholic feminists realised that the extent and seriousness of the feminine problem far exceeded a ban on political rights. The condition of women overseas in particular was something they could not be indifferent to. One of the first members of the Alliance, a doctor of medicine, Agnes MacLaren, had in 1909, established a hospital for woven in Rawalpindi, where all the medical and nursing staff were woven; at last, qualified medical attention was brought to Muslim women who would rather be looked after by women. Today, this hospital is run by Les Soeurs de la Mission Medicale, whose foundress, Mother Anna Dengel, was also an honoured member of the Alliance.
In 1937, the Alliance presented a paper to the League of Nations on the Condition of Women in those countries of Africa and Asia, still a long way from independence. Never, till then, had any international organisation concerned itself officially with this problem. This intervention by the Alliance, on behalf of the rights of indigenous women, led to the movement which recently culminated in an international convention on marriage.
Since then, the Alliance has campaigned against the ritual sexual mutilation of young girls and adolescents. No other organisation wished to become involved with this delicate matter, which, for a long time, was taboo. In 1952, the first official intervention on this matter was presented to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations by a representative of the Alliance; our organisation was given consultative status at the U.N. The fight will be long! Only now has world opinion begun to be concerned; the World Health Organisation has at last condemned these dehumanising practices, which are still widely perpetrated in a number of countries in Africa.
Another crusade of the Alliance is one launched by the First Secretary of the French Branch, Marie Lenoel, against prostitution, slavery and the slave-trade. Florence Barry, then International Secretary of the Alliance, with the help of Phyllis Challoner and of Dr.Fede Shattock, our ever-valiant Vice-President, obtained evidence of those practices and presented them to the Commission Against Slavery and to various committees set up by the League of Nations or by the British Government for the territories under its authority. After the Second World War, they referred this subject to the United Nations.
But it was not only overseas that the condition of women needed to be improved. In the western world, the wife was entirely at the mercy of her partner in cases of marital breakdown or financial problems. Everywhere, there were large tasks ahead: the education of woven; their preparation for professional life; their entry to public office and to private employment; their remuneration and opportunities for promotion; the free administration of their possessions; their parental rights; their legal rights in marital infidelity, separation and divorce; the payment of alimony; prostitution; legal protection against marital cruelty; also the mass of masculine prejudices and myths.
In 1924, the Alliance became a founder member of the Liaison Committee of the International Organisations of Women. This enabled it to obtain support for these initiatives from other groups connected with these supra-national assemblies.
Regarding national projects, the Alliance has, on many occasions, intervened, either by the action of local branches, or through individual members in the countries concerned. This legal work is far from being achieved; hardly any European country had passed general laws against sexual discrimination in work at that time.
Direct action on public opinion is no less important. Too many adolescents have yet to appreciate that they themselves must plan their lives and not wait for this to happen through marriage. Many parents make the same mistake, indifferent to the fact, that in the majority of cases, these young girls, whether they marry or not, will be given boring work and be badly paid. Our culture still considers the woman primarily as a ‘subsidiary’, who must influence the world through the intervention of a husband, a son or a boss, whom she will help in the background. Such a role by an intermediary, frustrating for both parties, has become practically impossible in this technological age when all professional decisions demand specialised knowledge. One must therefore dispel fanciful expectations and enable the young to confront the adult feminine situation as it now exists in our daily life; enquiries, professional statistics, meetings with women at work and housewives will help parents and children to understand the importance of intellectual formations and reliable training for young women as well as for young men. Talks, debates, books, newspaper articles, papers and other works of learning, cinema, television, pamphlets, letters to the newspapers… all these modern channels of information are used for this task of thoughtful and collective education.
5. Official Recognition at the United Nations
The quality and scope of these activities has enabled the Alliance to obtain Category II consultative status at the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations in New York and Geneva; to be recognised officially by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and to be included on the list of non-governmental organisations represented at UNESCO in Paris by Maryvonne Stephan.
One fact which has not escaped the notice of delegates empowered to decide and periodically renew the official status of non-governmental organisations wishing to be represented at the United Nations, is that in large areas of the world under Catholic Influence, the Alliance has a unique place. It is active and fully feminist; totally independent of the clergy, legally and ín practice; it enjoys the esteem of the hierarchy and the most influential theologians. With regard to the agencies of the United Nations, the Alliance is an irreplaceable tool in the advancement of standards and in the practice of justice towards women in the Catholic world, which is generally not very favourable towards feminine emancipation.
Since 1951, the Alliance has been represented at all the sessions of ECOSOC in New York and Geneva, and also at most of its committees and commissions, especially those on the condition of women. During the Decade for Women, the Alliance was present at the UN. If seminars on the Rights of Man which always included the status of women are included, we find the Alliance in Bogota, Addis Ababa, Bucharest, Rome, Accra, Moscow, Teheran, Ottawa, and in Mexico. The Alliance was also in Lusaka for a seminar on economic and social rights in the developing countries, and at the Conference on Commerce and Development in New Delhi, and also the conference on the participation of women in the development in the countries of South East Asia and the Pacific, which took place in Katmandu. The Alliance is always represented at the conferences of non-governmental organisations in New York and Geneva, and also in Paris, London and Brussels.
As examples of its many projects can be mentioned the declarations on age, consent and registration of marriage; the personal rights of widows; the collection of alimony across frontiers; the monitoring of the reasonable application of the Rights of Man; ritual sexual mutilations; discrimination in employment; equal pay for equal work; the economic emancipation of married women and their retirement and pension rights; education of women in the Third World; slavery and the slave trade and again the participation of women in development.
6. Towards True Humanism
In 1974, Frances McGillicuddy, the Alliance’s delegate to the Commission on the Condition of Women (in New York) presented a report on the influence of the method of information and publicity and on the development of a new approach to the role of women in today’s society. For if we talk of the rights of women, we must speak also of the responsibility of women: women must serve society better. They have much wider and direct responsibilities to civilisation than those attributed to them by tradition.
The abolition of arbitrary discrimination will transform the lives of people and society. Men, today overwhelmed by heavy responsibilities, will be more able to flourish emotionally, aesthetically and spiritually within the family surroundings. Children, raised by both parents sharing equally the responsibility, will enjoy greater emotional security and be more balanced. Women, knowing that their individuality is fully recognised and their rights respected, will be able to utilise all their gifts in every sphere, without needing to be defensive, aggressive or slavish. Christian feminism is at the heart of all human problems; it is the only philosophy, of all those claiming to be christian, which extends to the feminine question the sacred principle of the sovereignty of the person and condemns all systems resulting in the subordination of women to their husbands, to their family or to society. Only a under the title “We shall keep quiet no more! Women speak to the Second Vatican Council” (G.Heinzelmann et al; ed., Interfeminas, Zurich). In the following years, further books were published by members of the Alliance: G.Heinzelnann in Switzerland; Sr.Rita Hannon in England; Tina Govaart-Halkes in Holland; two by Mary Daly in the United States; Joan Morris in England; Ida Raming in Germany. These works, very different in their respective ways, are all devoted to the single topic of sexual discrimination in the Church. One theologian member, Prof. Leo Swidler of Philadelphia, started an ecumenical group of religious feminism “Genesis III. Women’s Task Force in Religion”. Other theologians backed us with the results of their research: Prof. J. X. Aubert of Strasbourg, Fr. Van der Meer in Holland, Fr.Idigoras in Peru.
On the official front, the Alliance put to the Holy Father its first official request for women to become deacons (1961), then for lay men and women to be present at the Council, as observers and experts (1962). In 1963, it presented a very cautious and respectful resolution to the Pope on the admission of women to the priesthood., Since 1965, a thorough revision of Canon Law has been requested by the Alliance on several occasions: seventeen articles of Canon Law, discriminating against women, have been modified or revoked. The Alliance immediately received the personal encouragement of eminent theologians and highly-placed church dignitaries. The press conference given by the Alliance in Rome in 1965 emphasised this!
The Alliance advertised widely throughout the christian world the progress of its studies and petitions. Never had such subjects been publicly debated before the international press by a Catholic organisation. Reactions were numerous, and all in all, quite favourable to our ideas. The Catholic world was genuinely becoming concerned by the fact that women played no part in the decisions of the Church. Public encouragement came more slowly.
The Alliance’s resolutions, issued after each General Assembly at the Vatican, have, since 1967, been expressed in terms which further stress the principle of justice towards women. In 1967, at the insistence of the President of the Alliance, the World Congress of the Laity in Rome interceded, with near total unanimity, for the rights of women in the Church.
Ideas travel far… In 1971, following the intervention of our Canadian section, the Catholic Bishops Conference of Canada declared itself in favour of the ordained ministry for women. As a result of their petition to the Rome Synod in 1971, these bishops established at the Vatican a Study Commission on the role of women in society and in the Church. Contrary to the explicit wishes of the Synod, the Commission was not authorised to study the main issue —the access of women to the ordained ministry. Moreover, it was the Vatican which chose the members, who did not include any known authority on feminism, nor a member of our Alliance. The press informed us that the proceedings did not develop smoothly.
This Rome Commission on Women finally issued, in 1975, a document of very uneven reasoning and information to the local Churches. The Alliance highlighted the contradictions in the document and sent Rome a critique intended to be constructive. The President of the Commission. Mgr.Bartolletti congratulated the Alliance on this response. Doctrinal work must certainly continue, he wrote, and “Associations like yours should take part”! Since then, the Alliance tries to enforce the excellent recommendations that the Commission sends to the national Bishops Conferences, to international Catholic Associations, religious orders and Catholic universities. Independently of our work. we have great pleasure to welcome the establishment by Catherine Govaart Halkes, at the Catholic university of Nijmegen, of a department of “Feminism and Christianity”, within the Faculty of Theology. Other Catholic organisations seen less willing to enforce the recommendations of the Commission. Will the Catholic world be accused of wanting only to “save face” with grand statements without any intention of putting them into practice? Vill the Church realise that, in this matter, the world is watching her and judging her?
Concerned to retain its autonomy and freedom of action, the Alliance has declined the privilege of becoming a catholic organisation, with control demanded by Rome regarding the granting of its title. It prefers to remain an “Organisation of Catholics”, enrolled on the permanent register of the Council of the Laity in Rome. Relations with the Conference of International Catholic Organisations are no less restricted than with those at Paris and Geneva. The Alliance is present at meetings of its two centres of information as an “associate member”.
Despite its frankness, the Alliance has obtained and retains the esteem of the hierarchy. Pius XII, John XXIII before he became pope, and Paul VI have all congratulated and encouraged our group. The tireless and much-missed Florence Barry, International Secretary for several decades, was awarded the “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” Cross for her work with the Alliance. Each year, after the meeting of the Council, the Alliance informs the Holy Father and certain important religious persons of the resolutions reached relative to current problems concerning the place of women in doctrine, the liturgy, canon law and the structure of the Church. It also maintains regular contact with a number of bishops and Church authorities. It actively takes part in ecumenical activities centered on the role of women in the Church.
The recent Vatican document forbidding women from becoming priests has not discouraged us. The Church has often made decisions in the course of its history which it has later bad to amend! On the subject we are currently concerned with, the Sacred Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith has questioned neither the Theological Commission nor the Commission on Women nor the World Council of the Lay Apostolate; it has not taken into account the contrary opinion expressed by the Biblical Commission; more serious still, the bishops have not been consulted!
Many feminists to-day are better known by the public. The Alliance scorns the abuses and scandalous actions which guarantee immediate publicity. Nevertheless, the Alliance rejects the simple, vague or hollow methods which many religious organisations resort, to when called upon to deal with the advancement of women. The Alliance intervenes either to recall principles which risk being lost sight of or to produce facts, figures and precise texts in-order to reach concrete conclusions. It bases its action on sound christian premises, rigorous documentation and unassailable logic. It always tries to put forward a realistic resolution which would advance the path of justice.
Seasoned by many a debate under six different Popes, the Alliance does not allow itself to become discouraged by temporary setbacks; it knows that the Holy Spirit is at work. Other Catholic organisations have begun, fifty years after us, to adopt the same ideas; we take great pleasure in this. In traditional Catholic circles, the Alliance has contributed to a wider view of the role of women. Much work remains to be done in education, information, encouragement… But the most difficult task has been accomplished, the work of pioneering! This task the Alliance has accomplished alone, very much on its own, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The way has been long and hard. Only God knows how much faith, courage, sacrifice, clarity, patience and perseverance were needed by these handful of women, these suffragettes, who, 67 years ago, came together to fight for justice. The Alliance has worked as a mature daughter of the Church, a daughter who took the initiative, weighed up the responsibilities, a daughter who was for a long time misunderstood, but remained always wise and loving.
The end of the road has not yet been reached. For a new world, a new mission! Vigilance is essential! The Old World has changed and women find themselves faced with new ways of putting forward old problems. Some new countries have arisen whose women must face similar difficulties to those which we have faced. In both cases, has not the Alliance a role to play? Could not the Alliance help women obtain recognition of their personal and family rights, and to resist, at the same time, the increasing pressure of materialism and atheism? May God give it the grace not to stop half-way!