Do Women Have Souls?

Catholicism, Feminism & the Council of Mâcon

“Woman has always been unfairly discriminated against by man,” commencement speaker Henry Edmunds told the Philadelphia High School for Girls class of 1905. Edmunds was president of the city's Board of Public Education and a booster of progessive education initiatives such as Girls' High. His point was uncontroversial, but he caused a stir when he added, by way of illustration: “Even as late as the fifteenth century there was held in the south of France a council of learned prelates who for two days discussed the question of whether woman had a soul or not.”

That was news to the Catholics in the audience, who demanded that Edmunds name the council and produce a source for the story. After some equivocation, he cited a recent book by the artist A. H. Hallam Murray. Murray actually claimed the debate had taken place in the sixth century, during the Council of Mâcon. He wrote, “The question before the council was whether women had souls...and since [then] it has been quite possible to remain a good Catholic and yet to doubt...that women are practically of the same species as ourselves.”

No such debate ever took place. “Good Catholics” were not and are not free to doubt that women are humans with souls. But the myth of the Council of Mâcon became a favorite canard for those who wished to portray the church as an enemy of feminism. Today many Americans take it for granted that Catholicism and feminism are irreconcilable, each bent on thwarting the other's goals....

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About the Author

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She holds a joint appointment in the Department of History, and serves as the William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.