Speakers debate whether pro-life advocates also can be feminists at an April 10 panel discussion at The Catholic University of America in Washington. Panelists included Aimee Murphy of Rehumanize International, writer and activist Robin Marty, Cessilye Smith of Doulas for Life and Pamela Merritt of Reproaction. (CNS photo/The Catholic University of America)

“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. It's an antagonism with deep historical roots—as demonstrated by the strange history of the Mâcon myth.

I consider myself both a Catholic and a feminist, and I have spent a lot of time wondering what causes these two camps to perceive each other as enemies. Many of my Catholic friends seem to regard my feminism as an endearing yet potentially destructive personality quirk: it should always be tolerated and occasionally indulged, but never permitted to go too far. Most of them are simply relieved that, as one young priest recently told me, I am not one of those “angry” feminists. In contrast, I get the distinct sense my feminist friends and colleagues believe that, by allying myself with an institution whose power structures are unrelentingly and unapologetically dominated by men, I am complicit in my own oppression. Belonging to two groups whose members are reflexively inclined to believe the worst about each other can be uncomfortable at the best of times. When the divide is brought into particularly sharp relief—say, during an election season, a staging of The Vagina Monologues, or an impending visit of a controversial commencement speaker—it can be downright painful.

My students at Notre Dame, almost of all whom fall on the “Catholic” side, attribute the divide between Catholics and feminists to the debate over legalized abortion. Without a doubt, that issue has progressively widened the breach between the church and organized feminism for the past four decades. But the relationship between American Catholics and feminists has been characterized by rancor and mutual suspicion since at least the late nineteenth century. The women's suffrage movement found few allies among Catholics. Suffragists, meanwhile, often harbored anti-Catholic prejudices that led them to assume the worst about the church. In this atmosphere, the myth of Mâcon flourished and became both a stimulus and a symptom of the divide that still separates Catholics and feminists.

For the record, church bishops actually gathered twice at Mâcon, a city in east central France, first in 581 and again in 585. The canons issued by both councils were disciplinary rather than theological, and largely unremarkable. Women's souls were never called into question. So where did the story come from? After Edmunds's speech at Girls' High, the superintendent of Philadelphia's Catholic schools, Fr. Philip McDevitt, launched his own investigation. He scrutinized the official decrees of Mâcon and found no evidence of a discussion of women's souls. But he did discover, in the notes to the council, a quibble over terminology that he believed to be a likely source of the trouble. “The note states,” he wrote, “that there was at the council a certain bishop who said that ‘woman' could not be called ‘man.'” It was likely, he speculated, “that the bishop's knowledge of Latin was limited and that he did not know that homo, the generic term, could be applied to mulier, ‘woman,' as well as to vir, ‘man.'” Subsequent chroniclers of Mâcon, determined to present the church in a bad light, had transformed a minor confusion over grammar into a fabricated debate over dogma. McDevitt detected Protestant anti-Catholic bias in the distortion. “Nothing,” he lamented, “is too small or improbable for people with preconceived antipathies to represent the Catholic Church as issuing palpably absurd pronouncements.”

The phony account of the Council of Mâcon was a popular fable by the time Edmunds repeated it at Girls' High. Versions of the legend had appeared in books and articles on women's issues since at least 1879. The details varied: some sources claimed the Council of Mâcon was held expressly “for the purpose of determining whether or not a woman had a soul,” while others ascribed the supposed debate to better-known councils like Nicaea and Trent. A. H. Hallam Murray's account claimed the question of women's souls was “left open,” but other versions enhanced the drama by settling the matter one way or the other. Some asserted that the council fathers had, after some debate, affirmed the existence of the female soul, with others adding that the vote was close (one account described “a majority of one”). And a few authors claimed the bishops, after voting on the issue, “had arrived at a negative conclusion,” thus proclaiming the soullessness of half the human race.

It is no coincidence that the myth of Mâcon spread as the women's suffrage movement was reemerging in America around the turn of the century. The campaign for women's voting rights had first been launched in 1848, but it weakened after the Civil War, when its leaders disagreed bitterly over whether women's suffrage should take a back seat to the effort to enfranchise African-American men. This dispute split the movement. It was only after the competing branches reunited in 1890 that women's suffrage began to gather the momentum and grassroots support that would culminate in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment thirty years later. For those working to build support for women's rights around the turn of the century, the myth of Mâcon was a useful illustration of institutionalized sexism. The fact that it wasn't true didn't stop many suffragists from believing it, or spreading it as if they did. For many Catholics, this was proof of the feminist movement's bad faith.

The Catholic Church never adopted an official position on women's suffrage. There were laypeople, priests, and even bishops who spoke in favor of it, although the majority of Catholics were opposed. Like most Americans, Catholic anti-suffragists fretted about the vote's effect on family life and gender roles. For Catholics, however, the issue was a great deal more complicated.

When Fr. McDevitt and his contemporaries blamed “ardent suffragists” for perpetuating the Mâcon myth, they were highlighting the “preconceived antipathies” many suffrage leaders had toward Catholics. And Catholics were not exactly being paranoid. Early on, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women's-rights leaders suspected that Roman Catholics would not be able to grasp the concept of individual liberty. And as more women with wealth, status, and privilege joined the cause in the early twentieth century, the case for suffrage increasingly rested on the argument that if African-American, uneducated, or “foreign” men were able to vote, then white, middle-class women surely deserved the franchise. The racial and class biases of the suffragists are now readily acknowledged. But few have considered the significance of the fact that the majority of the uneducated and foreign “undesirables” they worried about were Catholics. Indeed, many suffrage advocates implied or, in some cases, stated outright that enfranchising women would dilute the “immigrant vote” and diminish growing Catholic influence over American politics.

As suffragists became more powerful, Catholics increasingly went on the defensive in terms of women's issues. As the editors of America magazine noted in 1915, if “some suffragist, impatient of Romish conservatism,” could whisper the false account of Mâcon into “guileless ears,” Catholics could respond in kind, pointing to a host of female figures from the past that testified to the way Christianity had served as the historic emancipator of women. The editors were not alone in making this argument. The discussion about Mâcon tapped into larger debates about whether Christianity on the whole represented a positive or negative force for women. Some early feminists were convinced that the repression of women was a principal function of churches, while others repeated the argument often made by missionaries, reformers, and imperialists that in fact Christianity's elevation of women signified its cultural superiority.

Catholics often made a much finer distinction: It was Catholic Christianity that had guarded women's rights so attentively in the past and would do so in the future. In his attempt to slay the Mâcon dragon in Philadelphia, Fr. McDevitt maintained that “woman owes her elevation in the social and intellectual as well as moral order to Catholic teaching and practice.” Other defenders of the church followed his lead, pointing to heroines of Catholic history ranging from the first-century apostle Thecla of Iconium to the nineteenth-century American nun Elizabeth Seton as proof that Catholics were more enlightened than Protestants when it came to women's issues. Therefore, they suggested, Catholic women's loyalties were better placed with the church than with foolish and misguided women's-rights advocates, who were irreligious or, perhaps even worse, Protestant. The suffrage movement was presented as a threat to Catholic beliefs and identity, and Catholic women paid attention. They collectively evinced little enthusiasm for suffrage or what one of them described as its “ugly attendant,” feminism.

It was not only priests and bishops who generated Catholic arguments against women's voting rights. Katherine Conway, editor of the Catholic newspaper the Boston Pilot from 1905 to 1908, was one of many Catholic women who spoke out against suffrage. During her nearly fifty-year career as a Catholic journalist—what she liked to call working for “the Church's publicity branch”—Conway was paid less than her male colleagues and was treated shoddily by her clerical and lay superiors. Ultimately, though, she felt far more marginalized as a Catholic in American society than she did as a woman in the church. Thanks largely to the protection their church afforded, she wrote, “Catholic women did not feel that their interests are menaced from any quarter.” In fact, Conway “marveled” that Catholics even raised the question of women's rights, pointing out that the sanctuary and the pulpit were the only doors the church had kept closed to women.

If Conway's argument sounds familiar, it might be because it closely resembles the explanations many contemporary Catholic women give for disavowing feminism. Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard Law professor and former ambassador to the Vatican, observed in 1995 that “a Catholic woman impatient with the pace of change might consider asking herself: ‘Where in contemporary society do I feel the most respected as a woman, whatever my chosen path in life?'” Asserting that she could find no other institution that has historically surpassed the Catholic Church in this respect, Glendon replicated the argument Conway made a century ago: It is the Catholic Church, not secular feminism, that is the best protector of women's rights and interests.

This position was more defensible in the 1890s than it is now. When Conway noted that the church allowed women everywhere but the sanctuary and the pulpit, the same could have been said of all but a few Christian denominations. A century later, Roman Catholicism is one of the few denominations that do not ordain women. And in Conway's day, Catholic women found opportunities for education, leadership, and meaningful work within the church that would have been unheard of in American society at large. Consider some statistics from Fr. McDevitt's Philadelphia: In 1925, there were thirty congregations of religious women in the city, with 4,382 members. Religious women staffed three colleges, seventeen private academies, more than two hundred parish schools, five high schools, eight hospitals, thirteen orphan asylums, eleven day nurseries, one settlement house, seven homes for the aged, three homes for the handicapped, eight boarding homes for working women, five homes for “unfortunate” women, and three visiting-nurse associations. This was just in one city, and these figures do not even include the many lay women who, like Conway, worked under church auspices as writers, educators, or social reformers.

But if American Catholic women once found more opportunity within the church than outside it, quite the opposite has been true since the late 1960s. Transformations for women in American society have far outpaced those for women in the church, and there can be little doubt that today's accomplished Catholic women owe their professional success not to religious developments but to the resurgence of feminism and the reform movements it inspired. This observation aside, the similarities between Conway and Glendon are revealing. Both are talented and educated women held in high esteem by their American Catholic peers (to cite only one gauge of this, Notre Dame named both women as Laetare Medalists—Conway in 1907 and Glendon this year, though she refused the honor in response to the controversy over President Barack Obama's appearance at commencement). Both distanced themselves from organized supporters of American women's rights—Conway through her disavowal of suffrage, and Glendon through her support of Pope John Paul II's “new feminism,” a philosophy that, in its affirmation of complementarity between the sexes, bears an uncanny resemblance to the old anti-feminism. A century ago, most Catholic women believed their rights were best secured, as one woman put it, in “the Court of Rome,” not through the ballot box. Today, even as they benefit from the victories won by the women's movement, many Catholic women remain suspicious of feminism. Like lay Catholics of the early 1900s, they prefer to place their trust in an institution that endows their lives with meaning rather than in a movement that they believe—falsely—to be antithetical to religious belief.

In 1906, one priest predicted that the myth of the do-women-have-souls debate would never die, because “the story is too good and will go on developing. The controversialist, the evolutionist...the woman suffragist, all will appeal to some mythical church council, deliberating for weeks or months in any century before Luther and liberty....” Indeed, the legend of Mâcon remains an irresistible anecdote for anyone not inclined to give the church the benefit of the doubt. In 2001, “Ms. Mentor,” an advice columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education, held forth on committee work for the benefit of a beleaguered assistant professor: “Ms. Mentor does not thoroughly disdain committee work. She knows that she would enjoy the literate and somber deliberation of, say, a Nobel Prize Committee.... But she would shun the Council of Mâcon (585 AD), at which a committee of bishops debated whether women had souls.” The author's uncritical repetition of the Mâcon story offers just one example of how readily many contemporary American feminists assume that the Catholic Church has always been and will always be anti-women.

The suspicion, unfortunately, goes both ways. For many Catholic apologists, the periodic surfacing of the Mâcon myth seems like a deliberate slander. But given Catholic hostility to women's voting rights and feminism in general, it's worth considering that the supposed deliberations at Mâcon appear more plausible to outsiders than we might like to believe. The church's patriarchal structure is enough evidence for some. As one early-twentieth-century subscriber to the Mâcon myth mused, it “never occurred to the council to discuss whether man had a soul, possibly because all its members were men.” Even today, too many Catholics interpret any effort to raise the status or visibility of women as a threat to the faith. “Gender-neutral language” has been my favorite example of this ever since one young parish priest informed me that such language was “diabolical.” (“From the devil...” he clarified, in case I didn't understand.) And at Notre Dame, I have only to mention The Vagina Monologues to observe how quick many religious people are to interpret feminist-inspired movements as antifamily and antireligion—claims that are as unfounded as the mythical debate over women's souls, yet are still deeply resonant for many.

Although I am entirely comfortable identifying myself as both a Catholic and a feminist, I do not expect those awkward moments at church or in department meetings to disappear anytime soon. The long shadow of Mâcon is just one manifestation of the divide between feminists and Catholics, with each side needlessly convinced that the other undermines women's ability to choose meaningful and fulfilling lives. Both Catholics and feminists will have to let go of their “preconceived antipathies” if the gap is ever to be bridged.

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.

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Published in the 2009-09-11 issue: View Contents
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