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‘The Willing Captive of Home?’: The English Catholic Women's League, 1906–1920

  • Paula M. Kane (a1)

Henry Cardinal Manning wrote in 1863 that he wanted English Catholics to be “downright, masculine, and decided Catholics—more Roman than Rome, and more ultramontane than the Pope himself.” Given this uncompromising call for militant, masculine Roman Catholicism in Protestant Victorian England, frequently cited by scholars, it may seem surprising that a laywomen's movement would have emerged in Great Britain. In 1906, however, a national Catholic Women's League (CWL), linked closely to Rome, to the English clergy, and to lay social action, emerged in step with the aggressive Catholicism outlined by Manning 40 years earlier. The Catholic Women's League was led by a coterie of noblewomen, middle-class professionals, and clergy, many of them former Anglicans. The founder, Margaret Fletcher (1862–1943), and the league's foremost members were converts; the spiritual advisor, Rev. Bernard Vaughan, was the son of a convert. A short list of the clergy affiliated with the CWL reveals an impressive Who's Who in the Catholic hierarchy and in social work in the early twentieth century: Francis Cardinal Bourne (Archbishop of Westminster from 1903 to 1935), Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (a convert and well-known author), and influential Jesuits Bernard Vaughan, Charles Plater, Cyril Martindale, Joseph Keating, Leo O'Hea and Joseph Rickaby. The CWL was born from a joining of convert zeal and episcopal-clerical support to a tradition of lay initiative among English Catholics.

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1. Quoted in Holmes, J. Derek, More Roman Than Rome: English Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1978), p. 225.

2. Benson (1871–1914) was a convert, priest, and author of many popular Catholic novels, including Come Rack, Come Rope. He was ordained in the Church of England, 1895 and converted to Catholicism in 1903 (Dictionary of National Biography [19121939], p. 39). On Vaughan (1847–1922), see note 53. On Plater (1875–1922), see note 60. Martindale (1879–1963), Plater's friend and biographer, converted to Catholicism in 1897. Keating, another Farm St. Jesuit, wrote pamphlets for the Catholic Social Guild on “Christianity and Women's Rights” (1912); he co-authored “Christian Womanhood” with Agnes Gibbs. O'Hea (1881–1976), was the actual “builder” of the CSG. He was the eldest often children of Irish immigrants. Rickaby (1845–1932) was a philosopher and theologian, born in Yorkshire, who attended the University of London, Manresa, Stonyhurst. From 1899, he served staff at Campion Hall, Oxford until 1924 and authored nearly 30 books, including an annotated translation of Aquinas's, Summa contra gentiles (New Catholic Encyclopedia 18 vols. [19671979] 12:491).

3. Beck, George, The English Catholics 1850–1950 (London, 1950);Chadwick, Owen, The Victorian Church, vol. 2, 2d ed. (London, 1972);Mathew, David, Catholicism in England, 1535–1935: portrait of a minority (London, 1936). A notable exception in work published before 1970 is Cleary's, J. M.Catholic Social Action in Britain, 1909–1959 (Oxford, 1961), which credited women's contributions to the Catholic Social Guild. More recently, women have been mentioned in Bossy, The English Catholic Community 1570–1850 (Oxford, 1976);Holmes, , More Roman than Rome (London, 1978); and Norman, , Roman Catholicism in England from the Elizabethan Settlement to the Second Vatican Council (Oxford, 1985). On the Irish Catholic situation in England, see Samuel, Raphael, “The Roman Catholic Church and the Irish Poor,” in Gilley, Sheridan and Swift, Roger, eds., The Irish in the Victorian City (London, 1985), pp. 267300.

4. On Modernism see Heaney, J. J., “Modernism,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 9:991995;Vidler, Alec, The Modernist Movement in the Roman Church: Its Origins and Outcome (Cambridge, 1934);Daly, Gabriel, Transcendence and Immanence: a Study in Catholic Modernism and Integralism (Oxford, 1980);Kurtz, Lester R., The Politics of Heresy: the Modernist Crisis of Roman Catholicism (Berkeley, 1986).

5. Hebblethwaite, Peter, “Dear, Dear Maude,” New Blackfriars 66 (1985): 347350, esp. 348. The article reviews the first scholarly biography of Petre, by Crews, Clyde F., English Catholic Modernism: Maude Petre's Way of Faith (South Bend, Ind., 1984).

6. Margaret Fletcher to Miss Petre, 15 Dec. 1907, Censorship file, Bo. 1/32, Westminister Diocesan Archives, Westminster, England (hereafter abbreviated as WDA). I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Miss Elizabeth Poyser, former Archivist. I have not seen this letter or episode mentioned in previous scholarship on Petre (1862–1942), who resigned from the Executive Committee in 1907 before the CWL acted to expel her. Petre was also about to publish a controversial book, Catholicism and Independence.

7. Margaret Fletcher to Archbishop Bourne, 8 October 1906, WDA; Catherine Hardy, “Woman at the Crossroads,” Catholic Truth Society of Scotland pamphlet (Edinburgh, 1912), p. 3.

8. Black, Naomi, “Social Feminism in France: a Case Study,” in Black, and Cottrell, Ann Baker, eds., Women and World Change: Equity Issues in Development (Beverly Hills, 1981), pp. 217238, esp. 218–221. Like the Catholic hierarchy, social feminists describe the state as a body analogous to the family, a comparison which justifies extension of women's traditional role into areas outside the home. Social feminists stress activities neglected by men, including education, health, and peace projects directed at eliminating inequality and violence in the public and private sectors. Social feminism assumes that “historically, women as a group and as individuals have different experiences from those of men,” but that as value-bearers, women have an obligation to participate in society.

9. Nomenclature remains a problem in the history of women's consciousness and organizations. Nancy Cott has recently argued that the term “social feminism,” as used by William O'Neill (1969) to denote work that was liberal but nonrevolutionary, obscures rather than illuminates women's consciousness and activity. However, this usage may still be appropriate when applied to Catholic women's groups prior to 1920, even though one might agree with Cott's statement that the term scarcely encompasses all of women's civic, reform, and political activities. Of Cott's own terms for women's public activism—feminism, female consciousness, communal consciousness—the latter two seem justly descriptive of Catholic laywomen (Cott, ‘“What's in a Name? The Limits of ‘Social Feminism’; or, Expanding the Vocabulary of Women's History,” Journal of American History 76 (1989): 809829).

10. Gerard Connolly has shown recently that the elevation of the profession of Catholic priest as a status profession in England had not occurred until the mid-nineteenth century. When priests became more socially acceptable, the existing democratic practice of religious consensus among English Catholics gave way to “a confessionalism which presented the Roman Catholic Church as the sole institution of religion and as a clerical enterprise under the firm control of bishops.” Thus, increased deference to priestly authority became a regular structural feature of English Catholicism. “The transubstantiation of myth: towards a new popular history of Nineteenth-Century Catholicism in England,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 35 (1984): 78104, esp. 98. On the growth of a clericalized and centralized Church in England, see also Norman, , Roman Catholicism in England, p. 106. Bossy, The English Catholic Community, 1570–1850 provides context for the late nineteenth century.

11. Hastings, , A History of English Christianity, 1920–1985 (1987), p. 139.

12. Agnes Gibbs, “The Talent of Sex,” Catholic Truth Society pamphlet (London, 1912), p. 11. I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of David Murphy at the offices of the Catholic Truth Society, London, in locating copies of CTS pamphlets.

13. John Charnock, “Marriage,” Catholic Truth Society Pamphlet (London, 1908), pp. 22–23. The pamphlet was reprinted in the Publications of the CTS in 1909, and was issued in two parts by the CTS as recently as 1950.

14. Vaughan, Bernard, Socialism from the Christian Standpoint (New York, 1912), pp. 126127. Statements like these invariably appeared in volumes about socialism, never in works devoted solely to the woman question.

15. Hardy, Catherine, “Women at the Crossroads,” Catholic Truth Society of Scotland pamphlet (Edinburgh, 1912), p. 16.

16. Talbot's major energies went into girls' and boys' clubs to evangelize the poor, as she described in “Rescue Work.” Catholic Truth Society pamphlet (London, 1900).

17. Mary Talbot to Lord Archbishop, 19 November 1906, CWL files, 1906–1912, WDA.

18. Fletcher to Your Grace, 21 November 1906, CWL files, WDA, Bo. 1/30.

19. Margaret Fletcher to Your Grace, 28 November 1906, ibid.

20. Fletcher, “Proposals for a League of Catholic Women Workers,” typed memo, CWL files, WDA, p. 5.

21. Hardy, , “Women at the Crossroads,” p. 14.

22. Biographical information about Fletcher comes from Mary G. Segar, “Margaret Fletcher, Artist and Pioneer, Founder of the Catholic Women's League,” Catholic Truth Society pamphlet (London, 1945); Marjorie Ryan, comp., “Yesterday Recalled: a Jubilee History of the Catholic Women's League, 1906–1981” Catholic Women's League pamphlet (London, 1981); Fletcher, , O, Call Back Yesterday (Oxford, 1939);“Where It all Began,” CWL News (London) (June 1987), p. 1.

23. Fletcher, , O, Call Back Yesterday, pp. 124, 129.

24. Ibid., pp. 127–129.

25. Segar, , “Margaret Fletcher,” p. 13.

26. Fletcher, , O, Call Back Yesterday, p. 159.

27. A third factor, not treated here, was the ethnic tension between the native English Catholics and the Irish Catholic working class and poor.

28. This motto subsequently was taken by the Catholic Social Guild as well. Cleary, , Catholic Social Action, p. 64.

29. For a study of the Irish situation, see Murphy, Cliona, The Women's Suffrage Movement and Irish Society in the Early Twentieth Century (London, 1989), ch. 6.

30. Fletcher, , O, Call Back Yesterday, p. 134.

31. Louise Imogen Guiney lived from 1861 to 1920. For accounts of her role in American Catholic culture, see Kane, Paula, “Boston Catholics and Modern American Culture, 1900–1920” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1987), pp. 8389;Lears, T. J. Jackson, No Place of Grace (Pantheon, 1981), pp. 124128, which links the martial lyrics of her poetry and her psychological identification with her military father to her search for identity which ultimately frustrated her adopted “masculine” vision and consigned her to unresolved rebellion against the suffocating limits of Victorian sex roles.

32. Fletcher, , O, Call Back Yesterday, p. 135. Disappointingly, Sister Janet Erskine Stuart, perhaps the most influential nun in England and author of numerous women's handbooks, discouraged Fletcher's plans for the Crucible, thinking that Bourne also disapproved (Stuart to Archbishop Bourne, 18 January 1905, WDA, Bo. 1/135B).

33. Bourne, , quoted in O, Call Back Yesterday, p. 135.

34. Norman, , Roman Catholicism in England, p. 109;Hastings, , History of English Christianity, pp. 144145.

35. Chadwick, The Victorian Church, 2: 443.

36. According to Chadwick, about 47 Roman Catholics matriculated at Oxford between 1867 and 1887, and over 100 between 1887 and 1984. The Victorian Church, 2: 457.

37. Norman, , Roman Catholicism in England, p. 136. A Catholic chaplain was secured at Oxford in 1896. Until 1939, all of the chaplains were converts (Stacpoole, Alberic, “The Return of the Roman Catholics to Oxford,” New Blackfriars 67 (1986): 221232, esp. 223, 227). The Benedictines were established in 1897–1899; at Cambridge University, St. Edmund's House formed in 1896.

38. The CWSS, founded in 1911, had a small membership, but fostered more direct ties to women's labor unions and political clubs. Its prosuffrage leadership and political tactics prevented it from receiving official church recognition. The upper class supported the CWL because it had church sanction, and advocated moral preparation and education of the lower classes before direct action.

39. Mason, Francis M., “The Newer Eve: The Catholic Women's Suffrage Society in England, 1911–1923,” Catholic Historical Review 72 (1986): 620638, esp. 625. Also, “A History of St. Joan's Social and Political Alliance, formerly The Catholic Women's Suffrage Society, 1911–1961,” St. Joan's Alliance pamphlet (London, 1961, reprinted 1980 by United States section, St. Joan's International Alliance).

40. “Womanhood: An Address to Men of The Force,” CTS pamphlet (London, 1942), p. 9.

41. For a history of the Frauenbund, see McEntee, Georgiana Putnam, The Social Catholic Movement in Great Britain (New York, 1927), pp. 237240.Waninger, Karl, in Social Catholicism in England (St. Louis, 1923) observed the relationship of the English CWL to the German, Frauenbund, pp. 157158.

42. Fletcher's friend and biographer, Mary Segar, described the adult Fletcher as “a short woman but sturdily built, with a full rich voice and a good sense of humor” (“Miss Mary Segar 100 Years Old,” CWL News [London, (06), 1987], p. 1.) Westminster Cathedral's startling Byzantine design symbolized the new confidence of English Catholics, completed in 1903 through the efforts of the former archbishop of Westminster, Herbert Vaughan. Vaughan's brother, Bernard, later became the spiritual advisor of the CWL.

43. Hastings, , History of English Christianity, pp. 133134. Approximately 80 percent of England's Catholics in the early 1900s were Irish immigrants.

44. Ada Streeter to Lord Cardinal, 30 November 1912, WDA. Bourne was in Rome at the time.

45. In 1891, the Catholic population of Scotland was 4.8 percent of the population; in 1911, 3.7 percent; in 1921, 3.3 percent. Jackson, John Archer, The Irish in Britain (London, 1963), p. 10.

46. Mrs. Crawford was the respondent in the much publicized adultery trial of Sir Charles Dilke in 1886, which ruined his political aspirations and career. It appears likely that Crawford's charges were false, though she may have had some kind of liaison with him. She had conducted other affairs, however, during her unhappy marriage to Donald Crawford. Under the influence of Cardinal Manning, Mrs. Crawford converted to Roman Catholicism in 1889, which “changed her life to such an extent that the person who existed under her name after 1889 can hardly be reconciled with the one who existed previously. The teachings of the Church, it surely follows, must have had great influence upon her, particularly in the years immediately after her conversion.” Jenkins, Roy, Victorian Scandal: A Biography of the Right Honorable Gentleman Sir Charles Dilke (New York, 1965), p. 369.

Hickey, a friend of Fletcher, and a convert in the same year, typified the sort of woman attracted to the league, in class status, piety, and aesthetic sensibility. Born Protestant in Wexford, Ireland, Hickey emigrated to England in 1870s and joined artistic circles as a poet, novelist, and first honorary secretary of the Browning Society. After her conversion she became a moving spirit behind the Catholic Truth Society, for whom she wrote pamphlets such as “Thoughts for Creedless Women.” In it she argued that it wasn't Christianity that failed modernity, but the modern mind that had failed to appreciate Christianity, hardly a novel thesis, but an inspirational one which galvanized Catholic women against perceived common enemies: “The working power of Christianity can never be disproved by any weakness on the part of its users, any more than a physician's treatment can be declared wrong or inadequate if the patient refuses to carry it out, or carries it out imperfectly” (p. 27). Hickey's career was exemplary in three ways: her conversion experience, her co-membership in the Catholic Truth Society and Women's League, and her support for women's rights which remained somewhat at odds with an antimodern or at least nostalgic, worldview. Her attitudes expressed a paradox within the English Catholic women's movement: not derived from cradle Catholics, it became nonetheless extremely orthodox; it cooperated with contemporary Catholic liberal social reformers, but without undermining the church's traditional view of womanhood or its apolitical episcopacy.

47. Chesterton, G. K., Orthodoxy (New York, 1908). Chesterton became a Catholic in 1922. Other notable converts of this era who became champions of ultramontanist orthodoxy include R. H. Benson (1897) and Ronald Knox (1917). On Knox, see Hastings, , History of Christianity, p. 197.

48. “P.”, probably Rev. Plater, Charles, “The Catholic Women's League,” Month 113 (1909): 492.

49. Month 122 (1913): 283.

50. Much of the pious literature generated by or recommended by the CWL was standard pre-Vatican II Marian theology which explored various attributes of Mary (Mother of God and Queen of Sorrows), which related femininity to the emotional experiences of passivity, nurturing, and suffering, and linked Catholicism with the feminizing influence of education and civility.

51. Fletcher, , O, Call Back Yesterday, p. 139.

52. MrsGibbs, Philip, “Catholic Social Work,” paper read at Leeds, 30 07 1910; published as a joint CTS and CSG pamphlet in 1912 in London.

53. Bernard Vaughan lived from 1847 to 1922. His transfer in 1899 from Cannes to the Jesuit parish in London's poshest neighborhood had been engineered by the prince of Wales. This account is in Cyril Charlie Martindale, S.J., Bernard Vaughan S.J. (London, 1923), p. 114. Other biographical information on Vaughan and the Vaughan family appears in New Catholic Encyclopedia 14:578; Dictionary of National Biography, 1922–1930, pp. 867–868.

54. Vaughan was caricatured during his lifetime by the cartoonist “Spy” in Vanity Fair, and after his death by H. G. Wells in a novel. Ajournalist reported that Vaughan combined “the figure of an officer of cavalry, the glowing and audacious eyes of a brilliant woman, nose and jaw so nut-crackered that at first glance one fears he has forgotten to pick his teeth up from the dresser, and the tonsure of a militant priest” (Times-Star, quoted in Martindale, , Bernard Vaughan, p. 169).

55. Martindale, , Bernard Vaughan, pp. 114, 169.

56. Fletcher, , O, Call Back Yesterday, p. 142.

57. Ibid., pp. 166–167.

58. Vaughan offered his view of the New Woman in an editorial to the London Daily Telegraph (reprinted in the Tablet [1921]): “This type does not, I hope, really represent the future mothers of our race… we must cultivate not the senses but conscience.”

59. For an excellent critical appraisal of the CSG see Fitzpatrick, Paul, “Education and Social Engagement: the Lessons of the Catholic Social Guild,” Month (1988): 649656. The earlier study is Cleary, Catholic Social Action in Britain, 1909–1959: A History of the Catholic Social Guild (1961). For discussion of an American offshoot, the Jesuit labor schools in the United States, see McShane, Joseph M., “‘The Church is not for the Cells and the Caves’: The Working Class Spirituality of the Jesuit Labor Priests,” U.S. Catholic Historian 9 (1990): 289304.

60. Martindale, C. C., Charles Dominic Plater (London, 1922), p. 113. Plater, best known for his establishment of a Catholic College at Oxford for workers in 1922, was the teacher and model for Martindale's own career. Plater also supplied much of the factual data on socialism for Bernard Vaughan's American lectures, which Vaughan apparently interpreted in a one-sided conservative fashion. Plater's model of Jesuit labor schools had an impact beyond Britain, as evidenced in the foundation of the Laymen's Leagues in Maryland and Washington, D.C., and the School of Social Studies which opened in New York City in 1911.

61. “Catholic Social Work,” 1910, p. 11.

62. Letter, Henry Somerville and Canon Parkinson to archbishop of Westminster, 19 March 1921, WDA.

63. Plater, , “Retreats for Workers,” Catholic Truth Society pamphlet, p. 18.

64. Plater, , “A Catholic Society for Social Study,” Month 114 (1909): 456.

65. Hastings, , A History of English Christianity, p. 139.

66. Bishop, of Northampton, , “Christian Womanhood,” Catholic Truth Society pamphlet (London, 1912), p. 9.

67. Cleary, , Catholic Social Action in Britain, p. 128.

68. Larkin, Emmet, “Socialism and Catholicism in Ireland,” Studies 74 (1985): 6692, esp. 69 and 77.

69. Buhle, Mari Jo, Women and American Socialism, 1870–1920 (Urbana, Ill., 1981), p. 29.

70. In fact, both the Catholic Worker's College and the German inspiration for the CWL were defensive measures, copied from secular culture, but meant to stand aloof from it. German women channeled their energies into a purely Catholic organization after attending the 1904 Parliament of Women in Berlin and finding themselves in disagreement with some elements of modern feminism; Charles Plater intended his Worker's College at Oxford to be the Catholic answer to Ruskin College, founded 20 years earlier. Fletcher, , “The Influence of Catholic Laywomen,” in Catholic Emancipation 1829 to 1929: essays by various writers (1929; reprint Freeport, N.Y., 1966), pp. 225242, esp. 234.

71. Fletcher, , The Christian Family (Oxford, 1920), pp. 9798.

72. Fletcher, , “The International Union of Catholic Women's Leagues,” Month 122 (1913): 277284, esp. 283.

73. “Social Progress in 1909,” Month 115 (1910): 26.

74. As noted by Richard Camp, researchers have made this claim without providing substantiating documentary evidence. See Camp, , “From Passive Subordination to Complementary Partnership: the Papal Conception of a Woman's Place in Church and Society Since 1878,” Catholic Historical Review 75 (1989): 512, n. 18.

75. Kirwan, Flora, typed, two-page memo, “Scheme for Enlarging the Scope of the Catholic Women's League,” 21 08 1911, CWL files, WDA.

76. “The Catholic Women's League,” Month 113 (1909): 489490.

77. Fletcher, , “The International Union of Catholic Women's Leagues,” Month 122 (1913): 277284. Pius X accepted its statutes formally in 1914.

78. For a history of the Boston League of Catholic Women, see Paula Kane, “Boston Catholics and Modern American Culture, 1900–1920.” Willis, Pauline published her own family history in Willis Records: or, Records of the Willis Family of Haverhill, Portland, and Boston, 2d ed. (London, 1908). She was a former Episcopalian and cousin of Phillips Brooks, the rector of Trinity Church and Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts.

79. Willis, described as “a young woman of fine presence and appealing earnestness,” (Republic, 07 1910, p. 5), had grown up in the exclusive enclave of Louisburg Square in Boston before going to live in London in 1884. She converted to Catholicism in 1883.

80. Later called Plater College. The scholarship fund, in Fletcher's name, permitted two women to attend each year. They lived in her house; male students lived with the director of the CSG, Father Leo O'Hea.

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