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Women with a Cause: How Female Catholic Saints Inspired Victorian Evangelical Feminists

Mary Franks

In 1976, on the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, Prefect Franjo Seper delivered his speech Inter Insigniores, discussing the question of the admission of women into the ministerial priesthood. He reminded his audience, “The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.”[1] The British evangelical feminists recognized this opportunity within the Catholic tradition to uplift the status of women through the examples of the saints. Described by later commentators as “a woman with a cause,”[2] the Victorian evangelical feminist fought for the rights of the poor and the destitute, as well as for her own rights, in both the religious evangelical community and the larger society. Drawing inspiration from Catholic female saints, these feminists boldly placed themselves in the public sphere and campaigned for the rights of women and the poor, confident that both women and men are called to share God’s love with the world.

These Victorian feminists were delivering a new message to their evangelical community, as well as to the liberal feminists of the time. Andro Linklater defines the evangelical Protestantism of the Victorian era as a religious tradition that promoted strictly literal readings of Biblical narratives. Within this paradigm, the story of Adam and Eve indicated that it was “woman’s moral weakness which justified man’s dominion.”[3] As a result, the evangelical feminist, unless she was a part of the Langham Place group, would not have initially described herself as a feminist.[4] While the evangelical woman remained deeply concerned about social issues, her religious beliefs always took precedence; thus she hesitated to embrace feminist ideology if she believed that it conflicted with religious devotion.

The evangelical feminists of the Langham Place feminist group, however, were women that Suzanne Rickard describes as “animated by their own scriptural interpretation, biblical injunctions and the desire to ameliorate distressing social conditions.”[5] Similarly, in her book Radical Femininity, Eileen Yeo describes the evangelical nature of the women of Langham Place, specifically of Irish Protestant Anna Jameson.[6] Jameson was attracted to the examples of both traditional Catholic saints and current Sisters of Charity.[7] In an 1855 lecture regarding the Sisters of Charity, Jameson declared, “Let not the unremitting, self-denying efforts of ‘Sisters of Charity’ abroad, or devoted Catholic women at home, any longer cast reproach on English women and Protestants; let us emulate each other in works of Christian love.”[8] This ecumenical attitude, and admiration of the Catholic reverence for the single woman, was echoed by Mary Carpenter, a daughter of a Unitarian minister, and Francis Power Cobbe, who, to the dismay of her community, chose to remain single her entire life.[9] Cobbe argued that the “Protestant ‘Old Maid’” had been looked down upon for centuries, and pushed for a more robust understanding of the single woman.[10]

For the women of the Langham Place group, female Catholic saints provided more than theological support for the Christian feminist movement. Yeo writes that the Catholic emphasis on singleness exemplified by the saints was a radical notion for evangelicals at the time.[11] There were a large number of single women who were broadly considered as “‘surplus’, ‘superfluous’ and ‘redundant'” in society.[12] In her essay “Celibacy v. Marriage,” Cobbe writes that “the condition of an unmarried woman of the upper classes was so shackled by social prejudices that it was inevitably a dreary and monotonous one.”[13] Inspired by the Catholic understanding of the Virgin Mary, Mary Carpenter considered single women to be mothers of the heart, made to emulate the Virgin Mother by caring for the rejected of society and by mothering the “moral orphans” of the time, like prostitutes.[14] With the help of figures like the Madonna, evangelical feminists were equipped in a new way to devote their lives to social causes. They were now able to draw strength, inspiration, and social justification from “an icon of a virgin, moral or social mother doing self-sacrificial work with the poor and needy in the public world and introducing a home influence into it.”[15] This newfound employment of the image of the Virgin Mary allowed their message to be accepted in the evangelical community.

While Anna Jameson criticized the extremes of the Catholic reverence for Mary, she also counted Mary as one within the larger history of strong female figures who prophesied among the Church’s history of male prophets.[16] Despite some reservations regarding the Catholic Marian tradition, the evangelical feminists embraced the image of the Madonna as one way to help modify the brand of evangelical Protestantism that had regarded God as a strictly masculine figurehead.[17] The British feminists were not the only evangelicals who embraced this Catholic Mother of the Church as a role model. American journalist and feminist Margaret Fuller, author of Women in the Nineteenth Century, held Mary as a powerful, and very personal, symbol, who balanced the female identity and “signified not spinsterhood or chastity but the self-reliance necessary for self-development.”[18]

The spiritual motherhood inspired by the Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila and other female saints also encouraged the formation of Protestant full-fledge sisterhoods modeled after the Sisters of Charity. Yeo writes,

The Catholic monastic tradition provided another experience of family and home, but this time adapted by Protestant feminists for richer women alone . . . For the first time since the Reformation, British High Church Anglicans started forming full sisterhoods in the mid-century period.[19]

Joining such an order was viewed as a profound way for the single woman to devote her life not to selfishness, but to “self-sacrifice,” a life of work just as fulfilling as married life. The call to self-sacrifice was viewed as a divine call; it was the backbone of all of their worldly work and service.[20]

For some evangelical feminists, the Catholic example of the dignity of singleness in the lives of the saints would go so far as to inspire them to convert to Roman Catholicism. Bessie Rayner Parkes, originally a Unitarian, converted to Catholicism for these reasons in 1864.[21] The iconography and the Church’s “provision of dignified public work through sisterhoods” attracted Parkes.[22] It was the visible and ordered charity of the Church that captured her. Explaining her choice to convert, Parkes writes,

I do not suppose that the Roman Church has any woman intellectually equal to Florence Nightingale; but it has 17,000 Sisters of Charity all over the world. I should never go to an Order to find a woman of wide and high cultivation and originality. But I should find efficient and devoted workers by the hundred.[23]

The evangelical feminists who remained within their tradition used the model of the Sisters of Charity, along with Catholic saints such as St. Catharine of Siena, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Mary Magdalene, and the virginity of Mother of God, to uplift celibacy and singleness as a viable option for women within their own tradition.

This was not, however, without reproach. The numbers of Protestant female missionaries were growing rapidly, as were the numbers of new Anglican sisterhoods, and church elders viewed this growth with deep suspicion.[24] Even some of the evangelical feminists, like Davies and Cobbe, advocated for the single life of women but rejected this new form of “female monasticism.”[25] Evangelicals who were not keen on the new Protestant feminism movement were also deeply concerned with the use of Catholic female saints to justify women’s social action; many would rather appease the new desire for equality by stressing “that the masculine Gods were on the side of the sexual equality of souls and authorized useful public lives for women.”[26] Many critiques against “female monasticism,” however, came from nonreligious feminists who were concerned about the strong emphasis on self-sacrifice within the sisterhoods. These feminists worried that while the concept of self-sacrifice enabled women to reach the public sphere and encouraged acceptance from their evangelical communities, it also risked “reinstalling subordination” of women, and limiting their options in life.[27] These feminists were concerned that figures such as the Virgin Mary, rather than exhibiting a strong female figure, gave a model of humility and submissiveness that would only encourage the subordination of women.[28]

The wider evangelical public critique is echoed in Francis Cobbe’s essay, “What Shall We Do with Our Old Maids?”[29] Cobbe records with surprise that in the 1862 Convocation of Canterbury, the response of the majority of churchmen to the work of single women in the public sphere was a positive one.[30] However, despite their widespread approval, the churchmen still expected to remain in positions of authority over the sisterhoods.[31] Cobbe comments, “Mother Church expressed herself satisfied at her daughters ‘coming out,’ but considered that her chaperonage was decidedly necessary to their decorum.”[32] The evangelical community was ready to embrace what had been modeled after the Catholic saints, as long as it was sufficiently submissive to the Protestant tradition.

Three of the saints widely regarded by evangelical feminists, the Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Catharine of Siena, all represented important voices for theological and political discussions regarding not only celibacy, but also prostitution. One of the most well-known Victorian evangelical feminists, Josephine Butler, drew heavily upon the figure of Mary Magdalene in her theological fight against the Contagious Disease Acts.[33] The Contagious Disease Acts allowed for the thoughtless arrest of lower-class women prostitutes under the guise of sanitation, while ignoring the spread of disease through the men involved. Many evangelicals, such as William Booth, took to such extremes as to view the prostitute as “an instrument of Satan.”[34] While the compromised male lust disgusted the evangelicals, they refused to protest against the Contagious Disease Acts, as they felt their influence would aid the prostitute in sin. Lisa Nolland writes, “They were painfully aware of her sin and its devastating impact on society, less aware of the factors which drove her to it.”[35] The Victorian feminists, strengthened by the history of the Catholic female saints, fought against the ignorant and harmful positions against prostitutes; the feminists were powerful reminders of mercy and forgiveness to the wider evangelical community.

The Protestant Josephine Butler, however, connected deeply with the prostitutes by bringing them into her own home and being their voice in the public sphere.[36] Josephine referred to St. Mary Magdalene as a “liberated woman,” viewing herself as united with the Mary Magdalene portrayed in Biblical stories, “who anointed Jesus’s feet and kissed them and to whom he responded, ‘Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.’”[37] Josephine further chose to see the prostitutes as she saw Mary Magdalene, enabling her to embrace them with grace.

It was the personal identification with Saint Mary Magdalene that enabled Josephine to risk her own reputation by being involved with the prostitutes during a time when this kind of action was seen as improper and even sinful. Butler writes, “Looking at my Liberator in the face, can my friends wonder that I have taken my place, (I took it long ago) – oh! with what infinite contentment – by the side of her, the ‘woman in the city which was a sinner’”.[38] Nolland writes that the evangelical community discouraged this type of association and “championing” of prostitutes, not only for the sake of reputation, but also because many evangelicals, while supporting the charity behind Josephine’s actions, would not encourage female leadership of this kind.[39] Josephine, however, was bound to the prostitute by what she believed was a calling to be the prostitute’s voice in the public realm, a voice legitimized by her mystical relationship with Christ who was, in the words of Josephine, Mary Magdalene’s “Liberator and mine.”[40]

Even as a child, Josephine was convinced that a woman’s word had just as much power as a man’s.[41] She subscribed to the tradition of “mystic spirituality,” a tradition practiced by past saints such as Catharine of Siena and Teresa of Avila..[42] Josephine wrote that St. Teresa’s work “changed her life,”[43] and she admired St. Catharine of Siena so immensely that she wrote a long, detailed biography of her.[44] Like many of the evangelical feminists who rejected St. Paul’s words as the end-all on woman’s position in the church,[45] Josephine found herself in need of new, feminine “preachers” of the past and present that she could emulate, both united with the church and yet regarded as authoritative by men and women alike.

As it were, the figure of St. Catharine of Siena seemed a perfect fit, fulfilling both qualifications. While the two might seem to have little in common due to differences in tradition and history, Josephine clearly admired St. Catharine’s integration of action and contemplation; Catherine was both “the practical reformer [and] the contemplative mystic.”[46] Josephine upheld Saint Catharine as an example to the evangelical community that God indeed speaks through women. Taking on the persona of God, Josephine writes, “[At] the present time the pride of man has become so great . . . I will send to them women, unlearned, and by nature fragile, but filled by my grace with courage and power, for the confusion of their forwardness.”[47] As a mystic, Saint Catharine did not rely on a man or angel as a guide; instead, she was spoken to directly by God, who taught her all she needed.[48] Josephine Butler cherished this as an example of woman’s direct communication with the divine, an experience she believed she shared, and one that supported the calling of women to be “leaders of both men and women.”[49] According to Mathers, this claim on authority is Josephine’s most “profound contribution to feminism.”[50]

The inspiration of the Catholic saints enabled the Victorian evangelical feminists to combine “radical talk of liberation with extreme idealism about moral purity.”[51] These feminists were not above criticism from the evangelical community regarding the Catholic influence in the formation of Protestant sisterhoods. Those who remained faithful to evangelicalism, like Josephine Butler, reminded society that the virtue of charity and the importance of a direct relationship with God, emphasized by the Catholic female saints, were of utmost importance. Josephine did not agree with many Catholic doctrines, and yet she was ready to defend the many outside of her tradition, living or dead, “in whom the spirit of Christ is working.”[52] Inspired by the strong female saints in the Catholic tradition, the evangelical Protestant feminists of the Victorian era used their examples to teach men and women that all, regardless of sex, are called to share God’s love with the world.

[1] Prefect Franjo Cardinal Seper, “INTER INSIGNIORES: On the question of admission of women to the ministerial priesthood,” Vatican, October 15, 1976, ocuments/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19761015_inter-insigniores_en.html#top (accessed September 29, 2014).

[2] Suzanne Rickard, “Victorian Women with Causes: Writing, Religion and Action,” in Women, Religion and Feminism in Britain, 1750-1900, ed. Sue Morgan (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 139.

[3] Andro Linklater, An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard: Suffragette, Socialist & Sinn Feiner (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1980), 33.

[4] Rickard, “Victorian Women with Causes,” 142.

[5] Rickard, “Victorian Women with Causes,” 143.

[6] Eileen J. Yeo, “Protestant feminists and Catholic saints in Victorian Britain,” in Radical Femininity: Women’s Self-Representation in the Public Sphere, ed. E.J. Yeo (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 127.

[7] Ibid., 127.

[8] Ibid., 134

[9] Ibid., 131, 130.

[10] Ibid., 130.

[11] Ibid., 130.

[12] Ibid., 131.

[13] Francis Power Cobbe, “Celibacy v. Marriage,” in Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors: Victorian Writing by Women on Women, ed. Susan Hamilton (Ontario: Broadview Press, 1995), 80.

[14] Yeo, “Protestant feminists and Catholic saints,” 131.

[15] Ibid., 131.

[16] Ibid., 128.

[17] Ibid., 128.

[18] Ibid., 132.

[19] Yeo, “Protestant feminists and Catholic saints,” 134-5.

[20] Ibid., 137.

[21] Ibid., 127.

[22] Ibid., 127.

[23] Ibid., 135.

[24] Yeo, “Protestant feminists and Catholic saints,” 145.

[25] Ibid., 135.

[26] Ibid., 129.

[27] Ibid., 144.

[28] Ibid., 131.

[29] Francis Power Cobbe, “What Shall We Do with Our Old Maids?” in Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors: Victorian Writing by Women on Women, ed. Susan Hamilton (Ontario: Broadview Press, 1995)

[30] Ibid., 85.

[31] Yeo, “Protestant feminists and Catholic saints,” 145.

[32] Cobbe, “What Shall We Do with Our Old Maids?” 85.

[33] Helen Mathers, “The Evangelical Spirituality of a Victorian Feminist: Josephine Butler, 1828– 1906,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, null (2001): 303.

[34] Lisa Severine Nolland, A Victorian Feminist Christian: Josephine Butler, the Prostitutes and God (Cumbria: Paternoster, 2004), 134.

[35] Ibid., 138.

[36] Ibid., 266.

[37] Mathers, “The Evangelical Spirituality of a Victorian Feminist,” 303.

[38] Ibid., 303.

[39] Nolland, A Victorian Feminist Christian, 266.

[40] Helen Mathers, “Evangelicalism and Feminism: Josephine Butler, 1828-1906,” in Women, Religion and Feminism in Britain, 1750-1900, ed. Sue Morgan (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 133.

[41] Ibid., 295.

[42] Nolland, A Victorian Feminist Christian, 267.

[43] Ibid., 267.

[44] Josephine E. Butler, Catherine of Siena: A Biography, 3rd ed. (London: Dyer Brothers, 1881).

[45] Mathers, “Evangelicalism and Feminism: Josephine Butler,” 133.

[46] Mathers, “The Evangelical Spirituality of a Victorian Feminist,” 306.

[47] Ibid., 306.

[48] Ibid., 306.

[49] Ibid., 306.

[50] Ibid., 306.

[51] Ibid., 125.

[52] Mathers, “The Evangelical Spirituality of a Victorian Feminist,” 295.