Today we welcome a guest post from Mary J. Henold, author of The Laywoman Project: Remaking Catholic Womanhood in the Vatican II Era, out today from UNC Press.
Summoning everyday Catholic laywomen to the forefront of twentieth-century Catholic history, Mary J. Henold considers how these committed parishioners experienced their religion in the wake of Vatican II (1962–1965). This era saw major changes within the heavily patriarchal religious faith—at the same time as an American feminist revolution caught fire. Who was the Catholic woman for a new era? Henold uncovers a vast archive of writing, both intimate and public facing, by hundreds of rank-and-file American laywomen active in national laywomen’s groups, including the National Council of Catholic Women, the Catholic Daughters of America, and the Daughters of Isabella. These records evoke a formative period when laywomen played publicly with a surprising variety of ideas about their own position in the Catholic Church.
In this post, Henold explains what an unorthodox 1970 fashion show can tell us about the relationship between Catholic sisters and laywomen at the time.
The Laywoman Project is now available in paperback and ebook editions.
The Most Extraordinary (Catholic) Fashion Show of 1970
In 1970, Houston, Texas, played host to a most unusual fashion show. The designs were current, the fabrics polyester, the audience was amused if unlikely to purchase anything, and the models were, well…unorthodox. This show took place not at a fashion house, but at the national conference of the Theresians of America, and walking its runway were a group of Catholic sisters.
The Houston chapter of the Theresians planned this fashion show as a stand-out event for its national gathering in 1970, and while it might not be high fashion, it can tell us quite a lot about Catholic women, both lay and religious, at the turn of this most tumultuous decade.
The Theresians was founded in the early 1960s but had recently undergone a rapid transition. Founded by a priest in 1963, its original purpose was to gather laywomen to pray and promote vocations to the Catholic sisterhoods. Laywomen organized recruitment events in Catholic high schools, educated themselves about religious life, and most importantly, prayed regularly for more young women to accept the call. In keeping with Catholic tradition, in the beginning they were taught to see their own lives as laywomen as inferior; sisters’ vocations had greater value in the eyes of the church.
Yet over the middle years of the 1960s, not coincidentally the same years of renewal prompted by the Second Vatican Council, laywomen and sisters found common ground through the Theresians. Education about the sisterhoods had the by-product of fostering actual sisterhood, even friendship, among laywomen and women religious. As laywomen planned events for students, they started to socialize with the sisters. In turn, the sisters taught laywomen cutting edge theology. Women who had been encouraged in the past to see themselves in a spiritual hierarchy (nuns over laywomen) now sought a newly ordered way of being women in the Catholic world.
In 1969 the Theresian board overwhelmingly rejected the organization’s original purpose of promoting sisterhood vocation, instead dedicating itself to “a deeper appreciation of the vocation of the Christian woman as it is lived in the religious and lay states in the world today.” The group accepted sisters as members on equal terms and no longer ranked one vocation over another.
The fashion show in Houston was one of the first expressions of this new purpose. The laywomen of the Houston chapter saw many sisters of their acquaintance struggling with what to wear as they transitioned away from formal traditional habits. Local sisters and laywomen collaborated, choosing sportswear appropriate for sisters, and sewing the garments from available patterns and materials. The organizers hoped it would benefit all, as “how to be tastefully and appropriately dressed for any occasion at a minimum of expense was becoming a growing problem for all of us women—lay and religious—alike.” But the fashion show was clearly designed to help sisters who were “experimenting with secular dress and modified habits.” It was a show of kindness, solidarity, and support. Moreover, it was a chance for laywomen to help the sisters as equals in friendship, an opportunity rarely available to them before Vatican II.
They also kept a sense of humor about the whole thing. The organizers added, “for those who had elected to remain in conservative habit we hoped it would prove entertaining.” I have no idea how the audience responded; I can only hope they cheered wildly for their sisters, lay and religious, walking the runway in their knit separates, facing a brave new Catholic world together.
Mary J. Henold, John R. Turbyfill Professor of History at Roanoke College, is the author of Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement.