One summer in the early 1920’s, Ms. Lorelei Lee, a resident of Manhattan who had grown up in Little Rock, Ark., made a trip to Europe. This diversion was sponsored by her gentleman friend, Mr. Gus Eisman, known as the Button King of Chicago. During the journey, Ms. Lee kept a diary, which, fortuitously preserved by Anita Loos, was published in 1925 as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It became an American classic.
Ms. Lee and her traveling companion, her wisecracking friend Dorothy, did not find all parts of Europe equally agreeable. “Paris is devine” Lorelei recorded in her personalized spelling, but a detour to what she called the Central of Europe was less pleasing. From the window of their compartment on the “Oriental Express” the travelers found the view “really quite unusual...because it was farms, and we saw quite a lot of girls who seemed to be putting small size hay stacks onto large size hay stacks while their husbands seemed to sit at a table under quite a shady tree and drink beer.”
What disenchanted Ms. Lee was a case of the oldest form of discrimination in history—that of men against women. Over the millennia and around the globe there surely have been many families in which the wife/mother rather than the husband/father was the dominant partner. In politics, however, and in business, education, the arts and sciences—and the churches—men have managed until quite recently to secure the top positions for themselves.
Christianity rejects the bias here. Paul told the Galatians that among them there should be neither male nor female, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). In the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (1965) the bishops at the Second Vatican Council spelled this out: “Every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent” (No. 29).
But not all distinctions are discriminatory. In the Catholic Church, for instance, governance is linked to ordination. But since only males may be ordained, women and unordained men cannot exercise jurisdiction. When a professor of canon law explained this to a seminary class, one student objected: “What about St. Hilda? She had jurisdiction.” In the seventh century, at Whitby in Northumberland, Abbess Hilda presided at a synod and ruled over a double monastery of monks and nuns, who had separate quarters but chanted the Liturgy of the Hours together. The canonist was not impressed by this example. “She may have thought she had jurisdiction,” he said, “but she didn’t.”
Jurisdiction aside, there have been many influential women in the church, and scholars who are not themselves Catholic have noted this. In the spring of 1973, Ellen Moers (1928-79), a professor at Barnard College, stopped by America’s offices to talk about a discovery she had made while working on her book, Literary Women (1976). She had been examining the concept of heroism and observed that in the past only men were called heroes, because heroes were traditionally rulers, soldiers or explorers and these pursuits were closed to women.
Professor Moers observed, however, that within the Catholic Church women had for centuries been acknowledged as heroes. Their number included not only canonized foundresses like Bridget of Sweden, Angela Merici and Teresa of Avila (to name a few at random) but hundreds of others, canonized or not, who were leaders in both the church and civil society.
One such life may stand for them all. In the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, each of the 50 states has placed statues of two of its distinguished citizens. Washington State in 1980 selected as its second choice a member of the Sisters of Providence, whose religious name was Mother Joseph (1823-1902). She was born in Canada as Esther Pariseau and for 46 years worked in the Pacific Northwest, where she founded 29 schools, hospitals, orphanages, nursing homes and Indian missions.
When Dixy Lee Ray, who had been elected governor of Washington in 1976, signed the bill approving the choice of Mother Joseph for Statuary Hall, she said:“Mother Joseph liked to see things accomplished. If something didn’t go the way she thought it ought to, she rolled up her sleeves and did it herself. When they wanted to impose a water tax in her community, she said, ‘Let’s dig our own well,’ and she did that.... She liked to see decisions made and not just studied to death.”
St. Hilda could never have imagined a record so dazzling, but the divine grace that sustained it she would have recognized.