The Daughters of Charity and the Women’s Suffrage Movement: Part 2

This is part 2 of our three-part series on the Daughters of Charity and the Women’s Suffrage Movement throughout the 1910s, leading up to the Presidential Election of November 1920.  The year 2020 marks 100 years since women in the United States won the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920.  Part 1 can be found here.  Part 3 will run next month.

James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, delivered the commencement address to the young women graduating from the tutelage of the Daughters of Charity of St. Joseph’s College in Emmitsburg four times between 1911 and 1917.  In two of his four addresses, he used his platform to express his opposition towards the rise of the women’s suffrage movement on the grounds that it distorted the proper role of a woman, who, in his opinion, was that of a wife and mother in the home (See part 1 of this series).

In 1918, Father Edward J. Walsh, former President of Niagara University, offered a contrasting view.  In his commencement address, Father Walsh agreed Cardinal Gibbons about the role of women as caretakers and educators, he also supported women and their right to vote as they had possessed it a majority of states at the time (although not Maryland).  And while the priest never fully endorsed the suffrage movement in his speech, he recognized that times were changing, and women would no longer be content to remain on the sidelines of society or denied a place in the workforce. 

Although calling for women to “hold strong to the old traditions” and “keep the old ideals,” Father Walsh also recognized the need for feminine strength and courage in combining old roles with new ones; a small opening in the evolution of women’s rights and status rather than an immediate dismissal toward the movement that Cardinal Gibbons had previously espoused. 

However, a second development in 1919 showed that even Cardinal Gibbons opposition to the suffragists could be changed given the right incentive.  In the Provincial Annals for the year 1919, the shift in support is sudden and clear: 

Cardinal Gibbons cared very deeply about the role of Catholic parochial schools as a means of education, advancement for immigrant families, and a method of instilling faith and values.[1]  In Michigan women could already vote after an amendment to the state constitution in 1918.[2]

Just as Father Walsh’s comfort with women’s greater involvement with the world came at the heels of World War I, where women had entered the industrial workforce in ways not seen before, so too, did another.  In many part of America, anti-German and anti-immigrant sentiment was growing.  A strong portion of this was a resurgence of old anti-Catholic sentiment.  Newsletters like The Menace spread across the country, depicting Catholic schools as places where children were victimized, and proper Protestant families were broken up by shadowy anti-American figures.[3]

Masthead of The Menace, November 11, 1911.  The menace. [volume] (Aurora, Mo.), 11 Nov. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn89066178/1911-11-11/ed-1/seq-1/

Although these newspapers were often published in rural areas, they proved the most popular in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest, where urban and immigrant Catholics had the highest level of visibility.[4]  The movement to ban parochial education in the State of Michigan began with the Wayne County Civil League – Wayne County being the location of the multi-ethnic city of Detroit.  Their bill really was as clear-cut as the Provincial Annals described, requiring attendance at public school and outlawing all private schools for children up to age 16. Although the Michigan Legislature defeated the bill, the  anti-Catholic group campaigned for a similar ballot initiative twice more in the next five years.[5]

When similar movements began to pop up in his own Archdiocese of Baltimore, Cardinal Gibbons made a very quick turnaround.  Realizing the need to organize and the potential for women to have a say in the direction of the country, references in the Daughters archives in 1920 and 1921 look very different from the decade beforehand.  In part three of this series, we will look at the accounts of the Daughters of Charity voting for the first time.


[1] John Tracy Ellis, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, ed. Francis L. Broderick, Popular edition (Milwaukee:  The Bruce Publishing Company, 1963), 47.

[2] Library of Michigan, “Woman’s Suffrage in Michigan:  A Timeline of the Movement,” June 10, 2010, accessed September 15, 2020, https://www.michigan.gov/libraryofmichigan/0,9327,7-381-88854_89996-518343–,00.html.

[3] Justin Nordtstrom, “A War of Words:  Childhood and Masculinity in American Anti-Catholicism, 1911-1919,” in U.S. Catholic Historian 20 (1), Winter 2002:  57-58; 67.

[4] Nordstrom, 61-62.

[5] Timothy Mark Pies, “The Parochial School Campaigns in Michigan, 1920-1924:  The Lutheran and Catholic Involvement,” in The Catholic Historical Review 72 (2), April 1986:  223-224.

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One response to “The Daughters of Charity and the Women’s Suffrage Movement: Part 2

  1. Pingback: The Daughters of Charity and the Women’s Suffrage Movement: Part 3 | Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives

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