The Catholic Church & Women's Suffrage

by Maryanne Schiffman
Women do not have the right to vote in the Vatican City-State.

Women do not have the right to vote in the Vatican City-State.

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Throughout history, the Catholic Church opposed women's suffrage on its conviction that a woman's place is in the home. Claiming that if women were to engage in political life, their dignity would be impaired, the Church argued that in opposing women's right to vote, it sought to protect and defend women. The Catholic Church has come a long way since then, and in fact today actively recruits Catholic women voters to lobby for the Church’s own political agenda.

St. Augustine

The Church’s opposition to women’s suffrage was rooted in ancient doctrine. St. Augustine, writing during the Roman Empire and among the most important Christian philosophers, used the story of the Garden of Eden to oppose women's rights. Citing Eve's guilt for the fall of humanity into sin, he justified her double subordination, both to God and man. With this he further argued that only men could represent rationality and spirituality; women, in contrast, represented the body and the material world.

Objection To Women's Suffrage

Views about women began to change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as they struggled for the right to vote, to obtain education and to work outside of the home. Yet the Catholic Church remained steadfast. In 1930, ten years after women won the right to vote in the U.S., Pope Pius XI condemned women’s liberation, arguing it would produce a false redirection from their true identity as mothers and homemakers. It would not be until 1945 that Italy, home of the Vatican, granted women the right to vote .

Acceptance and Political Mobiization

Yet after 1920, the U.S. Catholic Church began to organize Catholic women for the Church’s own objectives, mobilizing groups such as the National Council of Catholic Women against liberalism, socialism and feminism. Catholic women’s groups have also lobbied against birth control, divorce and the Equal Rights Amendment, ironically fighting against some rights which women suffragists have sought to earn.

Swing Vote

Today however, the Church’s sway over Catholic women voters is in question. While some Catholic women agree with the Church on some issues such as abortion, they are much more likely to support a social safety net more in line with liberal political platforms. Because of this, Catholic women voters are now considered swing voters in US Presidential Elections .

The Vatican Excepted

The Catholic Church has come a long way since opposing women’s suffrage, and now supports women’s equal access to education, employment and political participation worldwide. However, the Vatican, a tiny state that as the home of the Pope wields big political influence, still denies women the right to vote.

About the Author

Based in MedellĂ­n, Colombia, Maryanne Schiffman has a B.A. in economic development from UC Berkeley and an M.A. in Latin American studies from the University of Texas. Writing for more than 20 years, she has contributed to academic journals and online publications, including the Colombian NTN24 news website.

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