Why this blog

Villa Angela Handbook quote 1

This blog has a very specific purpose, but first let me tell you a little bit about me. I was raised Catholic, and as a direct result I missed out on feminism. While other young women were reading The Feminine Mystique and A Room of One’s Own, I was being taught by the nuns at Villa Angela Academy, an all-girls high school on the east side of Cleveland. The word feminism was never heard at Villa Angela. Instead, at this guardian of learning and truth (according to our school song), I was absorbing the counsels of St Angela. The first three are:

  • Know that you are unworthy
  • Be pleasant and kind
  • Be submissive

Across the country, young women were questioning everything they’d been taught about sex and marriage, about their bodies, about their reproductive rights, about their role in society and the possibilities for them in the workplace. About their intelligence and their capabilities. Colleges were launching women’s studies programs, and young women were finding their individuality and their voices.

I wore a uniform every day, and I looked exactly like all the other girls at Villa Angela. I was studying my academic subjects, plus the Bible in religion class. I was learning to live by a particular code, which required (as spelled out in our handbook) that “in public places the Villa Angela student… laughs and talks moderately, and is gentle and refined at all times.” 

On so many college campuses, young women stood alongside young men and protested the Vietnam War. One of my classmates was suspended for three days for coming to school with a little tiny button on her collar that said “SDS.” I had no idea what that stood for, except that it must have been really bad, judging by how angry the nuns were.

I went to college, got a job, got married and had two kids. I discovered feminism, and learned about the concept of women’s rights.  I was angry when the Equal Rights Amendment fell three states short of ratification - but I was unable to do anything besides be angry. Why? Because I had no voice. I had been taught to be submissive, and to know I was not worthy. It was strange, wanting to do something to help get that amendment passed, and at the same time, watching myself do nothing.  I remember thinking, What is wrong with me?

We know we need to stand up for women’s rights, because if we don’t the world will deny those rights. But if we had a Catholic upbringing, it’s harder to stand up, because that Catholic education is designed to undermine our belief that we are equal. Its purpose is to train us to be pleasant and kind, to submit, and to know that we are not worthy. And even though we are educated alongside men, and work alongside men, and say we’re equal to men, at key moments we can falter - because of those seeds of belief about ourselves that were planted when we were too young to understand what was happening to us. 

I am not just talking about what I was taught at Villa Angela Academy. I learned the same beliefs in elementary school, when I was taught the Catholic catechism and Bible stories. Villa Angela just overtly stated what I and other Catholic girls were taught since we were old enough to go to church. And while the church has since softened its rhetoric about women, the fundamentals haven't changed. The catechism hasn't changed. The message is much less overt, but it's still the message.

Why did I start this blog? Because there are so many questions to investigate: Why are Catholic girls educated in this way? What is the Church trying to accomplish? Why are children so vulnerable to this kind of indoctrination?  And just as important: Can it be undone? Can we replace that seed of doubt about ourselves with the belief that we are worthy? Can we learn that we have the right not to submit?

How can we find our voice?

Nobody asked me if I minded being taught that I am less, and nobody asked you either. If it’s hard to believe you deserved better - if you’re uncertain that your Catholic education is a handicap, here’s a quick exercise. Take a look at a happy, innocent little girl – your own or someone else’s. Now think about her being taught that “she is pleasant and kind… she is submissive… she is not worthy.” Think about how those beliefs are going to handicap her, once she grows up and starts making decisions about her life.

If you feel it’s entirely appropriate to teach this to little girls, then this blog is not for you. But if it disturbs you that someone would take away a little girl’s belief that she was powerful, and awesome, and just as good as anybody else, then you’re going to want to continue reading. Because that little girl was you. And she was me.

Let’s begin, dear sisters, to find out what happened to us, and why, and to learn how we can heal, and find our voices. I look forward to your company on this journey.