Elizabeth Farians: Catholic Feminist Pioneer
The best part working on my book Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church was learning about the “foremothers” of the Catholic reproductive rights movement. Some of these women, like Rosemary Radford Ruether and Mary Daly, are well known. Others less so. One of these women, Elizabeth “Betty” Farians (1923–2013), passed away recently, leading me to reflect on the contributions of this pioneering woman.
Farians’ commitment to social justice was the thread that ran through her life. Her family knew poverty during the Depression and she was deeply influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement, with its call for reaching out to the marginalized. A talented athlete as well as a gifted student, she became a physical education teacher after college, determined to use sports to help boost girls’ self-confidence in a world that told them not to play or think too hard. She founded the first community sports league for girls in Cincinnati and insisted that it be racially integrated, a first for the area. She also took part in some of the early civil rights protests in the South.
But Farians wanted to make a difference on a bigger scale. When she heard that St. Mary’s College had opened the first theology program for women, she knew she wanted to study theology so she could “speak with authority in religious circles” and respond to the Catholic theologians who insisted that women’s subordination was divinely ordained. At St. Mary’s she became fast friends with another firecracker of a young theologian—Mary Daly. Together they relished the opportunity to study the foundational texts of Catholicism and receive the kind of education that had formerly been reserved only for men. They became among the first women in the United States to receive PhDs in theology.
After graduating, Farians struggled to find acceptance in the all-male world of Catholic theology. She taught Thomistic philosophy at the University of Dayton with the understanding that she would be “allowed” to teach theology after two years. When she pressured the school to live up to their agreement, she was fired. After that, she taught at Sacred Heart University in Bridgeport, CT, and founded the Ecumenical Task Force on Women and Religion to address sexism in religion. When she heard that Betty Friedan, who had just founded the National Organization for Women, would be in in town she arranged to meet her. Over a drink at the Bridgeport train station, she convinced Friedan that the patriarchal values embedded religion were fundamental to women’s oppression. The Ecumenical Task Force became the NOW Task Force on Women and Religion, one of the organization’s seven founding task forces, with Farians at its head.
Farians helped lead some of NOW’s groundbreaking protests againt the entrenched sexism that still defined women’s roles and opportunities. When the New York Times refused to change its policy of sex-segregated want ads, Farians and her fellow protesters stormed the Times’ office and dumped piles of newspapers in front of the editors’ doors, “until the editors couldn’t open their doors,” she recalled.
Soon Farians combined her feminist activism and her interest in equality for Catholic women (see Farians, “The Struggle for Women’s Rights in the Catholic Church,” 1973). In 1968, the NOW task force called for a “National Unveiling” to protest the Catholic tradition of requiring women to cover their heads in church. The “Easter Bonnet Rebellion” took place the following Easter at a Milwaukee church after a priest criticized a woman for her uncovered head. Fifteen women with outrageously large hats on approached the communion rail, removed their hats, and received communion in the “first church demonstration for women’s rights.”
When a new Catholic missal was published in 1970 that allowed women to serve as lectors for the first time, but only if no man was available and required them to stand outside the holiest part of the altar, Farians was enraged. She ceremoniously cremated a copy of the new regulation, wrapped the ashes in a pink ribbon and sent the package to Cardinal John Dearden, head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishop, with a poem that read:
We have burnt your sacred books.
Your latest oppressive words.
We are sick with your pomp and male prerogative.
We are weary of your callous stance toward women in the church.
You have raped us of our rights.
And preached that it was in the name of God.
Farians collected the leading Catholic feminist groups into the Joint Committee of Organizations Concerned with the Status of Women in the Church and in 1970 successfully arranged the first meeting between women’s groups and the NCCB. They presented the bishops with a list of demands that included “the moral condemnation of sexism, and end to sex discrimination by the church, and an affirmative action program for women.”
But the life of a feminist pioneer wasn’t easy. Farians had a hard time finding a permanent teaching position when her feminist leanings became known. She was the first woman accepted into the Catholic Theological Society, but when she showed up at their annual banquet, the priest at the door threatened to call the police if she didn’t leave. She had to be escorted inside by Father Charles Curran. After she was fired from Loyola University in 1970, she wrote to a friend that the “personal struggle has been lonely and depressing” and tried to quit the NOW task force.
Farians held on for several more years and tried unsuccessfully to pressure the Catholic bishops to restore women’s “God-given rights of personhood.” But eventually, like Daly, she left the church. She returned to Cincinnati and became a pioneering animal rights and vegan activist. But her creative use of liturgical protests, and her personal encouragement, guided another Catholic feminist pioneer, Patricia McQuillan, when she founded Catholics for a Free Choice. McQuillan made headlines around the world, and launched the Catholic reproductive rights movement, when she crowned herself Pope Patricia on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the first anniversary of Roe v. Wade in a bold act of feminist protest that owed much to Farians.
Patricia Miller is a Washington, DC–based journalist and editor who has written extensively about the intersection of politics, sex and religion. Her work has appeared in the Nation, Huffington Post, RH Reality Check and Ms. Magazine. She covers the politics of sexuality and the Catholic Church for Religion Dispatches. She was formerly the editor of Conscience magazine, the leading journal of pro-choice Catholic thought, and the editor-in-chief of National Journal’s daily health care briefings, including the Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @patti_miller.