Rosie the Riveter has a message for Catholic women

by Nicole Sotelo

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With the Vatican's announcement of members for the women deacon commission, media have raised the question again of women's leadership in the church. Much like the "Rosie the Riveters" that the government ushered into the public workforce during World War II, the Vatican has also welcomed Catholic women to serve in limited church roles for the last half century. They work on the front lines of local parishes, some diocesan offices, and a smattering of support roles at the Vatican. In fact, women make up 80 percent of lay church workers in the United States.

Now that the Vatican welcomes women as church workers, why do Catholic officials balk at women's leadership in roles with significant decision-making authority, even when the decisions significantly affect women's lives? Part of the reason -- and the solution -- may rest in emerging research.

Research on women's leadership

Research has shown a lingering gender bias against women who actively seek leadership. It turns out the bias is not just against women's leadership, in general. It rises when women step outside of their current, culturally prescribed gender roles and are perceived as desiring leadership.

In one experiment, students were given case studies about a venture capitalist. The studies were all the same except in one version the protagonist was a man and in the other it was a woman. When asked to evaluate the scenarios, if the students believed the protagonist was a woman, they felt she was "power-hungry" or "disingenuous." These negative attributes did not arise in response to the same case study when the protagonist was a man. In fact, the more a student believed the woman was assertive, essentially stepping outside her prescribed gender role as a woman, the more the students rejected her.

In another study, researchers showed participants a profile of a man who was campaigning for elected office. When the man was described as "power-seeking," people saw him as having greater agency and competency. When the exact same profile was shown to participants with a woman's name and they were told she was "power-seeking," they did not have the same reaction. In fact, when asked to reflect on how they felt about the woman, participants expressed feelings of "moral outrage" such as "contempt," "anger" and "disgust."

One needn't look far for living proof of the research. Statistician Nate Silver charted Hillary Clinton's approval ratings over two decades and discovered that they rise and fall depending on whether she is seeking leadership. If she moves out of gender role expectations or is perceived as wanting a leadership role such as campaigning for senator or president, her approval ratings drop. Once she reaches a new level of leadership and people become accustomed to it, her ratings rise again.

The same pattern seems to apply in the Catholic church. If women step outside their current Vatican-given role and advocate for new ones, they are dismissed -- verbally or literally via the loss of their job.

Just as the research shows, the Vatican's discrimination against women's leadership whittles down to two things: gender role expectations and a perceived desire for leadership. For example, when Pope Francis called for a "deeper theology" about women, it wasn't because he was unaware of the breadth of womanist, feminist, mujerista, and other women's theology. It was because he envisions a theology that restricts women to the constructed gender roles of virgin or mother. In fact, he extolled this role for women during the same meeting in which the question of women deacons was raised, as fellow NCR columnist Jamie Manson noted.

Additionally, Pope Francis appears morally outraged when he perceives women's desires for leadership. Instead of recognizing women's desire as a call to serve, as he does for male priests, he blasts women's longing as "clericalism." That is Pope Francis' definition for "power-seeking." In fact, it took only about six months into his papacy before Pope Francis signed the papers to excommunicate a priest who advocated for women's greater role in the church.

The future of women's roles in the church

The good news is that research also shows that once people engage with a woman in her new role, their resistance to women's leadership subsides. Many know of this from the psychological theory on exposure. However, thanks to Edward Lehman's specific studies of Christian women ministers, it has also been proven true in the religious context.

After elaborating on his studies, Lehman notes in the Duke Divinity School "Pulpit and Pew" series, that, "If allowed to experience a woman's ministry, most church members tend to warm up to clergy women, and the legitimacy of women's ordination is enhanced."

This exposure theory certainly helped women during World War II. Thanks to the propaganda of Rosie the Riveter, the number of women entering the workforce grew and became a stepping stone toward the ubiquitous presence of women in the workforce today. It is that same presence that now provides women the foundation from which to seek new roles in leadership, despite the challenges. Could a similar movement happen in the Catholic church?

Between 1940 and 1945, the percentage of women in the public workforce leaped from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent. Compare this to the church where lay ecclesial ministers jumped from 21,570 in 1990 to 30,600 in 2005. Today, there are more than 39,000 lay ecclesial ministers, and the vast majority are women. Like the women's labor movement, perhaps the surge of women workers in the church -- and church members' exposure to them -- may become a stepping stone over time towards greater equality in religious leadership.

Rosie the prophet

Who knew that Rosie the Riveter, intended to be a temporary campaign for women laborers, would lead to a cultural shift in women's acceptance in the workforce? Perhaps the artist who created her had a premonition.

The first painted "Rosie" is not the familiar strong-arm woman under the words, "We can do it!" Instead, Norman Rockwell painted the first "Rosie" for The Saturday Evening Post in 1943. A local woman, Mary Doyle Keefe, posed for the painting.

While Rockwell may have used the resemblance of Mary's face, he did not use her slight figure. Instead, Rockwell turned to the image of the Prophet Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel to be the model for this new working woman.

The prophet's pink flowing robes, originally painted by Michelangelo in the 16th century, became blue denim work overalls in Rockwell's painting. A lunchbox with the name "ROSIE" substituted for what had been a book of scripture. In a bold move, Rockwell painted a halo above Rosie's head, one that was absent from the original image of Isaiah. What resulted was a new canvas of the working woman depicted as a prophet for her time.

The women who entered the workforce during World War II probably did not consider themselves prophets, but their example inspired women and men to think about gender roles in new ways that some had not previously dreamed. Originally conceptualized by men as a message regarding war, women turned Rosie's legacy into a revolution about women's potential.

At a time in our church when questions are being raised about women's roles again, I find hope in today's Catholic Rosies: the women church workers among us who are leading the way towards equality. Their presence is changing perceptions of women in ministry. We may not recognize it immediately, but they are the prophets for our time.

[Nicole Sotelo is the author of Women Healing from Abuse: Meditations for Finding Peace, published by Paulist Press, and coordinates She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.]

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