BALTIMORE — The pioneering women who fought for the right to vote are being hailed by the bishops of Maryland.
An Aug. 26 letter from the bishops serving the state marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which guarantees all American women the right to vote.
Despite gaining voting rights a century ago, more work needs to be done to ensure equality for women, the bishops acknowledged in the letter released by the Maryland Catholic Conference, the bishops’ public policy arm.
“Given the contributions of women to the electorate over the last century, it seems almost inconceivable that so many did not support women’s suffrage 100 years ago, including some of our predecessors,” the bishops said. “We express our deep gratitude for the women who devoted their lives to fighting for the dignity of women at a time when this was considered unacceptable.”
The letter quotes St. John Paul II who advocated for greater equality for women in both the workplace and in the home during his time as pope. The letter notes that Pope Francis has made clear that the church must acknowledge its own history of “male authoritarianism.”
The bishops also said the church has been enriched by women as they have assumed more leadership roles.
Diane Barr, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, is one of the senior leaders of the church in Maryland. She advises bishops in canon law and is a key liaison between the bishops and the Vatican.
Barr said women serve the Baltimore Archdiocese in many areas, including education, healthcare, finance and pastoral care. The unique perspective of women is essential to the church, she added.
“Their experiences, their vision as laypeople, as leaders and workers, as parents and spouses, bring specific kinds of experience to the table for the church,” Barr said.
She said about a third of the archdiocese’s leadership positions — such as Jerri Burkhardt, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection — are held by women. Marylou Yam leads Notre Dame of Maryland University as president, with women holding other senior positions at all three Catholic universities in the archdiocese.
Led by Superintendent Donna Hargens, a majority of the schools of the archdiocese are headed by women. Hargens noted that the archdiocesan Catholic Schools Board includes two veteran female educators with a wealth of experience — Mary Pat Seurkamp, former president of Notre Dame of Maryland University, and Nancy Grasmick, former superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education.
Hargens said the archdiocese also is working to recognize the past contributions of women to the church in Maryland. The archdiocese’s first new city school in nearly 60 years will be named after Mother Mary Lange, a woman of color who founded schools to educate black children in pre-Civil War Baltimore, an era of deep racial animus and also founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
The bishops also wrote in their letter how women in Catholic institutions across Maryland are inspiring a new generation of female leaders.
“The next women leaders of tomorrow are going to be educated in the Catholic schools of Baltimore,” said Hargens, who was preparing for students to return to classes Aug. 31 for in-person instruction.
“I’m excited for them to be back … because that’s where you develop leaders. And we have students who are demonstrating leadership already. So I think that getting them back into schools gives them that opportunity,” Hargens said.
But Barr said there’s always room for improvement.
In the midst of a pandemic that has caused millions to lose their jobs and put families without child care under additional strain, the church’s support of women is more important than ever, she said.
“We support families, which in many ways is supporting women in particular because, oftentimes, unfortunately, they are the only heads of families. They have the responsibility for the children.” Barr said. “That’s why we support legislation for equal pay and equal work for women.”
In their letter, the Maryland bishops said the church must continue to work on the behalf of equality for women.
“It is our desire that the next 100 years of our nation’s history will serve as a time of continued progress that never fails to recognize the God-given dignity of all women,” the bishops wrote. “The voices and contributions of women are needed now more than ever as we seek to build a culture that recognizes that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and those rights must be protected and preserved.”
Swift is social media editor at the Catholic Review, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.