Empowering Women on a Catholic Campus

women’s colleges
are more likely than their
secular counterparts to offer
daycare, flexible schedules
and affordable tuition.

Dr. Jane Marie GrovijahnDr. Jane Marie Grovijahn

Social justice is central to the mission of Catholic higher education. The National Catholic College Admission Association web site lists three core attitudes:

Readiness to reflect on modern society from a values-oriented perspective;

Desire to promote justice and opportunities for all people; and

Belief in academic freedom, including the freedom to communicate ethical principles that give fuller meaning to life.

But for those who see empowerment of women as a social justice issue, Catholic higher education has a mixed record. Rules about sexuality and reproduction come from celibate men whose ideal of womanhood is a virgin mother.

In 1990 Pope John Paul II issued Ex corde Ecclesiae in an effort to rein in Catholic colleges with regard to doctrinal orthodoxy. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved its guidelines in 2001.

Contrary to fears, academic freedom remains strong at many Catholic colleges. Still, administrators perform a balancing act around Catholic identity, especially on issues of sexuality and reproductive choice.

Notre Dame University IN defied the local bishop in 2009 by inviting President Obama to speak at commencement, despite his views favoring abortion and stem-cell research. Last year’s hot issue was the status of contraception under the Affordable Care Act. Other debates have swirled around gay students, the Vagina Monologues and the FemSex student workshop at Marquette University WI, which donors opposed and eventually shut down.

Given all this, it would be easy to overlook the positive influence of Catholic higher education in the empowerment of women. Catholic women’s colleges (or those still oriented toward women) are particularly successful in serving nontraditional populations. Typically located in urban areas with a mission to serve the needy, Catholic women’s colleges are more likely than their secular counterparts to offer daycare, flexible schedules and affordable tuition. 

Social justice issues affecting women are not just the sexy ones that hit the headlines. Immigrants and daughters of immigrants, single moms burning the midnight oil, firstgeneration college students studying to lift themselves out of poverty—these women often find strong support in Catholic colleges.

Doctrinal issues notwithstanding, these colleges empower women and prepare them for leadership, particularly the women who start out as the most disempowered.

Latina students

This year’s National Association for Women in Catholic Higher Education (NAWCHE) conference scheduled for June was cancelled, but the issues it addresses are very much alive. If it had taken place, one speaker would have been Dr. Jane Marie Grovijahn, associate professor of religious studies and theology at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio TX.

Founded as a women’s college in 1895 by the Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence, it now is coed and trying to admit more men. (They want the larger donations that tend to come from male alumni, although women give more time and effort.) Most of the student body is Mexican- American, from religiously and culturally conservative families in South Texas.

“It’s a challenge helping our students envision themselves beyond the traditional norms of family and work, especially the Latinas,” she told WIHE.

These young women come to college with a self-image as daughters, sisters, mothers and helpers. They have absorbed the Catholic tradition of the mother’s role as sacrifice. “I see them working a 20-hour day, constantly. They have unrealistic expectations to be everything for anyone,” she said.

They have trouble grasping the concept of a personal identity not defined by their relation to another. They hear the word feminist very negatively. Many think that gender issues are a thing of the past; then they get out into the work world and find that isn’t true.

When she started teaching there about 15 years ago, Grovijahn tried to take cues from the students about how much she should talk about gender and identity. She was cautious about venturing into this territory unless they signaled that they were ready for it—and that rarely happened.

Today she still listens for cues but brings in the material anyway, even though students at first find it threatening. They understand it intuitively, even as they resist. Latinas recognize the double standard in how they are treated compared to their brothers. She nudges them to make connections between theory and their lived experience. “But if I start with the gender piece, I don’t get very far,” she has learned.

Her hope is to normalize the discussion of race, gender, class and ethnicity in her classes and across the curriculum. We all live gendered lives every day. She asks her colleagues how many of the readings they assign were written by women, people of color, lesbians or gays. She suspects they consider her more radical than she really is.

The university gives her tremendous academic freedom. It has a strong cultural tradition to empower women and prepare them for leadership. But her Latina students tell her that they don’t see themselves represented in their courses. That complicates the task of preparing them for leadership.

Connections through service learning

One class she teaches is a large “Introduction to Catholicism” course, which includes a minimum of 20 hours of service learning over the semester. Students go out into difficult settings like a prison or a homeless center. The women often find the places and people they work with to be scary.

“I see women really struggle with their sense of agency,” Grovijahn said. “What they don’t get from their religious tradition is a sense of their own strength.” They are used to serving as helpers with no personal power.

Some have experienced being treated as sexual objects by homeless men at the center. She strategizes with the students to assess their surroundings and brainstorm ways they can safely go back. This is a gendered challenge; male students have other issues but rarely feel unsafe in that environment.

Women students also feel threatened going to the prison, where women are paired with women and men with men. In addition, given the emphasis on sin in Catholic teachings, they tend initially to write the inmates off as sinners.

Without denying their reality, she has them process their experience through blogs and class and group discussions. She encourages them to make connections between the theology they learn in class and issues that they hadn’t thought of before as religious.

Visiting the jail, they learn for the first time that the “other” is just like them. Women inmates tell stories of poverty, abuse and pregnancy. Often they are in jail for crimes related to their involvement with a dominant male. By the end of the semester the students are just starting to make connections, not only to classroom studies but also to events in their own lives.

A third setting for service learning is Catholic Charities, where students help undocumented immigrants with the paperwork to ask for asylum. Many are women fleeing from abuse. Their families in Mexico would not take them back; women there are expected to stay in a marriage regardless of how they are treated.

Her students have seen domestic violence. “They know it happens but they don’t know how to talk about it,” she said. They think of it as private and personal. In helping the immigrants, some of them begin to see it as a matter of human rights. She presses them to make connections. If a man abuses them in the future, perhaps they will see alternatives to suffering in silence.


“To be in an environment where they can be part of the solution just blows them away,” Grovijahn said. She helps them recognize that in theological and biblical terms they are performing works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner and sheltering the homeless.

She presses her students to address the prejudices they absorbed from their culture and religion. They begin to see that problems like addiction have no easy fixes, and that women who are dealing with those struggles are not so very different from them.

She leads them to face their own magical thinking. Many are already parents, single moms waiting to meet the right guy, whose love should solve all their problems. As service learning gives them a glimpse of others’ burdens, they grapple with ambiguity in their lives, hopes and dreams.

They may wind up asking for more, not less, from a man as a result. “They’re hearing stories they have already experienced. Women build their lives around men and students are seeing the consequences,” she said.

From a religious and theological framework, she asks them not to “other” the people they meet in service learning. Instead she encourages them to see challenging people as a source of wisdom. For most it is a new and difficult idea to meet such a person as a gift.

What is the holy for women? Marian theology is very important in Catholicism. Her students grew up on the image of Mary as meek and submissive, the model of what a woman should be. She offers them other images of Mary in literature and art: Mary as feisty revolutionary, Mary as homeless political traveler while pregnant, Mary as undocumented immigrant fleeing danger into Egypt.

So much harm has been done by passive views of the feminine holy. She challenges students to try on other religious interpretations, grounded in scripture and Catholic theology.

Service to others remains a strong value, but service is more than just helping. Service plus empowerment grows into advocacy, influence and leadership. Catholic colleges are helping women to get there.




210.434.6711 x2275



Women in Catholic Campus Leadership


Long ago, when women were barred from leadership in almost any walk of life, Catholic religious orders provided the stellar exception. Convents were communities of women led by women, often providing education for young women who might or might not go on to become nuns.

Women’s religious orders founded more than 150 colleges in the United States, starting with Saint-Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana in 1840. More than half of the colleges in the U.S. established to educate women were Catholic. The big Jesuit research universities are more famous, but Catholic colleges founded by and for women are more numerous.

In the 20th century Catholic institutions played a critical part in the education of immigrants, many of whom were Catholic. Early in the century they came from southern and eastern Europe; later they arrived in larger numbers from Latin America.

Immigrant women at Catholic women’s colleges not only learned from teachers who cared; they also saw women in positions of leadership, role models for what they might become.

Until just a few decades ago, most presidents of Catholic women’s colleges were nuns. In the late 1960s women held the top position at almost two-thirds of Catholic colleges. Women college presidents were almost unheard of anywhere else.

Then two big changes happened. One was co-education; many (not all) women’s colleges started admitting men to bolster declining enrollments. The other was a drop in numbers of women entering religious orders. The newly coeducational colleges, financially precarious with a need for fundraising experience, often chose male lay presidents to succeed the last nuns in the job.

In 2003 women made up 36% of Catholic college presidents, a huge drop since the 1960s but still significantly more than in U.S. higher education overall. Nine years later it’s down to 33%, just under half of whom were in religious orders.

That puts Catholic colleges still well ahead of higher education as a whole, where women make up only slightly more than a quarter of U.S. college presidents. But the number at Catholic colleges is dropping while women presidents nationwide edge slowly upward.

If both trends continue, Catholic higher education may lose its place at the forefront of women’s campus leadership.

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, October). Empowering Women on a Catholic Campus. Women in Higher Education, 22(10), 20-21.


Back   |   Read Archive