"Two Girls of the Period"

March 20, 1869

artist unknown

"Two Girls of the Period"

Religion, Roman Catholic Church; Women, Religion;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Ritualistic Priest. "There, my Child, observe that Example of Humility and Devotion. How sweet to change the Vanities of the World for a Lot so Humble!"

Fashionable Convert. "Oh, but that is not at all what I expected!--and wear such Awful Shoes? and--oh, really, on second thoughts, I shall stick to Fifth Avenue."

This unsigned Harper’s Weekly cartoon criticizes the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and women.

The primary message of this cartoon, as well as other sections of the newspaper issue in which it appears, is how the Roman Catholic Church mistreats its female members. The cartoon is based mainly on what the paper labels as the "Hull Convent Scandal," in which a young English nun, Sister Scholastica (nee Saurin), had become disillusioned with convent life and sued at the Queen’s Bench for her release. A related news story explains that Sister Scholastica is a sincere Catholic who supports the convent system, which she had entered full of idealistic visions of serving God. Instead of a life of religious devotion, though, the newspaper claims that she "was condemned to the most menial toil."

The article excerpts the young nun’s letter, vouching for its authenticity, in which Sister Scholastica complains to her superior about having to clean the convent floors on her knees with a worn-out brush (as does the sister in this cartoon). The reporter asserts that rarely is the evil of convent life, "its infinite pettiness, brought before the public as it has been by … [this] case." The article continues by discussing similar cases in Ireland and Belgium, where young women from well-to-do families entered nunneries only to become disenchanted and seek leave from resistant convent authorities. In conclusion, the journalist inquires, "In a free country can these cruelties be perpetrated beyond the control of the law?"

The maliciously deceptive contrast conveyed by the article’s title, "The Theory and Practice of Convent Life," is replicated in the corresponding, full-page illustration of the same issue, "Convent Life—The Romance" and "The Reality (As Shown in the Hull Convent Scandal)." The left side pictures a nun rapturously praying before an altar, while the right side depicts a nun in ragged clothing sweeping the floor of a tiny, cell-like bedroom (with bars on the window).

On the same page as the "Convent Life" article is a news item about papal views on women’s education. "The Pope appears to deplore the movement for the education of girls … The ignorance of women is still the strong-hold of the Papacy …" The message of the page is completed by a poem, "Convent Life," which asks why a young woman would give up friends, family, and happiness for "the shadow." Is it boredom with society balls and foolish, flirtatious men? The poem warns female readers that the convent is "a sell" (scam) and a "Papist trick" which lures young women to a "sad, sordid prison" where they will "kneel, and kiss the floor."

One of the March 20 editorials denies a priest’s prediction that the United States "will be Roman Catholicized by the end of the century …" Editor George William Curtis argues that the Roman Catholic Church will, instead, undergo radical change in this country and become Americanized, if it is to continue growing. As evidence, he cites a recent incident in Auburn, New York, where a Catholic congregation refused to hear a priest sent by the bishop to replace the parish’s current priest, and drove the new priest and the bishop away, threatening appeal to the pope. Curtis, a Unitarian, interprets their action as emblematic of a "spirit of independence, of inquiry, of self-reliance, of open defiance of the spiritual superior, [which] is very good Americanism; but it is very poor Roman Catholicism." In it, the editor perceives the same motivation as that of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. To the staff of Harper’s Weekly traditional Roman Catholicism was essentially un-American.

The editorial then addresses what is the second point of the cartoon: how a few frivolous, wealthy women convert to Catholicism because it has become popular among their high-society peers. After claiming that second- and third-generation immigrants are less beholden to the Catholic Church hierarchy, the editor asserts that "conversions are among the fashionable and sentimental classes of the cities," not among the majority of ordinary Americans. When the "Fashionable Convert" of this cartoon sees that the humble devotion of a Catholic woman translates into scrubbing floors on her knees, the debutante opts for Fifth Avenue.

The readers of Harper’s Weekly, like most Americans, would have been well prepared for revelations about the evils of convent life. While anti-Catholic sentiments were standard among Protestants, who were still the overwhelming majority in nineteenth-century America, there existed narratives which specifically condemned convent life as lurid, brutal, and degrading. Most of the tales were exaggerated or simply untrue, but they constituted a popular literary genre in nineteenth-century America. Maria Monk’s alleged account of her wretched life inside a nunnery in 1836, for example, sold 300,000 copies by 1860. She was later revealed to be a prostitute, and her story a hoax. Another narrative, Six Months In A Convent by Rebecca Reed, led to an anti-Catholic riot in 1832 and the burning of an Ursuline convent outside of Boston.

Robert C. Kennedy

"Two Girls of the Period"
February 22, 2024

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