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Roman Catholic laywomen’s “turn to habit” as a strategy of developing modern pious womanhood: Catholic female social reformers in France, Germany and Partitioned Poland between 1878-1914.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Habit (Roman Catholic laywomen’s “turn to habit” as a strategy of developing modern pious womanhood: Catholic female social reformers in France, Germany and Partitioned Poland between 1878-1914. )

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2018-08-31

The project “Habit” was conducted under the supervision of Professor Laura Lee Downs in the Department of History and Civilisation at the European University Institute. The research had a twofold scientific objective: explaining the role of habitual mental and bodily practices in the attempts of late nineteenth century Catholic female social reformers to develop modern pious womanhood; and locating these activists’ interest in habit within a broader contemporary phenomenon of intellectual, scientific, and socio-cultural interest in routinized conducts. The reformers’ “turn to habit” was understood as unfolding transnationally, but the project was designed to pay particular attention to relevant phenomena in the lands of Partitioned Poland, France, and Germany between 1878-1914, concentrating on publications and pedagogical practices of selected renowned activists (e.g. M. d’Adhémar, M. Féraud, E. Gnauck-Kühne, H. Dransfeld, J. Zamoyska, C. Plater-Zyberk, M. Fletcher). The research was to demonstrate how, through their engagement with the concept of routinised behaviour, Catholic female reformers sought to facilitate devout women’s participation in a wide range of modern processes in a period in which many argued for the incompatibility of both the female sex and religion with the public sphere. The project is in dialogue with contemporary debates on the role of religious movements, leaders and claims in the European Union as it demonstrates that conflicts over the role of pious individuals and communities in modern politics have long been a salient part of European political traditions.
The research has been accomplished through explorations in numerous archives, the collection, examination and interpretation of sources, and extensive work with state-of-the-art literature on the turn of the century interest in a routinized conduct. The project demanded reaching out to scholarship from several disciplines; informed mentorship by the project’s supervisor; consultations with scholars at the host institution and beyond. During the fellowship I widened my research capacity by acquiring new areas of expertise, improved my teaching skills by conducting seminars, and gained practice in executing a research project independently through regular checking on progress, risk assessment, identifying and reaching out to potential collaborators, designing its financial parameters, and organizing international events.

The pious activists I studied did not propose a separate theory of a habitualized action, but rather drew on selected elements of conceptualizations that were circulating at the time while enriching those with a perspective rooted in lived female experience. Their engagement with the concept of habit was significant for the reformers in two major ways. First, the contemporary pedagogical theories that employed habitual behaviour as a tool of upbringing envisioned a human being as consisting of corporal, intellectual, and emotional capacities that could be put in constructive alignments to assist the individual in self-improvement and completing intended goals. Many of these theories had built-in gender (and racial) prejudices. But when critically modified, they allowed Catholic reformers to argue that differences between sexes were not of an unbridgeable nature, and that characteristics like an aptitude for logical reasoning or a leaning towards intense feelings were shared by men and women alike. Consequently, both sexes, the reformers argued, could be taught to gain command over their inclinations, which might be excessive. Appropriate corporal and mental routines became main instruments for shaping and reshaping the characters of individuals and populations in Catholic reformers’ pedagogy. Catholic activists favoured these theories of habit (e.g. of W. James, J. Dewey, F.W. Foerster, A. Eymieu, J. Payot) that conveyed an optimistic view of a human being as capable of change, but equally appealing was their proposition of (self)development as an accumulative process of gradual alternations, which reduced the occurrence of a rupture or revolution. In this way it was possible for reformers to reconcile a conceptualisation of human (female) character as instilled in time, and therefore open to intervention through personal exertions, with both Catholic dogma as well as the conservative agenda of the social groups they belonged to.

Second, the engagement with the notion of routinized conduct triggered investigation into the persistent presence of forms of religious expression that had arisen in different historical contexts and remained popular among turn of the century laywomen. This investigation led reformers to conclude that numerous women habitually reached out to pious practices that had long since lost relevance for contemporaries’ sensibilities, or societal and economic problems. The unearthing of the ambiguous powers of habit, its potential for bringing about stagnation and renewal, paved the way for Catholic activists to advocate replacement of such outdated routinized forms of religious expression with a new habitus of conveying piety that would answer the requirements and challenges of the period. The new templates for expressing pious women’s convictions and religious belonging favoured an intellectual instead of an emotional approach to faith and, moreover, included among the legitimate and up to date forms of articulating personal devotion a new habitus of modernized household work, professionalized and rationally designed collective participation of laywomen in the public sphere as well
Although the unfolding woman’s question, the rise of nationalism or the secular-religious conflicts should be taken into consideration as a critical background of the turn of the century Catholic female laity’s activism (and have been rightly so in available scholarship), the research on laywomen’s “turn to habit” opens interpretations of their actions within a new explanatory framework previously not applied. Interpreting the reforms of the Catholic turn of the century female laity as part of a broader turn of the century fascination with habitualized conduct allowed me to rupture a prescriptive link between the preoccupation with domesticity and religion among pious social activists and their assumed objective of maintaining the status quo. In a context in which women could only formally engage with theology, philosophy and science in limited ways, paying attention to those parts of the Catholic advice literature that engaged with the phenomenon of habitualized conduct helps to uncover the ways in which the female laity participated in contemporary debates, across differing worldviews and politics, surrounding the plasticity of human behaviour, the emergence of modern governing practices, and the roles of women and religion in the modern polity. Seen from this perspective, the rationale and outcomes of Catholic reforms, as well as the strategies employed to achieve them, cannot be straightforwardly encompassed by the labels conservative or reactionary.
International workshop in November 2017