William & Mary

Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of the Welfare System, 1830-1920

habitsMaureen Fitzgerald has had published her study of the Irish Catholic Sisters and their contributions to charitable care in New York City.

The Sisters' work was tremendously successful in founding charitable organizations in New York City from the famine through the early 20th century. Fitzgerald, Associate Professor in American Studies, argues that it was these nuns' championing of the rights of the poor--especially poor women--that resulted in an explosion of state-supported services and programs.

Unlike Protestant reformers who argued that aid should be meager and provisional (based on means-testing) to avert widespread dependence, Irish-Catholic nuns argued instead that the poor should be aided as an act of compassion. Positioning the nuns' activism as resistance to the cultural hegemony of Protestantism, Fitzgerald contends that Catholic nuns offered strong and unequivocal moral leadership in condemning those who punished the poor for their poverty and unmarried women for sexual transgression. She discusses the communities of women to which the nuns belonged, the class-based hierarchies within the convents, the political power wielded by these female leaders in the city at large, and how, in conjunction with an Irish-Catholic political machine, they expanded public charities in the city on an unprecedented scale.

The volume is part of the series "Women in American History," edited by Anne Firor Scott, Susan Armitage, Susan K. Cahn, and Deborah Gray White.