The lives of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and the Nobel Prize winning Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset unfolded a hundred years apart. Both grew up in young, vibrant nations: Elizabeth Seton was a small child during the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and Undset’s Norway became a self-governing, constitutional monarchy in 1905, when she was eighteen. Both lived in optimistic, visionary times.
Elizabeth’s era was characterized by a new and exciting democratic spirit. Economic and social opportunities once determined by class and wealth now seemed limitless, thanks to America’s vast western frontier and the surging energy generated by unfettered capitalism. Undset’s era was equally dynamic: the Industrial Revolution came to Norway about forty years before she was born, forcing a several-thousand-year-old culture based on fishing and small farming to enter the modern world.
But as men scrambled to get their footing in the new, rough-and-tumble entrepreneurial milieu—an arena that valorized competitive warrior virtues over the Christian fruits of the spirit—the care of their consciences was increasingly relegated to their wives, who were meant to stay home and remain strictly out of the fray. Their job was to create a haven for their exhausted husbands at the end of stressful days. And at the center of these sanctuaries were the wives themselves: modest, self-controlled, submissive, self-sacrificial, and of course as beautiful as they could possibly be. As Coventry Patmore put it in his famous poem of 1854, wives were to be the “Angel in the House.” During Undset’s young girlhood in the Victorian era, this strict delineation between the roles of the sexes had come to be known as the “doctrine of separate spheres.”
But there was a competing view of womanhood rapidly gaining ground in both European and American culture. Elizabeth Seton was eighteen when Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women was published. Wollstonecraft’s argument was that women possessed the same natural rights as men, including the right to as much education as they wished to pursue. Whether or not she actually read the book, Elizabeth clearly knew about it; after recording a contemporary historian’s assertion that “women, as well as men, should be admitted to the management of public affairs,” she jotted “Wollstonecraft” in the margin.
Born into a Danish Protestant family and raised in mostly Protestant Norway, Undset, who did not convert to Catholicism until she was forty-two, viewed the feminist movement from an older, more European perspective. Though sympathetic to the cause, Undset was ambivalent; she felt that the insistence by at least some feminists that women had always and everywhere been tyrannized by men was simply wrong. The second class standing of the women of her day—made worse by the promulgators of the angel-in-the-house philosophy or, as she put it, the “dressing-gown and slippers tyranny ” of early nineteenth century Protestant Europe—was relatively new, particularly in Norway. Before capitalism and industrialism, the household had served as a productive and economic hub that required women to be highly skilled and capable of handling a plethora of demanding responsibilities, and they rightly commanded respect for the critical work they did. Those who now insisted that women’s only legitimate role was to spiritually and emotionally prop up those “mock heroes who slouched about their homes trying to assert authority over their womenfolk,” as Undset scornfully referred to such husbands, were completely blind to the great gifts women had to offer the world.
The fact that neither Elizabeth nor Undset seemed attracted to the fantasy role of household angel may have had something to do with their fathers, who were both brilliant, highly educated, creative men who encouraged them to read and learn and develop intellectually. However, both men died when their daughters were young—Elizabeth was twenty-six and Undset only eleven—and neither left them any sort of estate. Marriage did not improve their financial situations. Elizabeth’s husband, a kind man but a failure at business, succumbed to tuberculosis before she was thirty, leaving “his five darlings and [herself] wholly dependent.” She was then faced with the necessity of making a living.
Undset’s husband, Anders Svarstad, though a gifted artist who made good money from the sale of his paintings, sold so few of them and so adamantly refused to get another job that, early on, she had to assume the role of breadwinner. When they eventually divorced, she became the sole parent of their three children, one plagued with uncontrollable epilepsy, plus the part-time mother of Svarstad’s children from his first marriage, including his mentally ill son.
Though both Elizabeth Seton and Sigrid Undset quietly assumed what the doctrine of separate spheres would have called the “male role” when they became heads of busy and complicated households, neither seems to have done it for feminist reasons. Instead, both found their strength and inspiration in a traditional institution that the feminists of their times largely denigrated as hopelessly patriarchal and outmoded—even dangerous. One American feminist summed up the prevailing attitude quite bluntly: “The worst enemy women have is in the pulpit.”
Both chose, at significant social cost, to become Catholic.
Elizabeth’s much-admired Episcopalian pastor and mentor, John Henry Hobart, wrote her an eighty-page letter condemning her attraction to such a “corrupt and sinful communion.” He warned her that if she became Catholic, she could wind up separating herself from society, “a society which in times past was her solace and her enjoyment.” Undset’s conversion in 1924 was so shocking as to be considered scandalous, and from then on, she was the target of wide-spread anti-Catholic prejudice and attacks on her character by the Norwegian intelligentsia. In response, Undset took up a vigorous defense of the Church, explaining why she felt supported rather than constrained by the ancient version of Christianity that had prevailed in Europe until the Reformation:
“As long as Catholicism was the dominating element in the intellectual life of Europe, a woman who really had a contribution to make to the spiritual life of her time was given an opportunity to do so. Even such spheres of work as in general were looked upon as the property of men were not closed to those women who really had the power to accomplish something in them.”
In the end, it was not feminism but Catholicism that gave these women the courage and conviction to follow clear callings from God—in Elizabeth’s case, creating, managing, and spiritually directing a new religious congregation; in Undset’s, writing the Medieval sagas that won her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 for her novel, Kristen Lavransdatter. Both longed for much more solitude and silence than was remotely possible, given their large, complicated families. Both fell into self-doubt at times. Could they really hold up under all the weight they were trying to carry? One thing did not much trouble them, however: the assertion of American feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton that “self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.”
Why? Because each of them believed that motherhood in its most generous and capacious form was her primary vocation—and motherhood was a calling that required self-sacrifice. In addition, both of them found an exemplar in Mary. Shortly after losing her husband in Italy, Elizabeth came upon the Memorare, St. Bernard’s prayer to the Blessed Virgin, writing to a friend that now she really “had a Mother, which you know my foolish heart often lamented to have lost in early days.” Finding this maternal presence she’d been seeking all her life helped Elizabeth to identify her own deepest calling, which was to “assist the poor, visit the sick, comfort the sorrowful, clothe little innocents, and teach them to love God!” No surprise, then, that the women of her community quite naturally called her “Mother.”
Undset invested enormous energy in building the kind of home in which young people might flourish, not only for her children and stepchildren, her nieces and nephews, but also for young Finnish refugees during the Winter War with the Nazis in 1939, the Catholic children who studied in her home before they were confirmed, and the nine different families in her parish she supported in order that their hungry children might learn and grow despite their privations. As a Dominican tertiary, Undset said the Rosary each day and recited the Little Office of the Virgin Mary, devotions that could help explain the high standard she set for herself in regard to motherhood: “There’s nothing better a woman can be than a good mother, and nothing worse than a bad one.”
Elizabeth Seton and Sigrid Undset were able to become feminist icons without becoming feminist ideologues, intellectuals who condemned childbearing and motherhood as physiologically enslaving. Instead, the two of them drew their strength from their Catholicism. As Elizabeth put it, “[My Catholic faith] has been my wealth in poverty, and my joy in deepest afflictions.”
PAULA HUSTON, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellow, is the author of two novels and eight nonfiction titles. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines. She taught writing and literature at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and creative nonfiction for the Master of Fine Arts program at Seattle Pacific University. A wife, mother, and grandmother, she is an oblate (lay member), of a Camaldolese Benedictine monastic community in Big Sur, California. Her latest book, a history of that community, is called The Hermits of Big Sur. An updated version of her award-winning One Ordinary Sunday: A Meditation on the Mystery of the Mass, is forthcoming from Liturgical Press in August of 2024.
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