Linda Wirth

Glimpses of the life of ICMICA during the last 40 years discloses the important, though often little-noticed, the contribution of its women members to the building up of what ICMICA is today. Over the years they may not perhaps have figured prominently as authors of the many texts that have been written, as participants in the numerous meetings that have taken place nationally, regionally and internationally, or as elected office bearers in the various levels of the organization of ICMICA throughout the world. At times even the history of ICMICA can seem to read like ‘his-story’. Nevertheless, since its foundation women have been active, albeit in small numbers, in ICMICA groups, giving their professional expertise and Christian agape to the task at hand. In a social and Church environment which often hindered women’s access to responsible positions, a certain number of women were able, from the beginning, to commit themselves to lead the movement at different times and at different levels. There have usually been women as members of the ICMICA Council.

At this point, we must give tribute to those women who have been a fundamental part of the history of ICMICA and who have contributed many long years of generous and deeply committed service to the International Movement. In particular, we mention Charlotte Andrey, working now for 28 years in the international secretariat and Helene Morren, editor of the Pax Romana Journal, CONVERGENCE for 12 years. They are true representatives of the work of their counterparts and of women the world over; a work which is very often insufficiently recognized and enumerated, and yet a work which is essential for the daily survival and dignity of all humankind. They are also real witnesses to the spirit of faith Christ has taught us, a faith which calls forth the best in each and everyone to be put at the service of building a better world for the future generations, a world where the Kingdom (Queendom?) of God, who is our Father and our Mother is ever-present through the achievement of a just peace for all.

Recent years have witnessed a growing awareness and action to bring the issue of women’s role in society and in the Church to the fore in ICMICA’s activities. This has been explicitly manifested in the election at the London Assembly in 1983 of the first women ever as President of ICMICA, Manuela Silva.

At that same Assembly, there was the decision to initiate a project on women within the movement. This was acted upon by the International team in 1984 with the result that the project was launched with the title of “The Participation of Professional Women in Development and Societal Change – Present and Potential Role”.

The aim of the project was to examine how women as a group fit into the overall framework of ICMICA’s concerns and scope of action and to propose appropriate strategies to be taken up by Christian professional women in general and ICMICA in particular.

A particular concern of the project was to take a look at the actual ‘participation’ of women in general, and professional women in particular, in the societies in which they live and In the development process. By means of a questionnaire sent to all the national federations and movements, as well as to individual women, an effort was made to obtain concrete and recent data accompanied by reflection on this subject.

Areas covered include: national development policy, planning, and implementation; the concept of development as understood from the point of view of women; needs of women and obstacles encountered in the fields of employment, health, food, education, housing, rural development, science and technology, and water; economic, political and cultural participation of women; the educational system and its preparation of women for the participation of women in society; participation of women in the different professions; participation of women in religion and church. The questionnaire also attempted to make some assessment of the situation of women in relation to national legislation as well as some evaluation of the effects of the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985). Principal axis was the nature of the relationship between professional women and poor women in the different societies in the context of educations and development; the role of Christian women in the various professions, especially in view of the widespread existence of occupational segregation both horizontally and vertically; and the specific participation of professional women to achieve societal change.

The overwhelmingly positive response to this questionnaire, which indeed was very comprehensive, covering most of the fields where women face discrimination, indicated the great interest that there is in this subject. The questionnaire provoked a great deal of reflection and analysis among women themselves as well as with the national federations, movements, and groups. This was followed up by the ICMICA seminar in early 1985 held in Oar es Salaam on the same theme. There were 60 participants, the great majority being women, coming from 26 countries of which 18 were from the third world.

In the opening session, of the seminar, Manuela Silva stressed that ICMICA’s involvement in this field was not a new one: “being deeply involved in areas where justice, freedom, and peace are at stake, ICMICA groups are concerned with all forms of discrimination and all potentialities for building up more human societies”.

During the seminar 27 papers were presented by the participants, providing the starting point for the discussion which followed in the different areas. A report printed later in the year contains a summary of all these as well as a selected number of papers. One of the main conclusions of the seminar was that women contribute significantly to the development process through their labor in the home and at the workplace. However, universally, their participation in policymaking, priority setting, and implementation in development programs is practically non-existent. Deeply felt and strongly expressed throughout the seminar was the injustice of the “double day” of the majority of the world’s women, whereby women work as food producers and processors or in paid labor as well as bear most of the responsibility for child care and household maintenance. It was reiterated that this reality has far-reaching consequences for women to be able to participate fully in educational, social, and political programs and to exercise a profession or trade at higher levels of responsibility. Therefore the fundamental issue that has to continue to be addressed again and again is that of the sexual division of labor in both productive and reproductive spheres of life. This is an issue that touches all areas of life, all relationships, all institutions, and all organisations. With the growing awareness and action on behalf of women throughout the world, the Church in general and ICMICA in particular are, in the years to come, bound to be responding to this question in regard to the orientation and organisation of their future activities.

It was with this preoccupation in mind and in response to the desire to keep up the network of women in ICMICA that had been created, that ICMICA continued its work on the question of women with the development of another project during 1986-87 on the role of laywomen in the mission of the Church in the world and in the Church itself. The project was launched at a time when the Church was preparing for the 1987 Bishops’ Synod on the “Vocation and Mission of the Laity in the Church and in the World 20 years after Vatican II. One of the aims of the project was to make a contribution to these preparations through the meeting of the International Catholic Organisations on Women in the Church which took place In Brussels in June 1987.

It is interesting to note here that while there are very few specific references in conciliar documents to the participation of women in the Church and its mission in the world, some of them can be encouraging for those striving to eliminate discrimination against women. Even before the Vatican II Council, Pope John XXIII recognised that women’s struggle for justice and wholeness ought to be recognised by the Church. In his encyclical Pacem in Terris, the pope remarked that “signs of our times are: “the economic and social advancement of the working classes, the equality of colonial peoples and races, and the participation of women in public life”. The Council went further and applied this to the participation of women in the Church, saying: “Since in our times women have an ever more active share in the whole life of society, it is very important that they participate more widely in the various fields of the church’s apostolate” (1). Gaudium and Spes(9) states: “Nevertheless with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion, is to overcome and eradicated as contrary to God”s intent”. The Dogmatic Const1tut1on of the Church declares that: “by divine institution, Holy Church is structured and_ gover_n ed with a wonderful diversity”‘. It goes on to say that: “Hence there 1s in Christ and 1n the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality social condition or sex”(32). We can also recall here a statement from the 1971 Synod of Bishops: “While the Church is bound to give witness to justice, it recognises that anyone who ventures to speak about justice must first be just in their eyes. Hence we must undertake an examination of the modes of acting, of the possessions and lifestyle found within the Church itself”(2).


To go back to the project, its main aims were to examine and appraise the role of Christian women in the mission of the Church and the participation of laywomen in the Church and to reflect on the rote of ICMICA in this regard. Consultations were carried out among ICMICA members and the results were summarised in a paper prepared for the 1987 Plenary Assembly in Rome. One of the main observations was that the movement of women into all domains of public life does not find adequate recognition in the life of our Church. The consequences of this are many and contribute to an impoverishment Of spirituality. theological reflection and service of the Church. Lay professional women, in particular, find limited scope within the Church to contribute their expertise and their experiences in societal institutions. At the same time, they do not receive the support and inspiration they require to exercise their professional activities, as well as maintain their social and family commitments and responsibilities. Often laywomen experience a double marginalisation in the Church : as laypersons and as women.

While some steps have been taken in some places to involve women more actively in the Church, a great deal remains to be done to ensure that their talents and capacities are fully recognised. ICMICA has an important role to play in helping Christian professional women to get together in order to reflect and work out strategies to improve the quality of their own participation as well as that of other women In the mission of the Church. One challenge very much related to the identity of ICMICA is to develop a reflection on the role of Christian women in the various professions in which they are found to be working today and identify strategies they might undertake to improve the situation of women in those professions, as well as to assist women generally. ICMICA also faces the challenge of ensuring equal representation of women in its own activities in the coming years.

(1) Decree on Apostolate of the Laity 111.9.

(2) Justice in the World, 40

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Linda Wirth-Dominice (Australia) was a member of the IMCS International Team from 1978-1982. She then worked with ICMICA on a women’s project before taking several leadership roles in the International Labor Organization on questions related to work and gender.

Originally published in Pax Romana, Mémoire et Espérance, Memory and Hope, Memoria y Esperanza: 1947-1987 : Pax Romana MIIC-ICMICA. (Geneva: Secrétariat général Pax Romana, 1987).