The Status of Women: Two American Catholic Women at the UN, 1947-1972

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Joseph S. Rossi SJ, The Catholic Historical Review, April 1, 2007, © The Catholic University of America

"From the late 1940's until the American bishops closed their United Nations Office in 1972, Catherine Schaefer and Alba Zizzamia, two American lay women, served as both National Catholic Welfare Conference UN Observers and Catholic Non-Governmental Organization representatives for the World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations. This article discusses their creation and leadership of a circle of Catholic NGOs at the UN, many of them women, that developed strategies for promoting Roman Catholic teachings on issues of concern for women, and delves into their successes and failures in matters such as the family, marriage and divorce, child and adult education, prostitution, equal pay, birth control, and the status of women in the developing nations.

In an August 1947 memorandum to Monsignor Howard J. Carroll, General Secretary of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC), Miss Catherine Schaefer, (1) appointed Carroll's Assistant for United Nations Affairs in October 1946, included the following paragraph: 

Special assistance in supplying documentation and day-to-day
information has been given to ... the National Council of Catholic
Women [NCCW], and other interested departments of the National
Catholic Welfare Conference, on the matter of consultative
relationships [Non-Governmental Organization or NGO status] of
international organizations with the [UN's] Economic and Social
Council [ECOSOC]. In the latter connection, as consultant to the
National Council of Catholic Women International Relations Committee,
the Assistant to the General Secretary, NCWC, for United Nations
Affairs [i.e., Schaefer herself] spoke before the ECOSOC Commission on
the Status of Women, on the competence of the International Union of
Catholic Women's Leagues [IUCWL] to serve in this consultative
capacity. (2)

The same report documents that the IUCWL, whose headquarters were in the Netherlands, and another international Catholic organization with "the reliability and fitness ... to make a contribution to ECOSOC," namely, the International Union of Catholic Social Service (IUCSS), had already been granted consultative NGO status with the Economic and Social Council. This permitted the IUCWL, the first international Catholic organization to be so recognized, to submit memoranda to ECOSOC on matters within its competence. (3)

Schaefer was appointed one of the first ECOSOC consultants from IUCWL. This designation was apropos, because it was due to her intervention as the UN consultant from the National Council of Catholic Women, the US affiliate of IUCWL, that the IUCSS had achieved NGO status. Schaefer had been the clear choice for the IUCWL consultant, both because of her familiarity with women's issues and because she was already the NCWC Observer, mandated by the American bishops to monitor and lobby the UN. (4)

From the start, Schaefer moved with great ease and authority within women's circles at the UN, Catholic or otherwise. Within her first year (1946-47) as NCWC Observer, she spoke at several conferences on women's rights, most notably the Inter-American Commission of Women and the Commission on the Status of Women, the latter established by the United Nations in 1946. (5) She also addressed conventions of American women's groups, such as the Biennial Convention of the National Council of Catholic Women, the Supreme Directorate of the Catholic Daughters of America, the Institute on Women in Industry, the Catholic Women's Club of New York, and the Saint Paul's Junior Guild. (6) In a prescient comment during the summer of 1947, she remarked on the potential for Catholic influence at the United Nations, anticipating that

As Catholics within the United Nations get to know each other better,
and as Catholic organizations, such as the International Union of
Catholic Women's Leagues ... are admitted to consultative
relationships with the Economic and Social Council, the utility of
NCWC's Office for U.N. Affairs should increase, in the informational,
liaison and other assistance it may be able to render, and in its
efforts to integrate Catholic principles into the formal action and
atmosphere of the United Nations and of international life.... (7)

In no other aspect of the work of the UN Office would Schaefer and her assistant, Alba Zizzamia, (8) better integrate their duties and priorities on behalf of the NCWC, Catholic social thought, and the rights of women internationally than with their roles as UN consultants or NGOs from the IUCWL. Schaefer recounted that by 1948 the volume of work at the NCWC Office during its second year of operation had increased significantly. Her official explanation for the greater workload was that the United Nations in its second year was developing a sense of itself and its obligations with regard to global peace and security; in fact, it was her NGO duties, which demanded "actual participation in the work of the various [UN] Commissions" and required expanded contacts with other Catholic international groups and organizations, that accounted for the expanded workload. (9) In time Alba Zizzamia would take on responsibilities not only as an IUCWL consultant, but also as the National Council of Catholic Women representative at meetings of UN-related associations such as "Women United for the United Nations." But it was as an NGO, not an NCWC Observer, that she covered most of the meetings of the eleven ECOSOC commissions, including its Commission on the Status of Women. (10)

The achievements of Schaefer and Zizzamia as Catholic women NGOs in the late 1940's were extraordinary. As liaisons between the NCWC and the IUCWL, they laid the groundwork for what would become an enduring alliance with various Catholic NGOs, many of them women's organizations. By the fall of 1947 the UN Office had initiated correspondence with all Catholic NGOs. Schaefer then secured representation from each of these for a preliminary ICO (International Catholic Organizations) meeting hosted by the NCWC. At those sessions, she briefed them for an NGO Conference in September sponsored by the UN's Department of Public Information. At a subsequent meeting of all NGO representatives in New York, Schaefer represented the IUCWL as its consultant. This interim conference resolved to hold a summit of all international organizations at Geneva in May 1948, where Schaefer once again represented the IUCWL. Her election as a delegate was a singular honor, for she was chosen by her forty-two NGO peers to be one of only eight delegates to go to Geneva. There, she was appointed to the Ad Hoc Committee that prepared the agenda, and she was credited with securing acceptance of Human Rights, especially the rights of women, as a "discussion theme." (11)

During the New York discussions, Schaefer had kept Catholic NGOs in Europe apprised of the progress being made, so that they would be adequately briefed for Geneva. Through such preparedness, it was anticipated that the Catholics would be able to interject their proposals and principles into the crucial debates. Schaefer would later verify that "Catholic principles were generally well accepted by the representatives of the 200 organizations" at Geneva. The capstone of all her preliminary work for both New York and Geneva, however, was her selection as IUCWL representative to the Interim Committee of Non-Governmental Organizations that was to consider future relations among all NGOs. The members of this committee also were charged with preparing an agenda for the NGO Conference to be held the following year. (12)

After her return from Geneva, Schaefer found that her principal work as a consultant centered on the work of three ECOSOC commissions: the Commissions on Social Affairs, on Human Rights, and especially on the Status of Women. They were, she noted conscientiously, "fully attended and reported in the capacity of Consultant for the IUCWL." But Schaefer, and later Zizzamia, did not merely attend and report on these sessions; "interventions" were made in each, especially the Commissions on the Status of Women and Human Rights. In 1948 and 1949, these interventions pertained chiefly to the suppression of commercial prostitution and venereal diseases in the Third World, the efforts of Catholics and others against divorce, and the wording in the draft document of the UN's International Declaration of Human Rights on the rights of parents regarding the education of their children. (13) Schaefer's intervention against the inclusion of divorce into the human rights document was ultimately eliminated from the Draft Declaration, but her interventions on behalf of the rights of parents in their children's education, especially in opposition to the power of the state, precipitated, at the very least, vehement discussion among the members, and her labors in recognition of Catholic mission schools in the UN Trust Territories motivated a majority of committee members to incorporate into the final draft an article that "did not infringe on the right of parents to send their children to schools of their own choice." (14)

The United Nations Commission drafted the first international covenant on human rights after the UN General Assembly had adopted the International Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Subsequently, the covenant had to be ratified by the General Assembly, and afterward by individual member states; only then would it become legally binding on the UN signatories. Schaefer and Zizammia would fight doggedly for endorsement of this covenant. (15) Of particular interest to them were the sections dealing with genocide, freedom of information and a code of ethics for journalists, discrimination, refugees and stateless persons, and the status of women. They were particularly successful in the final category. (16)
There were in 1949-50 still twenty countries in the world where women did not have the right to vote, or had restricted suffrage. Schaefer, as an NGO member of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, was in the forefront of those who supported proposals to the Commission on Human Rights for an international convention on political rights for women, and for an international convention to resolve conflicts "in various systems of law as to the nationality of married women." (17) Other matters concerning the status of women in which Schaefer and Zizzamia were profoundly involved were equal pay for equal work, political education, and equal educational opportunities for women, especially in underdeveloped and UN Trust Territories. Recognition of the professional status of nursing and legal protection of that status, and the conferring of responsible positions in UN technical assistance programs on women were also subjects of concern. (18) Schaefer and Zizzamia also made notable "Catholic" recommendations to the Commission on Human Rights about the role of women's social progress in relation to family welfare.

In hindsight, it is now evident how Schaefer and Zizzamia, through their advocacy of equal status for women at the UN, fused together most effectively their roles as NCWC Observer and IUCWL consultant. This can be seen in a 1950-51 NCWC report, in which Schaefer reviewed her staff's "Work at the UN with Regard to Particular Questions." That year she and Zizzamia had made an intervention to the Commission on the Status of Women in the name of the IUCWL. This presentation was based on Zizzamia's observations during an IUCWL inspection trip to Africa the previous summer. In this capacity, Zizzamia proposed the introduction of legal safeguards for monogamous marriage in certain African territories controlled by the UN, where polygamous marriages and analogous social and economic practices were abusive and degrading to the dignity of women. The chairwoman of the Commission on the Status of Women, who in another capacity was concerned with circumstances in French territories in Sub-Saharan Africa, expressed particular gratitude for these proposals and told the NCWC of her intention to use them in her work for Trust Territories. (19)

In 1951, Schaefer addressed the UN Population Commission and the Ad Hoc Committee on Slavery. She was also a member of the Advisory Committee of Non-Governmental Organizations to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Through her work with this committee, and the Board of UNICEF itself, she sought to prevent the recognition of this advisory committee as the sole means through which NGOs could have consultative status with UNICEF. In other words, she argued for direct access by NGO representatives to UNICEF's executive board. (20)

During this same period, Schaefer attended the White House Conference on Children as observer for the IUCWL. Correspondence and exchanges of information between the IUCWL International Secretariat in the Netherlands and NCWC headquarters in Washington, D.C., continually passed through her New York office. Memoranda on many UN subjects, questionnaires, and other bits of intelligence were exchanged between the UN Office and an IUCWL affiliate, the International Committee for the Protection of Young Girls. This flurry of correspondence focused on the drafting of the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. All this United Nations NGO information was, of course, shared with interested departments at NCWC. (21)

In 1952, the International Union of Catholic Women's Leagues was re-titled the World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations (WUCWO). It also moved its headquarters from the Netherlands to Paris, so as to be in closer proximity to the cluster of UN offices in the French capital. Catherine Schaefer, however, remained its principal NGO representative. If anything, she and her staff became even more immersed in Catholic/UN women's issues. In the "Work with International Organizations" section of her 1953 report, Schaefer notes the astonishing integration of her duties as NCWC Observer and WUCWO consultant.

Much of the time of the Office staff is devoted to representation of
the World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations (its American
affiliate is the National Council of Catholic Women), which is one of
the organizations having consultative status with the Economic and
Social Council and its commissions, and to assistance to other
Catholic groups having such status. This Consultative status is given
only to international organizations. It permits the submission of
written and oral statements and other methods of direct cooperation
and influence. (22)


On June 30, 1972, in a controversial decision, the NCCB/USCC closed its UN Office, believing incorrectly that the Holy See's Permanent Observer Mission now rendered an official American Catholic presence at the UN diplomatically unnecessary, and prohibitively expensive. With this, Catherine Schaefer retired to her home in Washington, D.C., after five decades of service to the Catholic Church. She died in 1995 after a long illness. Alba Zizzamia would go on to work for the Archdiocese of New York as its Director of Justice and Peace, retiring from that post in 1996. 

In that early summer of 1972, Schaefer and Zizammia could look back with humble satisfaction on a quarter-century of extraordinary service as UN observers/consultants. They had been among the first NGOs to put forth women's rights as a topic for UN discussion, even before formal deliberations began on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. During three crucial decades of UN history, they had been the earliest and foremost spokespersons for the "Catholic circle" on the matters of divorce, prostitution, polygamy, child betrothal and marriage, venereal disease, the rights of parents in the education of their children, and equal pay, political education, and equal educational opportunities for women, especially in the developing nations. In these matters, they had many notable successes, such as women's education, and more than a few failures, particularly divorce, but soaring over all these efforts was one undoubted achievement, their creation and cultivation of the group of Catholic NGOs, many of them women's organizations, that worked so cohesively to present the Catholic voice on human rights, social affairs, and the status of women in the UN. The journal Commonweal said it best: they had "conscientiously sought to fashion a Christian response to the problems and decisions of the UN itself." (65)

The struggle for the Christian response to international women's rights would now be taken up by these other Catholic NGOs, many of whom Schaefer and Zizzamia had tutored over the years. In 1977, this group would constitute itself officially as the Conference of International Catholic Organizations. (66)"

 

Extracts from an article by Joseph S Rossi SJ*, ‘The Status of Women: Two American Catholic Women at the UN, 1947-1972’, The Catholic Historical Review, April 1, 2007, © The Catholic University of America Press.  If you would like to know more about Catherine Schaefer and her influential work at the UN, we highly recommend Joseph S. Rossi’s book  - Uncharted Territory: The American Catholic Church at the United Nations, 1946-1972 (The Catholic University Press of America, 2006).

*Father Rossi is an associate professor in the Department of Theology in Loyola College in Maryland, Baltimore.

(1) Born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Catherine Schaefer joined the Social Action Department of the NCWC immediately upon graduating from Trinity College in Washington, D.C., in 1927. In the 1930's she earned a master's degree in economics and international relations from the Catholic University of America. For many years she served as Secretary of the Catholic Association for International Peace. She was the first and only director of the NCWC Office of United Nations Affairs, appointed to that position by its Administrative Board in 1946.
(2) Archives of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (ANCWC): International Affairs: United Nations: Office for UN Affairs: "Report of the N.C. W.C. Office for U.N. Affairs, October 1, 1946-August 1, 1947," Schaefer to Carroll [New York], August 1947, p. 2.
(3) Ibid., pp. 1-2.
(4) Archives of the United States Catholic Conference-National Conference of Catholic Bishops (AUSCC-NCCB): Departmental Committees: International Affairs: UN: 1967, "Office for UN Affairs," Enclosure with Dougherty to Tanner, [South Orange, New Jersey], April 18, 1967, pp. 1-2.
(5) Edward J. Gratsch, The Holy See and the United Nations, 1945-1995 (New York, 1997), pp. 112-113.
(6) ANCWC: International Affairs: United Nations: Office for UN Affairs: "Report of the N.C. W.C. Office for U.N. Affairs: October 1, 1946-August 1, 1947," pp. 4-5.
(7) Joseph Rossi, American Catholics and the Formation of the United Nations, [Melville Studies in Church History, 4] (Lanham, Maryland, 1993), p. 36.
(8) Alba Zizzamia was born in Hartford, Connecticut and taught in the public schools there. At the time of her appointment to the UN Office in 1948, she was an Associate Professor of Italian Literature at Trinity College, Washington, D.C. The holder of a doctoral degree from the University of Rome, she was a noted translator of Italian classics. Her acquaintance with several young clerical diplomats at the Apostolic Delegation in Washington would ultimately serve her well during her stint at the UN Office.
(9) ANCWC: International Affairs: United Nations: Office for UN Affairs: "Report of N.C.W.C. Office for U.N. Affairs: August 1, 1947-August 1, 1948," Schaefer to Carroll, [New York], pp. 1-2.
(10) Ibid., pp. 3-4.
(11) Ibid., p. 7.
(12) Ibid., pp. 7-8.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Ibid., p. 8;
(15) ANCWC: International Affairs: United Nations: UN Office: Annual Report: 1950: NCWC Office for United Nations Affairs and Bureau of Information (Washington, D.C. Printed by the Administrative Board: NCWC, but not for Publication, 1950), p. 13.
(16) Ibid., p. 14.
(17) Jean Gartlan, The Story of the NCWC/USCC Office for United Nations Affairs, 1946-1972 (Baltimore, 1998), p. 102.
(18) Ibid., pp. 14-15; ANCWC: International Affairs: United Nations: UN Office: Annual Report: 1951: NCWC Office for United Nations Affairs and Bureau of Information (Washington, D.C. Printed but not for Publication by the Administrative Board: NCWC, 1951), p. 23.
(19) Ibid., p. 35.
(20) Ibid., p. 38.
(21) Ibid., pp. 37-38.
(22) ANCWC: International Affairs: United Nations: UN Office: Annual Report: 1953: NCWC Office for United Nations Affairs and Bureau of Information (Washington, D.C. Printed by the Administrative Board: NCWC, but not for Publication, 1953), p. 8.
(65) Commonweal, November 5, 1971, pp. 123-124.
(66) Joseph Rossi, Uncharted Territory: The American Catholic Church at the United Nations, 1946-1972 (Washington, D.C., 2006), pp. 226-242.
Rossi, Joseph S.