14 November 2010

Heed Ye the Church Ladies!

Fifty-five years ago today, 14 November 1955, the Catholic Women's League launched its "Decency Crusade", descending on Ontario newsstands, drug stores and bookshops in order to end the sale of "corrupted and salacious" material. Theirs was an imported campaign, one that originated with Chicago's Msgr Thomas J. Fitzgerald, Executive Director of the National Organization of Decent Literature, who provided the ladies with a list of 300 objectionable publications.

What titles did they target? To Have and Have Not was one; John O'Hara's Ten North Frederick was another. Works by William Faulkner, John Dos Passos and George Orwell were also deemed indecent. Which ones? Who knows – the League clutched the list to its collective bosom, making certain that the titles remained secret.

Must say, I find the number of publications on their list – an even 300 – to be a bit suspicious. Why not 317? Where some titles bumped to make room for others?

Chair of the League's Education Committee, Mrs George Davis, revealed what she'd been told about the list in a 29 October 1955 Gazette article:

What I find particularly delightful is the image of the robed monsignor – who was also Director of the Council for Catholic Women – watching over a group of ladies ("each of whom must be a mother") as they scanned books in a hunt for salacious material.

It would seem that the Catholic Women's League's efforts weren't appreciated particularly. Their "Decency Crusade" was dubbed "Censorship Crusade" by the press, and it was pointed out that many of the books targeted had not only been "widely read", but were readily available in the local public library. In reaction perhaps, the League revealed the Crusade's new, true purpose. The Canadian Press reported that on the third day women heading out to scour book racks "were told that Communism has a hand in the need for their mission."

The Windsor Daily Star, 17 November 1955

Mrs Davis, who had made no previous mention of the Red Menace, spoke out: "We feel strongly that part of the Communist program is to undermine the thinking of our youth with this low-type literature so that they will become more susceptible to Communist material." The Education Committee Chair added that "exposing a generation of children to this printed smut does not broaden the freedom of our land. It only brings the citizens a step closer to Communism."

It's easy to laugh at the Decency Crusade today – and I do – but it should be pointed out that the League's sway was once significant. This was particularly true in Quebec, where they dictated what sort of bathing suits women could wear.

The Catholic Women's League's Decency Crusade lasted eight days. I imagine they rested on the Sunday.


  1. That's a great cover on To Have and Have Not.

    Gives the whole thing a kind of Tennessee Williams' gorilla/man so-straight-that-it's-gay that-it's-straight-that-it's-gay-again feel.

  2. I see it. Sort of a cross between Brick and Billy Budd.

  3. Enjoyed this slice of the times story. I grew up Catholic in that era, although too young to know or care about the CWL's efforts. A list of 300 books that needed to be kept out of the wrong hands! I can't, for the life of me, think of what they're getting at or how that makes any sense, even in 1955. The bathing suit CWL Seal of Approval is even more unbelievable.

  4. Raised High Church myself. I have my theories as to why the CWL so wanted to keep the list secret, most involving the attraction of the forbidden. Tell some people that they can't read a book and they'll start out on a hunt for what they would've otherwise ignored.

    Pretty much describes everyone I know.