Many American young people are eager to shed light on and address legacies of repression and toxic masculinity in the United States. And yet, a minority of Catholic young people have been looking to the past for inspiration, adopting older and more traditional practices. Some are drawn to the Latin Mass. Others wear scapulars, or devotional necklaces with religious symbols. Some young Catholic women have taken to wearing chapel veils, or head coverings worn during Mass, that reinforce distinct gender norms and roles much at odds with broader American culture.
The practice of veiling is closely associated with sexual purity and modesty, a way to cover one’s hair to avoid distracting men. Before the Second Vatican Council in 1962, women were required to wear white veils before they were married, as an indication of sexual purity much like the white dress or veil that women still wear when they marry. After marriage, women would switch to black chapel veils, serving of an external symbol of their union.
The Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, was a series of meetings that modernized facets of the Catholic Church. It removed the requirement for women to wear veils during the Latin Mass. Afterwards, the practice of women wearing chapel veils largely died out in the late 1960s and 1970s. While some women never stopped veiling post-Vatican II, often because their families or their congregations continued the practice, many chose to leave veils behind. However, in the last decade, a minority of Catholic women, particularly young millennial Americans, have chosen to voluntarily cover their heads.
As I interviewed women who have readopted the veil, it was clear that many of them see veiling as an appeal to sexual modesty and purity, and as a physical reminder to remain pure. For Magdalena,* a 23-year-old Midwestern college student, “the significance behind the white and cream veil is that it is just a constant reminder of who you want to be—pure. You want to be holy; you want to be chaste.” Helena, a 19-year-old college student, said, “When I wore the veil, it was a reminder to be pure and keep pure thoughts and pure actions only and to be chaste.” For 25-year-old Ruth, the veil calls to mind the importance of sexual purity, and how it reminds her of being the bride of Christ, walking up the aisle to receive Christ in the Eucharist. She said, “You are being pure and just reverent and humbling yourself down for that one hour for Christ, to be His bride in that one hour” of Mass.
This emphasis on sexual purity is, of course, not new. Even as recently as the 1990s and early 2000s, at the height of the American purity movement, many U.S. Catholic churches hosted True Beauty programs designed to reinforce abstinence until marriage for young Catholic women. As one of the program’s studies reads, “It’s time for our teenage girls to understand the gift of their femininity.” True Beauty is part of an umbrella of teachings labeled “purity culture,” which were particularly pronounced in conservative American evangelicalism. These church teachings reinforce a gender binary, ask women to bear the brunt of sexual responsibility, and expect everyone, as author Linda Kay Klein writes, to maintain “absolute sexlessness before marriage.” Klein argues that men are taught their minds are evil while women are taught their bodies are sources of temptation. True Beauty reinforces the same ideology, emphasizing that women are responsible for remaining pure (of sexual thoughts and actions) prior to marriage while also taking on the burden of preventing unwanted sexual attention from men by dressing modestly.
While some women wear veils in a variety of colors, in accordance to changing liturgical seasons, many still uphold the tradition of wearing white veils prior to marriage and black or brown veils after marriage. The white color of the veil is viewed as “a signal of chastity, purity and virginity,” 32-year-old Marisa explained. Clara, also 32, explained how women today can wear the white veil even if they are not virgins. “For me,” she said, “if you wear a white veil, it resembles purity. It resembles virginity. Even if you do not have your virginity still, you can wear that veil to have that significance of virginity and chastity.”
For Lily, a 34-year-old, the veil is a symbol of marital intimacy—”because hair, a sign of beauty, was reserved specifically for her husband.” For 31-year-old Donna, you “sheath your hair because your hair is a very attractive characteristic.” Amelia, age 28, argues this practice does not hide away the woman as a form of shame but rather reserves part of her for her partner. “It’s not that we want to hide those things,” she said, “but we want to keep them sacred potentially if you have the vocation of marriage.” For Amelia, the veil hides the hair just as modest clothing hides the body, so a woman can prevent men from being tempted.
These women hold similar views to some Hasidic Jewish communities, where hair is seen as a sensual aspect of the female body and reserved for her husband. These women wear a headscarf or wig, called a sheitel in Yiddish. Likewise, in some Muslim communities, women wear hijabs for a variety of reasons, including to show pride in their ethnic identity or submission to God, or to maintain modesty from men outside of their families.
Unlike Orthodox Jewish and Muslim communities, where women cover their hair with headscarves or wigs outside of the home, these Catholic women only wear the veil during Mass. But for some of the women I interviewed, the idea of the chapel veil extends to clothing choices worn both inside and outside of worship. They gravitate to long skirts and dresses, clothing that is both feminine and modest. Indeed, the idea of femininity was a common refrain among the women who veiled. Pamela, age 24, said, “It makes you feel more feminine. I feel more feminine in church, and that’s really interesting because it sets you apart in a beautiful way.” It’s a visible identifier to gender. Clara, age 38, celebrates the veil because it urges women to “respect our own bodies but also dressing and acting in a way that invites others to respect us and to uphold our dignity.” She said, “With the veil and dressing modestly, it’s like reserving yourself.”
As 33-year-old Karen explained, “You don’t veil your body or wear modest clothing to hide anything, but you do it because you recognize that sacredness and that dignity and [that] it’s not for everyone.” For some, the modesty provided by the veil in covering their hair is what drew them to veiling in the first place. Rose, age 22, explained that wearing a veil caused her to dress more modesty overall. Rose connected this idea of modesty and preventing sexual attention: “You dress more modestly when you are wearing a veil, so you can’t be objectified.” For 18-year-old Delilah, it’s part of “how women dress so that we’re not tempting men more.”
It’s also a signal to men that they hold traditional beliefs. Twenty-six-year-old Claire said wearing the veil makes women “more attractive” to men. Her boyfriend supports the practice and comments that he likes its “feminine look,” but never forced her to veil. This idea was reiterated by several other women I interviewed, whose partners were attracted to them because the veil showed they shared traditional Catholic beliefs. “If I see someone who is veiling,” Yelena said, “I can pretty much assume they are going to be more traditional, or they are going to think certain things about the liturgy.”
A couple of the women I spoke to said that veiling also signaled that they were in submission to men. Just as observant Catholics submit to the will of God, they believe that a woman should submit to her husband. Not all women make this connection, however, and some consider veiling as a means to assert their own agency over their bodies—a reminder that there are diverse reasons why women veil, just as there is a diverse group of women who have reclaimed the practice in the American Catholic community.
I connected with veiling women through online social media platforms, primarily Facebook, where women looked for support and guidance on the practice. These groups cut across state and professional lines. The women I interviewed live around the country, from Indiana to Arizona, Washington to Massachusetts, and down to Alabama. They worked in a variety of fields, including military, law, healthcare, teaching, and homemaking, to name a few. Some have even mobilized their religious practice to start veiling supply companies—one woman runs a large company out of Minnesota that makes handmade veils and imports from Italy, and another woman runs a company that mails free veils to interested women. All identify as heterosexual, and all but two are white.
One of the big questions I encountered was why this practice was increasing in the past decade. A lot has happened in that time related to women’s identities within the Catholic Church that could be tied to the resurgence of veiling. In January 2021, Pope Francis changed formal church law to explicitly allow women to serve as lectors, read Scripture, and serve on the altar as eucharistic ministers. Women still cannot serve as priests, a role exclusively reserved for men. Expanding the roles of women on the altar pushes back on congregations that want to reserve these roles solely for men, inviting backlash.
The Church has also reinforced the binary between traditional male and female gender roles in the past three years. While Pope Francis commented that gay people are “children of God [and] have a right to a family” in a recent documentary, and states should recognize civil unions in order to protect the rights of gay Catholics under the law, he did not change church law to allow same-sex unions to be recognized by the Church. In June 2019, the Vatican released a statement on transgender individuals, which rejects the idea that gender can diverge from biological sex. This statement, and the 2021 church law reinforcing that woman cannot serve as priests, cement the gender binary and the idea that traditional, distinct roles exist for men and women in the Church.
In the last 10 years, traditional Catholicism has also witnessed increased growth. Conservative parishes celebrating pre-Vatican II traditions have cropped up across the country, along with a “conservative shift” among Catholic priests in the U.S. The growing town of St. Marys, Kansas, also speaks to this trend. St. Marys, which for four decades has been home to a chapter of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), has seen an uptick in conservative Catholics moving to the withdrawn community, where many women wear modest clothing and “abide by the Vatican’s prohibition on birth control,” according to The Atlantic. The Atlantic also reported that some families were drawn to the rural town because they felt isolated by their faith in other communities and worried about sins their children might encounter in the outside world, including teens discovering pornography—not that different from the reasoning behind the True Beauty programs.
The women re-adopting veiling practices in the United States sit at a crossroads between a Church solidifying gender roles and a nation where abortion has become a deeply politicized issue. Women in the Church are all responding to this conflict in unique ways: some are pushing for women’s ordination and recognizing LGBTQ Catholics, while others have invested themselves in more traditional Catholic practices, reclaiming traditional devotional tools.
Will the practice of veiling persist into the future? Will it diminish over time? Will Catholic Church leadership take an explicit stance on this voluntary practice or what it says about gendered identity and what it means to be a Catholic woman? The growth of veiling comes at a critical time in Church history, when some of these women believe traditional sexual and gender ideologies are at risk. As Teresa said, “Traditional values are under attack right now in our world, and I think the voices of opposition against things like traditional family values and modesty and chastity and purity” are growing. Veiling is deeply intertwined with these issues and may be a way to push back against this change in secular American society.
The practice of veiling sheds greater light on how devotional articles—the things that we wear and pray with—affect how women conceive and cultivate their experience of gender and sexuality. The Catholic Church has long influenced the way that young women conceptualize their sexuality and femininity. Veiling will do the same for the next generation of Catholic women growing up surrounded by white lace.
* Names of the women in this article have been changed.
Emma Cieslik is an emerging museum professional based in Washington, D.C., eager to care for and curate the history of religion in the United States and abroad. In particular, she is fascinated by material manifestations of religion and how they intersect with gender and sexuality.