My husband says I’m a feminist. I know many liberal feminists would recoil in horror at that assessment: After all, I have all these kids, and I’m a member in good standing with that horrible old misogynistic Church, with its oppressive rules about reproduction and obedience. I’m pro-life and wholeheartedly follow the Magisterium’s teaching on the male priesthood and contraception, and try to make the Blessed Virgin my model.
So what makes me a feminist? Some would say that all faithful Catholics are feminists, because the Church is the most pro-woman organization around: The Church honors and values the particular gifts of women, and demands that men treat women with dignity and even a little bit of fear. John Paul II famously called himself a “feminist pope”; and in practical terms, the Church has probably done more for the physical well-being of women around the world than any other charitable organization.
Catholics who are feminists recognize that, while so many true wrongs have been righted in the last 50 years, the poor treatment of women in America has just been displaced, not eradicated. So now, instead of corsets and disenfranchisement, we have widespread pornography, abortion, and abandonment of every kind. We have gained some necessary ground, but lost so much else that is valuable in the process. Most of my Catholic friends see the world this way.
But are all faithful Catholics feminists?
I think that definition is far too broad. Some women just fall naturally into their roles, and don’t think about it at all. Maybe, as off-putting as it sounds, a feminist is always someone who feels some distress or dissatisfaction with the way women are treated—someone who agitates for change.
There were already over three dozen comments below the piece, but I couldn't even read them, because I had to go to the dentist. Luckily, it was just a routine cleaning, but still! Why couldn't I have gone to the dentist on one of those boring days when everyblogger, myself included, seems to have the "Dull" button stuck on overdrive? Simcha Fisher throws down the lace gauntlet among a reading audience which includes people who think women pollute the sanctuary and should cover themselves head to toe in various types of drapery every day, and I have to go out?
Life can be so unfair.
My dental hygienist is a really nice Christian woman. She's much more outwardly feminine than I am, with her blond hair, pretty earrings, gentle conversation, and sweet personality. She told me about her garden today, with plants she's started from seeds (all but the tomatoes, that is). And about the mama deer with two babies in tow who has been hanging around the garden and getting rather aggressive. And how she was warned that a mama deer can get to the point of actually attacking humans, and how her young son helps her in the garden...so that was when, in her sweet, gentle voice, she mentioned that she's been taking her pistol with her when she does her gardening, and how she really, really hopes it will never be necessary, and how the high-pressure water hose will probably be enough to deter Mama Deer from getting too riled up...but if not...well, she'd hate to do it, because there are those two deer babies...but still...
I wonder how many sweet, gentle-voiced Christian pioneer women routinely employed the family shotgun to keep the deer out of the young, tender plants of the house garden?
To me, the initial burst of feminism, which focused on women's rights to vote, to own property in their own names, and to be treated legally and otherwise as fully human beings in their own right, is perfectly compatible with the Christian understanding of womanhood. In Genesis, after all, the word used to describe what Eve is to be to Adam is often translated "helpmeet." Scholars disagree (as biblical scholars usually do) about exactly what the original Hebrew words are supposed to mean, but they do know that it conveys a couple of ideas: Eve is an opposite to Adam, but she helps him; her role is to help him. Not wait on him slavishly or put up with abuse or bad treatment; not act like a queen and expect him to rush around and wait on her and fulfill her most outlandish whims: help him.
It is unfortunate that this idea of woman was ever twisted in such a way as to create a reality in which women were seen as secondary, second-class, or second-rate. But it was. It is one thing to say that women and men are supposed to be helping each other according to their unique gifts and abilities in the primary duty of all human beings, namely, to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him in the next, and quite another turn it into a mandate requiring women not only to accept that men see them as inferior beings, but even to think of themselves that way, and to insist that a true understanding of God and His plan for women really does mean that women are and must be inferior to men, as too many Christian churches tell their female adherents in word and deed even today, and as society in general told women for generations.
If we don't understand that feminism began as a reaction against such an un-Christian idea of women as a sort of unhappy afterthought of God's which made it the duty of men to keep them in their place, we will never understand why we are where we are today.
But the Christian feminist can't just stop there. She can't point to the many real ills of the past, and, indeed, in some societies, of the present, and use these as a justification to attack her own female nature, to hate men, to kill unborn children or agitate for their killing, or in other ways to create an even greater rift between men and women than there was before.
The goal of Christian feminism should be a return to the idea of balance, of men and women as equal partners and helpmeets to each other in this work of knowing, loving, and serving God, in a relationship in which neither is exploited, hated, or dismissed, and neither is a tyrant or a despot, but both are respected and loved for their whole selves, including their masculinity or femininity.
Such a vision of men and women as balanced and equal partners does not mean that we have to erase real gender differences or roles; we don't have to wish for women to be priests or for men to receive artificial wombs and give birth. It does, however, mean that we have to stop thinking and acting as though people who don't share our gender are automatically incapable in huge areas; we have to be willing to examine our own consciences and remove those knee-jerk ways in which we think of the opposite gender as somehow intrinsically inferior. For a man, this might mean stopping such thoughts as, "She writes pretty well, for a woman," or "The lead research scientist on this project was a woman, so clearly the research is suspect." For a woman, this might mean stopping herself from thinking, "Men just don't have any feelings," or "I've never yet met a man who can choose his own clothes without ending up dressed like a clown." It's easy for men to stereotype women as foolish, silly, fluffy creatures, and for women to stereotype men as unfeeling, inconsiderate brutes. It's harder to see each person as, first, the image and likeness of God, and then, as uniquely valuable in ways that go far beyond masculinity or femininity.
But that is how God sees us, and how we are supposed to see each other. We women will have to go beyond feminism to get there, just as men had to go beyond the misogynism of the past to begin their journey back to the beginning, when God created Man in His image and likeness: male and female He created them.