Catholic and Feminist?

John Paul II has some amazing things to say about women.

I went to a fascinating meeting last night.

Mary Ann Glendon was here in Denver to give a talk. Mrs. Glendon, for those of you unfamiliar with her work, is a Harvard law professor, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. She is also an active Catholic who headed the Holy See Delegation to the 4th U.N. Women's Conference in 1995. 

The night before her talk, a group of women (myself included) was invited to meet with her. The topic of the evening was the “new feminism.”
It was some fascinating stuff.

“New feminism” is a term coined by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, in which he said, “In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a ‘new feminism’ which rejects the temptation of imitating models of "male domination", in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.” (Evangelium Vitae, 99)

As Mary Ann Glendon pointed out, there have been many “feminisms” throughout history. The women’s suffrage movement was a “feminist” movement, as was the temperance movement. All of these movements have had two common goals: to encourage the participation of women in all areas of public and private life, and to oppose all forms of unjust discrimination and violence against women.

The “feminism” most familiar to our generation is that which began with the women’s liberation movement of the 1960’s. I don’t think there is any question that some form of feminism was needed at that particular point in history. Women and men’s jobs were listed in separate categories in the newspapers. In many states, single women were unable to buy property alone, and were even kept from inheriting money without supervision. (Remember Lucille Ball’s 1960’s sitcom The Lucy Show? The whole premise was that Lucy Carmichael was a widow, and Mr. Mooney was the banker charged with overseeing her inheritance.)
But the problem with modern feminism is that it swung from one extreme to the other. In the early part of the century, women were seen in many ways as being subservient to men. The women’s liberation movement continued to define women’s roles in relation to (or reaction to) men’s roles, but instead of making women subservient, proclaimed them superior. Ironically, at that same time, women were encouraged to become more and more like men. They were to find their fulfillment in jobs rather than in motherhood. They were to suppress their fertility by any means possible, which essentially made their bodies like men’s bodies, and ostensibly allowed them to adopt male patterns of promiscuity.

This, of course, couldn’t work for long. Women aren’t men. We’re women. We couldn’t expect to go on denying their very nature generation after generation, and expect to find fulfillment. And so, not surprisingly, young American women overwhelmingly reject the feminism of their mothers. Women taught to find fulfillment in their careers long for the love and warmth of family. Women raised in day care centers want to stay at home with their children. 

Enter the “new feminism.”

The Catholic Church’s teaching – her real teaching, not the distortions that have been presented as her teaching in so many quarters – is the perfect antidote to the current situation. John Paul II in particular has given the Church an inspiring, beautiful synthesis called the Theology of the Body. In it, he reaffirms that woman was created for her own sake, not for the sake of man. She was created with her own unique attributes and gifts. JPII says that women’s greatest gifts are those that flow from motherhood. In saying this he is not saying that all women will physically become mothers, but that our capacity to create and nurture life extends through everything we do as women.

Nor does this mean that women’s role in society is to be limited to the “private” sphere of the household. Obviously, raising and nurturing children is the most important work on earth, and no work women do should be done at the expense of children. But the Pope is has made it clear, many times, that the public sphere needs women’s gifts as well, and that cultures should recognize and make room for women’s role in public life.

The other women listening to Mary Ann Glendon last night were as enthused as I was. We’ve all concluded that this culture is ready to hear what that Catholic Church and John Paul II have to say about women. We noted the charge given us in Evangelium Vitae that women are supposed to be the ones promoting the new feminism. We want to do what we can to help spread the word. And so we’re going to work.

So keep an eye on Denver. I think that more good things are going to be happening here.