Recently I was asked if I have experienced backlash for calling myself a feminist. I haven’t experienced any great backlash but I have seen a few signs of it. Given my interest in clinical psychology, I tend to avoid verbal sparring with people with whom it will make no difference. It wasn’t always the case, and my friends know how to get a rise out of me, but truth be told, I haven’t discussed feminism with too many people.
So why am I a feminist and how do I define feminism?
My first foray into feminism began with a fabulous, radically liberal, shocking reading in a Catholic Studies class, “Woman and Man,” at the University of St. Thomas. I delighted in the discomfort of my male peers and sought to emulate my professors’ devil’s (radical feminist’s) advocate approach. While I could acknowledge the insanity of some of the ideas, I was not afraid of them, and understanding the others’ point of view became an important cause to me.
I took other classes that forced that perspective. There and since then, I learned about many types of feminism. Radical, liberal, new age, pro-life, so-called new feminists, John Paul II femininsts.
Why do Catholics need qualifiers to call themselves feminists? I believe this takes us back to Elizabeth Scalia’s point in Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, particularly in Chapter 3: the Idol of the Idea. Catholic group-think (note: not Catholic teaching) is decidedly anti-liberal, anti-Democratic, anti-feminist. Why anti-feminist? Isn’t the Catholic church decidedly pro-woman? Absolutely. The Catholic Church was at the forefront of educating women, given women positions of power (hello Abbess!), defining a woman not by her status in relation to man (only marriage) but on her own terms (celibate, consecrated life). So why the hate?
Radical feminists are aggressively anti-man. Liberal feminists are aggressively anti-pregnancy (pro-contraception, pro-abortion). Liberal feminists are heavily involved in the political scene. Radical feminism has shaped our modern media which paints male protagonists as antagonists that are either buffoons or bigots, patriarchal, un-feeling jerks. A strong Catholic man who has rediscovered the value of his masculinity and vocation as a man, is naturally disturbed by the treatment of men in the media. A virtuous, just man (qualities that come with that whole good Catholic thing) is abhorred by the institutionalized abuse of woman made possible through wide-spread contraception (“okay men, you don’t have to live up to your responsibilities because it’s her fault she got pregnant, she was supposed to be on the pill”) and the injustice brought upon the most innocent of persons, the unborn child. But these ideas can morph into idols and when this happens, the feminist is the object, the sacrifice to be made to that strange god.
What other ideas spring up when the idea of “masculinity” has become a god? Perhaps that certain tasks or certain personality features belong properly to women or properly to men. If a person disagrees with that concept then he or she can be labeled and dismissed, or worse, insulted, persecuted. This is not evangelization. This is not charity. This is not even a right understanding of the human person.
Masculinity and femininity are a man’s and women’s way of being in the world, according to John Paul II. They are not traits. They are the person’s lived experienced, stamped with his or her perspective, deeply formed by this core component of who he or she is, his or her sex. A man or a woman may be ambitious, caring, aggressive, passionate, but it will look different based on what sex the person is. To simplify things, one might take an approach Prudence Allen defines as fractional complementarity which categorizes qualities as a man’s trait or a woman’s trait. In this view, neither are complete without the other. That hardly seems right as some people are called to virginity for the sake of the kingdom and it diminishes one’s personal value. Integral complementarity, in contrast, sees that our unique perspectives add and inform to the greater good.
The ideas that are central to feminism can float in many circles, if we aren’t afraid of the labels.
1. A woman should not be defined or understood by her relationship to a man. We are all defined by our relationship to God. Some feminists apply the central point to the relationship with God because God revealed himself as Father, but this is applying it in the wrong direction. We are defined by our relationship to God our Creator, not to any human being.
How this central point gets applied: women should not be objectified. Feminists are typically against violent pornography. Feminists are against human trafficking. I watched two documentaries in college: “Killing them Softly” about how women are objectified in advertising and “Dreamworlds 3” about how women are objectified in music videos. These programs are not intended to have a Christian message, but their message resonates with Christians because they value God’s creation, woman.
2. A woman should have equal access and rights. Liberal feminism takes this point and applies it to all groups, regardless of sex, while still identifying it as a feminist mission. This concept has evolved. Earlier it meant equal voting rights, equal pay. Now it is evolving in popular culture to include the concept that some women want to have children, having children looks different for men than women and women should not be penalized for that. Evolution continued: women should not be penalized for having and nursing children. Accommodations should be made. Evolution continued: men are also part of the having children equation and should be involved, allowing them time off from work to be good dads and bond with the babies.
I’m not naive, it has also evolved to equal access to marriage for LGBT persons. But that idea has moved beyond feminism because feminism, as an idea, rests on the question of woman.
Likewise, if people who label themselves as feminists puts a pro-abortion, pro-contraception message above the message of feminism, as in the recent headline stating Democrats blocked an anti-human trafficking bill because it did not include access to abortion, then this is not an issue of feminists making a god of their message, but of people passionate about a pro-abortion/pro-contraception stance, turning that idea into a idol to which other persons or issues should be sacrificed.
Let’s wake up. Quit labeling. The Catholic Church takes what is good and uses it to glorify God. Look at the Pantheon. Look at All Saint’s Day. She did it then. She can do it again.