Lately my eye has been catching all of the trendy t-shirts women are wearing which read “Feminist” across the front. At first glance I find myself thinking, “What a cute shirt!” But within seconds my next thought is, “But, I could never wear that t-shirt, it would send too many mixed messages.”
What’s a Girl to Do?
Our current cultural portrayal of feminism demands that women fight for their “reproductive rights” and join in the women’s march if they’re really feminists. Quite honestly, with all of this demanding and marching, it truly does seem like a fight. I sense that there are feelings of both anger and resentment in the women who display their participation in the cultural feminist movement. And unfortunately, they have some legitimate reasons to feel this way.
But why, as a Catholic woman, do I feel like I can’t join in this mainstream movement proclaiming female empowerment, even though I believe in the feminine genius? Why do I feel like there is discord between what the popular culture is telling me to be angry about and what the Catholic Church teaches me about the topic of human dignity and personhood?
Do I have to pick a side?
What is authentic feminism after all?
Feminism: A History
Let’s start with a little history.
The word “feminism” wasn’t used until the 19th century. The general goal of the movement is to help women flourish.
Feminism can be thought of in three waves.
- The first wave began in the late 19th century with the goal of creating equal rights for both men and women, especially in terms of voting rights.
- The second wave began in the mid 20th century and its focus was on equal pay, sexual freedom, and various reproductive rights, like the right to have an abortion.
- The third wave, at the end of the 20th century, included racial, economic, and religious issues.
Unfortunately, as Amanda Bambury points out on FemCatholic:
When the sexual revolution hijacked the women’s movement, it warped feminism by basing it on a destructive and false premise: that women must become like men…in order to be equal.
So instead of women being fully themselves, they can only be equal if they are like men? Equal does not mean the same. And when did being male become the standard for being human? Doesn’t that tenet of feminism sound like a movement which is more anti-women than truly for authentic womanhood?
Feminism, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” or “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests”.
Okay, so the dictionary connects feminism to social equality of the sexes. I’m all for that!
On the matter of equality, the Catechism tells us that:
Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all therefore enjoy an equal dignity (1934).
Analyzing Expressions of Feminism
Given what the Catechism teaches, I can’t disagree with Merriam-Webster’s definition of feminism. If, as it says, feminism is against exploitation and discrimination of women, then I can get behind that.
Yet it is important to carefully analyze movements within the current cultural feminist movement in order to determine its legitimacy.
John Paul II wrote to women, encouraging them to promote a “new feminism” which would highlight the feminine genius. He says to us in Evangelium Vitae, “You are called to bear witness to the meaning of genuine love, of that gift of self and of acceptance of others.”
So, when analyzing a specific type of feminism, ask yourself if it serves the common good. If it does, is it in accord with Catholic teaching? Does it promote the wellbeing of all persons, from conception to natural death?
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What Do Female Saints Say about Feminism?
St. Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, wrote that “the strength of woman lies in the emotional life.” The emotional life? If you read that line like I initially did, it can sound like she’s saying our strength is actually a weakness. I don’t exactly equate feeling emotional with feeling strong. But then again, when I allow myself the time to sit with my emotions and acknowledge that my feelings are valid, I do find strength in sharing these feelings with others.
St. Edith Stein goes on to show how it is the emotional life that instills in women the desire to love, “a longing to give love and to receive love, and in this respect a yearning to be raised above a narrow, day-to-day existence into a realm of higher being…and furthers the desire for perfection in others.” This desire to love comes from women’s innate maternal instinct. An instinct that drives us to protect and nurture. Nothing weak about that.
Our emotions are connected to love, and love aids us in our yearning to serve the common good. And who loved most?
The Blessed Mother.
The Feminism of Our Lady
St. Hildegard of Bingen (one of the four female Doctors of the Church) wrote, “Because a woman [Eve] brought death a bright Maiden overcame it, and so the highest blessing in all of creation lies in the form of a woman, since God has become a man in a sweet and blessed Virgin.”
St. Hildegard points to Mary as being the greatest feminist.
When asking my friend about how she viewed feminism, she too pointed to Mary as a true feminist. She said:
I believe it began with Eve, as she was created to nurture and love in a way that comes naturally in many different forms for women. But this was fully restored in Mary after the Fall. Mary’s yes alone began this movement. It was not only a yes to salvation. It was a yes to how we as women give totally of ourselves. Feminism is having a strength in our weakness. It is holding onto something for a greater good—even if it has nothing to do with us. We are incredibly strong humans who have been created to live out this Heart of the Creator.
But What Does this Authentic Feminism Look Like?
The Founder of FemCatholic, Samantha Povlock, wrote a letter titled Catholic Feminism Is a Call, Not a Contradiction. She offers great insights for those of us who struggle with the idea of being a perfect model of Mary. She says, “I struggled to reconcile my boldness with the quiet, docile picture of Mary that every song at church seemed to paint.” Then, she learned of Mary’s bold heart, of her “Mama Bear” instinct which is fierce and obedient. Through Mary’s obedience, her power shines forth and the devil cowers.
This means that we, as women, need to be attentive to the emotions in our heart. We need to listen to the Lord’s voice and His call for our life. In turn, we rise forth in holy boldness and obedience, living our lives in a way that promotes equal dignity among all. Our call is to be maternal in this world, in all its beautiful expressions.
Jesus is for this Authentic Feminism
Feminism, in light of what the Catechism teaches us about equality, makes Jesus a feminist, too. He made His mother the mother of the Church. He gives her to us with the hope that we will learn from her virtue and her heart.
This being said, I do think that Catholic women can be feminists. However, we must be careful to practice the “new feminism” that Pope St. John Paul II speaks of, not immerse ourselves wholeheartedly into the modern culture’s idea of feminism.
How We Can Work Together, and How We Differ
There are some areas where modern feminists and the feminists that JPII speak of can agree and work together. For example, we can all agree on the importance of equal pay and opportunity for women and rooting out the abusive behavior that has been exposed in the #metoo movement.
But when it comes to belittling men in general in the process of celebrating women, or the pro-abortion movement—which rejects fertility and motherhood and consents to racism and ableism—we need to part ways.
In the words of C.S. Lewis, have “courage, dear heart.” Do not be afraid to let Mary be your guide in sharing your maternity with the world, in whatever form that takes.
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Susanna Parent is a regular contributor to the BIS blog. She serves as Evangelization Manager for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in the Office of Evangelization. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry program with the School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas. When she’s not reading and writing you can find her enjoying life with her new husband, brewing French press coffee in her kitchen, reading wine labels with friends in an effort to discover the perfect Pinot Noir and blogging about her travel adventures. You can find out more about her here.