Editor's Note: This continued reflection is from Christine Alwan. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristineAlwan.
Today I’m going to talk about something that’s pretty controversial in general, especially in Catholic circles. This topic has been on my heart for awhile. Today, I’m going to talk about the F word. That’s right. Today, I’m going to talk about feminism.
My definition of feminism is as follows:
Feminism is the belief that men and women are equal in their inherent dignity and worth. To be a feminist, one acknowledges this and seeks to ensure that this equality of dignity and worth (NOT necessarily purpose/function) is manifested economically, socially, and politically in one’s society.
This definition is rooted in both my academic study of feminism and public policy, as well as a devotion to my Catholic faith and the teachings of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. In both my personal reflection and in my studies, I have found that feminists and Catholics actually have some very important similarities. There is room for some incredible collaboration on policies that both groups can support, policies that foster a culture of life and promote the dignity and empowerment of women. But in order to reach a point where we can have a constructive, collaborative conversation, we need to tear down the walls, the defenses, and the misunderstandings on both sides. That’s my goal with this post. Before discussing policy topics that feminists and Catholics can collaborate on, it’s vital that we tear down some misunderstandings about feminism and feminists themselves.
Myth #1: All feminists aren’t feminine and don’t value their femininity/womanhood.
Not all feminists want to be like men. To be clear, wanting equal pay for equal work (which was traditionally given to white men and not women, both white and of color) does not mean I want to be like a man. Wanting my vote to count as a citizen because I happen to be a woman, and not a man, does not mean that I don’t value being a woman. Wanting to hold a rapist accountable in a meaningful way, giving him a longer prison sentence than minor drug offenders, does not mean I hate men or despise my femininity.
In fact, a lot of policies that feminists support affirm personal qualities, jobs, and attitudes that are very pro-woman. A major premise of the feminist movement was that women were too devalued in society and that they were only valued if they became wives and mothers. This was not problematizing marriage or motherhood. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that not all women are/can be wives and mothers. For example, we should not devalue a single person or a consecrated woman simply because she is not married in the traditional sense or because she has not borne children. Furthermore, we need to celebrate the gifts that women bring to society, in addition to those gifts traditionally associated with motherhood and marriage. A woman engineer who paves the way for other women to embrace their gifts in math and science is something worth celebrating because those gifts come from God and need a space to be used and developed.
From a feminist lens, the devaluation of women is problematic for both men and women. Here’s why. Not all women are given the same gifts, talents, and callings. Some women are really good at caregiving, for example. But some women have other gifts, gifts that are often associated with men’s societal roles and masculinity. One’s gender does not determine whether or not nurturing and parenthood come naturally, or if one must work a little bit harder to be more caring and sensitive. Furthermore, this creates a social assumption that men are not or cannot possess qualities traditionally associated with manhood and masculinity. For example, for those who assume being nurturing is a feminine quality: if you have developed a personal relationship with God the Father, you’ll know that you cannot find a more caring, nurturing parent. On the flip side, for those who associate stoicism with masculinity: I cannot think of a better example of stoicism than Our Lady who watched her only child brutally murdered at the hands of an occupying government force while almost all of his friends deserted him. By devaluing traits because they are associated with femininity, or by denying that traits associated with masculinity don’t exist in women as well, we cheat both men and women from acknowledging the God-given gifts they bring to the table.
Especially in a country where many women are single moms are positive father figures are sorely needed, we cheat the good guys from some extremely well-deserved acknowledgement and praise. There are nurturing, caring men out there. We sell our sons short when we tell them either that they are not as caring as women simply because they are men or that they aren’t “real men” if they are caring and nurturing, since those qualities are typically associated with femininity.
As Catholics who want to celebrate and promote the individual human dignity of each person, who want to emulate the behavior of the early Christians who were known for their love of others and caring for “the least of those,”I think that this is common ground for a lot of feminists and Catholics. Feminists are not trying to say that men want to be women. In fact, a lot of feminists are trying to underscore the fact that men and women can and do possess qualities that are usually labeled “feminine” or “masculine,” qualities like strength, bravery, compassion, and sensitivity.
Myth #2: All feminists are pro-choice.
This is a myth that gets a lot of criticism, both from pro-lifers and from feminists. I’m guessing that if you’re reading this on Catholic Hipster, you’ve got the pro-life argument down. So I’ll just elaborate on the feminist one.
In the 1960’s, when feminism was gaining national attention, grassroots groups and national feminist organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW) were very racially segregated. In fact, many white feminists explicitly excluded women of color from their groups. This led to huge injustices, as well as huge policy divides. While white women were more historically concerned with reproductive rights surrounding access to birth control and abortion, women of color had a very different experience.
Motherhood for women of color, especially African American women, has been under attack for centuries, starting with the raping of slave women by masters and the selling of their children/division of their families. Women of color were sterilized without their consent, often as a part of the eugenics movement. Women of color were also subjects in research studies (without their knowledge or consent) that yielded massive profits for white doctors, with none of the credit or health benefits being funneled to the very subjects that allowed for these medical discoveries.
In fact, women of color were more often concerned, not with birth control or abortion access, but with the government ripping their families apart, preventing them from having families of their own, and devaluing or denying the families they did have. Women of color were also more concerned about equality in the workplace and access to jobs, especially in the 1960’s when women of color were paid even less than white women, who were paid less than white men. Women of color were also given the worst jobs (or no jobs at all ) in favor of white men and white women. Women of color needed to supplement the income of the men (of color) in their lives, who were also getting paid disproportionately less than white male breadwinners.
The feminist movement that began the 1950’s and 1960’s, also known as second-wave feminism, still receives a lot of criticism because it did not adopt an intersectional approach. An intersectional approach means understanding the ways in which race and gender interact to create particular lived experiences, such as the injustices women of color faced both as a result of their race and because they were women. One of the core criticisms was that NOW made lesbian rights and abortion key issues in its advocacy plans, issues vocalized by white feminists, while choosing not to advocate for access to childcare for working women, an end to racism within the feminist movement, and paid maternity/parental leave, issues that were of importance to feminists of color.
We often don’t hear about these issues because of the loud national discussion surrounding abortion. I also think we don’t hear about this because the feminist movement — and the United States in general — is embarrassed about how we have and continue to treat people of color. Talking about forced sterilizations of women of color because our own government contained politicians — some of whom we celebrate as great American heroes — supported eugenics policies and belief systems is humiliating for a nation whose founding principles are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But the feminist movement itself has strong roots in many issues that are actually very pro-life. Labeling all feminists as pro-choice is not only inaccurate. It also alienates those feminists who believe that equality starts in a very special place: the womb.
Myth #3: All feminists are angry.
Feminism is often seen as a response to anger that women feel over being women. In my experience, both as a self-identified feminist and as someone who knows many of them from all walks of life, secular and religious, I know that a lot of women who label themselves as feminists were victims of discrimination, abuse, or injustice. There may have been moments where these women were taken advantage of because of the simple fact that they were women and could be wounded in unique ways as women.
I am one of those women. When I was a graduate student, I was sexually harassed by a professor in whom I trusted and valued as a mentor. In addition to intense feelings of betrayal, I was angry. I was angry because his actions derailed me academically and professionally. I was angry because, after committing this injustice, he decided to parade around the department and tell everyone who would listen why his decision to harass me was somehow my fault. Was I angry at him? Absolutely. Am I an angry person? No way.
After some intense, tearful conversations with therapists, family members, a spiritual director, Our Lady, and Jesus, I realized that my anger was at an injustice, the injustice of my trust, my body, and my reputation being violated in a deeply personal, painful way. This anger was righteous. It was an emotionally healthy response to emotionally unhealthy (and wrong) behavior. My anger was response to being robbed of a level of innocence, of being viewed as a sexual object instead of a human being, and of the smearing of my professional and personal credibility.
But my anger was also my pain. My anger was my sadness. My anger aimed to drown out the refrain in my head: Why did he want to hurt me like this? Why did he choose me? Why did the school’s administration protect him, instead of trying to protect me? Why wasn’t I aware enough, smart enough to keep this from happening in the first place?
If some feminists are angry, there is a good chance that someone perpetrated an injustice against them. There’s a good chance that somewhere, in their past, someone violated their dignity as a human being a very profound and personal way. And there’s a good chance they are still healing. Be gentle with them. Be compassionate. And don’t shame them for their anger. Because their anger could be their pain. Their anger could be righteous. We should not shame women for feeling and expressing anger, especially because of an injustice. And just because they are angry about an injustice doesn’t mean that they are angry people.
Myth #4: All feminists hate men.
This one is a myth that I hope to approach with a particular level of compassion and sensitivity. It’s estimated that 1 in 3 women will experience sexual assault (which ranges from unwanted touching all the way to rape) in her lifetime in the United States. Studies have found that it is more likely for a woman to be assaulted by someone she knows than a total stranger. The majority of those who commit these assaults are men.
Women also earn, on average 79 cents for every male dollar for completing the same job (same position, same amount of hours). Women are sometimes passed over for promotions on the premise that men are breadwinners, although studies now show that the male breadwinner model where the wife stays home is rarer due to economic necessity in the United States and that over 40% of births in the U.S. are to single mothers. The cost of living has increased, and the average family of 4 needs dual incomes in order to stay financially afloat.
Do I think these women, some who identify as feminists, hate men? No.
But I do think their past experiences make them afraid or resentful of particular men in their lives. And can we blame them?
Society tells us that men are supposed to protect us. So imagine our betrayal when that person you view as a protector, a friend, a colleague, an employer, someone you trust, is the very person you need protection from. Men in and of themselves are not the problem. The problem is when anyone in a position of power (which usually but not always tends to be white men) abuses that power. Jesus was very serious about confronting people who abused their power, calling out Pharisees, the rich man, and Sadducees for not using their power for good. Just like not all Pharisees were a problem, not all men are the problem. And I think a lot of feminists know that. The the men who abuse their power are the problem. And those are the injustices that feminists are worried about, injustices that we as Catholics need to be worried about too.
Myth #5: All feminists are fundamentally anti-Catholic because our faith involves the worship of a male God and the male authority of priests.
Hearkening back to my points on feminists being angry or hating men, it’s very difficult for women who have been at the mercy of men who abuse their power to worship a male God. This says absolutely nothing about God Himself, and I would venture to say that it also says very little about feminism. In fact, if anything, it underscores the need for His love, grace, and healing in all our lives. It says everything about the continual effects of sin in a fallen world. And it says a lot about the ways in which Catholics have approached conversations with feminists in the past.
After I was sexually harassed, I felt so violated that I couldn’t bring myself to pray to Jesus. Because Jesus, in addition to being God, was also a man. And when you experience a trauma like that, you’re on high alert. How could I trust other men in my life, Jesus included? It took me a very long time to even feel comfortable talking to Jesus, Who cannot sin, and would never do anything remotely close to what that professor did to me. So imagine how women in similar situations may feel about the men in their lives, men who are not Jesus, men who may use their physical strength or positions of power and authority (in the Church included) to take advantage of a woman instead of to honor and respect her.
Unlike some women, I also had the healing power of the sacraments, the support of my loved ones, and positive examples of men who honor and respect women in my life. Not everyone is as fortunate.
Not everyone is able to receive the Eucharist or cry to a compassionate priest in the confessional. Not everyone even knows that such opportunities for grace and healing exist, how powerful they truly are, or that we want them to join us. There is a profound gap, a profound misunderstanding of what the Church is, what the Church teaches, and who the Church is for. It’s time that we fix that, but first, we have to come to an understanding of our common ground.
When feminists are labeled as outsiders, for whatever reason, it can make it seem as though the Church wants nothing to do with them. But that’s simply not true. The Church NEEDS strong women, women like Joan of Arc and Teresa of Avila, who were outspoken, nontraditional, and tough and gave the Church invaluable inspiration, guidance, and example. It’s our job as Catholics to foster an environment of inclusivity, love, compassion, and openness. We aren’t changing our teachings. In fact, we are following them.
For the feminists who struggle with male authority because your concerns have fallen on deaf ears; for the feminists who have been abused by men in power; for the feminists who see male leadership as anti-woman, I hear you. I have felt what you feel. And I have someone I want you to meet. She’s so gentle. She’s so kind. But make no mistake, she’s no doormat. She’s fierce. If you want to talk to a woman who was tough, strong, empowered, and has great connections, you might want to talk to a woman I know. Her story is incredible. She got pregnant at fifteen and married a guy who wasn’t the baby’s dad. Her son started doing some crazy things in his thirties, and some people thought he was a little weird. Others thought he was possessed by the devil. Her son died the death of a criminal, and she had to watch. His friends, when he needed them the most, ran away. But she was one of the only people who showed up for him. And then she ended up comforting these same friends because they were freaking out that their friendship with her son would get them killed too. She has buildings, artwork, and cities named after her. She’s credited with winning battles, military and cultural. She defeated this awful guy by simply being herself. And she’s also a boss, well, a queen actually. Her name is Mary. She’s super cool. I definitely recommend hitting her up.
Just like there is no one type of Catholic, there is no one type of feminist. I would hate it if someone assumed I hated my own gender, worshipped Mary, blamed the Jewish people for the death of Jesus, and sat around judging Protestants and atheists all day because that may have been one person’s experience with a Catholic or misinformation they received about our faith. And I think that feminists from all walks of life feel the same way if we believe that all feminists are fire-breathing, man-hating, baby killers who never shave their legs and never wanted to get married or have families.
There are a lot of things that Catholics and feminists actually can (and do) agree on. My hope going forward is that we put down our walls and seek to understand those points of view that may differ from our own. Sometimes our own labels can be more divisive, when the whole purpose of self-identification is to foster unity among like-minded groups. We may not agree on everything, but by finding a common ground, we can practice solidarity. We can work together to promote policies and norms that foster a culture that respects the dignity of others and celebrates all of their God-given gifts. And that, in my opinion, is probably one of the devil’s worst nightmares and, more importantly, where God is calling us.
Discovering the Feminine Genius by Katrina Zenno
The Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West
The Politics of Work-Family Policies by Patricia Boling
Asking For It: The Rise of Rape Culture and What You Can Do About It by Kate Harding
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
Speaking of Sex: The Denial of Gender Inequality – Deborah L. Rhode
Mohanty, Chandra. 2003. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Duke University Press.
Enloe, Cynthia. 2000. Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Yuval-Davis, Nira. 2011. The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations. London: Sage Publishing. 1-112
“A Genealogy of Dependency: Tracing a Keyword of the U.S. Welfare State” by Nancy Fraser & Linda Gordon