The following essay first appeared in Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind, ed., John Zmirak. It is reprinted with permission of the publisher.
You might be surprised to hear feminism described as a “heresy.” Like most Americans, you may assume that the feminist movement simply asserts that women are full members of the human race, equal to men in dignity and intellect, and equally deserving of opportunities to develop their gifts. In fact, Feminism is harder to pin down than many of the errors addressed by my fellow authors, because its advocates typically avoid defining the term. In consequence, “Feminism” takes on whatever color a listener gives it. So persistent is this ambiguity that even now, few have more than a vague notion of its real nature.
Some highly reputable Catholics call themselves “pro-life feminists,” and maintain that Feminism, if it could be purged of its attachment to abortion on demand, would be fundamentally good and compatible with the Faith.
Test Yourself: Are You a Feminist?
Few young women today aspire to emulate the ferocious, bra-burning militants of the 1960s. As mounting numbers of college students tell pollsters they question the morality of most abortions, old feminist slogans like “Abortion on Demand, Without Apology” make sane people wince. Nevertheless, most of us in the West have, often unwittingly, absorbed feminist premises that involve a wholesale re-evaluation of human nature and family life, and are in many respects incompatible with Christianity.
At its core, Feminism teaches that:
- Men and women tend to behave differently because of social conditioning, not because there are innate biological and psychological differences between them.
- The chief reason women have been less often represented in the first ranks of public achievement in scholarship, the arts, politics, and war, is that in every human society of which we have evidence, throughout all of recorded history, they were repressed by a patriarchal power structure maintained through force and indoctrination.
- Because large numbers of children in a family constitute both a barrier to the advancement of women and a threat to our ecology, small families should be the cultural norm.
- It is unjust that the consequences of sexual behavior are biologically unequal for men and women. As much as possible, those consequences must be equalized through medical technology and reformed cultural attitudes.
- To find meaning in their lives, women should look first to their careers, rather than to their role as lifegivers, culture bearers, nurturers, and educators of the next generation of human beings.
- Women who regard themselves as mothers first are wasting their education and smothering their talents by staying home to raise their children.
Thirty years of close study of Feminism in action, as well as reading hundreds of books written by its advocates, and attending scores of conferences held by feminists who called themselves Catholics (or at least “religious”), inform these conclusions. Reflect on them, and ask yourself honestly: does some part of you accept one or more of them? If so, then you have, to that degree, been infected with the feminist virus.
Our purpose here is not only to define Feminism but also to determine whether being a feminist is compatible with being a Christian. In any such assessment, an ideology must be judged by its “body count.” We need not argue political theory with proponents of National Socialism; we can simply point to the Holocaust. Apologists for Soviet Communism must take into account the millions who perished in the gulag. Feminists, too, must evaluate an overwhelmingly ugly fact: since 1970, more than fifty million unborn American babies have died by their mother’s choice at the hands of abortionists. That is Feminism’s body count.
Feminism’s Marxist Roots
A brief historical review helps to explain how Feminism was transformed from an eccentric opinion held by a few highly educated and discontented women to an ideology that revolutionized society’s views about how to found families and how to live in them.
Make no mistake: Feminism has had that kind of power. And it has sought it. The leading “mainstream” feminist group in America, the National Organization for Women (NOW) said in its 1966 statement of goals that it would settle for nothing less than
a sex role revolution for men and women which will restructure all our institutions: childrearing, education, marriage and the family, medicine, work, politics, the economy, religion, psychological theory, human sexuality, morality, and the very evolution of the race.[i]
Where did feminists get the idea that family life needed a “revolution”? From those specialists in revolution, the Marxists (see Chapter 13). In his 1884 treatise, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Karl Marx’s best friend and co-author, Frederich Engels, asserted that the “bourgeois” family with its division of labor—men working, women raising children—was one of the greatest obstacles to the achievement of a socialist society. Engels argued that this barrier should be dismantled by encouraging women to see themselves as an oppressed class, like exploited factory workers, who must engage in Marxist “class warfare” against their fathers and husbands. Of course, “class warfare” in the workplace has been condemned by numerous popes, including Leo XIII and Pius XI.[ii] Applying that socialist principle to the intimate relations of the family is even more destructive: women who accept such a principle cease to see the family as a unit joined by common goals, and instead feel morally justified in seeking their own selfish interests—at the expense not just of their husbands but of their children. If a woman’s own children can be her enemies, it is no wonder that feminists came to endorse first contraception and then abortion as central requirements for the progress of women in society.
From Class Struggle to Contraception
It is true, as “pro-life feminists” like to say, that early feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton accepted the belief, common in their era, that abortion is a barbaric crime committed by selfish men against women victims. Most nineteenth century suffragists thought that women voters, with their presumably nobler morality, would heal a world wounded by male selfishness. But their fundamental premise—that women were an oppressed social class, a “domestic proletariat”— eventually eroded the wholesome social principles they had inherited from a deeply Christian society. Today there is not a single major feminist organization that does not support government-funded contraception and abortion on demand. Opposing either of those demands gets women drummed out of such organizations, just as pro-life female candidates for office find themselves opposed by such high-powered feminist fundraising groups as Emily’s List—whose litmus test is support for Roe v. Wade.
Even in its Victorian stages, Feminism’s implicit assumption, that wives and husbands are opponents locked in a power struggle, was corrosive of society. The words of suffragist leaders reveal that, like Engels and Marx, they wanted to do away with traditional family roles. The suffragists did not call on society to value woman’s distinctive and irreplaceable contributions as mothers and teachers of young people—who sometimes, out of necessity, had to work outside the home. Instead, they called on women to reject their natural vocation in order to live like men. In 1868, suffragist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, herself a married mother of seven, advocated birth control and equated traditional marriage with prostitution. She went on to say:
Our idea is that every woman of sound mind and body, with brains and two hands, is more noble, virtuous, and happy in supporting herself. So long as a woman is dependent on a man, her relation to him will be a false one, either in marriage or out of it; she will despise herself and hate him whose desires she gratifies for the necessities of life; the children of such unions must needs be unloved and deserted.[iii]
A libertarian might suppose Feminism to be merely a strategy to give women more options, enabling those not called to motherhood to achieve other highly valued positions in society. Alas, no. For women who don’t embrace their agenda, feminists tend to advocate coercion instead of liberty. Simone de Beauvoir, author of the pioneering feminist work The Second Sex, admitted as much in 1975:
[A]s long as the family and the myth of the family and the myth of maternity and the maternal instinct are not destroyed, women will still be oppressed…. No woman should be authorized to stay at home and raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction.[iv]
The Catholic Alternative
In contrast to the bleak vision of family life held by feminists, the Church has always taught that the family, not the individual, is the basic unit of society. Children are gifts from God, to be cherished in love and educated for life in Christ, and a just society must ensure that a mother has adequate means to stay home with her children, doing that irreplaceable work. Because of this, as Leo XIII and Pius XI wrote with papal authority,[v] a working man has a right in justice to a living wage—that is, a salary that can support his family in decent comfort. Indeed, as Allan Carlson documents in The Family Way,[vi] by the end of the Second World War, most American employers—influenced by politically active Catholics close to Franklin Roosevelt— were paying “family wages”—that is, offering higher wages to married men with children than to single or childless employees. The practice prevailed widely until 1964, when it was outlawed as “sex discrimination” by the Civil Rights Act. Ironically, that otherwise valuable legislation stripped from every mother the basic right to be supported as she cares for her baby—and replaced it with the feminist objective of uniform pay for anonymous workers in factories or offices.
From Contraception to Abortion
In the context of the times, it is not surprising that birth control crusader Margaret Sanger found her most eager recruits among the feminists of the 1920s. They sought as she did to reduce the “plague” of large families among the “less fit” immigrant ethnic groups who were filling up America’s cities. Feminists who shared Sanger’s eugenic concern for creating a “higher” human race through selective breeding influenced the passage of laws in thirteen American states requiring sterilization for those who fell below a certain norm on IQ tests. Feminists who did not join in Sanger’s eugenic crusade were nevertheless led by concern for female autonomy to champion the use of contraceptive devices in marriage.[vii] Practices once confined to prostitutes were now hailed as the key to happy marriage, by organizations with innocuous sounding names like “Women’s Health Project,” “Family Planning Associates” and, most well-known, “Planned Parenthood.”
Inspired in part by feminist arguments, the Church of England in 1930 became the first Christian denomination in history to endorse the use of artificial birth control. Even well-meaning Christians, misled by such propaganda, joined notorious public figures and philanthropic foundations as Planned Parenthood benefactors. Donors’ names range from advice columnist Abigail Van Buren to Johnny Carson, Senator Barry Goldwater, Bill and Melinda Gates, Barbra Streisand, Ted Turner, and Jane Fonda. Eventually most other churches followed the Anglican example, leaving a single holdout—the Catholic Church.
Yet, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, many Catholics—consciously or not—had also accepted the feminist premise that women must be freed from the “burden” of frequent child-bearing to take their place alongside men as breadwinners. During the late 1960s, in the wake of changes introduced in the name of the Second Vatican Council (some authorized, many improvised), it was widely expected that Pope Paul VI would grant permission for Catholics to use artificial birth control. Promoters urged the Church to approve “the Pill,” a recently invented form of hormonal contraception. The argument wouldn’t have gained traction if it had been generally known then that the Pill doesn’t always prevent conception, but instead can cause an early abortion.
In 1968, to general consternation, Pope Paul VI issued the historic encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the Church’s two-thousand year teaching that marital relations are naturally ordered toward reproduction and that we may not employ artificial means to frustrate either the procreative or the unitive purposes of the sexual act. In the document, the pope issued grave warnings about the consequences likely to follow pervasive acceptance of contraception. His prophecies were casually dismissed—but almost all of them have come to pass.
Badly advised by dissenting priests, theologians, and even bishops, most American Catholics rejected the Church’s teaching, and secular society proceeded along the path Paul VI had warned against. Among a majority of Catholics, expectations about marriage have been formed by secular culture and feminist ideology, not by the Church’s teaching on lifelong sacramental union. Separating sexual pleasure from procreation led to the degradation of women and the cheapening of sex. Premarital sex became routine; unmarried cohabitation, unwed pregnancy, and single parenthood were soon accepted in every social class. In large sections of our population, fatherless families are now the norm.[viii] Sexually transmitted diseases and consequent infertility are pandemic. More than at any time since late pagan Rome, society nonchalantly tolerates sexual exploitation, abortion, and pornography. Children are sexualized at ever younger ages, as provocative clothing is marketed toward girls still below the age of puberty, and “comprehensive sex education” instructs elementary school students in perversions. Divorce and remarriage have lost any social stigma, even among Catholics: the Vatican has had to intervene to stem a deluge of casually granted annulments.
Single mothers with children make up the majority of the newly poor. Three generations of latch-key children have grown up neglected, emotionally stunted victims of fatherlessness and inadequate mothering, in a culture warped into moral confusion by perverse sex education, doctrinally empty religious instruction, coarsely sexualized television, and raw pornography online. For the first time in our history, married women are more likely to be employed than married men, and according to the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau Report “Families and Living Arrangements,”[ix] only one woman in four with children under fifteen stays home to care for them.
Was It Worth the Price?
Few families have benefited even financially from the loss of the full-time mother. The demise of the “family wage” means that it now takes two full-time workers to provide a living standard comparable to that once earned by a male breadwinner. So most women remain trapped in the labor force out of economic need, trying to raise their children in their spare time. On that point, feminists like Simone de Beauvoir got what they wanted.
Explaining why he became a Catholic, G.K. Chesterton, wittiest of English converts, once wrote that the Faith “…is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”[x] What the Faith offers in place of transient fads is the perennial truth about the human condition: why God made us, what kind of lives He wants us to live, what choices will lead us to the eternal happiness He intends for us. The Church knows that men and women are not interchangeable units. God created them in two sexes so they can unite in voluntary, permanent, loving, sacramental marriage covenants, and there raise up souls to God. It is hardly necessary to point out the mother’s irreplaceable role in that enterprise.
Consistently, the popes have called the relationship between husband and wife one of equality in dignity and complementarity in function. Pope John Paul II was ridiculed when he cautioned men not to treat their wives as objects of lust, though what he advocated was the very mutuality feminists claim they seek.[xi]
The sole advantage of living in a lawless time is that you can refuse to be a child of your age. Almost everyone in this workers’ society is too preoccupied with his own place on the treadmill to pay much attention to your eccentricities. What devastated our culture was the flight of mothers from their homes. Society is drowning in the consequences, but nothing prevents you and your family from living your lives differently. Our culture will never be restored until women again take up rearing their children as their chief and indispensable task—and men make the sacrifices needed to support them in that decision. While aggressive forces continue to push the nation toward family disintegration, a healthy resistance movement is awake and growing. It is made up of uncompromising religious believers, pro-lifers, and homeschoolers, both organized and autonomous, along with back-to-the-land agrarians and Tea Party independents. One Virginia women’s organization summed things up in a bumper sticker reading “Be Countercultural: Raise Your Own Kids.”.
An appetite for achievement is built into human nature. If women choose to model their lives on the Valiant Woman of Proverbs (31:10-31) by raising and educating their children in a genuinely Christian environment, they will have to find ways to present them with a culture no longer found in society’s mainstream. This will be their most demanding, most absorbing, most gratifying task, requiring all their gifts, but eminently worth doing. Human imperfection always makes the future uncertain, but choosing freedom offers you and your family the best hope of finding joy in a deeply Catholic life.
Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism, by F. Carolyn Graglia (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing, 1998).
Men and Marriage, by George Gilder (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 1992).
The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, by Mary Pride (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1985).
The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know — and Men Can’t Say, by Suzanne Venker and Phyllis Schlafly (WND Publishing, 2011).
A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, by Wendy Shalit (Austin, TX: Touchstone, 2000).
[i] As cited in The New Freedom: Individualism and Collectivism in the Social Lives of Americans by William A. Donohue (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1990), 59.
[ii] See Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, no. 19; Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris, no. 9.
[iii] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in The Revolution, viii, March 1868. For Stanton’s support for contraception, see Jean H. Baker, Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 106-109.
[iv] “Sex, Society, and the Female Dilemma,” Saturday Review, June 14, 1975.
[v] See Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, no. 65; Pius XI, Quadrigesimo Anno, no. 71.
[vi] Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute Books, 2003.
[vii] For a full history, see Blessed Are the Barren: The Social Policy of Planned Parenthood, by Robert G. Marshall and Charles A. Donovan (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991).
[viii] There are countless studies supporting these grim assertions. For a brief overview, see “The Decline of Marriage,” by James Q. Wilson (www.manhattan-institute.org/html/_sduniontrib-the_decline.htm). For much more information, visit www.marriagedebate.com.
[ix] See www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam.html
[x] G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), originally published in 1926.
[xi] Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), no. 10