The New Women Activists: Four Who Are Paving the Way

Countering the pervasive feminist influence in American culture is no easy task, but someone has to do it if traditional American and Catholic principles are to be preserved. Who better to take up this task than orthodox Catholic women schooled in faith with years of experience of what makes families work? Feminists promote “liberation” through politically correct slogans asserting their equality with men in all fields of endeavor. But the fruits of their efforts are anything but positive. To them the Church is the epitome of oppressive institutions, biology is restrictive, gender distinctions are merely cultural, and families may legitimately come in diverse forms. Their goal is nothing less than the restructuring of basic societal institutions and relationships to fit a notion of freedom completely at odds with biblical revelation.

Feminism’s trivialization of sexuality and gender undermines the family, marriage, and the dignity of woman by reducing sexual roles to mere functions which can be changed at will. As Cardinal Ratzinger says in The Ratzinger Report, “It is precisely the woman who is paying the greatest price” in the cultural revolution, yet this destructive process went for years almost unopposed. Women are “robbed not only of motherhood but also of the free choice of virginity,” Cardinal Ratzinger adds. The dominant culture caricatures the feminine instinct, while promoting a more masculine approach to life. Seeing the devastation wrought by feminist denial of sex differences, Catholic women have begun to defend ever more vigorously the biblical insight into the importance of gender in God’s creation.

In the last ten years Catholic women have founded new organizations, begun new pro-life iniiatives, written books, and spoken out on issues affecting women, the family, and the Church. Two new organizations that started around kitchen tables in Saint Louis, Missouri, and Bethesda, Maryland, are Helen Hitchcock’s Women for Faith and Family and Cecelia Royals’ National Institute for Womanhood (NIW). In the 1980s, Helen Hitchcock heard little defense of the traditional role of women as mothers in the Church. With a group of friends she began to affirm the value of Catholic family life. The group caught fire. Women busy raising families overcame their sense of isolation and cultural denigration and responded to a woman who stood with the Church in valuing their contributions. Nine years later Helen has over 60,000 members, an informative newsletter, conferences in the U.S., Australia, and England, and is a sought-after speaker.

Cecilia Royals, mother of eight, saw the need for a new articulation of Catholic teaching on the role of woman in the family and in society. Her Institute studies the crisis in society’s understanding of authentic womanhood and promotes an in-depth discussion of woman’s inherent dignity, nobility, and distinctive gifts. NIW has a growing membership, conferences, a newsletter, and a public presence in the Washington area that is pro-family, pro-woman, and pro-Church. Helen’s and Cecilia’s organizations provide necessary forums for Catholic ideas of women and family life which are under constant attack.

Two new pro-life initiatives are marked by similar positive attitudes. There are Women Affirming Life (WAL), a group of professional pro-life women started in 1990 in Boston, and Mary Cunningham Agee’s Nurturing Network, begun in Boise, Idaho, in 1985. Fran Hogan, a lawyer and the president of WAL, wanted to get rid of the stereotype that intelligent women are necessarily pro-abortion. In WAL’s forums, women defend the value of the unborn child with a voice of compassion wedded to intelligence and the experience of years of pro-life work. Besides WAL’s meetings, conferences, and newsletters, the group encourages training for media appearances. Showing what Catholics are for and not just what we are against, identifying new leaders, and mounting a nationwide prayer campaign, are all part of their long-term strategy.

Mary C. Agee, a former Bendix executive, offers positive choices to women facing crisis pregnancies. She created Nurturing Network, a nationwide, non-profit, charitable organization with over 16,000 volunteers. Young women receive counseling and assistance in employment, education, housing, medical care, adoption, parenting, and finances. Since its inception the Network has helped over 5,000 mothers and children.

 Engaged in the ‘Culture Wars’

These new initiatives allow talented, well-educated women to speak to a wider audience in the Church and in society. Catholic women are uniquely positioned to explain the link between the Church’s understanding of the role of woman and the desire to nourish a culture worthy of the human person. They have the wisdom of experience in raising children and know the virtues necessary for Christian family life. They also know the anti-family tendencies inherent in secular culture. They can both encourage Catholics whose unique gifts are undervalued by that culture and also evangelize those who have never heard Catholic positions.

Catholic women are engaged in many other efforts to defend the truths essential to our survival as a country and a Church. The National Coalition of Pro-Life Women, 1.5 million-strong, and the Catholic Campaign for America mobilize Catholics to ensure that traditional Christian teachings are heard in the public square. Sisters for Life is a new religious community dedicated to life issues; the Ecumenical Network of Christian women, an inter-religious group, is active against the feminist strategies to restructure the churches.

These women are gaining a following and filling a void in the Church. Their organizations have a future. Unless women understand and articulate the Church’s teaching on women and gender, the message will not be heard in today’s cultural climate. These leaders are adding a public dimension to the Church’s testimony to the irreplaceable role of women in reviving modern culture. Catholic women have not been taken in by the feminist talk about oppression and gender neutrality. They know that defense of the human person from conception to natural death and of the life-giving role of women in the family and society is a task they are well-qualified to handle—and one whose urgency is palpable. The moment is ripe for us to enter the public debate and express the positions we once took for granted but now must defend.

Mary Ellen Bork

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Mary Ellen Bork is a freelance writer and lecturer on issues affecting Catholic life and culture. She serves on the Advisory Board of the School of Philosophy, Catholic University of America, and Christendom College. She is on the Susan B. Anthony List, and the Chesterton Review. For several years she has facilitated groups studying Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. She is doing research on Catholic leaders during the English Reformation and sixteenth century Catholic religious leaders. Her articles appear in the National Catholic Register, The Washington Times, Voices, and The New Criterion.

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