Pinning “feminism” to the board — as Dawn Eden attempts to do in her article “Eve of Deconstruction“ — is a collector’s task, not the capture of a single specimen. Eden misses the beauty, dignity, and continuing value of the feminist movement, distracted no doubt by the vehemently secular individualism of certain noisy modern feminists.
Understandably, then, Eden questions why Catholic women would seek to “redefine” feminism, why some Catholic women find it “necessary to fight so hard for that word.” Eden — an unmarried female author, successful Catholic blogger, and outspoken speaker (whose YouTube here ranks among my favorite) — surely represents that group of women Elizabeth Fox-Genovese found so intriguing: “women who fiercely value independence [but refuse] to identify with feminism,” who “cherish their independence even as they want binding ties to a man and children” (Feminism is Not the Story of My Life, Anchor).
Let me respond to Eden’s question — why some women refuse to release all hold on feminism to the more radical claimants — and suggest that their efforts are not only consistent with Mulieris Dignitatem, but flow from John Paul II’s theology of women.
Eden omits the historical context of the early feminists, which facilitates her leap to blaming pornography and cohabitation on the old dames of early American feminism. In 1871 — the year Susan B. Anthony called upon woman “to protect herself” — women had no right to vote in most of the United States. Many turn-of-the-century American feminists thought the vote critical to the empowerment of the recently freed slaves — male and female — and to the women who had struggled long toward the abolishment of slavery. They sought for women, as a class, the same symbol of dignity.
Far from a call to “every man for himself,” as Eden puts it, many suffragists argued that voting would allow women to extend protections of natural law and dignity for all of their sex, as well as exploited and abused groups like children and the poor. It is no historical accident that the settlement house and temperance movements overlapped the campaign to enfranchise women.
These well-bred, mostly privileged women were not trying to free themselves for lesbian relationships, full-time employment in large law firms, or wholesale rejection of the interdependence of men, women, and children. Elizabeth Cady Stanton — upon whose remarks Eden relies to reject all matters feminist — was among the more radical of her day. Yet compared to today’s radical feminists, Stanton was anything but. She bore seven children within a 47-year marriage to a man who opposed suffrage for women (though by her final years she was certainly anti-religious-institutions, as her The Woman’s Bible so amply portrays).
Contrary to the image Eden paints, Stanton fought for suffrage: “Because man and woman are the complement of one another, we need woman’s thought in national affairs to make a safe and stable government.” Stanton believed fundamentally in the dignity of the unique, human soul — and the role of individual responsibility in developing judgment and conscience. She rejected the cultural illusion that women could avoid accountability for themselves and others by pleading dependency.
The “dependence” Stanton rejected was not mutuality of “friends, love, kindness, sympathy and charity” but an abandonment of self that left women largely invisible in non-domestic sectors of society and, in many spheres, even unknown to themselves. Like the slaves, married women particularly were locked into a legal, numbing non-existence, not merely economic dependence. Lucy Stone, another old-timer to the movement, summarized the challenges of the century in which she and Stanton lived:
A wife by her marriage lost all right to any personal property she might have. The income of her land went to her husband, so that she was made absolutely penniless. If a woman earned a dollar by scrubbing, her husband had a right to take the dollar and go and get drunk with it and beat her afterwards. It was his dollar. If a woman wrote a book the copyright of the same belonged to her husband and not to her. The law counted out in many states how many cups and saucers, spoons and knives and chairs a widow might have when her husband died. I have seen many a widow who took the cups she had bought before she was married and bought them again after her husband died, so as to have them legally. The law gave no right to a married woman to any legal existence at all. Her legal existence was suspended during marriage. She could neither sue nor be sued. If she had a child born alive the law gave her husband the use of all her real estate as long as he should live, and called it by the pleasant name of “the estate by courtesy.” When the husband died the law gave the widow the use of one-third of the real estate belonging to him, and it was called the “widow’s encumbrance.” While the law dealt thus with her in regard to her property, it dealt still more hardly with her in regard to her children. No married mother could have any right to her child, and in most of the states of the Union that is the law to-day.
These early fighters for women’s rights often viewed men as their allies in the cause, just as they had worked cooperatively in the anti-slavery movement. As Stone, a Christian and married woman, concluded, “But the laws in regard to the personal and property rights of women have been greatly changed and improved, and we are very grateful to the men who have done it.” Far from “removing their faith from men and placing it in the government” — as Eden asserts — the feminists largely sought to work with their male allies to incorporate within law the moral values thought to be applicable and protective for everyone — including former slaves, children, and other exploited groups. It was, after all, by male vote that suffragettes attained their goal.
It is this legacy — a legacy of acknowledging the dignity of the other person — which many Catholic women today refuse to abandon to the radical variations on feminism that arose and dominated during the latter half of the 2oth century. The extreme elements that have sought to hijack feminism to promote abortion, promiscuity, and careerism, for example, find worthy and valuable opposition in the Catholic feminists.
Organizations like California Catholic Women’s Forum, whose byline reads “True Feminism for Real Women,” ardently refuse to yield feminism to “the so-called women’s movement and the sexual revolution that say we must separate ourselves from our femininity through sexual liberation, by climbing corporate and governmental ladders after the (failed) ‘male’ pattern of domination, by participating politically in ‘women’s issues,’ and by acting in an androgynous manner by way of fashion, etiquette and social behavior.” It is this sort of Christ-inspired effort — the hand-to-hand struggle to save feminism for all women — that concerns Eden.
It should not. The legacy claimed by Catholic feminists contains and reflects the very essence of John Paul II’s theology of women, for it is not marriage alone, nor a state of dependence upon men, that animates the “genius of women.” The genius of women, so beautifully critical to and reflected in the complementarity of the sexes, extends to all vocational callings of women, including those in single, consecrated, and religious life. It is not in dependence upon men that the genius of women is activated, but rather in the “affective, cultural and spiritual motherhood which has inestimable value for the development of individuals and the future of society” (Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women).
Indeed, John Paul II opens this concise letter with a “thanks” to “mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, women who work, consecrated women, every woman,” for — echoing the words of Mulieris Dignitatem — ” the ‘mystery of woman’ and for every woman — for all that constitutes the eternal measure of her feminine dignity, for the ‘great works of God’, which throughout human history have been accomplished in and through her” (31). He follows his gratitude quickly with an apology, on behalf of the Church, for times it has “relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude” women. The Holy Father recommits the Church “to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination,” words richly evoking the feminist movement historically and worldwide.
Far from rejecting “feminism,” the Holy Father’s letter specifically embraces the goals and values of the early feminists. He could not have been more clear:
[T]here is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State (4).
This is hardly the language of “pagan” ideology, as Eden characterizes Christian feminism, but the core social and cultural work that emanates from a complete theology of women.
Perhaps anxious to distance herself from the prevailing secularism and individualism of certain noisy modern feminists, and unattracted by what Fox-Genovese calls “family feminism” or by Christian feminism, Eden appears willing to toss out more than a century of female progress fueled in significant measure by Judeo-Christian women committed to realizing the theological dignity of women. That other women are not so ready to abandon this movement should not surprise her — nor, I suggest, should she move quite so hastily.
It was, after all, in Mulieris Dignitatem that John Paul II recalled the penalty to women of original sin — the penalty of male domination as an opposing force to the “unity of two.” Women, the Holy Father urges, find their dignity from this original design of creation; its achievement opposed by original sin; its hope in Mary’s “yes” and Christ’s full incorporation of women into divine redemption. But, John Paul II cautions, the fulfillment of “this dignity depends on woman herself, as a subject responsible for herself, and at the same time it is ‘given as a task’ to man (14).
In recognizing this dignity, the feminist movement has offered progress, promise, and potential to men and women alike, which may be fully realized if the movement is not abandoned to its most radical species, all too anxious for this triumph.
Dawn Eden responds:
I acknowledged in my article the facts Marjorie Campbell notes regarding the validity of feminists’ claims of inequality, as well as the support Pope John Paul II gave to feminists’ ideals of overcoming discrimination, violence, and exploitation.
My point was that the Holy Father, in Evangelium Vitae, urged women to “overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation,” not just those against their own sex—and that he wished them to do so by “bear[ing] witness to the meaning of genuine love, of that gift of self and of that acceptance of others which are present in a special way in the relationship of husband and wife, but which ought also to be at the heart of every other interpersonal relationship.”
No amount of redefinition will lead the general public to associate “feminism” with bearing witness to the meaning of genuine love between husband and wife. That, as I wrote, is something I believe John Paul subsequently realized, as he never again used the word in print during the remaining ten years of his papacy.
Likewise, regarding Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with due respect to Campbell, I don’t believe any amount of “historical context” can hide the facts that the woman certain Catholic groups claim as a “foremother” of the “new feminism” was profoundly anti-Christian, and her close ally Susan B. Anthony was a willing mouthpiece for her vile bigotry.
With regard to the rest of Campbell’s points, I would refer her and the reader back to my article. I do take strong exception to her inferring I linked John Paul’s teachings, or any genuine interpretation of them, with “pagan” ideology. That is precisely the opposite of what I wrote, which criticized those who would attempt to gain acceptance for feminism—or any “ism”—by prefixing it with the word “Christian.” Such efforts, I wrote, “strike me not so much as an attempt to redeem feminism as to redeem Christianity — making the Cross ‘safe’ by attaching it to an ideology acceptable to pagans.”