In their recent letter, “Partners in the Mystery of Redemption,” the American Catholic bishops attempt to reach out to the feminist movement. Perhaps somewhat strangely, the bishops endorse the angry and alienated sentiments of women who have little or no sympathy for Catholic teaching on a range of issues: divorce, contraception, abortion, to name a few. Even so-called traditionalist bishops have adopted the new cause celebre; Cardinal Law of Boston told Crisis that “the Church should be in the vanguard of the feminist movement.”
Ironically, this enthusiasm comes at a point when the feminist movement is at its lowest ebb, women from all walks of life are rejecting membership in feminist groups and the feminist label for themselves, and prominent feminists are reconsidering and repudiating central tenets of the women’s movement. The bishops would do well to assess those recent developments if their new ministry is not to defeat the interests of the very people they seek to help.
Although women have made remarkable professional, political, and social strides in the last few decades, the feminist movement acknowledges eroded support among those who should be most grateful and sympathetic: young career women. “The steam has run out of feminism,” notes Susan Brownmiller, author of the feminist classic, Against Our Will. Betty Friedan writes about a “profound paralysis” in feminism. The New York Times Magazine interviewed scores of young working women who found feminists “bored,” “unhappy,” “bitter,” “lacking in humor”; moreover, “feminism has come to be strongly identified with lesbianism.”
An examination of four issues of particular interest to Catholics suggest why contemporary feminism appears on the point of collapse.
Divorce: Forty-eight states now have no-fault divorce laws which allow the easy, “egalitarian” divorce that feminists in the 1960s and 1970s championed. But in a book that is drawing a good deal of perspiration in feminist quarters, The Divorce Revolution, Stanford researcher Lenore Weitzman points out that men have benefited in many ways from no-fault divorce laws and women have been harmed. For example, her study of 3,000 cases shows that, as a result of these laws, divorced women and their children suffered a 73 percent drop in their standard of living, while their ex-husbands enjoyed a 42 percent rise in theirs.
This happened partly because married women’s relative lack of job training results in lower earnings. In addition, equal sharing of property under no-fault laws usually means the forced sale of the family home, which previously used to be awarded to the wife and children. Child-support payments by the father almost always end when the kids turn 18, just about the time that college expenses begin and the mother must pay exorbitant bills. Easy, no-fault laws may also have contributed to the larger number of divorces in the United States, spreading their economic and psychological consequences to more women. Divorces increased from 479,000 in 1965 to over a million last year.
Judy Goldsmith, former president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), says no-fault laws need “careful re-evaluation” and recommends tighter restrictions on divorce and more lucrative settlements for women. Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms magazine, says the forced relocation of women and children after the family house is sold poses “enormous hardship.” Karen DeCrow, president of NOW from 1974 to 1977, believes that “women should no longer look to marriage as a source of income and stability. They should stop assuming that because their marriages are ending, they should be supported for life.”
Feminist historian Barbara Ehrenreich points out that divorced women are much less likely to get married again, and the likelihood of marriage for women falls sharply with age. Thus women are often deprived of intimate companionship in the later, more difficult years of life. In the 45-54 age group, for example, more than 60 percent of divorced men remarry, compared to only 38 percent of women. Older men apparently have a much easier time finding considerably younger women to wed. “Men can reasonably expect to have two marriages,” Ehrenreich says. “Women can expect to grow old without a partner.”
Contraception: Germaine Greer, whose 1970 book, The Female Eunuch is required reading in most Women’s Studies courses, has now written Sex and Destiny, a total repudiation of her previous views. In 1970, Greer argued that motherhood was a “handicap” and pregnancy an “illness.” She advised that “if women are to effect a significant amelioration of their condition, it seems obvious that they must refuse to marry.” Greer recommended “deliberate promiscuity” without pregnancy for women.
Now Greer has written a self-avowed “attack upon the ideology of sexual freedom” in which she blames artificial birth control for the decline of fertility in the West, laments family breakup and sex for its own sake, decries the 600,000 sterilizations in this country, and says the export of contraceptive technology to the Third World is “evil.”
Abortion: A pro-abortion stance remains a central tenet of the feminist creed. Some women even go so far as to deliberately get pregnant so they can have abortions to show their fertility and commitment to feminist principles, as the Village Voice reported in an article entitled “Abortion Chic.”
Even on this issue there are fissures in the movement, though. Kathleen McDonnell’s book, Not an Easy Choice: A Feminist Reexamines Abortion, argues that even pro-choice advocates such as herself cannot avert their gaze from the mounting scientific evidence that a fetus is a human being. Some feminists have expressed dismay over the prospect of female fetuses being disproportionately destroyed with the development of gender-identifying technology. As it is, more than 15 million fetuses, 51 percent of them female, have not seen life because of the painful prerogatives exercised by American women.
Women Exploited by Abortion, a recently formed group, has generated considerable pain and anguish in the feminist camp by documenting the physical harm and psychological devastation of hundreds of women who were led to believe they were merely “controlling their bodies.” Feminists for Life, another relatively new group, distributes material arguing that the risk and trauma of abortion falls entirely on women; men generally experience relief without the internal convulsions. It has always surprised feminists that more men than women support abortion on demand; they predicted that this issue would align male and female on opposite sides. Now feminists are beginning to see why the majority of their “oppressors” are with them on the abortion question.
Dierdre English, former executive editor of Mother Jones, a strongly feminist publication, recently wondered whether feminists who championed the sexual revolution have played into the hands of men. “Men have reaped more than their share of benefits from women’s liberation,” she says. “If a woman gets pregnant, the man who 20 years ago might have married her may today feel he is gallant if he splits the cost of an abortion.”
Pornography: Feminists were never in favor of pornography but most accepted it as a sign of sexual liberation. “Women have not had the freedom to express their interest in sex. They have been taught to reject the erotic,” Karen DeCrow maintained. Betty Friedan worried that anti-porn campaigns on campuses are “giving the impression that to be a feminist is to be against sex.”
The incredible proliferation of pornography, though, and its expansion into a smorgasbord of homosexuality, bestiality, sex with inanimate objects, gang rape, necrophilia, and sex murders, frequently including children — all of this has brought a rapid feminist turnaround.
Twiss Butler, a NOW member, says that “Phyllis Schlafly was making trenchant comments about pornography long before us,” a remarkable admission. Andrea Dworkin, the radical feminist, remarks that “when Jerry Falwell says there is real harm in pornography, that’s valuable to me.” Dworkin, founder of Women Against Pornography, has expanded her critique to the sexual revolution. “Women who lived through it got hurt badly. Sexual liberation has made life harder for us. We got used. We got abused. We got beaten. We got raped.”
Germaine Greer says that “people are now blaming me for the sexual revolution,” but in fact it was “not done by me, but by Hugh Hefner.” Rachel McNair of Feminists for Life worries that “the sexual revolution has become an excuse for sexual exploitation.”
These are remarkable voices coming from the very heart of the feminist movement. They should encourage the Catholic bishops and others who have long championed traditional morality in opposition to permissive divorce, contraception, abortion, and pornography. The bishops should consider supporting feminists and other women who are reappraising the women’s movement in response to new realities.