Justice For Women

In the Church. In the World.

Monday, January 15, 2007

"New" Feminism, Old Sexism?

Nicole, a fellow member of WOC's Young Feminist Network, sent a link to the listserv from US Catholic, "Redesigning Women". The article explores the "new feminism" promoted by John Paul II:
Last spring at the University of Notre Dame a heated debate about campus performances of the controversial play The Vagina Monologues made national news, provoking widespread debate not only about academic freedom at Catholic universities but also about the compatibility of Catholicism and feminism. While the debate surrounding Monologues took center stage, inciting lively debates in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, another forum on campus quietly attracted more than 300 people. A weekend conference organized by three Notre Dame undergraduates, “The Edith Stein Project: Redefining Feminism,” attempted to respond to the late Pope John Paul II’s call for a “new feminism” in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), tackling such issues as abortion, pornography, contraception, eating disorders, and rape.

First off, a small disclaimer as to how I approach this topic and this article. As an undergraduate at a Catholic college, I brought the firestorm that is The Vagina Monologues onto campus. Interestingly enough, I took Edith Stein as my confirmation name when I was in high school. Some nine years later, my personal philosophies have taken a different route than Edith's, but I chose her because at 15 I knew I was a feminist, and she was a brand new saint (I'm gunning for my little sister to pick Mother Theodore this spring) who was not only a feminist, but who was educated, encouraged women's education, and struggled with God and religion as I did and continue to do.

This article, by Renee LaReau, highlights some of the more troublesome aspects of the "new feminism" for me. While it cozies itself up close to cultural feminism with talk of uplifting "women's work," recognizing the value of nurturing, and so forth, it diverges quickly because it is a feminism that was created by and for the maintanance of a patriarchal structure. At least one nun agrees with me:
Some women theologians are wary of a “new feminism” initiated by a male Catholic hierarchy. Part of the problem, says Sister of Mercy Mary Aquin O’Neill, is that the church hierarchy is defined by having a teaching role, rather than a listening role, which may inhibit their ability to learn from the experiences of women.

“It will always mean that men are defining women and telling women what it is like to be a woman,” says O’Neill, director of the Mount Agnes Theological Center for Women in Baltimore. “It’s not particular to the pope, it’s particular to the system.” O’Neill also says that, as long as women are excluded from higher-level leadership church positions, sexism within the church itself can go unchecked.

Another troubling aspect is that many of the women who espouse the "new feminism" seem to have a very poor understanding of what feminism is and where it came from.
“For a long time, feminism has been about doing: Can I build a skyscraper the way a man can? Can a man do half the housework? Can a woman break through the glass ceiling?” says Pia de Solenni, a Washington, D.C.-based moral theologian. “It hasn’t been about who I am.”

Maybe. I won't make assumptions on Ms. de Solenni's feelings about feminism, but she clearly doesn't know the whole story. Feminism is about equality between the sexes at it's most rudimentary level, which includes some of what Ms. de Solenni speaks of. However, feminism has also always been tied up in giving women more choices about their lives and giving more respect to the work women have done and continue to do. For feminists, caring for children has always been as honorable as running for office, as long as each woman could make that choice for herself.

Another "new feminist" who is interviewed for this article, Madeleine Ryland, is senior at University of Notre Dame and one of the organizers of the aforementioned Edith Stein Project had this to say, and I hope beyond hope she was incompletely quoted:
“For my generation the word feminism has more of a negative connotation now,” says Ryland, 22. “Feminism was important then, but do we really still need to be talking about this stuff? Women have equal voting rights—isn’t that all we needed from that? It’s kind of a dead horse people are still beating.”

She and her peers care about feminism to the extent that they don’t want to go into job interviews and be discriminated against.

Uh, what? Do we really still need to be talking about this stuff? As a matter of full disclosure, I will say that I disagree with some of the basic beliefs of the Edith Stein Project and the speakers they bring in, but both last year's conference and this year's discuss eating disorders, rape, domestic violence, and immigrant women's rights. We need feminism because this stuff is still happening. Feminist.com has done a stellar job of compiling facts about the violence women face on a national and global scale. It was the secular feminist movement that brought violence against women out of the home and into the national spotlight, created domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers. What the "new feminists" seem to forget when they deride the secular feminist movement for some imaginary slight against the stay at home mom is that feminists are on the front line every day saving women's lives.

Another related problem I have with the "new feminism," along with pro-life feminism, the ease and eagerness with which the term "feminism" is co-opted by individuals and groups who align themselves with anti-woman fundamentalists. The Edith Stein Project links to the group One More Soul who famously link condoms with lethal experimentation and cohabitation with multiple health problems, Feminists for Life have been courted by the Christian media opened the door for even the most radical anti-shoice groups to claim a "feminist" connection by citing Susan B. Anthony. I've encountered people who tell me they are "feminists" in one breath and say that contraception is immoral and women should "keep their legs shut" in the next.

Is the "new feminism" anything "new" really, or is it the old gender determinism, now masquerading oppression for liberation? As Aisha Taylor, executive director of WOC says in the article's sidebar, "But ‘new feminism’ falls down when it says women are meant to be mothers and are more nurturing because they are women. Then instead of doing something because of your gifts or because you feel called by God to do it, it’s because of traditional gender roles."


  • At 3:05 PM, Blogger Theologienne said…

    "Feminism has also always been tied up in giving women more choices about their lives and giving more respect to the work women have done and continue to do."
    And, I would add, giving men the choice to adopt the activities and attitudes formerly assigned by society to the female sphere.

    "For feminists, caring for children has always been as honorable as running for office, as long as each woman could make that choice for herself."
    I think that's always been the case in theory, but maybe not so much at cocktail parties or in legislative offices. As we take feminism forward, let's make sure all women's choices are given equal honor in practice.

    Great blog, Johanna--I'll definitely be back!

  • At 1:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Johanna, great comments on the article in the U.S. Catholic, "Redesigning Women." I read that article for an upcoming Women's Spirituality group and found it troubling and a bit depressing. I can't understand how the word "feminist" has come to have such a negative meaning in our lexicon.

    I will share your thoughts on the article with the group. Thank you for saying so eloquently what I was feeling as I read the article.

    Anne Marie in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

  • At 11:03 AM, Blogger Silabella said…

    It always surprises me to find women who find so much strength in the Church and claim themselves to be Catholic misunderstand so many of the arguments behind what She teaches. I share with you and understand the real, earnest desire to improve the lives of women and frustration at teachings we feel go against that directive.

    I would strongly encourage you, however, to read more of the discussion by New Feminists and not merely the Old Feminist critiques against them. Pia de Solenni, for example, whom you cite as “clearly” not knowing “the whole story” wrote an article that can help you place New Feminism in perpective: Solenni’s “Christian Feminism” explanation located here: http://catholiceducation.org/articles/feminism/fe0022.html, if not her doctoral thesis “A Hermeneutic of Aquinas’s Mens Through a Sexually Differentiated Epistemology: Towards an understanding of woman as imago Dei.” Ms. Solenni is far from ignorant of the theological, philosophical and sociological foundations of the feminism you espouse.

    In some ways, however, you are correct in pointing out weaknesses in this initial critique: the irony of a feminism being espoused by an all-male hierarchy. Surely this is counter-intuitive to 21st century women who are taught that everyone must have a voting voice in democracy to make a change. But if I may quote Winston Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government…except for all the other kinds.” And, as Catholics, we know that morality is not a democracy which is why Christ left the Church with the guidance of the Holy Spirit on matters of faith and morals for those ordained (who must necessarily be men, which I know you disagree with, but that is a different issue) to confirm. The Church is not a democracy where we must endeavor to place the correct number of males/females/races/ages/social backgrounds/interests/views in order to get the most popular one.

    Indeed, most feminists fundamentally misunderstand the meaning and nature of “authority” in the Catholic Church – which is always to be the “Servant of the servants”. I also suggest you read the argument of Monica Migliorino Miller in the book “Sexuality and Authority in the Catholic Church”. While I assure you I am enthralled with endorsement of a New Feminism from the hierarchy of the Church, it is also clear that this was not created “by” and “for” a patriarchal culture when female authors have been on the move in reaction to many old feminist assertions for the past century, from philosophers Edith Stein and the infamous Elizabeth Anscombe, to the more contemporary Sister Prudence Allen, Louis Bouyer, Ronda Chervin, even some of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and French authors Anne-Marie Pelletier and Janine Hourcade – who all wrote from this perspective on women in the Church before any proclamation or acknowledgement of a “new feminism” from the Papacy. Should there be more development on ways to have the female perspective effectively shared with and incorporated into the Magisterium? Absolutely – and that has been a continual work in progress for the past century. I pray continually for a improvement among relations between the sexes at all levels of society.

  • At 11:04 AM, Blogger Silabella said…

    Nor, however, is New Feminism a biological or gender determinism, which is also an understandable critique from old feminists. In, “The Nature of Nature in Feminism, Old and New,” from her compilation “Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism” (which I also suggest would be of interest to you), Michele M. Schumacher explains, “Far from a model of biological determinism which would read into woman’s bodily structure the full mystery of her person and her vocation, an authentically Christian model of nature actually frees her potentialities by setting them in the context of love, the ultimate meaning of freedom positively perceived.” (45) True Freedom is another Catholic concept misunderstood by the vast majority of old feminists. Indeed, “rather than a form of divine determinism, the universal vocation to holiness in union with Christ is an invitation to direct freedom toward responsibility…women really are responsible agents in charge of their own lives and not merely victims of oppression or creatures restricted by a patriarchal view of nature’ (47), which nature itself is seen by modern feminists as a social construct (23).

    Sister Prudence Allen summarizes this distinction about the biological roots of women’s genius nicely: “Women’s lived experience from puberty to menopause of the biological changes occurring in her monthly cycles is “the origin of the maternal instinct” or the natural orientation of woman toward another human being. Even if the woman never becomes pregnant, there is an interior maternal orientation toward conceiving and fostering the life of another human being. This interior access to the personalistic norm is not a biological determinism, but rather a psycho-emotive consciousness of a somato-vegetative aspect of her experience as a woman.” (Women in Christ, 95). Women are very much called to follow their gifts wherever it will lead them, but not against the directives of God which He has logically made evident through both Church Tradition and Human Experience regarding the integral complementarity of the sexes (see Sr. Allen’s “Man-Woman Complementarity” http://www.endowonline.com/File/spComplementary.pdf).

    Obedience is another misunderstood virtue often derided by old feminists – a feminism that was in may ways very political – it was about power. In climbing and climbing for more and more power, women and men have lost the true value of obedience to Truth and Virtue amidst an individualistic continual repeat of our first parent’s original sin - that the individual’s will is more important than God’s.

  • At 11:04 AM, Blogger Silabella said…

    I am also offended at your blanket label of some New Feminists as “anti-woman fundamentalists”, such as those from One More Soul.com. These are people who believe that a woman’s fertility is a gift to be celebrated and cherished, not “cured” or “fixed” with “the Pill” when nothing is going wrong inside of her. They are activists who believe in the beauty of sexual intimacy and in Love as a total self-giving of spouses to one another in the image of the Divine Trinity! (If you are unclear as to my reference here, you can find it in any explanation of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body). They are people who believe that the lives of men and women are full of dignity from the time their genetic code is constructed in one individual cell. These are very pro-woman people. You show the link to the flower comparison from omsoul.com, but have yet to respond to Dr. Smith’s “Contraception: Why not?” speech transcript (under Topics), which is also very pro-woman, AND, just as important, pro-man.

    Is it an imaginary slight against stay-at-home mothers with the majority of feminist organizations spend most of their time on denying an essential aspect of femininity (fertility)? Which prompted organizations like “The Motherhood Project”? When mothers get weird looks and comments in the streets and stores because they have more than two children with them? (see Dr. Smith’s talk on omsoul.com). While some New Feminists may let their anger and disappointment with old feminist ideals be released in anger towards the Feminist Movement, which is never a productive tool for progress, they do acknowledge the benefits of education and opportunity which were indeed wrong in the world. They can nevertheless disagree and have fervent personal and collective experience about the anti-feminine stances of many Old Feminist movements.

    If Old Feminism really is about choices for women, as you assert, why the derision about celebrating women’s particular contribution to helping the world in a non-physically maternal way, the ‘spiritual motherhood’ so sarcastically derided. If it is about choices, why are old feminists so threatened by the committed, loving and healthy practice of Natural Family Planning against the failure and danger of various forms of contraception and it’s solution should a pregnancy occur, “abortion?” If it is about choices, why all the push for days of contraceptive coverage in student health classes but little to no discussion of the fertility cycle of the woman and how to naturally avoid or achieve pregnancy following it? If Old Feminism is really about respect, why only respect for “certain” choices because women have the ability to do them, regardless of whether or not they ought?

    Caring for children and running for office, you’re right, are both honorable things. But the Church insists that the family – for both men and women – is far more important than material status or earning, which, while leading to many good things in society, also leads to many bad – including a continual devaluation of family life which is the foundation of all society.


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