Part 13: Is the New Catholic Feminism Really 'Feminist'?

The following is part 13 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

Anyone who has read the first 12 installments of this web series might be tempted to reply: "Well, this is all very interesting, and all very Catholic, but how is it really feminism? Haven't the New Catholic Feminists just stretched the meaning of the term "feminism" to include themselves, when the word has no such "complementarian" historical roots?"

As a matter of fact, there was an early form of feminism that did flow largely from a "complementarian" (that is, an "equal but different") perspective on the gifts and social roles of men and women. Historians call it "First Wave" or "Maternal Feminism."

Abolitionist and playwright Hannah More in England (1745-1833) and suffragette Frances Willard in America (1839-1898) both argued that men and women are equal in worth, but profoundly different in natural gifts. They held that a woman's special role in the home and in childcare should be fostered and protected (thus, women with young children should not find themselves forced by extreme poverty to have abortions or to work in factories or farm fields, but should be able to prioritize care for their kids).

At the same time, they believed that women should be allowed to take their special, feminine gifts outside the home and beyond domestic roles into the wider world, serving especially in feminine vocations such as teaching younger children, nursing, and missionary work. By gaining the right to vote, the suffragettes in this First Wave of Feminism believed that women would take their compassionate and civilizing influence out into society: providing support at the ballot box for more humane conditions for workers, relief for the poor, and a priority for peace rather than for war.

In a more modern setting, the New Catholic Feminism also has some similarities with the "Freedom Feminism" advocated by Christina Hoff Sommers at the American Enterprise Institute. Sommers explains that Freedom Feminism:

• is a contemporary synthesis of egalitarian and maternal feminism;
• stands for the moral, social, and legal equality of the sexes;
• affirms for women what it affirms for everyone: dignity, fairness, and liberty;
• opposes efforts to impose on women (or men) stereotypical social roles, yet recognizes that men and women will typically employ their equal freedoms in distinctive ways;
• asserts that efforts to obliterate gender roles can be just as intolerant as efforts to sustain them; and
• establishes that differences between the sexes, under conditions of freedom, can be a sign of social well-being. Freedom feminism is at peace, not at war, with abiding human aspiration (Sommers, Freedom Feminism, p.7)

In short, it does not seem to be fair to accuse the New Catholic Feminism of operating out of the orbit of the way the term "feminism" has been used down through history.

Most other forms of Feminism, both secular and religious (including the forms that we discussed in the first three articles of this web series) have at their root two basic convictions:

1) The equal dignity and worth of men and women. Whatever natural differences there may be between men and women - biological differences, and distinctions in psychological and behavioral predispositions - these do not amount to differences in value. Both men and women are equally and fully human (or, to put it in Christian, biblical terms: equally children of God made in the image of God), and both have an equal, natural ability to be creative and productive, and to contribute to the common good. New Age or Eco-Feminism in its most extreme forms might have difficulty with admitting that men are equal in value to women, but the New Catholic Feminism, as well as First Wave Feminism, Liberal and Marxist Feminism, and Freedom Feminism all would be "on board" with this basic principle.
2) The social interchangeability of men and women. For the classical, Liberal Feminist, as well as for Marxist Feminists, if persons are equal in value, there can be no gender-based restrictions of social roles whatsoever, much less any gender-based social subordination of one sex to the other in any area of life. Any such social segregation or subordination necessarily implies inferiority, the degradation of personal worth. Thus, "equal in value" (point #1 above) necessarily implies "interchangeable in every social role."

It is in this second area where the real disagreements arise between the New Catholic Feminism and contemporary secular feminism. Indeed, in this respect the New Catholic Feminism stands in stark contrast to the path that many secular feminists have taken for the last half-century or more - ever since Simone De Beauvoir's seminal work back in 1949, The Second Sex.

De Beauvoir advocated a radical dualism between the human body and the human soul or personality. She saw the female body as having no essential connection to a woman's psychological (much less spiritual) gifts, at least not in any way that gives women a distinctive vocation grounded in their biological nature. And the same she held to be true for men.

In fact, for De Beauvoir the human body is a mere instrument of the human person, to be used for self-realization and individual happiness. A woman's body, however, is actually a burden to her personal happiness and fulfillment because it is tied down to the repetitive patterns of nature: namely, the processes of menstruation, reproduction, and motherhood. Thus, women's "liberation" is more than just the attainment of "equal civil rights" with men (e.g. the right to vote, the right to be protected from discrimination in education and employment). Rather, for De Beauvoir women's "liberation" must consist, at least in part, in a freedom from the constraints and limitations of their own bodies, and from the slavery of maternity.

Hence, Liberal Feminism, from about the 1960s onward, was marked by a strong push for women to take control of their own fertility through the use of contraceptives and to claim the right to abort their unborn children as a back-up form of contraception. Moreover, all "complementarian" social roles that claimed to be rooted in a woman's biological and maternal nature were to be resisted as oppressive social constructs that inhibit women's "freedom."

For St. John Paul II, this kind of "freedom" is not really freedom at all: It is a denial of the distinctive gifts that God gave to women and men from the beginning - a freedom from one's true self, rather than a freedom to be oneself. Ironically, it also exalts a quintessentially "masculine" human trait, detachment from one's own body, as the paradigm of what it means to be fully "human" (see articles 11 and 12 in this web series).

G.K. Chesterton once quipped that this kind of feminism can be defined succinctly as "the dislike of everything feminine." Pope John Paul II wrote in Mulieris Dignitatem (section 10):

In the name of liberation from male "domination," women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine "originality." There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not "reach fulfilment," but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness. In the biblical description, the words of the first man at the sight of the woman who had been created are words of admiration and enchantment, words which fill the whole history of man on earth.

The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence, a woman as well as a man must understand her "fulfilment" as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation and which she inherits as an expression of the "image and likeness of God" that is specifically hers.

Next Time: Radical, Post-Modern Feminism

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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