Part 2: The New Catholic Feminism

The following is part 2 in a 20-part series.

Before we move on to examine the more radical versions of feminism on offer today, let's finish our comparison of the New Catholic Feminism with classical, Liberal Feminism.

We said last time that one should not assume that the New Catholic Feminism and Liberal Feminism are always at loggerheads. On the contrary, they share some common ground. Both are concerned to uphold the inherent and equal dignity of women as persons, and both insist on that dignity and worth being upheld by the social rules and laws of the land. Moreover, both are utterly opposed to the myriad of ways that women in the world today are denigrated, marginalized, or beaten down.

Christina Hoff Sommers, for example, argues that there should be "a powerful and effective consensus on the need to help millions of women around the world who are struggling against honor killings, genital cutting, acid attacks, forced marriages, and lashings" (Freedom Feminism, p. 100-101). Many women around the world still are denied basic access to educational opportunities as well. Catholic and Liberal Feminists can (and sometimes do) ban together in common cause on such human rights issues.

With regard to the specific injustices often suffered by women in the western world, both might call for much stiffer sentences for convicted rapists (Why does the convicted rapist usually only have to spend about two years in prison, when the woman he raped is often scarred for life by his crime?). The call to "take back the night" in North America, so that women do not have to be afraid to walk alone after dark for fear of sexual predators, is something that both Catholics and feminists of all stripes can support.

Sexual harassment at the workplace is in the news more than ever these days, but it is not just a problem in Hollywood or in the political world. Wherever power structures are rigidly hierarchical, that power is liable to be abused - sexually, and in other ways. And quite apart from being the victims of the misuse of power, women also sometimes have a need for "safe spaces" for women only, places where they can go to find refuge from abusive boyfriends or husbands, or even just a place to do physical exercise where they do not feel themselves to be under constant male sexual observation. Ashley McGuire writes:

Women looking to break a sweat without dealing with men ogling them or outright harassing them have also spurred the spread of female-only gyms, the most famous among them being the Curves chain ... one of the fastest growing franchises in history that now boasts thousands of outlets around the world. (Sex Scandal, p. 183)

"Equal pay for equal work" is also a legitimate goal for both Liberal and Catholic Feminists to pursue, because in most cases it is simply a matter of fairness. Laws against sexual harassment and pay discrimination are already on the books in many western countries, but in some cases they need to be strengthened, and made more effective.

The advertising world also violates the inherent dignity of women on a regular basis. The research done by Jean Kilbourne over several decades has shown that women are often portrayed in advertisements as mere sex objects, and ads often carry the message that the most important thing about every woman is how she looks. All too often, women's bodies are deconstructed in advertising, so that what is selling the product is merely a slim leg or a smooth neck-as if these alluring body parts did not belong to a real "person."

At other times women are treated as mere clothes-hangers, with the models often required to be dangerously slim in a way that sends the wrong message to young women about the value of their own bodies (i.e. the natural, healthy, and curved state of your body isn't worth much: otherwise, why would it have to be minimized as much as possible? And therefore, you aren't worth much). Jennifer Roback Morse, PhD, Catholic founder and president of the Ruth Institute, made this salient observation:

Modern western women and girls are too often in a state of undeclared war with their bodies, seeking to remake them until they fit the dominant cultural standards of attractiveness. During the past forty years or so, those standards have gradually come to emphasize thinness to an extreme degree. As fertility has become more and more optional and undervalued in women, so have cultural elites located female beauty less in fertile Rubenesque voluptuousness and more in pre-pubescent skin-and-bone youth. (From her essay in Erika Bachiochi, ed., Women, Sex and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching, p. 106)

Finally, both Liberal and Catholic Feminists can stand together against the flood of pornography in western culture. In the huge pornography industry both men and women, but especially women - and most often girls with inner wounds and low self-esteem - allow their bodies to be used as mere sex objects for profit, while the viewers of pornography "objectify" them as well, using their images merely as instruments of sexual stimulation.

Liberal Feminism is not the only brand of feminism on offer in the western world, however; we need to move on to consider the challenge of some of its more radical forms.

Next Time: The Challenge of Radical Feminism

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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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