About a week ago, I saw an article pop up here on Ignitum Today called Roots, Fruits, and Feminism.
I eagerly clicked on the link, wondering what new light it could shed on feminism. (I’ll be honest, I love me some old-fashioned feminist rants!) Then I realised, oh dear me, this wasn’t any old article about Feminism. Oh no.
This one was about… me.
Ok, it wasn’t just about me. The article was a response to a post I’d written a few months ago on my own blog, Catholic Cravings, called “I’m A Feminist Because I’m a Hypocrite.” It was the first in three-part series where I explained three reasons why I’m a feminist. (The other two are “Because Being Female is Dangerous” and “Because I Love Patriarchy“)
I really appreciate Meghan sharing her thoughts on my post. So I thought I’d share mine on hers — as well as some of my concerns. Now, Meghan says this is nothing personal and I believe her. She is courteous and warm throughout her article, and I really appreciate that. I hope I can act with some of that grace in response.
I’ll try be as concise as possible but this is a looong post. Feel free to skim!
So, shall we?
The Issue At Hand: Catholic and Feminist?
The question here is whether Catholics can and should call themselves feminists. I say yes. Meghan, however, says no. She writes that while at first blush, my arguments for feminism seem reasonable, they are actually a capitulation and a compromise.
“It is abhorrent to me that Catholic women like her [i.e., me] feel a compunction to compromise with the feminists and somehow give them credit for misappropriated victories.”
Naturally, I disagree.
I am a feminist and I am proud to call myself a feminist, despite the some of the evils feminism has encouraged. This is because feminism is a diverse movement, including both good and bad “fruits” as Meghan would say. But at its heart, grounded in the full equality of the sexes, it aims to secure the rights of women and to advocate for our inherent dignity and well-being.
Look up any dictionary or textbook and you will read that definition. I think how could you not want to be a part of that?
In my original post, I argued that many of us have a caricatured version of feminism. We think it’s all sex, abortion, man-hating — and maybe the vote too.
Against this caricature, I briefly outlined the history of feminism from the early 19th Century to the present day, trying to highlight the diversity of feminism and to point out the many good things feminism has achieved.
Generally, feminism is divided into three waves:
- First wave (19th Century – 1920s), which was primarily focused on rights to suffrage, property and education.
- Second wave (1960s – 1980s), which was mainly about equal wages, sexual abuse, reproductive “rights” and sex discrimination.
- Third wave (1980s – ), which seems to be about “things like the ‘right’ to… engage in all kinds of unnatural or promiscuous sexual experimentation on the grounds of a gendered ‘self-expression’” as Meghan aptly put it, but also about how sexism is one kind of discrimination among others, and how feminism has silenced women of colour and from third world countries in its own history.
To these waves, many would add a “first-and-a-half” wave from 1920s – 1950s. Feminism activism was less during this period, but that’s because we had, oh what was it, a World War, a Great Depression, and another World War.
The main point of my post was that feminism, considered as a complex, historically conditioned movement, has more than enough room for faithful Christians.
Was First Wave Feminism Just A Suffrage Movement?
My first problem with Meghan’s critique is that she ignores this complex history. She reduces what historians call first wave feminism (19th Century – 1920s) to a suffrage movement, which she describes as “a totally different beast” from the feminism we know today.
There is no doubt that the right to vote was incredibly important to the early women’s rights movements. But there was so much more!
First wave feminism won us the right to vote, to own property (and manage and dispose of that property), to sit on juries, to take out loans, to attend universities; essentially, to be our own legal persons and not the property or childish dependents of our husbands.
Women’s rights activists also advocated for education reform, set up schools, campaigned for better treatment of prostitutes (who were shamefully exploited by men), and supported improvements in women’s working conditions and wages (which were worse than men’s — and theirs were bad!) Perhaps most importantly, feminists of the 19th Century encouraged women, and society more generally, to see women as rational adults. To wit,
“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”
– Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792
Meghan dismisses this rich history by labeling first wave feminism simply as “suffrage.” This means from the start, we are talking about two very definitions of feminism.
So who’s right?
Can We Call the First Wave Feminist?
If Meghan provided some historical evidence that first wave feminism wasn’t in fact feminist, but simply a suffrage movement, maybe that would be something. But she doesn’t. Instead, she simply asserts “feminism as we know it has roots only in the Sexual Revolution.” [my emphasis]
Historically, that is untenable.
In both popular and scholarly discourse, feminism refers to the women’s rights movement from early pioneers in the 19th Century to the present day. Admittedly, the term ‘feminist’ itself was not used by the first women’s rights supporters. It was originally a French term and didn’t enter the English language until the 1890s after the First International Women’s Conference in Paris, 1892. Still, that’s a good seventy years before the Sexual Revolution and a good twenty-five before women were able to vote in most Western countries.
Modern feminism today definitely draws a great deal from the Sexual Revolution (mostly for worse), but both it and the feminism of the 60s and 70s, are rooted in the older feminism of the 19th Century. We can see this in some of the good things modern feminists have achieved — but I’ll come to do that in a moment.
Is Feminism About Human Rights?
My second problem with Meghan’s response is what I see as a reductionist account of human rights.
Part of my original argument was that while feminists today generally promote abortion (thus violating the most fundamental human right to live), feminists have also been instrumental in securing some of the most basic human rights for women.
As I explained above, Meghan doesn’t address such rights gained from first wave feminism because she doesn’t treat it as feminism.
But she also dismisses such gains from the second wave too.
University Admission, Equal Pay, Consequence-Free Sex, Abortion on Demand, etc: None of these are rights, and all of these are associated with the kinds of feminism that are not suffrage. A right is as narrowly defined as suffrage–it isn’t anything and everything to which you feel entitled. A right is a human being’s claim on their identity as a child of God. In secular terms, it is ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.
I agree that consequence-free sex and abortion are not human rights; both are immoral and we never have a right to do what is immoral.
But surely university admission and equal pay for women are human rights? I mean, that’s a pretty basic right against discrimination. Maybe Meghan thought I was saying all women must attend university or must all be paid exactly the same amount — but there is nothing in my article to suggest that. It’s certainly not what I think! (Though I think we could do with a whole lot more equity in both areas.)
University admission and equal pay without sex discrimination are human rights. How could not being discriminated against for being female (or male for that matter), in either education or employment, not be a human right?
It’s in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, specifically in articles 23 & 26.
It’s also in Catholic teaching. For example, Gaudium et Spes declared that,
Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design. For in truth it must still be regretted that fundamental personal rights are still not being universally honored. Such is the case of a woman who is denied the right to choose a husband freely, to embrace a state of life or to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those recognized for men. (Gaudium et Spes, §29)
That’s right, according to Gaudium et Spes, not being able “to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those recognised for men” is a violation of a woman’s “fundamental personal rights.”
Did Any Good Come Out of Modern Feminism?
To education and equal pay, we could add a legal right against sexism, stricter laws about sexual assault, greater social freedom in pursuing careers, and the recognition that women can be raped by their husbands. (It was a legal impossibility before.)
Second wave feminists also campaigned strongly against pornography, which they rightly thought was degrading to women, and the sexualisation of women in the media. And feminists continue to do so.
To sum up, I must reject the bulk of Meghan’s critique because in it, she fails to consider feminism as a whole. Instead, she ignores the good of early feminism by reducing it to a suffrage movement and also the good of modern feminism by a reductionistic account of human rights.
Should We Reclaim Feminism?
Nonetheless, the real question at the heart of this article remains.
Given this complex heritage, should Catholic women be feminists? There is a great deal of evil in feminism — and I’m not afraid to describe it as such. So is there any point to calling ourselves feminists? Can we reclaim feminism for Christ?
My answer remains a firm yes.
Despite Laura’s optimism that since it has changed twice already maybe it will change again, I don’t think we need to waste anymore time on a cultural identifier that has at its very root things that we as Catholics claim to want to do away with. Be a suffragist, be a woman, be feminine. Don’t try to perform moral and intellectual gymnastics to try and contort feminism into something you can get behind.
Maybe it’s because I was raised by a feminist mother and grew up with feminist friends but when I think feminism, I don’t think Sexual Revolution and I certainly don’t think evil, man-hating, baby-killing slut out to destroy society. (Not, to be fair, that Meghan’s writes that — although plenty think that way!)
I think of equality.
It is equality that truly lies at the very root of feminism. For me and countless others, feminism is a “cultural identifier” that says I am for equality and I am for women.
I don’t want to abandon the legacy of our feminist forebears to a radical feminism which is actually anti-woman. I don’t want my daughters to grow up believing the lie that being pro-woman means being pro-abortion. I don’t want the real roots of feminism to be obscured by bad fruit.
I want in.
Feminism still has so much good to do in the world.
Women still make up about 70% of the world’s poorest people, earn only about 3/4 of the amount men do for the same work, and those aged 15-45 are still more likely to die from male violence than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. (Source: Half the Sky Movement)
Of the 775 million people who are illiterate, two thirds are women. Over 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is legal, around 3 million girls will suffer genital mutilation every year, and over 1000 women are raped every day in the Congo alone.
Across the third world, women are disadvantaged and oppressed in ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Such entrenched discrimination against women requires a specifically feminist response. I’m not saying feminism can single-handly solve these problems. It can’t; it’s a whole lot more complicated than that. (But isn’t it always?)
Conclusion: Catholic and Feminist
If it’s optimistic to believe that feminism can live up, even in part, to its own values and founding principles, then call me an optimist.
That’s fine by me.
I like being optimistic. I will keep believing that women deserve better, can do better, and can use our God-given femininity, by the grace of God, to further His Kingdom. I would never put my feminism above my Catholic faith because that would be putting a human endeavour above the cause of Christ. But where I can, I am glad to be a feminist.
I am a Catholic and then a feminist.
I am a feminist because I am first a Catholic.
I am Catholic and feminist.