A New Feminism
by Helen Alvaré
In the encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life"), among the 105 paragraphs so elegantly written by Pope John Paul II, paragraph 99 jumped out and grabbed this pro-life feminist. It reads:
"In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place in thought and action which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a 'new feminism' which rejects the temptation of imitating models of 'male domination' in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation."
See also: the full text of Evangelium Vitae (Note: big file 278K)
Quite a stunning set of marching orders! Soon, out of seeming nowhere, came hundreds of women telling one another that they, too, had noticed this novel language in a papal encyclical. They all acknowledged that they had had similar thoughts. And in 1996 several hundred women attended a conference in Washington to discuss the meaning of a "new feminism" in service to life -- a feminism specifically rooted in Catholic teaching.
The Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and a national group of professional women called "Women Affirming Life" sponsored the two-day affair. The conference provided many uplifting moments, many intellectual epiphanies. Perhaps the most enlightening outcome was the revelation that throughout the United States and Canada (as well as abroad), thousands of Catholic women had been musing about the shape of a new feminism. The Pope's words in Evangelium Vitae struck a deep chord in them, and they used the occasion of the document's issuance to go public in a more fervent way.
The shape of things to come
All this talk about a new feminism might alarm some who only see feminism in its older, 1960s style. Even today only about one quarter of all adult women are willing to assume the "feminist" label. And when the talk turns to specifics -- what's wrong with "old feminism" and what women "really want" in a new feminism -- the potential for controversy increases greatly. Feminism, new or old, is inevitably a touchy subject for almost everyone. Some view it as a heroic movement that won for women the basic rights to vote, to own property, and to be admitted on an equal basis with men in schools and places of employment. Others see it almost exclusively as a movement that gave us a litany of troubles, such as the sexual revolution, abortion, and latchkey kids. Many in the former group consider it ungrateful to criticize those who made it possible for the women of today to work in interesting careers, to go to the best schools, and to expect fair treatment from their husbands. Groups like the National Organization of Women, for instance, get very agitated when Ivy League educated, well-employed, happily married women publicly criticize the failures of old feminism.
But some ugly realities cannot be avoided. Even though many women, including me, reap the benefits of some of the accomplishments of old feminism, many of its "fruits" are demonstrably disastrous -- even for the women they were supposed to help. And clearly, fruits this poisonous don't come from healthy trees. There must be some thing or things at the roots of the old feminism that are problematic.
This observation makes it clear that in examining the old and constructing the new, we should begin with the foundations of the old feminism.
The roots of old feminism
Not coincidentally, right foundations are the subject of what is possibly the most insightful section of Evangelium Vitae. The Holy Father recognized that we can't hope to transform our culture into one that serves life without supplanting the misguided ideas that fueled a culture of death. Likewise, we cannot build a new feminism by choosing and rejecting this or that discrete outcome of the old: "I'll say no to the sexual revolution, but I'd still like to get into the college of my choice, please." That may work on an individual level, but at the level of a movement, a set of consistent, animating ideas must first exist. And these ideas may -- and do -- lead to the conclusion that although we should overthrow the sexual revolution, nevertheless we should embrace educational equality. A coherent body of ideas will help explain why this is so, as well as provide the foundation for a set of consistent, wholesome outcomes for women and for society at large.
Where do we begin? Evangelium Vitae provides more than a few clues. The Pope recognized implicitly in paragraph 99 that old feminism needed to be replaced because it did not serve life. He further implied that the old feminism merely mimicked patterns of "male domination" and "violence" against life, making it one of the engines of the culture of death. Attempting to get to the roots of the culture of death, the Pope explores the ideas that engender virulent moral problems such as sexual promiscuity, abortion and euthanasia, plus bioethical problems such as harmful embryo experimentation and surrogate motherhood. These ideas, not coincidentally, are the very ones embraced fervently by groups that are considered feminist today. The cause of abortion is the signature piece, the number-one goal of groups like the National Organization for Women and the feminist majority. Examining the roots of the culture of death as the Pope does, therefore, is the same examination that is required to understand old feminism's fundamental problems and to discover clues that will help us build a new feminism, one that serves life.
Although it is impossible to briefly describe a movement the size of feminism, it is not unfair to summon up its spirit by recalling some of the slogans for which old feminism is best remembered: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," "Not the Church, not the state, women must decide their fate," and the oft-repeated "freedom of choice" and "my body, my choice " Beneath the surface of these glittering phrases lurk three dangerous ideas, ideas that eventually led to those harmful outcomes for which old feminism is renowned.
The first is the idea that freedom is an individualistic matter: it's not about others but only about me. Evangelium Vitae describes this notion of freedom as one that "gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them." It "ends up becoming the freedom of 'the strong against the weak who have no choice but to submit" Thus, old feminism became isolationist where men were concerned; this stance was even more isolationist where unborn and even born children were concerned. The result was the invention of a "right" to sever that relationship. By this sad logic, support for abortion on demand was a natural goal for a feminism that exalted the isolated individual -- abortions without spousal consent or even notice and abortions on minors without notice to parents.
And out of all the talk about freeing "victimized" women of burdensome childbearing came a "freedom" that was nothing other than absolute power over the life or death of powerless children. Also out of this same misguided notion of freedom came too little concern about the effect of exaggerated individualism upon even our born children -- cavalier attitudes about how often they can be left in the care of nonfamily or about the effects of divorce on children or of Mommy or Daddy living with a new "friend." All of these sad outcomes are, in an important sense, the natural outgrowth of embracing bad ideas about the nature of freedom.
Good versus evil
Closely related is the second foundational idea embraced by old feminism: freedom has no relation to a higher truth or good. According to Evangelium Vitae, this notion of freedom "shuts out even the most obvious evidence of an objective and universal truth." The person exercising it ends up "no longer taking as the sole and indisputable point of reference for his own choices the truth about good and evil, but only his subjective and changeable opinion or, indeed his selfish interest and whim." Old feminism tried, for example, to ignore certain truths about human love and sexuality: that we are not created to be happy in a series of promiscuous and uncommitted relationships, that we can harm our psyche and even our bodies in sexual relationships outside of marriage, that babies are a natural result of sexual intercourse. The sexual revolution was a natural if tragic outcome of this sort of thinking about freedom untethered to truth. The same is true of abortion; old feminism acted as if the truth about the humanity of an unborn child could be denied by fiat. But it can't and it won't, and women who abort learn the tenacity of this truth over time. They regularly report feeling anything but free after denying the fact of their relationship with another human being, their unborn child.
The third flawed premise of old feminism held that you could forget God while maintaining a good understanding of who the human person is meant to be. Old feminism seemed to decry religion as the mother of all of women's problems. Christianity in particular, with its God the Father and Son Jesus, was laughed off the premises. It was declared impossible to be both a liberated woman and a faithful member of a Christian Church. According to Evangelium Vitae, the consequences of this are far-reaching. Humans are no longer able to consider life as "a splendid gift of God .... Life itself becomes a mere 'thing,' which [humankind] claims as [its] exclusive property, completely subject to [its] control and manipulation." Practical materialism reigns: "The values of being are replaced by those of having." And in this context, "suffering, an inescapable burden of human existence but also a factor of possible personal growth, is 'censored,' rejected as useless ... and in every way to be avoided." Within this climate, the "body is no longer perceived as a properly personal reality.... it is reduced to pure materiality... to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency. Consequently, sexuality too is depersonalized and exploited .... Procreation then becomes the 'enemy.' "
How clearly these words describe the logic which led old feminism to embrace so many errors: material success for women as superior to work within the family; unencumbered choice as superior to marriage and family life; sex as recreation; children as burden; abortion; and even physician-assisted suicide. In the euthanasia cases before the Supreme Court in 1997, the legal arm of the pro-abortion movement filed a friend-of-the-court brief endorsing physician-assisted suicide. Their grounds? Decisions about the human body are to be left to the "autonomous" self; our bodies are our personal possessions to be disposed of as we see fit.
Here, I will digress slightly. The overlap between the ideas that animated old feminism and what the Pope calls the "culture of death" is not a matter of merely theoretical or intellectual interest. When I first read the Pope's "diagnosis" of the roots of the culture of death, I noted that he had captured in a few brief pages the essence of what I had come to perceive only after logging thousands of miles and speaking with many pro-abortion feminists. What may at first appear to be separate and distinct problems -- promiscuity, teen pregnancy, divorce, abortion, euthanasia -- are actually related outgrowths of misguided thinking about freedom and about God.
When an angry woman approaches me after I've given a talk, her objection to a specific point gives way quickly to a more basic disagreement: "No one can know what's right for sure, so stop trying to force your opinion on me," "No Church is going to tell me what to do with my body," and so forth. Her anger -- and what passes for reasoning -- in connection with her opinion about abortion goes far beyond the conviction that women ought to be able to snuff out the life developing within them. It is based upon the ideas that freedom equals a right to do whatever we want, whenever we want, regardless of whether others are hurt or whether truth is violated. It is based upon ignorance about God and about why we were created and how we ought to behave as daughters and sons of God. It stands to reason, therefore, that their opinion on abortion is not going to be changed in isolation. Rather, the underlying dispositions that lead them to say yes to abortion must first change. This is, in large part, the work of a new feminism in service to life. And it is terribly important work.
The new feminism
Not by accident have I sketched the outlines of a new feminism in a critique of the old. The key is getting our foundation in order, avoiding the mistakes that dogged old feminism from the beginning and that led to the embracing of harmful social policies.
Almost by definition, the overarching goal of any feminism is to realize -- in action, in the world -- the dignity of the human person who is female. In Evangelium Vitae, the Pope refers to this when he says that feminism acknowledges and affirms "the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society." The marks of a new feminism, a Christian feminism in service to life, are distinctive, however. Women's well-being is not pursued in isolation; rather, our well-being, dignity, and freedom are always related to the well-being, dignity, and freedom of others.
As the members of the human race who bear the next generation, who have a special relationship with new life, we must never forget that all freedom is relational. As the Pope states: "You are called to bear witness to the meaning of genuine love, of that gift of self and of that acceptance of others which are present in a special way in the relationship of husband and wife, but which ought also to be at the heart of every other interpersonal relationship. The experience of motherhood makes you acutely aware of the other person."
Thus, we must bring to every struggle undertaken in the name of a new feminism an acute sense not only of women's rightful place but of the well-being of others. While wholeheartedly supporting true equality for women in all arenas, we must also attend to the needs of those who are affected by our actions -- most especially the needs of children. As relatively powerless people, children merit our special care and concern to ensure that their needs are not trampled upon. New feminism, for example, must honestly confront the moral dilemmas faced by the working mother, something old feminism never adequately addressed. Caught up in a fight to allow children to be "disappeared" by abortion, old feminism could never quite bring itself to grapple with what mothers owe their children.
New feminism must also remember that men are profoundly affected by the path of women's lives. It never adopts an "in-your-face" attitude but remembers that true freedom for women respects the dignity of males as well. Think of the progress that could be made in respect for women if men were seen always as partners, not adversaries! And every woman with a supportive husband or a father who is sure his daughter can do anything understands what I'm talking about.
A new feminism also remembers that it is a waste of time to rail against objective truths. Trying to be free of our bodies' reproductive abilities or of the emotional consequences of promiscuity is as futile as trying to be free of gravity.
We need to jump off a building only once to know that we cannot escape the reality of gravity. True freedom with respect to our sexual selves respects our God-given nature to give ourselves sexually only within the lifetime commitment of marriage. Giving ourselves in any other context gives too much away that is never retrieved.
Finally, and most importantly, a new feminism, a Christian feminism, remembers God. How can we fail to understand the dignity with which we've been endowed if we remember the One who created us and why. The beauty of the story of women's creation and the dignity and holiness of Mary and of the other women in Scripture -- in the Old and New Testaments -- speak volumes about who women were created to be. Throughout the New Testament in particular, Jesus' respectful encounters with women were as noteworthy in that day as they ought to be in our own. A new feminism must remember that God will never underestimate women's potential or the gifts we can bring to private and public life. At the same time, it remembers that, like Jesus -- the model for humanity -- and like all human beings, we are created to serve others. Such a feminism will leave no victims in its wake. When we embrace a feminism that remembers God, we will reject abortion, we will not taunt men, we will not abandon our families.
This sketch of a new feminism awaits completion by women of this generation and of those to come. Clearly, the old ways of feminism were a disappointment to many and fatal to many unborn. Clearly, as women assume greater roles in many kinds of public and private institutions and as family dilemmas arise, we need a new feminism to address these challenges. The teachings of the Church offer wisdom here. The day will come, I am confident, when my children and yours will no longer be confronted with the false choice offered by old feminism; they will have a new and healthy feminism to call their own.
Copyright © 1997 Liguorian Magazine All Rights Reserved
Helen Alvaré, director of planning and information for the Secretariat for ProLife Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, acts as the national spokeswoman for the United States Catholic bishops on abortion. This essay was originally published in LIGUORIAN, May, 1997, reprinted with permission from LIGUORIAN, One Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO 63057.
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