It’s all over the news: “Vatican Launches Cleanup of American Nuns.”
When the Vatican issued a scathing assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious–which claims to represent nearly 80 of the female religious orders in this country–it stirred up much debate about women’s roles within the Church. People are asking (again) when the Church is going to ordain women as priests and (again) when it is going to condone contraception, abortion, divorce, lesbianism. And while the secular media is siding with the disobedient nuns (did I mention they take a vow of obedience?), plenty of lay Catholic women are asking the question, too: “Is it possible to be both Catholic and feminist?”
This is a question I know something about. I spent most of my single life solidly on the other side of the divide: pro-choice, pro-contraception, pro-miscuous. Then I became Catholic. And I wanted to understand the teachings of the Church that most impacted me as a woman, such as the ones about family planning, pregnancy, motherhood, and marriage. To that end, I offer a three-part series on feminism and hopefully by the end, you’ll be convinced, as I am, that true feminism is truly Catholic.
Our Feminist Mothers
Not everyone knows that the original feminists stood for something very different than modern secular feminists do. In the late 1800s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and others fought tirelessly for more than thirty years on behalf of women’s rights to own property, earn equal pay, and have access to education.
But what these women did not stand for was sexual license. As early as 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” After decrying, in scathing 18th century terms, the sexual exploitation of women, she upbraided women who sought abortions to escape motherhood. Susan B. Anthony admired this work by Wollstonecraft enough to serialize it in The Revolution 70 years later in 1868. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was especially blunt, classifying abortion as a form of “infanticide.” And even the author of the original Equal Rights Amendment (1923), Alice Paul, opposed the later trend of linking the ERA with abortion. A colleague recalls that she called abortion the “ultimate exploitation of women.”
The early feminists also were against contraception…and not because the Pill wasn’t available. Contraceptive herbs and potions have been around for thousands of years, but back then the most widely used contraceptive was the condom. Christian married women, as a rule, did not use contraception–but prostitutes did. Condoms were certainly seen as “protection,” but not so much from pregnancy (for how could a 19th century prostitute ever prove paternity?), but from diseases a man might pick up at a brothel.
The feminists recognized that contraception would actually decrease their husband’s respect for them by allowing them to use them for personal pleasure, much the way men used prostitutes. Contraception would also make it easier for their husbands to commit adultery. Instead of contraception, the feminists advocated abstinence through discipline and self-control. By the 1870s, a flourishing feminist movement transformed this tradition of thought into a new political demand, with the slogan “voluntary motherhood.”
So What Changed?
So feminists oppose contraception and abortion as late as 1923, but just four decades later they’re insisting abortion and contraception are critical to women’s rights. What happened?
I have a theory about this. When early feminists like Cady and Stanton were marching, the vocations of men and of women were very different but they had one important similarity: their work was primarily to serve the family. The late 1800s was the height of the Industrial Revolution, and most men still worked long hours doing some sort of manual labor to provide for their families. A woman might not enjoy doing laundry, cooking, or changing cloth nappies, but working in a factory, at the docks, or in a warehouse for 12 to 16 hours a day the way their husbands did probably wasn’t something most women pined to do.
Then things began to change. As America grew, so did opportunities for men to do work that was more interesting and fulfilling. By the 1940s and 1950s, a man who was raised by a carpenter or butcher or fisherman no longer had to continue in his family’s line of work. A good many men even had the option to forgo the dirty factories; they could work in a nice, clean office and even take a vacation or sick day. For the first time, men were able to choose their work based on their interests and natural talents.
But what about women? How did their work change? True, there were more modern conveniences, but most women’s vocations still revolved around homemaking and childcare. A woman who had a particular talent for business or art could expect little opportunity to develop those talents in her day-to-day work. If a woman was sent to college, it was probably so she could get her “MRS.” A woman could pursue a career, but it would have been unthinkable for her to continue that career—even on a part-time basis—once she got married and started a family.
So women are at home, raising children and keeping house. They’re making incredible personal sacrifices, while their their husbands are coming home excitedly talking about winning a client, starting a project, or getting a promotion. They’re in med school or law school (or actually doctors and lawyers) and they’re thriving on the work, getting professional accolades and being recognized by their peers. Even blue-collar men had more chances to advance through the ranks into management. And even if he didn’t, he could still count on being able to come home and be “off duty” until the next day. Men began starting businesses in unprecedented numbers and seeking education not just for a job, but a career.
This meant that the focus of work for many men shifted from service to the family to personal fulfillment. Whereas for women, work remained primarily about service to the family. I believe this set up a great conflict between men and women that ultimately planted the seeds for the modern feminist movement. (And which, to this day, cause enormous conflicts in even Catholic households. But I digress.)
To give the feminists some credit, I believe there was a lot to be angry about. The severe limitations on the kinds of work that women were permitted to pursue, as well as the expectation that they would shelve their work for good once they got married, was just plain sexist and wrong. Many men also pursued their careers to excess, and became workaholics who could barely carve out time for their families, leaving women to essentially raise children on their own. Couples’ newfound prosperity also enabled many men to pursue interests and hobbies that took even more time away from the family. My theories about this were confirmed when I discovered that from 1888 to 1900, just a 12-year period, more than 1,000 new golf clubs opened in North America.
Sure, there were other issues that compounded women’s dissatisfaction that had nothing to do with men, such as the evolution from multi-generational homes to the nuclear family. Whereas women in previous generations had raised a family with mother, sisters, aunts, and cousins around, modern mothers had to raise the kids and keep the house going on their own. We weren’t washing clothes by beating them on a rock by the river anymore, and yes, we had more privacy. But we also had a new cross: isolation. And when the kids went off to school: ennui.
Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that the work women did in the home was rarely valued. A family friend in her 60s marvels that my husband is so involved with our children and helps around the house. In her day, fathers simply didn’t change diapers because that was the domain of women. The difference between her generation and mine was epitomized one day when we told them we wanted a large family.
Her husband immediately went into a tirade designed to discourage us from this course, citing all the diapers that would have to be changed, the sleepless nights, the cocktail hours we’d have to forfeit, and so on. This prompted his wife to say, “Oh, Mike, leave them alone. Unlike you, Tom actually helps his wife with the kids.”
What I found interesting is that all this man remembered about their early years as parents is how unpleasant it was. He had absolutely nothing positive to say about the sacrifices his wife had made to make a comfortable, welcoming haven for him to come home to after work or raise their two children. He clearly didn’t recognize the value of his wife’s work as a homemaker or mother.
So the feminists did call attention to some very legitimate problems. But they got the solutions all wrong, mostly because they initially got the problems wrong, too. In Part 2, I’ll discuss the three crucial errors modern feminists made in their attempts to raise the status of women. I’ll also show how their failure to recognize the real problems fueling our inequality is what led them to embrace contraception, “free love,” and even abortion as women’s rights.
Misty converted to Catholicism from atheism 13 years ago, just a week after becoming a mother to her first child. Prior to becoming a stay-at-home mom, she worked full-time as a magazine writer and editor. She has been married to her best friend for nearly 20 years and looks forward to many more decades by his side. Her days are now spent cooking, doing laundry, freelance writing, and homeschooling her five children. After spending so much of her life in spiritual darkness, she revels in the joy of being Catholic. Without a doubt, the Lord’s greatest gift to her has been saving her from a life without Him.