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Catholic and Feminist: Can You Be Both? (Part 1)

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

Early feminists were against contraception and abortion because they reduced respect for women.

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?

Makes you just feel all warm and fuzzy, doesn't it?

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.

Question: Why get married at all now that we can open our own bottles of ketchup?

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.

I believe the modern version of this is our ability to "make sammiches."

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.

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About Misty

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.

  • Martina - Wow. Just. Wow. You really tackled the heart of the problem. I can see, too, exactly why women felt the need to revamp what previous feminists had accomplished, but the ends {today’s secular definition of feminism} certainly don’t justify the means. Today’s version of “feminism” is more of an “I’ll show you, BUDDY!” kind of attitude that clearly leaves a lot to be desired for the respect of both men and women.

    Looking forward to the next post! 🙂April 26, 2012 – 8:28 amReplyCancel

  • Jeanne G. - Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication on the rights of women, was her mother.

    Excellent article, though. People need to know what these early feminists really stood for and what happened.April 26, 2012 – 8:37 amReplyCancel

  • Misty - Jeanne…thank you for the correction. You’ve saved a former English major serious humiliation. 😉 I fixed it in the text.April 26, 2012 – 10:04 amReplyCancel

  • Megan@TrueDaughter - This is what I always want to write, but have so much trouble articulating, because the end result of all this always makes me so mad! This is great, thanks!April 26, 2012 – 10:07 amReplyCancel

  • Robin M. - Great article! Very well written/expressed. I really liked the use of the word: ennui. 🙂 But aside from the English grammar usage, I loved your take on the subject. Looking forward to Part Deaux!April 26, 2012 – 11:16 amReplyCancel

  • Karyn - I’m really looking forward to your posts. As a new Catholic, I have really struggled with the Church’s view of women, vocation, sacrifice, etc., that I”m being pulled towards versus the view of modern feminists that I was raised in and in which many of my friends are still deeply entrenched. Part of me feels guilty and foolish for actually enjoying being home and raising a large family in the Faith, because it looks so foolish to those around me.April 26, 2012 – 11:34 amReplyCancel

  • Holly Murphy - I love this series. I always tell everyone that Catholicism is a very feminist religion and has nothing to do with ingesting poisons into our systems to prevent pregnancy. If a couple are truly following their Catholic tenets, they realize that men and women are to love and submit to each other…in other words, work actively towards each other’s health and happiness and share the diapering ;o)
    look forward to parts 2 and 3!!
    HollyApril 26, 2012 – 11:47 amReplyCancel

  • LCWR Medjugorje Armenian Genocide Brad Pitt Angelina Jolie | - […] Catholic & Feminist: Can You Be Both? – Misty, Catholic Sistas […]April 26, 2012 – 12:02 pmReplyCancel

  • LMM - This is well-written, but, as any attempt to describe the history of feminism in a short essay does, glosses over some important facts. Mainly, women have ALWAYS worked outside the home. Always. Poor women, women of color – always, always, always. And wealthy women who stayed “home” did very little domestic work – including the day to day child-rearing we now associate with SAHMs – because they hired these poor women and women of color to do it. There was a very short period of time when America had a “middle class” of women whose main job was to take care of their homes and children, and that middle class was never a majority of women. It still isn’t. So you are really writing about (and for) a very small segment of the population. This is just something that drives me crazy – especially when my mother in law (from a well-off family) goes on about “how nice it was when everyone just stayed home with their children” and I look at her and think she was living in a different world. My (poor immigrant) grandmothers and great-grandmothers all raised 6+ kids while working – in factories, on farms, in small stores, wherever. Feminists and anti-feminists both often forget about all of these women when writing pieces like this.April 26, 2012 – 4:38 pmReplyCancel

  • Misty - Well, to be fair, I’m tracing the discontent of women who, along with their daughters, WERE the ones marching in feminist rallies in the 60s. And most of them were middle- to upper-middle class women who did not work outside the home. It seems pretty clear that the poorer women, who were working outside the home in the factories, stores, farms, etc. were NOT the ones marching and protesting, probably because they were too busy working to have the luxury of pushing a secular feminist agenda. I think that those women–the majority, if you are correct–would have benefited far more from the original feminists’ demands of equal pay for equal work, opportunity, etc., as opposed to the sexual license that the second wave of feminists fought for.April 26, 2012 – 4:51 pmReplyCancel

  • LMM - Yes, that is very fair, and exactly right. I admire you for tackling this – and please tell me you’re going to include something about Carol Gilligan! I would love to read a Catholic writer’s take on the wide variety of thought within modern and post-modern feminism (it isn’t all Catharine MacKinnon!)April 26, 2012 – 5:00 pmReplyCancel

  • Melissa - I can’t wait to read this series. This is one great issue that is commonly thrown at Catholic women; in my case, I wanted to give a better answer to those questions.April 27, 2012 – 1:27 amReplyCancel

  • buckyinky - It is interesting that consistently when Catholics explore the question of whether the Catholic faith is compatible with feminism, the appeal is made to ignore the movement from the 1960s onward, and instead look at the first women, of the Victorian era, whom we now recognize as feminists. Almost always the only items of consideration in regards to feminism are abortion and contraception: inasmuch as feminism is in favor of these two it cannot be acceptable to a Catholic; if it weren’t for feminism’s embrace of these two unacceptable things, feminism would be an entirely good and acceptable thing. Because feminism’s roots in the Victorian era show that the women who led the movement then were against abortion and contraception, therefore feminism at its root is acceptable for a Catholic, and the embrace of abortion and contraception that occurred in the 1960s onward was simply a cancerous blight to the movement: with a purging of this blight, the movement would be again pure.

    This seems entirely too simplistic an approach as it makes many and large assumptions about what is the common good of society without exploring the possibility that many of those very assumptions could be feeding the demand for the two evils of abortion and contraception. To illustrate, in this blog post, as in almost every other blog post or article exploring this subject, it is assumed that it was an obvious necessity for women to fight for property rights, voting rights, “equal pay”, etc. More specifically the assumption is that it was necessary for women to have these things, and it was also necessary for women to fight for them. The message came through loud and clear: Women are not getting what they need, and now women are going to do something about it. The question then, the same as it is now, is framed in terms only of the psychology of women. But to ignore the nature of men, as was done then, and continues to be done today, does not get rid of the fact that men will continue to act according to their nature as men. Their higher nature is to provide for and to protect and defend women in a particular way from what would harm them; their lower, perhaps fallen, nature is to appease in order to avoid making waves.

    To men, whether the feminists intended to convey it or not, the message that came through loud and clear is this: “We women NEED these things, you men haven’t recognized or have intentionally ignored what we need, and now we have lost hope in you and are going to take matters into our own hands.” Now such an accusation against men (i.e., that they as a sex were doing wrong by women as a sex) strikes at the heart of what makes a man tick. In better days men would have responded according to their higher natures and challenged the idea of whether what women were demanding was actually good or necessary. Men, however, by and large, instead of considering whether the demands that women of that day were making would benefit women and society as a whole, took the easier route of appeasement and keep the “peace” at all costs, and made the demands of the feminists their own. This is a generalization, of course, as there were definitely some men who were purposefully for the feminist movement regardless of where women stood on the matter; some men could even be pointed to as some of the main ideological drivers behind the movement. It is also a simplification itself somewhat, as problems at the societal level did exist, and were not negligible, for both sexes. All the same, the feminist movement’s chronic inability or refusal to consider matters from a man’s perspective has ensured that it will make war with the nature of a man, and it has been so from the beginning of the movement, regardless of where the movement stood on abortion, because it tells a man that he is a failure a priori at fulfilling what is part of his higher nature, that is, providing and protecting a woman in matters of essential importance. He is told that he has no idea what is important or necessary for a woman, let alone whether he can provide for those necessities.

    If you want to explore the Catholic faith’s compatibility with feminism, it seems that one must go deeper than whether the movement extols or abhors abortion and contraception. The Catholic faith has a great and wonderful tradition of teaching a docility to God as creator by getting to and understanding the nature of things. To leave the question of feminism to be understood only in terms of abortion and contraception does not get very deep into that nature.April 27, 2012 – 12:41 pmReplyCancel

  • Abby - Fascinating article! Can’t wait for the next in the series. Printing it out to share with my daughters when they are older. Thinking of writing a book on this topic? Thanks for your post!April 27, 2012 – 2:39 pmReplyCancel

  • Emily - Catching up late on my reading… but this was EXTREMELY eye-opening and enlightening.
    Thanks for taking on this series, Misty!!April 27, 2012 – 2:59 pmReplyCancel

  • Catholic and Feminist: Can You Be Both? (Part 1) - Christian Forums - […] be convinced, as I am, that true feminism is truly Catholic. Our Feminist Mothers Continued- __________________ Your socks stink. To view links or images in signatures your post count […]April 27, 2012 – 3:15 pmReplyCancel

  • Daniel - I agree to a certain degree with Buckyinky; what is needed is an examination of the underlying presuppositions taken by the original ‘feminist’ movement. If, as he seems to suggest, even this original feminism is based on a faulty anthropology that equates the sexes in all spheres, then it produces ‘the battle of the sexes’ itself. Ivan Illich has pointed this out very clearly in his book “Gender” where he shows how it is only when ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’ are confused that any competition (fighting on the same playing field) can happen. We might also learn from a more existential model: there are examples of new developments (often technological) that were created for one purpose, but in actuality have a very different teleology, which is only later realized. The tree is known by its fruit. The simple fact that ‘feminism’ has become always and everywhere this attempt to turn women into men, slaughtering whoever would get in the way, suggests that this was its destiny all along. Perhaps the original members did not grasp this; but it has to be shown conclusively that there is no real relation between ‘original’ feminism and modern feminism for us to accept the former. And the best way to do this would be to clarify exactly what is and what is not a ‘feminist’ anthropology.

    While I appreciate the author’s realization that working 12 hours a day in factories was not a ‘privilege’ denied to women, I think she over-idealizes modern businessmen’s work. For every promotion, there are many passed over; for every accolade, there’s an insult; for every popular, successful man, there’s the man who isn’t as good, who is judged solely on the value of his productive capability, not on his personhood. The author seems to make the modern business world sound like a happy fun time of everyone getting raises and pats on the back. In reality, it is much more cut-throat, much more critical, much more demeaning than the work of the house-wife. Can you fire a mother? can you outsource her? Do a businessman’s clients look on him with the same love, trust, and sometimes holy fear with which a child sees his mother?

    Again, if we have a correct anthropology, there should be no conflict between the ‘business’ of men and women. I suspect it is a modernist anthropology that produces these, and until it is clarified and uprooted, there can be no purification of ‘feminism’ from its evil fruits.May 10, 2012 – 8:51 amReplyCancel

  • Melly - Misty,

    You reference the early feminists in your post, however, what is your response to this quote by Elizabeth Cady Stanton?

    The whole tone of Church teaching in regard to women is, to the last degree, contemptuous and degrading.
    –Elizabeth Cady Stanton

    Thanks in advance!June 12, 2012 – 1:00 pmReplyCancel

  • Misty - Melly, Forgive me for taking so long to approve and respond to your question about Stanton. First, I was not citing the early feminists because they were Catholic; I was trying to show just how different the early feminists’ positions were from modern secular feminists’ positions.

    Second, Stanton wasn’t associated with the Catholic Church, but with Calvinist Presbyterianism. Though admittedly, she despised all organized religion because she perceived it as relegating women to the status of second-class citizenship. I can only speak for Catholicism when I say that there is usually a great divide between the official teaching of the faith and the faith lived out among the people. Though Catholicism has always taught that women have equal dignity, that truth has not always been embraced and lived out by Church leaders or society. Even today, I experienced clear sexism when I approached pastors about giving apologetics talks in their parishes. I was put through obstacle courses that male speakers simply were not.

    Stanton left Christianity has a young woman and wrote against it for much of her life. She most likely had a lot of legitimate complaints about how women were treated. But that poor treatment of women, far from representing Christianity, is actually a failure to live it out. Christ respected and upheld women’s dignity. We’ve had that model from the beginning, even if we’ve failed to live up to it.June 21, 2012 – 4:02 amReplyCancel

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