Last night, I went to my alma mater to participate in a debate. John and I were involved in the debate society as seniors (when it was founded) and one of the main perks to John of living where we do is attending all the debates. It's not a student-only organization, anyone can participate, and John is one of the shining lights on the floor.
But last night it was my turn, because the resolution was, I kid you not, Resolved: Catholic feminist is a contradiction in terms. That's one of my favorite topics in the history of ever!
Of course it's typical of Christendom to phrase it that way. The place is not exactly a hotbed of feminism. And it's not really that strange -- I myself was pretty strongly anti-feminist when I arrived. I associated feminism with "wanting to be just like a man" and I thought that the implicit implication in that was that being like a man was better, which was disrespectful to me as a woman.
And sure enough, that was the implication that most people there put on it. The dictionary definition of feminism was tossed around -- roughly "the advocacy of political, economic, and social equality between men and women" -- but a lot of people insisted that feminism is more than that, it's Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Margaret Sanger. And of course none of them had read anything they'd written except a few quotes, but neither have I . . . I didn't think it was that relevant. Feminism is a large, complex, shifting movement, and the only thing that stays the same about it, is that it's about equal rights.
After all, third-wave feminism has so many conflicting sub-types -- for instance, some feminists adamantly oppose beauty culture (as I do) while some call themselves "lipstick feminists" and think makeup is empowering. There is no feminist pope, no magisterium that will excommunicate you for being the wrong kind of feminist. There will be some people in the movement who will say you can't be a feminist and oppose birth control, but there are feminists who are more into a big tent and are happy to ally with anyone who cares about equal rights.
No one mentioned the really crucial problem with Catholicism and feminism, one which I'm struggling with: that birth control really is necessary for large numbers of women to participate in public and economic life. Throughout the Middle Ages, there were empowered women scholars and leaders ... but they were a tiny minority, mainly just nuns, because the married women were too busy having baby after baby. It's all very well to say that having a baby doesn't necessarily stop you from participating in things -- the reality is, for almost all of us, it does. Babies have a lot of needs. Even if you can afford a fulltime nanny, that baby is still probably going to prefer mama and so what are you going to do? Women today who want to be successful in professional terms want to time their childbearing around their career. Without birth control, the top level of professional and political success would belong only to those women willing to forego marriage . . . which would mean most of the positions of power in our society are still going to be men.
Of course, there is NFP and that's growing in popularity among "crunchy" types outside the Church, but I wasn't sure how the audience would take that idea. Me, I'm glad to see non-Catholics trying something without chemicals and I don't really care if they follow the Church's teaching about good reasons for using it -- I mean, they haven't committed to our rules -- but I'm sure someone would call BS on that because they're not very comfortable with Catholics using it either. (See: Andrea's comments on my Fair warning post.)
And in any event, in a world where women can succeed, but only if they limit their family size, aren't you going to see a complete absence of Catholic women from spheres of power? I should point out that the reason I want to see women in these spheres is not because power is fun to have, but because women have something valuable to add. That was the main point I tried to make in my speeches -- that if men and women are so drastically different (and the body strongly believed they were), it's vital to get both voices in the public sphere. Women are often the ones pushing things like concern for the poor, pacifism, eradication of the death penalty, and other love-and-mercy sorts of things.
But of course, to many people at Christendom that's a downside anyway -- someone suggested women should not be allowed to vote because too many of them vote Democrat. Well, if that's so, let's also ban blacks and Hispanics, right? Or, you know, you could try actually representing the sorts of things women care about and stop treating them like unwelcome intruders in your party. So there's that.
Anyway, I don't really have a solution to the birth control issue, but I think at least we should recognize that it is an issue. That just because perfect parity at the top for women isn't going to happen, doesn't mean women should be banned from the top. There are still lots of things holding women back besides biology, so why not team up with feminism to work on those obstacles?
For the rest, I'm afraid we've got nothing to go on but reliance on men's better natures. We have to trust them to listen to our voices and represent us . . . and we have to make sure they get a chance to hear us, by speaking out about those things that matter to us. Harriet Beecher Stowe didn't have a vote, but for better or worse she was partly responsible for the Civil War.
My closing speech was about how everybody wins if femininity is valued for itself. If the sorts of things women do weren't disrespected just because women do them, women wouldn't have to change to be accepted in society. Think of things that women are disproportionately involved in: cooking, childcare, teaching, librarianship, literature, sociology. None of these are intrinsically either less valuable or less difficult than male-dominant fields, but they are paid less and valued less by society. I read a very interesting article recently talking about how every time a field becomes female-dominant, its status immediately drops. For instance, biology has become a popular science for women, and now people consider it "not a real science." What the heck, how more sciencey can you be? (Biased, I love biology.) Twenty years ago no one would have dreamed of calling it a lesser science, but now that women major in it, it's "oh, of course you would major in that, it's not a real science." Pediatrics is a field of medicine just like others, only harder because children are in a constant state of flux -- but as women flood in, the status of the field falls.
Unfortunately the main response to that was, "But respecting femininity isn't feminism, it's the opposite of feminism." I can't believe I didn't see that coming.
Here's the thing. Femininity is not hated for itself. It's despised because women have it. That's provable by looking at things like biology or pediatrics. There's nothing "feminine" about these fields, they are just associated with low-status people -- women. People think, "Well, it can't be that hard if a bunch of women can do it." Improving the status of women across the board is the only thing that is going to change "like a girl" to a compliment instead of an insult.
It's a tough job, undoing a prejudice at least 4000 years in the making. Western civilization has always been male-dominated, and the feminine has always, always been seen as less. I think Christ started to change that, in the way he treated women and the respect he gave them -- and in the general gist of his message, about how the greatest thing was service and how God favors those of low degree. The Magnificat is no joke -- Mary praised God for "lifting up the lowly" because she was, in the eyes of the world, the absolute bottom.
But I think that work is not entirely done. Women are still lowly, and our culture still does not value service. People still whine about "the feminization of the Church" like it's the worst thing imaginable. Things that women are good at -- nurturing, friendship, love, mercy -- are seen as weak and lesser.
And -- as I failed to prove to the body -- feminism helps with that. Lifting women out of poverty is a start, so we're not missing a quarter of the female voices out there because they're too busy working their fingers to the bone to survive. But what about feminist work in media? The media brainwashes us constantly, not generally in any purposeful way, but it persistently shows women with a set of stereotypes that hold us back. (The stereotypes for men aren't much better.) When the highest-status women in this country are gorgeous actresses, is it any wonder women obsess over our appearance? When women appear in movies, they are never the protagonist (unless it's exclusively geared to women), always the love interest. (This is why Hunger Games is such a big deal. Written, might I add, BY A CATHOLIC.) Is the Catholic Church doing anything to fix it? No, we've got too many other things on our plate. But feminists are.
Here's a list of feminist issues:
Representation in politics
Representation at the top layer of business
Better treatment of women in the media
Acceptance of women in the sciences
Fighting the dark side of beauty culture -- fat-shaming, eating disorders, etc.
Reducing rape and improving the treatment of rape victims (when Bill Cosby's word is seen as more worth believing than that of dozens of women, it isn't hard to see why most rapists are never convicted)
Fighting female genital mutilation
Increasing the status of women in the third world, by helping them get an education and lifting them out of poverty
Ending domestic violence against women
Maternity leave and the ending of discrimination against pregnant women
Freedom to make choices about where and with whom we give birth
I see one of these issues, ONE, which isn't exactly what the Catholic Church can and should get behind. Are we really going to demonize the whole movement because of that one plank?
I issued a call for a new wave of feminism, one that demands respect for children, since openness to children means openness to the many women who have them. It means fewer women will want birth control or abortion. It calls for children allowed in public spaces and at work, for childcare to be a respected career instead of some of the lowest-paid jobs in the country. And yes, maternity leave.
I took my seat amid thunderous applause. And then the vote went against me, 33 to 13. Oh well. I can't say that was unexpected. At least they liked my speech, right?
The especially nice thing about the whole event -- besides all the applause, I won't lie, I like being thought of as a good speaker -- was meeting several very nice, intelligent women who agreed with me. Then they asked if I had a blog, so if any of you ladies made it out here, drop me a comment so I know you found me. ;) Feel free to poke around. You might like some of these posts.
What do you think, is feminism compatible with the Faith? Why or why not?