Feminism — and who benefits from it — is very much a contemporary issue, accompanied by questions about the definition of womanhood itself.
“In its most basic meaning, feminism is the protection and promotion of women — and we’re always going to need some form of that, right? Because male domination and oppression is an ongoing reality,” said Pauline Sister Helena Burns in her workshop at the 2016 Theology of the Body Congress in Ontario, California, in September.
“[But] what you believe it means to be a woman, and what you believe it means to protect and promote women, is where feminism breaks out into different varieties.”
From Neutral to Radical
In a recent interview with the Register, Sister Helena pointed out that feminism — the protection and promotion of women — is a neutral concept that no one would argue against. But “radical feminism” says something different.
“It says men and women have no significant differences other than a few reproductive body parts, that men and women are basically not only equal, but identical, and should act and be treated identically,” she said.
“And guess which sex gets obliterated in this process? The female sex. We all become men.”
What is the message there? It’s not good enough to be a woman.
“Wasn’t that the same message of male domination? ‘You’re inferior?’” asked Sister Helena. “Women have internalized this even more and don’t recognize it.”
Radical feminism is where gender ideology got its start, she added. “If we’re all the same, we can do things to our bodies to make them similar. I’m not denying that there’s gender dysphoria, body dysmorphia, same-sex attraction — all of that is real.
“But to deny what science has taught us about the differences between men and women is unscientific. You cannot believe in radical feminism and science at the same time. You’ve got to pick one.”
A Human Being, Not a Human Doing
“We’ve proven that women and men can do just about all of the same things, and sometimes women even do things better than men do,” said Pia de Solenni, a moral theologian and professor and academic dean at the Augustine Institute in Orange County, California. She is also the newly named theological consultant for the office of the bishop of the Diocese of Orange. “We’ve now seen that women are more than competent and that men can change diapers.
“It’s not about doing anymore. This conversation really is shifting from doing, to being.”
And perhaps that, she added, is why there now appears to be so much confusion about womanhood, feminism and identity. It is not as simple to label a person as it is to label a person’s actions.
“The beauty of it is there isn’t a mold we’re all supposed to fit into,” said de Solenni. “That is the answer to all these contemporary struggles. I have friends that have 14 kids and home school; I don’t consider myself any less feminine because I have no children and I work.”
Not only does our society tell us that a biological male might be a woman if he feels like he is a woman, or that an individual can be “gender fluid,” or that there are more than 50 genders one could be (according to the gospel of Facebook), our society also tells us that the gender we feel like today could change tomorrow.
“We’re creating more boxes,” said de Solenni, forcing people to define themselves over and over again.
“Why do we have to be so narrow?”
“Masculinity is whatever comes natural to a man, body and soul; it’s going to look different on different men,” agreed Sister Helena. “Femininity is whatever comes natural to a woman, body and soul; it’s going to look different on different women.”
The Rights of Woman
So what is true feminism? It is living out the truth that woman and man — though different — are equal in dignity; that woman and man — though different — are equal in the value they bring to the world around them; that men and women are created different and are created to be complementary to each other, as the Church teaches.
“Man is a person, man and woman equally so, since both were created in the image and likeness of the personal God,” wrote Pope John Paul II in Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women).
A woman’s place is in the world, using her unique gifts to minister to others — just as a man’s place is in the world, using his unique gifts to minister to others. So wrote Pope Benedict XVI in “The Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World.”
“[W]omen should be present in the world of work and in the organization of society, and … women should have access to positions of responsibility which allow them to inspire the policies of nations and to promote innovative solutions to economic and social problems.”
Pope Benedict’s document is more than 10 years old; Pope John Paul II’s is nearly 30 years old.
Yet these teachings on the rights of women, the place of woman in the world and the feminine identity are very current.
“This is a contemporary anthropological crisis we’re facing,” said de Solenni. “We’re not understanding the unity of the body and soul. Who you are as a man or woman affects everything about your being.”
Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.