Seconds after being shot, Pope John Paul II noticed the glaring absence of an image of Mary over St. Peter's Square.
Later, while recovering, he commissioned a mosaic of the Madonna and Child — the New Eve and the New Adam. In the years that followed, as the Marian dimension of his Christian discipleship came into clearer focus, he frequently wrote and spoke on issues of specific concern to women. In his encyclical The Gospel of Life, he even proposed a project: the “new feminism.”
That project is still gaining momentum.
So just what is this “new feminism”?
For one thing, the new feminism is an understanding of women as being both equal to, and different from, men. It appreciates that, for all persons, being either a man or a woman is an essential aspect of being human. In his Letter to Women, the Holy Father explains: “Womanhood expresses the ‘human’ as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way.” Sexual differentiation helps women understand what it means to be a woman, which in turn helps engage the questions raised by the feminist movement over the past 40 years.
It's certainly true that a woman today can do just about everything a man can do, sometimes even better. (To answer Professor Higgins' question from My Fair Lady: Yes, a woman can be more like a man.) But does this bring out what is particularly feminine in her? Does it make her happy?
After more than a generation, sexual liberation notwithstanding, many women are less content than their mothers and far less so than their grandmothers. In Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life, Elizabeth FoxGenovese points out that most feminism focuses only on the sexual aspect of women. From another perspective, Robin Maas of the John Paul II Institute notes that feminism has rebelled against woman's natural tendencies, stressing an individualistic rather than communal understanding of the person and society.
Many changes have only led to women doing the work that men do in addition to women's other responsibilities. Both men and women can govern nations, sky-dive, clean house and change diapers. And if they were put to the test, it would be difficult to prove that one sex always outperforms the other in most fields — unless someone just wanted to get out of changing diapers. But no matter what Vermont or the European Parliament allow, a man is still a man and a woman is still a woman.
The two will never be exactly the same and will always be understood in relation to each other.
The relational dimension shows itself, in one way, within the context of the family. The basic family unit generally manifests a division of labor or a diversity of roles. Many feminist thinkers understand these traditional differences as threats to women. In some unfortunate instances, that has been the case. The new feminism should enable us to appreciate the kind of difference which, as the Pope writes, is “not the result of arbitrary imposition, but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female.”
What makes a woman truly happy?
The original feminist critique focused on self-realization. Women on the whole were isolated from the world of men and, often, from things which are proper to them as human beings, such as the intellectual life. Self-realization, however, means different things to different people at different times. Some need greater independence, others a greater sense of connection. But most feminist theories cut women off from everyone else by focusing too much on woman as an isolated self.
A woman's relationships and interests all contribute to her identity. Janne Haaland Matláry, Norway's secretary of state for foreign affairs, professor, wife and mother of four, explores this theme in her recent book Il tempo della fioritura: per un nuovo femminismo (soon to be published in English as A Time to Blossom: Notes on a New Feminism).
Although Matláry's choice of both motherhood and a career may not be one that all women would make, she carefully defends the right and freedom of women to recognize themselves in their relationships, interests and vocations. At the same time, she vehemently opposes those who claim that stay-at-home mothers contribute nothing to the well-being of society.
While the new feminism is intended for all women, much of it depends on specifically Christian ideas. The Christian tradition maintains the equality of all human persons and, simultaneously, recognizes their differences. But the differences are not contraries. They manifest the ways in which different men and women freely and responsibly carry out their mission or vocation.
The new feminism must also take into account Mary, the mother of God, who perfectly personifies freedom, responsibility and vocation.
As John Paul II explains in On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, she is the “living and irreplaceable witness” of “the mighty works of God.” Mary's witness is characteristically feminine because she stands as bride and mother, identities that only a woman can hold.
Without compromising masculinity, the Pope subtly insists that men must make a similar witness because all are called through the Church to be the Bride of Christ. Without men and women who understand what it means for a woman to be a woman — to be fundamentally feminine — neither can progress far in Christ's call to holiness.
Pia de Solenni is a theologian and research associate at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.