I recall standing in the midst of a “Take Back the Night” rally shouting that infamous feminist chant: “Not the church, not the state, women must control our fate.”
Chants like this are compelling to feminists because they point towards one of the most fundamental concerns of the movement: empowerment.
This term, like so much feminist diction, is only defined in the vaguest possible way. “Empowerment” can mean anything from realizing your ability to speak up in public, to finding ways of pumping your body full of damaging chemicals that prevent impregnation.
Since it is vague, and since it is often used as a buzzword to justify atrocities like abortion, we tend to have a strong aversion to using it. We need to understand, though, that it is vague because it is being misused: It is a positive word being mangled so that it can encompass negative ideas and behaviors.
In the case of empowerment, this is a matter of examining the Gospel in order to find the ways in which it empowers people, and women in particular, and then demonstrating these forms of empowerment to feminists. This does not mean reinterpreting Scripture and revising tradition to turn it into a feminist manifesto, but discovering what real, good feminists are seeking when they speak of empowerment and liberation.
We need to point out that any notion of empowerment arising primarily from external conditions is ultimately demeaning because it implies that we are victims of circumstances, unable to be in control of our own lives. The feminist movement makes a fundamental mistake when it blames all of women’s problems on men — especially in the form of church and state.
If all of our problems are the fault of men and the responsibility of men, then women are essentially and irreparably dependent and will always be at the mercy of male sentiment.
The empowerment that the Church offers is an empowerment that the world cannot give. It is based on personal moral responsibility and self-discipline — and thus it has always been able to produce women like St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Joan of Arc, who were powerful, influential and in control of their own lives in spite of the persecution of hostile or misogynistic leaders.
Naturally, we want to try to eliminate the misogynistic leaders so that these women can guide and inform society instead of being martyred, but we need to recognize that the empowerment that these women possessed did not come from a feminist society, but rather from an interior self-discipline and a sense of self in relation to God.
Unless we have the internal discipline to control ourselves, we are always going to feel helpless, powerless and out of control. No amount of gender equity or contraception will change that.
The Church empowers women by insisting that we are moral agents instead of moral victims, by asserting that women don’t need abortions to make up for an inability to make responsible sexual decisions, and by providing a model of interior dignity and self control that cannot be shattered by circumstances outside of ourselves.
In many cases, feminism promotes a juvenile notion of freedom — freedom to do whatever you’re inclined to do — that runs in opposition to Christianity’s more mature idea that liberation involves freedom from internal compulsions, the freedom to choose the good. When we are teen-agers the freedom to be able to drink may seem incredibly appealing.
When we grow up, we realize that the external freedom to drink can be incredibly destructive if it is not balanced by an internal freedom to stop drinking before it interferes with our real goals in life.
The freedom to commit yourself to another person for life — and to know that you have the self-control to make a promise of fidelity in good conscience — is a much more fundamental and valuable kind of freedom than the freedom to give yourself to any random person for a single night. There are millions of women who are sexually “liberated,” they have their contraception and their abortions and their open relationships, and yet they feel that they are out of control.
Ultimately, there are only two ways for us to deal with the fact that adult choices have real consequences that affect our lives. Either we can rail against this, trying to “liberate” ourselves by blaming those consequences on real or imagined social forces, or we can find true liberation by achieving the internal freedom to make our present choices conform to our long-term goals.
Next week, we’ll take a look at one of feminism’s most common mistakes, and at the Church’s response.
Melinda Selmys writes from Etibicoke, Ontario.