My introduction to feminism was though my middle-school teacher Mrs. Geh: a feminist of the fairly rational and moderate variety who espoused a form of feminism that was appealing because most of it was true.
She was concerned, primarily, with ensuring that the young women in her class felt that they could voice their opinions, and with forwarding the idea that sexual exploitation in advertising and pornography was demeaning and immoral.
Appended to this altogether reasonable and laudable set of characteristics was the term “feminist.” At the time, I didn’t have a very clear idea of what feminism was, but I decided that if she was feminist, then so was I.
This caused very few problems so long as I was actually in her class, because it didn’t really imply anything outside of a belief in the dignity of women and a dedication to social justice for all human beings. Grade 8 was, at that point, still considered too early to start teaching about abortion, and although Mrs. Geh was willing to speak quite frankly with us about sexuality, it was primarily towards the end of convincing us that we had the right to say No, and that we were far too young to say Yes.
In high school, however, it was a different story.
I’m not sure where I first learned the term “patriarchal” or how it was that I came to believe that gender roles were nothing more than the result of socialization, but having identified myself with the feminist movement I was quick enough to fall in line when I found out what its doctrines were.
By the time I hit grade 10, I was marching in protests, organizing fundraisers and putting on presentations to educate other students about women’s issues. Without really thinking about it, I adopted the “pro-choice” position on abortion and came to accept the notion that most of the evils of society were brought about by patriarchal dominance and male-chauvinistic structures.
Feminism is probably one of the most popular philosophies around, and it often informs or underlies other philosophies. Its widespread appeal arises from a number of causes. The first is that it is not a very unified system of thought. Even common elements, like the belief in abortion on demand and the rejection of traditional gender roles, are contested by some feminist thinkers.
What this means is that it is very easy for any woman to find a brand of feminism that appeals to her sensibilities — and it is usually from there, through involvement with organized feminism, that women come to believe in the more absurd and extreme feminist beliefs.
What Feminism Gets Right …
In his message of Aug. 6, 1995, Pope John Paul II recognized that “in looking objectively at historical reality, we are compelled to notice with regret that women have suffered the effects of systematic marginalization. For too long their opportunities for expression outside the family have been denied or restricted, and the women who, despite being thus penalized, succeeded in asserting themselves have had to be very enterprising.”
It was in response to this objective historical reality that feminism emerged.
Early feminists stood to declare that women were equal in dignity with men, that we had an important role to play in society, and that the work done by women, both within and outside of the family, was valuable and deserved respect.
Most suffragists sought the vote because they felt that family concerns were being overlooked, and they believed that enfranchised women would be able to strengthen the family by bringing these issues to the forefront in politics.
For the most part, they actively opposed abortion as the killing of children, and opposed the sexual exploitation of women. They hoped to reform laws and social norms that allowed domestic abuse, and to provide economic rights that would protect women and their children in cases where their husband was killed or abandoned them.
Much of the work done by feminists addresses real social ills.
Feminism has done a great deal to help women feel that they can refuse sex, to ensure that fathers have to take responsibility when they get a woman pregnant, and to protect the rights of rape victims. It has brought about positive advancements in women’s health care (understanding and treating osteoarthritis, for example), and has helped to unlock “women’s genius” by allowing women access to education and to intellectual and artistic pursuits.
In fact, it is precisely because so many goods have been realized as the result of the feminist movement, and because much of the movement still fights against real evils such as anorexia, pornography, abuse and rape, that so many women are attracted.
… And What It Gets Wrong
While most women become feminists for good reasons, once they are within the movement they are increasingly exposed to false ideas of femininity, to prejudices against proper family structures, and to the notion that men are responsible for all of the evils of the world. Having realized that women are equal to men, many feminists have come to believe that women are identical to men.
Seeing that some traditional gender roles are stereotypical and damaging to women, they have decided that all gender differences are the result of chauvinistic socialization.
From the realization that women who get pregnant out of wedlock need compassion and support, they have concluded that pre-marital sex should not be discouraged and that pregnant teen-agers should be offered abortions.
Unfortunately, because it has become so inextricably linked to evils like abortion, divorce, promiscuity, the destruction of the traditional family and even the destruction of our sense of ourselves as male and female, many Christians take a reactionary stance against it. This is dangerous both because it makes it difficult to dispel the feminist myth that Christianity is fundamentally sexist, and because it can prevent Catholics from supporting much needed social reforms that are completely in line with Church teaching.
Fortunately, there already exist a large number of writings that outline the dignity and the vocation of women in a rational and appealing way. They emphasize the inherent equality of women, they assert that women’s basic rights need to be upheld, they insist that women have a special “genius” that must be applied to every area of culture and society, they praise our virtues and encourage our talents, and they demonstrate that women and men can be different without undermining women’s fundamental dignity.
The problem is that most people, and even most Catholics, haven’t read them. This is further exacerbated by the fact that a great deal has been said about the Church’s teachings by media outlets that are inclined to misunderstand and misrepresent them.
Next week, we’ll take a look at two of feminism’s bedrock ideals: empowerment and liberation.
Melinda Selmys writes
from Etibicoke, Ontario.