What Is a Catholic Feminist?

Many years ago, my husband spent part of each week traveling; and even when he was home, he was so blitzed with jet lag that we hardly saw him. Life was pretty awful.

What made it worse was that our landlord was a very old fashioned guy. He was sweet, kind, and generous to a fault—but he had a hard time accepting that I, a woman, was the one who handled business matters at home. I was the one who paid the rent, wrote the checks, knew how much water we used, arranged for parking, mowed the lawn, and so on. But he always insisted on waiting until my husband got home before he would discuss any of these things with us.

It was frustrating, but I didn’t hold it against him—he meant no harm, and we liked each other; he was just too old to change his thinking.

At the time, I was forcing myself to live at least the exterior life of a very traditional wife and mother: long skirts in any weather, long hair that didn’t suit me, and all the trappings of an anti-feminist. I was young, and just trying to figure out who I was. So it was easiest to just find an admirable model and imitate it for all I was worth.

Still, even as I dutifully ironed and dusted, the landlord’s attitude rankled. I grumbled, “What if the whole world was like him? What if I had to argue with the auto parts clerk to buy a headlight bulb, even though I was the one replacing it? What if the bank required me to get my husband’s permission for this and that? And what if I wore skirts because I’d be shunned if I didn’t, and not because I felt like wearing them?”

My husband says I’m a feminist. I know many liberal feminists would recoil in horror at that assessment: After all, I have all these kids, and I’m a member in good standing with that horrible old misogynistic Church, with its oppressive rules about reproduction and obedience. I’m pro-life and wholeheartedly follow the Magisterium’s teaching on the male priesthood and contraception, and try to make the Blessed Virgin my model.

So what makes me a feminist? Some would say that all faithful Catholics are feminists, because the Church is the most pro-woman organization around: The Church honors and values the particular gifts of women, and demands that men treat women with dignity and even a little bit of fear. John Paul II famously called himself a “feminist pope”; and in practical terms, the Church has probably done more for the physical well-being of women around the world than any other charitable organization.

Catholics who are feminists recognize that, while so many true wrongs have been righted in the last 50 years, the poor treatment of women in America has just been displaced, not eradicated. So now, instead of corsets and disenfranchisement, we have widespread pornography, abortion, and abandonment of every kind. We have gained some necessary ground, but lost so much else that is valuable in the process. Most of my Catholic friends see the world this way.

But are all faithful Catholics feminists?

I think that definition is far too broad. Some women just fall naturally into their roles, and don’t think about it at all. Maybe, as off-putting as it sounds, a feminist is always someone who feels some distress or dissatisfaction with the way women are treated—someone who agitates for change.

What change would I like to see? From the secular world: Stop thinking of women as sex objects; but at the same time, stop thinking of women as identical to men. Stop treating fertility like a disease; but stop pretending that women can be full-time mothers and full-time careerists. Stop blaming men for everything that is wrong with the world. It’s tiresome and counterproductive.

From my fellow Catholics: Stop thinking of women as objects who are here to save you from personal sexual sin; and stop thinking of women as intellectually inferior to men. Stop assuming that all women are meant to bear child after child no matter what; and stop pretending that if women just tried a little harder, men would be happy all the time. Stop blaming women for everything that is wrong with the Church. It’s cowardly and childish.

That’s for starters.

But feminism is not all about complaining and protesting. What I would like most of all is for women to ask themselves honestly, without worrying about history or politics, “What is it that I, as a woman, can do especially well? How can I help other women do what they do well?”

So, what do you think? Am I a feminist? Are you? Should we just scrap this word altogether, or can we rehabilitate it? Is there a better word?