In an Age of Toxic Femininity, Gratia Plena Camp Offers Authentic Womanhood
‘Full of Grace’ focuses on what the Catholic Church envisions for the feminine genius.
“All I heard were these two extremes of femininity: One was being an extremely independent and power-hungry woman, while the other one was a mother just having child after child. Was my femininity defined by my accomplishments or in my fertility?”
That was a question from Pamela Medina, an 18-year-old rising freshman at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Medina’s query is shared by many young women facing a 21st century cultural morass. And Medina found her answer, along with 15 other high-school age young women at a camp run by the Gratia Plena Institute.
The camp, held July 20-24 in Leonardtown, Maryland, is the first of many annual events. Its founder, Kelly Marcum, was moved to start the camp while praying at Mass. As a newly married woman working in pro-life policy, she was “nonplussed” by the inspiration’s specificity; but the idea would not leave her alone. So, in 2020, with added impetus from her husband, Marcum founded the institute and planned its inaugural 2021 camp.
Medina was drawn to the camp because it offered answers to modern distortions of femininity. Keira Thomas, 14, a younger sister of Marcum, decided to attend the camp because she was already seeing the “damage that toxic feminism was doing” to her middle-school peers.
As a former Georgetown student, Marcum herself saw “the fallout of toxic feminism.”
“What I witnessed on that campus, at a school that should have been a beacon of Catholicism in our nation’s capital, broke my heart,” Marcum told the Register. The culture teaches “that sexual license is synonymous to empowerment, that sacrifice is to be feared, and that self-satisfaction is the most important facet to happiness. I watched my peers, beautiful, intelligent women, fall for this lie over and over again, and I saw their pain.”
Kimberley Cook, one of the speakers at the camp and the author of Motherhood Redeemed: How Radical Feminism Betrayed Maternal Love, observes that many women associate “feminism” with early suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony, not realizing that the term developed under activists like Margaret Sanger and Betty Friedan and philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir.
De Beauvoir, Cook pointed out to the Register, was a genuine radical. She advocated for children to be raised in school or day care; indeed, “she believed that a woman should not be able to have the choice to stay home with her kids — that shouldn’t even be an option for women; they have to work outside the home. She saw women that were staying home and women that were having many children as [having] almost a serious mental illness.”
Gratia Plena Institute exists to combat such thinking and reintroduce Catholic ideas of femininity. That starts with the camp’s peaceful atmosphere and rich sacramental life: Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, adoration, confession and Rosary.
Medina relished the camp’s blend of structure and flexibility. The free time allowed her to “to form relationships with the girls around me, unravel my thoughts and emotions, reflect, read, journal and merely enjoy the view.”
Thomas likewise appreciated the camp’s “intertwining” of talks, prayer and freewheeling discussions among the girls themselves.
In the talks, Medina and Thomas agreed, certain commonalities emerged: To be a woman, in Catholic terms, is to be maternal.
It’s an interesting definition, especially in a culture that defines men and women by sexuality. But it is a definition that eludes many misleading stereotypes associated with “femininity”; and it may be especially comforting for young women who struggle with modern ideas about gender, in line with Pope St. John Paul II’s encouragement in “Letter to Women.”
Melissa Maleski, another speaker and the author of The Supreme Vocation of Women According to St. John Paul II, told the Register that, in matters of gender, “The human body is not meant to be a source of unhappiness. On this point the Catholic worldview and secular worldview agree. But the secular worldview now holds that the body is nothing more than an interchangeable or adjustable accessory to the human person, with a value that depends on our desires.”
In contrast, the idea of femininity rooted in maternity is both profound and liberating — far less restrictive than appeals to dress or hobbies or even questions of vocation.
“Women are absolutely called to a variety of particular vocations,” Maleski said. “As women, it doesn’t matter whether we are married, religious, single or consecrated virgins; whether we’re homemakers, CEOs, construction workers, service workers, health-care professionals, academics or a combination of vocations.”
Marcum points to the Communion of Saints as an object lesson in the breadth of femininity. “The women we find here are not one-dimensional by any stretch. We have St. Joan, leading her king's army to victory; St. Thérèse, filling each moment with love; St. Gianna, a working mother who sacrificed everything for her child; St. Margaret of Scotland, who cultivated this brilliant interior life while raising eight children, co-ruling with her husband, and strengthening Christianity in Scotland.”
Cook has a similar personal take. “I had always believed growing up that femininity was this cookie-cutter thing where to be feminine you have to wear dresses, and your favorite color has to be pink, and you can’t be aggressive, and you can’t like sports.” As a tomboy, Cook grew up thinking that perhaps she was “just not that feminine.”
As an adult, Cook realizes that the issue was not her lack of femininity, but the limited sense in which the word is sometimes used. “The underlying thing is that we are all maternal, whether we have a physical motherhood materialize some time in our life, where we actually give birth to a child, or whether we’re an adoptive mother, or whether we’re a religious sister, or whether we’re a single woman serving others.”
This deeper notion of femininity will, if Marcum’s plans take root, offer young women new support and inspiration. Marcum hopes that Gratia Plena will complement other programming, such as that of the Given Institute, by appealing to young women before they leave their homes for college.
“When a girl completes Gratia Plena’s camp and heads off to college … I want her to be confident in what the Catholic Church envisions for women and to be inspired by the teachings on women that are found throughout the Catholic Tradition (specifically outlined in St. John Paul II's Mulieris Dignitatem). I want her to know that … Mary is the most powerful women in the world, not because she was some #GirlBoss, but because of her fiat.”
Marcum is planning a speaker bureau with regional talks for young women who could not attend the camp. In subsequent years, if donations grow sufficiently, she hopes to expand to multiple camps at various sites — even, potentially, regional chapters nationwide.
Above all else, Marcum hopes that young women will leave Gratia Plena “excited to find out what delightful, wonderful things [God] has planned for them.”
That was certainly Medina’s experience. She went to camp troubled by the possibility that her femininity was defined by accomplishments on the one hand or fertility on the other. She left knowing that neither defines her.
“My value and dignity is given by God. He has a given us a purpose from our beginning until our end. As John Paul the Great said, I am a ‘sentinel of the Invisible.’ That is an honor.”
Magdalena Kleb, 17, was drawn to attend the camp as a way of strengthening her understanding of Catholic womanhood. Citing her personal devotion to St. Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), she said, “The ideal of Catholic femininity, as opposed to modern feminism, is an ideal that I really have a connection to.” It was the first time she attended a camp, and she was attracted by the combination of camp and retreat.
Like the other attendees, Kleb appreciated the structure: of talk, followed by time to think or journal, followed by discussion among the attendees.
“We did lots of discussion, which I thought was great,” she said, going on to praise “the kinds of insights that come out of teenage girls and their experiences.”
Kleb added, “I grew up in a very Catholic family, and went to a very Catholic school, so most of [the content presented in the talks] was referencing what I already knew.” Still, through the camp, especially hearing the personal experiences of Marcum and Cook, she says she learned “how to retain [my Catholic femininity] through life better, even if people around me are contradicting me.” She also found the use of the terms “sensitivity” and “maternity” enlightening: Instead of meaning (respectively) emotionalism and literal childbearing, in the context of Catholic femininity, they imply that “you see the whole person and want to help people more.”
Kleb hopes to come back next year as a counselor.
Quoting the longtime-single-saint-and-eventual-nun Edith Stein/St. Teresa Benedicta, Cook emphasized that “a woman’s soul is a place where other souls can unfold.”
This story was updated July 28 to include more insights from an attendee and again on July 30 to correct name spelling. The Register regrets the error.