Lessons from the Women's Liberation Movement
ANOTHER “Catholic moment” has arrived. Pollsters have discovered that the majority of women in the United States, particularly younger women, do not identify themselves as feminists. And some prominent female intellectuals are calling for a re-evaluation of the fruits, both good and bad, of the women's liberation movement. A"new feminism” is in the works, creating an opportunity for Catholic women to share their experiences in the light of the Church's teaching, particularly as it has been expressed by Pope John Paul II.
To this undertaking I offer some observations from my own life and the lives of some of my peers. Though this is a rather limited field of study, it is representative of a far larger group of women—the tail-end of the baby boom who came of age during the peak of the women's movement.
The reason so many of us refuse to identify ourselves as feminist is that the term has become synonymous with an ideology that opposes one of the deepest longings of most women—that is, to have a family. When I was in college, one of my classmates who was majoring in women's studies told me that in order to be a true feminist I had to be a lesbian. Men are an irredeemable oppressor class, she argued, therefore only lesbianism can completely emancipate women. Though at the time I was not a traditionalist, nor even a Catholic, her ideas completely repelled me. I wanted a career, of course, that was a given; but, I also hoped “some day” to marry and have children.
Don't Blame the Biological Clock
This desire to be a wife and mother I only fully appreciated after reading the works of Pope John Paul II. He accords it more significance than the hormonal tick of a “biological clock.” Its origin is the fact that I am a female person created in the image of God, who is Love. The human person, writes the Holy Father, can be fulfilled only by making a complete gift of self to another in imitation of God, who, according to Christian revelation, is a communion of three Persons. The self-donation required by our humanity takes two forms: heterosexual marriage or celibacy for love of God. For me, as well as for most women (and most men, for that matter), self-realization as an image of God is to occur in marriage, if it is to occur at all.
The Pope's theology of self-giving contradicts the feminist doctrine that independence from men is the highest good. Perhaps feminists fail to appreciate the complementarity and interdependence of husband and wife because they have witnessed or even experienced marriages in which the giving, the sacrificing, was not mutual on the part of both spouses. Whatever the reason, the feminist rejection of marriage as a vocation had a huge impact on my generation.
Those of us who accepted the assumption that we would be fulfilled primarily by our jobs, spent our prime marrying and childbearing years building our careers. Early in this process by today's standards, I left the career track to build a family. But my friends who entered their thirties still unmarried, though successful from the feminist point of view, found themselves feeling empty and alone. “You can't imagine how long it has been since I have touched another human being!” lamented a friend of mine, who at the time was a manager in an international corporation.
Victims, Women and Men
When these women began looking for husbands, they discovered a dearth of men willing to commit. The loosening of sexual mores, hailed by feminists as liberation for women, had in fact freed men from feeling the necessity of marriage. As another single friend of mine put it, “flesh has become so cheap.” One cannot measure how deeply the dignity of women has been wounded by this fact. But it is not only women who have been hurt. The dignity of men also has been diminished by their inability to assume the duties entailed in becoming husbands and fathers.
No phenomenon demonstrates the harmful effects of the sexual revolution more than the plight of the unwed woman who becomes pregnant. “How often is she abandoned with her pregnancy, when the man, the child's father, is unwilling to accept responsibility for it?” writes the Holy Father in Mulieris Dignitatem. “And besides the many ‘unwed mothers'in our society, we also must consider all those who, as a result of various pressures, even on the part of the guilty man, very often ‘get rid of it'; but at what price? Public opinion today tries in various ways to ‘abolish'the evil of this sin. Normally a woman's conscience does not let her forget that she has taken the life of her own child, for she cannot destroy that readiness to accept life which marks her ‘ethos'from the ‘beginning.’”
Strange Confessions in Public
Though they cannot destroy their ontological readiness to accept life, women are pressured by social and economic forces to destroy the biological possibility of it. Many women experience a deep inner conflict between their innate desire to give of themselves through the bearing and nurturing of children and their fear of having “too many.” Everywhere I go with my four children, I receive comments such as, “What a cute baby … but you must have your hands full!"; “Four! I would go crazy if I had that many children!"; “Oh, I would love to have another baby, but I already had my tubes tied.” What compels women to make such personal remarks to a stranger in public?
Feminism as we know it today was forged by middle class women who felt unchallenged and unappreciated in the domestic role that had been ascribed to them. During the post-war era, the ennui of the idle rich had become the scourge of suburban housewives, whose workload had been considerably lightened by day schools for their children, social security for their parents, and modern appliances for their housework. So they began to push against the cultural barriers that prevented them from developing and using their talents in society at large.
But due to their success, many of the women of my generation suffer from an opposite problem. For various personal, social, and economic reasons, they are shackled to their jobs, not their homes. Countless times have I heard from a mother at home on maternity leave, “I dread the day I have to leave my baby and go back to work.”
Feminists blame this remorse on social conditioning left over from the ‘50s or on men who refuse to do their share of the parenting and housework. But there is another deeper and more important reason. “Motherhood involves the whole person,” writes the Holy Father. “Parenthood—even though it belongs to both (mother and father)—is realized much more fully in the woman…. No program of ‘equal rights'between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account.”
Our “spiritual mothers” leading the women's movement have not taken this into account. Nor have they accepted the fact that most women, even when educated and employed, still desire to be wives and mothers. Perhaps if enough Catholic women now come forward they will.
Vivian Dudro is based in San Francisco, Calif.
- August 24-30, 1997