I used to be one of those kids who was very gleeful about entering the battle of the sexes. I once wrote on our neighbourhood blackboard this gem: “Girls have many faults, boys have only two: everything they say and everything they do.” I remember carrying a stack of chairs somewhere when I was a 16 year old in the church youth group, and practically yelling at a guy who tried to take them from me. “You think I can’t do this? Obviously I can!” I loved quotes like “Women need men like fish need bicycles.”
It seemed obvious that feminism was the Right Choice. It suited my activist personality. But as I grew older, I found that the online Catholic world wasn’t too fond of the word ‘feminist’. It seemed to evoke a vision of angry man-hating topless profanity-spewing women who hated all religion and viewed the Church in particular as a backward patriarchal woman-hating institution.
Today I still identify as a Catholic feminist, but I no longer assume that anyone understand what that means, or that other feminists would agree with me on every issue, or that there is only one accepted definition of feminism.
This is what Catholic feminism looks like:
Catholics believe that men and women are created equal - equal in value and dignity and worth. There are many inherent differences that do not diminish our worth in any way. Many men (not all) are physically bigger and stronger than many women. Many women (not all) have a knack for tenderness and nurturing that many men (not all) lack. I do not believe that being equal means being exactly the same, or needing to do exactly the same things. I don't, for example, feel discriminated against because I can't be a priest. I hope men feel the same way about being able to bear a child in their body.
Catholic feminism says that it is not just okay, but GOOD for men and women to use their innate gifts to serve each other. I may not need A man, but women need men AND men need women. Feminism does not mean the world would be a better place without men. I gradually learned to accept graciously the help that men offered especially when it involved physical strength and carrying heavy bags. I am capable of carrying my own bags most of the time, it is just a lot harder. I am very grateful for the men in my life (I remember that especially when I am alone dragging heavy bags up flights of stairs), and my feminism does not negate that. I have also learned to offer help in areas where men often struggle, instead of mocking them for their inadequacy.
But as a feminist, even though I agree that men and women are different in some ways, I think that many of the differences are not God-given, but social constructs, traditions of generations that may need to change. Why don’t we teach both men and women to cook, fix things, buy vegetables, clean, look after kids and be empathetic? Different people prefer different things, but they should all have a basic grounding in all life skills. By creating opportunities for boys and girls to learn different things, they may find their calling in a non-traditional field for their sex, but a field that exactly fits their strengths and interests. Maybe they will not feel like they are ‘tomboys’ or ‘effeminate’ just because they happen to be more active, logical, artistic, empathetic or gentle than most members of their sex. By teaching empathy and confidence to both, maybe we will also have fathers who are able to express affection and mothers who are able to not be afraid of the world outside the home. Win-win!
Being a Catholic feminist means getting rid of double standards. Why is it okay for guys to have sexual experience and girls not to? Boys will be boys? Psssht. But instead of lowering everyone’s standards so that we now ALL have permission to be sexually permissive and drunken revellers, how about we raise the standards, so that both men and women are encouraged to save sex for faithful committed relationships (aka marriage), and to be prudent and wise in their partying habits?
Being a Catholic feminist means acknowledging that although men and women HAVE been created equal, they have historically not been treated so. Even today in many parts of the world and society, women are not allowed a say in their own lives, in their families or their children. I was once teaching children from the slum something about economics and household finances. The textbook said something about the parents making decisions together, so I asked the children if that happened. It was clear that that was not how their family worked. In the village school I once taught, girls were usually taken out from school by the time they were in high school because their parents had decided that their only life option was to marry young and stay home looking after their families for the rest of their lives. If you follow Humans of Bombay, you can see just how often these young uneducated women in arranged marriages are taken advantage of by alcoholic, abusive husbands who abandoned them and their children.
Being a feminist means caring about social justice which is a very Catholic thing to do. It means fighting for girls to get an education, to have the ability to gain marketable skills, to develop their talents and interests, to have choices and not be dependent on the men in their life to be good and honourable (because men are not always good and honourable). It means helping women to see themselves as capable and strong and valuable.
But being a Catholic feminist also means valuing and supporting women in their calling as wives and mothers (if that is what they are called to). It means not belittling women who are home-makers, not glorifying careers, or expecting women to have to ‘do it all’. It is not mocking women who love cooking for their husbands, or women who long to have children. It means supporting women in their fertility (and not promoting harmful chemical contraceptives or treating their fertility like a disease) and educating them about their bodies and cycles.
Being a Catholic feminist means caring for women at every stage of their lives, right from conception when they are the most vulnerable. Though the right to abortion is seen a key aspect of modern feminism, Catholic feminists do not believe that abortion can ever bring true freedom. Like this New Wave Feminists’ sign: "When our liberation costs innocent lives, it is merely oppression redistributed." Most stories of women seeking abortion contain the words or the impression that women felt like they had NO choice. Being a pro-life feminist means not just opposing abortion, but offering women the support they need to bear a child and rebuild their lives. It means withholding judgment and offering support.
Being a Catholic feminist means allowing oneself to feel and express righteous anger, but not allowing that to make one bitter or resentful. Instead it is allowing pain at injustice to be transformed into a LOVE that changes things, because in the end only love can do that.
Being a Catholic feminist does not mean teaching women to see men as the enemy. They are not. They are also deserving of respect and kindness as are all human being created in the image and likeness of God. Feminism should not be a weapon for a woman to wield that destroys the unity of marriages. Instead true feminism is helping both husbands and wives (and men and women in general) accept each other, respect and listen to each other, work as partners for the good of each other and the family, and gently help each other get over prejudices and blind spots and gender stereotypes. It also means making adjustments for the good of the family, whether it means taking turns to be the stay-at-home parent, or to get the kids ready for school, or to clean the kitchen, or to give up a promotion.
Being a Catholic feminist doesn’t mean that a woman’s needs come ahead of everyone else’s. But it does need that a woman’s needs are important and that she needs to communicate them (something many women don’t do), and learn how to take care of herself, while also balancing the needs of those who are in her care. It also means building a marriage where both partners support each others’ dreams, and discern how God wants them to do that at different points of their marriage.
You know, almost all of these points apply to men too. We want men to have all these things as well. The reason why we talk more about women than about men is because women have usually been the ones who have NOT received these things. This is not men versus women. This is about all men and women of good will fighting to right an injustice. Let’s do our part. Let’s not be afraid of feminism. But let’s not lose sight of the larger truth that we are known, loved and created uniquely by a God who made us, man and woman, in the beginning, and who has a beautiful plan for us to live and work together in this Garden of earth .
Pope John Paul II's Letter on the Dignity and Vocation of Women
Sex, Style and Substance: Ten Catholic Women Consider The Things That Really Matter
New Wave Feminists