Post 31

A Strong Woman: Reflections on (New) Feminism

I once happened to ask some friends, “What’s the opposite of a feminist?”

I guess the answer depends on your perception of feminism.  Interestingly, the word feminism meant, once upon a time, the state of being feminine.  But ever since the women’s movement, feminism means whatever is masculine.

Feminism, ironically, uses men as its gold standard.  After all, feminism is about women getting everything that men have.  Feminism looks at men, and sees what they are doing, and what they value, and what they have, and says, “We want that. It’s better.”  Feminism looks at women, and sees what they are doing, and what they value, and what they have, and says, “We don’t want this. It’s worse.”

(Yes, I know it’s not as overt as this.  A feminist would tell me that women should have access to all spheres, yet if you study what things the feminists are demanding at any given time, it’s usually aimed at getting more of what the men appear to have.)

And because all cultures (and almost all mammals and birds too) exhibit a division of responsibility between males and females – men active outside the home, women active inside it – feminists condemn them as treating women unequally. It says that all previous cultures were obviously flawed and unfair.  Feminism seems to assume that in all these societies throughout all the ages, men used a combination of brute force and coercive institutions to keep women out of the public sphere, because they wanted to keep all the fun and the thrills to themselves.  (It’s never contemplated that men were motivated by anything other than self-interest nor that women’s preferences might have had anything to do with these arrangements.)

Feminism is divided within itself, but I think it’s safe to say that a feminist utopia is one where roles are entirely fluid and unconnected with gender.  Even our current culture, where women are active outside the home to an extent unprecedented in human history, is unsatisfying to feminists, who will say it ‘still has a long way to go.’  The only truly fair or equal society, imply the feminists, is one where women do what men do.

In this vein, feminists are appalled by the Catholic Church.  They have a list of grievances against it, but one argument, which they consider a slam-dunk, is to point to the fact that women aren’t allowed to be priests.  But here they entirely misunderstand the role of the Catholic priest.  In saying that women should be priests, they are motivated by a desire for temporal power, thinking that this is what a priest is all about.  Is he not the one who gives the homily in front of all those people and who administers the sacraments?  They notice the visible, active part of the priest’s life.  They fail to recognize that the priesthood is a life of service – priests serve the community of believers and must use themselves up in that way.  So those who truly have a priest’s heart, have a heart of service, and it is suspicious if someone who claims a desire to serve would demand to serve via method A instead of via method B.

But anyway, in its rush to obtain and enjoy all the things men seem to be enjoying, feminism forgets, and, in many cases, ridicules, all the things which women have done and used to enjoy.  The things which had previously occupied the majority of women’s time through the ages, are scoffed at by feminists as unimportant.  Give us real power, they demand. Don’t leave us behind in our homes to do these insignificant things: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing and handicrafts.  We want to shape the culture by leaving our homes and being in the public sphere (and we’ll do a better job of it too, goes the argument, because we’re women; we’re different.  Oops! We’re not different, we’re just the same!)  That’s what the leaders of the women’s movement said.

It continues today.  The women who work outside the home are viewed as strong.  Those who do not work outside the home are viewed as weak.

Indeed, there is no single English word that describes the woman who does not work outside the home.  So our language, which is capable of great precision, is left floundering here.  Previously, the word was “housewife” or “homemaker.”

But I never hear women use these words nowadays of course; to the modern ear, ‘homemaker’ and ‘housewife’ both sound really pathetic.  She might as well say, “I’m unemployed and unemployable.  I can’t compete in, or cope with, the real world, and I have no interest in socializing with other adults.  I prefer to hide in my home where my small dreams are satisfied by small things.  I earn no income; I am entirely dependent upon my husband.  And what do you do?”

So in describing herself, the homemaker will not refer to her husband at all (just imagine trying to justify being out of the workforce to assist your husband on the home front – unthinkable!) and will instead choose between basically two standard answers: 1) “I’m home with the children” in which case she indicates where she is, but it doesn’t sound like she’s doing anything, or 2) “I’m a stay-at-home mom,” in which case her main occupation is staying – kind of like a dish towel or a vase on a shelf.  And again, we know where she is.  Does the word ‘mom’ give the impression of demanding work or just a relationship?  That would of course depend on the listener, but more than anything, it also sounds like a state of being.

There are women who have home-based businesses, and this is viewed as better than ‘not working at all’ but it’s still looked at condescendingly (“Oh, good for you!”) unless this business is thriving and successful – yet even here, the effort and ability involved in achieving financial success is still underestimated and discounted; the success of home-based women is viewed as good luck.  And there are women who volunteer; this is also smiled at (“Oh, good for you!”) but not really admired by the average person.  Women who are at home because they choose to take care of an elderly relative instead of institutionalizing them, are pitied, because obviously, such women are ‘stuck at home.’  And women who are at home because they homeschool their children are in perhaps the most interesting position (probably they will not hear, “Oh, good for you!”). For such women, my advice would be to avoid saying, “I homeschool my children.” Instead I suggest you say, “I teach.”  This will impress people, because teachers rate as one of the most favorably-viewed members of society; they are ‘educating the leaders of tomorrow.’   But after that, I cannot help you further.  Make a quick exit, because if they ask you which grade or which subject you teach, the truth will surface: they’ll know you don’t work after all!

In these cases, women are making choices as to how they spend their time, just as the career-women are doing.  However, the feminist movement isn’t as ‘pro-choice’ as it seems, because those women who choose traditionally feminine roles are looked down upon, even though they are, in many cases, going against the current trends for women.  In reclaiming work at home as an acceptable way of spending one’s days, I could argue that they are ‘pioneers’ in the same way that some of the early suffragettes are seen.  They swim upstream.  Meanwhile, work outside the home, especially in male-dominated professions, is looked upon as a sign of strength, talent, and resourcefulness.

Chesterton noticed how outside work is equated with bravery.  He wrote the following section in the context of women advocating for the right to vote (as if this were a human right essential to happiness and not a social construction applicable only in democracies).  He said that people would sometimes say that women should be allowed to vote (suffrage) because they’ve proven their bravery outside the home:

I am puzzled . . . when I hear, as we often hear just now, somebody saying that he was formerly opposed to Female Suffrage but has been converted to it by the courage and patriotism shown by women in nursing and similar war work . . . [F]rom what benighted dens can these people have crawled, that they did not know that women are brave?  What horrible sort of women have they known all their lives?  Where do they come from?  Or, what is a still more apposite question, where do they think they came from?  Do they think they fell from the moon, or were really found under cabbage-leaves, or brought over the sea by storks? . . . Should we, any of us, be here at all if women were not brave?  Are we not all trophies of that war and triumph?  Does not every man stand on the earth like a graven statue as the monument of the valour of a woman?

– K. Chesterton, The Prudery of the Feminists, January 25, 1917

His point is that women are naturally brave; they don’t need to prove that they are by becoming career women. Anyone who does not know that women are brave is clueless, is his point.

I like it when the uniqueness of women is acknowledged.  For this reason, I find it fascinating to hear about those scientific or psychological studies that prove, again, how different males are from females, even in the womb.

Yet despite the growing science proving the physiological differences between males and females, feminism pushes on, and wants to ensure that little girls enjoy math and science as much as the boys.  If there are more boys than girls excelling in these things, the theory goes, then something is wrong with the system.  This problem (because, obviously, it’s a problem), they say, must be remedied!

Feminism complains when girls are not allowed into boys’ clubs or sports teams, and women are pursuing previously-male sports like never before.  I suspect part of the appeal is that these sports are seen as ‘tough’ and that’s what everyone wants to be nowadays.  HelpfulOne surprised me by telling me about the increasing popularity of martial arts and similar sports among women; more women are entering these sports and more people are watching them.  I guess it fits with the modern mindset.

It does seem rather silly to me when women aim for toughness.  Exercise is one thing, but toughness, well, I don’t know.  After all, the outside of a woman’s body, even when made up of many large and well-trained muscles, or covered from head to toe in macho gear, is still a woman’s body.  Beefier muscles and masculine clothing, as tough as they seem to the woman flaunting them, do not alter the passive physiology of the woman’s body.  A woman’s strength isn’t on the outside!  It’s on the inside, of course, tucked away and hidden from view like the housewife.  You know what I’m talking about.  Since time began, a woman’s ability to conceive and bear a child has been the most awe-inspiring aspect of the female body, and it has always intimidated those men whose motives are less than honourable.  Such men go to some lengths to thwart the reproductive ability of a woman’s body, which they find scary.  In their desire to quash this amazing capacity, such men resemble feminists who promote ‘women’s reproductive rights,’ i.e., contraception and abortion.  (And, irony of ironies, abortion is so often used to prevent the birth of girls.  An ultrasound is done, the baby is found to be a girl, and an abortion follows.  The advocates of women’s reproductive rights don’t want to think about this.)

But moving on to something far less significant, but interestingly symbolic, I also blame feminism for subconsciously encouraging some parents to choose male names for their newborn daughters.  And perhaps it’s not even subconscious; my friend chose male names for her daughters, having heard that girls with male names academically outperform girls with female names.  It means that the parents of boys have to think twice before choosing a name which might soon become a girls’ name.  An internet search shows that “some of today’s hippest names are those which were 100% boys’ names.”  Do you like the letter A?  Then here are some choices: Addison, Adrian, Aidan, Ainsley, Alex, Andy, Ari, Ashley, Ashton, Aspen, Aubrey, August, Austin, Avery.  If you like the letter ‘J,’ then here are some others: James, Jean, Jesse, Jordan, Jude, Jules, Julian.

And it doesn’t stop with male occupations, male sports and male names.  Feminism also involves chasing the perceived attributes of men: dominance, leadership, strength, risk-taking, bravery, and aggression, to name a few.  I am careful to say ‘perceived attributes’ because feminists forget all the male traits which function as a counter-balance to these other traits, such as self-sacrifice, protectiveness, sang-froid and loyalty, to name a few.  In other words, feminism, in considering what we women should want to be equal to, bases its wish-list on a caricature of a male, not a worthy male.   It holds up for emulation the unbalanced male, who is macho and domineering, instead of the restrained hero.  I like this quotation because I have found it to be true, especially in male-dominated professions: “Women do not find it difficult nowadays to behave like men, but they often find it extremely difficult to behave like gentlemen.” (Compton Mackenzie)

And the emulation of the wrong male traits affects male-female relations as well.   Nowadays a man does not have to be in love (or pretend to be) in order to attract a woman, doing all the chivalrous things that men used to do.  The tables have turned; these days we see women and even girls trying to outdo each other in displaying sexual prowess and desirability.  It’s almost as if all their hormones are way out of kilter (and I suppose with the prevalence of birth control, this isn’t too far from the truth), and women have exchanged their natural cyclical waves of estrogen and progesterone for a relentless tsunami of testosterone.   And it’s testosterone unrestrained by any sense of propriety – it’s considered fine to be openly lustful in speech and behaviour.  Women have sunk to imitating a foul-mouthed pervert; romance doesn’t enter into it.  At least, this is the talk; this is the act.  And it costs women a lot to play this part.  How ironic that in most cases, the woman is doing all this in order to find her Prince Charming who will love her as his one-and-only and treat her with love and dignity!  There’s something sadly desperate about all of it; women have forgotten their inherent worth.

And now, having written all of the above, I go to locate a quotation I once read from a document of the Catholic Church.  In the process of looking for it, I am surprised.  For example, I did not know, when starting this post, that the Catholic Church (and Chesterton for that matter) expressed concern about the masculinization of women.  It is always strange to dig through thought-tunnels, and find myself surfacing at the same place.

Here are three pertinent sections from Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter from 1988.  I like this first section because it shows that almost 30 years ago, the Church was concerned about the masculinization that I complain of today:

In our times the question of “women’s rights” has taken on new significance . . .[T]he rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words “He shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the “masculinization” of women. In the name of liberation from male “domination”, women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine “originality” . . . [I]f they take this path, women will not “reach fulfilment”, but instead will deform and lose what constitutes their essential richness. It is indeed an enormous richness . . . The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different.

Here’s a second excerpt, which I like it because it emphasizes the equality of men and women:

. . . Christ’s attitude to women confirms and clarifies . . .  the truth about the equality of man and woman . . . [B]oth of them . . . are created in the image and likeness of God . . .

And here’s a third excerpt, which I like because it uses the word “strength” when talking about women, which is what I was thinking about when I began this post a few days ago:

The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way . . .

A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting, strong because of the fact that God “entrusts the human being to her” . . .  This awareness and this fundamental vocation speak to women of the dignity which they receive from God himself, and this makes them “strong” and strengthens their vocation.

Thus the “perfect woman” (cf. Prov 31:10) becomes an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people, who perceive the great energies of her spirit. These “perfect women” are owed much by their families, and sometimes by whole nations.

So, I return to my question, “What’s the opposite of a feminist?” My reason for asking was partly because I felt like I was the opposite of a feminist, but I didn’t know whether society even had a label for me and for other people who thought the same way.   Would I be a ‘masculinist’?  Would I be a misogynist, i.e., a hater of women?  How can that be, if I am a woman myself?!

The internet tells me that the opposite is an anti-feminist.  Great.  So I’m a female who opposes femaleness?  After all, the word “feminism,” is based on the Latin word for woman (‘femina’).  It has struck me as a shame that the word feminism is so tied to the women’s movement, which, as I said, uses men as its gold standard.

I don’t want to be an ‘anti-feminist’ because that’s just a negation.  It says what I am opposed to, but not what I’m in favour of.  It reminds me of the tendency to think of Catholics as being opposed to such-and-such, while forgetting that they’re in favour of the opposite thing, which is part of a bigger picture. 

The only answer that I got, when I first posed this question about a year ago, was from HelpfulOne, who suggested, “Maybe it’s someone who has a correct understanding of the relations between men and women?” I thought this was an incisive reply, especially on the spur of the moment.  And look at what I found early this morning on Wikipedia!  It’s called New Feminism, and it’s based on all the good things that the Catholic Church said about women (and men).   I didn’t know there was such a thing until 10 minutes ago, but I’m ready to sign up!  And now I know what to call myself.

I’m a (new) feminist after all!