In the poem “Trouble” by Pulitzer Prize–winning poet James Wright, a teenage mill girl becomes pregnant. The poem ends with the haunting lines: “Sixteen years, and / all that time she thought she was nothing / but skin and bones.”
Women are, of course, more than skin and bones. They aren’t simply bodies to be used, but life-bearers made in the image of God. Throughout history, their smaller, slighter physical stature and associated stereotypes have led to an onslaught of various abuses. Until the early twentieth century, American women couldn’t even vote, and for centuries before that, few could own property. Feminism was, in large part, an outgrowth of this suffering. Groups of women mobilized to fight for their fellow women’s rights to vote, own property, and be deemed equal to men in the eyes of the law.
Feminism has never been a phrase without its detractors—many men in the 1800s very much did see women as “skin and bones.” But today, Catholics seem to be split over the virtues and vices of the word “feminist” more than ever before.
A False Dichotomy
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Most modern anti-feminists are aware that many of their views align with those of the earliest feminists. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul, for instance, were fierce advocates for the rights of mothers and protection against male violence. Many scholars believe that in the twentieth century, feminism descended into activism at the hands of figures like Simone de Beauvoir, who famously claimed that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Over time, feminism morphed from a project to celebrate and protect women into a nebulous, vigorously debated term.
Throughout the twenty-first century, feminism has been touted as the ability to end the lives of children, to “become” men, and to sell our bodies. The original feminists would have opposed all three of these “empowering” freedoms, as do many Catholics.
A Catholic attempting to live a virtuous life is then presented with a false dichotomy: shake off the label feminist, leaving it in the rubble with the rest of the cultural norms the world tries to force on us, or try to find a framework for a Catholic feminism that upholds truth while respecting the rights and dignity of women.
There are plenty of women choosing the former within the Church. A quick YouTube search of “Catholic feminism” brings up ample numbers of Catholic thought leaders with videos titled “Feminism is NOT Okay for Catholics” and “Catholic Feminism: An Oxymoron.” Dr. Carrie Gress’s new book, The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy Has Destroyed Us, controversially claims that feminism has been harmful from the beginning. Most of these scholars are faithful Catholics of goodwill; they see how modern, secular feminism has damaged women and families. They rightly want to push back against a culture that seems to claim simultaneously that there’s no difference between men and women, and that everyone must have the ability to switch between the two.
But I would ask those who are handing over the word feminist to modern secular thinkers this question: What do you make of the very real ways women are discriminated against today? What do you make of the fact that one in three women is a victim of intimate partner violence, that sex-selective abortions in South Korea and China have left us with a gendercide, or that female health concerns like endometriosis are chronically underfunded and understudied when compared to male health concerns like erectile dysfunction?
Furthermore, how would today’s anti-feminists respond to the anti-woman discrimination of yesterday? Do they wish banks still refrained from allowing mortgages to single women? Or believe marital rape should still be legal? These victories were hard-fought and won by feminism. The claim that simply being Catholic lends itself to fighting against these injustices seems odd to me. We joyfully proclaim our identity as “pro-life Catholics” or “pro-family Catholics”—why not “feminist Catholics”?
Feminism is a theory, one that’s sticky and complex and means different things to different people. My Polish family has often quoted one of my favorite sayings: get three Poles in a room, and you’ll have at least four opinions. It’s easy to argue that the same is true for feminists. But what many anti-feminists seem to do is cut feminism off at the knees the moment it becomes a complex topic that requires careful examination. Instead of engaging with secular feminists in a meaningful way, many anti-feminists shrug their shoulders at gender discrimination.
But women are suffering in the world today in very real ways, both inside and outside the Church. Modern, secular feminism is doing some good work to alleviate that suffering—fighting for paid parental leave, for instance, so that women can bond with their newborn babies and build the foundation of a family that will benefit generations to come. But some of what they’re doing abets that very suffering, such as claiming that the answer to the difficulties of motherhood is simply not to become a mother at all.
Is Catholic Feminism the Cure?
There is a need for a feminism that sees women as more than “skin and bones” that can be transformed into men with the proper clothing and pronouns; a need for a feminism that works to keep women safe and honor them as daughters of God. Denying women certain fundamental rights leads to half the global population being denied the opportunity to flourish. When women aren’t given proper healthcare, financial opportunities, and protection from violence, they’re shut out from spaces of influence, which will lead to the world’s missing out on the many gifts women can offer.
Catholics, in particular, have recognized the need for this type of feminism. Saint John Paul the Great didn’t call for an end to feminism. He called for a new feminism, writing in Evangelium Vitae:
In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a “new feminism” which rejects the temptation of imitating models of “male domination,” in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation.
When Catholics surrender the term feminism to modern thinkers who rely on outdated stereotypes and a perverted sense of womanhood, we’re not answering Saint John Paul the Great’s invitation. We’re allowing our own bitterness and often justified disagreement to prevent us from recognizing the ways women are suffering. We let our culture twist words as it pleases. If Catholic women feel that they’re thriving, that is clearly a good thing. But many women aren’t, and those of us who are uniquely privileged are obligated to increase our aid.
Feminism, as it was originally intended, identified and honored the differences between men and women. It didn’t emphasize the stereotypical differences that both modern gender ideologues and Instagram #tradwives tend to emphasize—what a person wears, for instance, or what hobbies she enjoys. Feminism originally illuminated the fact that because women are life-bearers, and because of their innate capacity for care and serving, they were uniquely positioned to suffer discrimination.
First-wave feminists didn’t look down on the beauty of the vocation of marriage, although they rightly identified the many problems that plagued modern marriages (the high occurrence of marital rape, for example, and women’s lack of parental rights over their own children). They saw women as uniquely deserving of protection. In other words, feminists saw neither delicate waifs in need of protection nor “male-lites” who needed the freedom of masculinity. They saw more than the “skin and bones”.
The next wave of feminism can do the same—but only if Catholics help make it so.