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 Volume 2.5  This View’s Guest Column October 7, 2002 

A Woman’s Place

One Catholic’s Perspective on Women in Family & Society, Past, Present, & Future
    Cat Clark    

Two things prompted the writing of this article. Last year, when I attended Serrin Foster’s speech “The Feminist Case Against Abortion” at a Catholic university, a young man told Foster, afterwards, that he did not support FFL [Feminists for Life] because he believed a woman’s “place” is at home and not active in the public life of society, business, politics, etc. He thought that this objection was based on Catholic teaching. Foster, with a smile, allowed me to field that objection. More recently, another Catholic man emailed me to tell me he wanted to link to one of my articles, but then decided against it because my links promoted feminist concerns. “You can’t be serious!” he objected. “Do you really promote that stuff?” Yes, I replied, just like Pope John Paul II, who calls himself “Il Papa Feminista” (the feminist pope). In response to these objections I offer my thoughts on women in family & society, past, present, and future. [This is a long article, so I encourage you to print it for more reflective reading.]

In the Past

People my age, raised in the 70s & 80s after the advent of “second wave” feminism, have generally been taught (implicitly and explicitly) that until Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique all married women were housewives, who polished floors and baked cookies, and all married men were “breadwinners,” who worked outside the home as doctors, mechanics, etc. We watched the Leave It to Beaver reruns on afternoon TV and we saw the struggle of women in the workplace in movies like 9 to 5. We understood the humorous “reversal” of Mr. Mom. And we lived on “both sides” because some of us had “stay-at-home moms” and some of us had “working moms.” And so we developed this idea that June Cleaver was every woman of the past, and now things, for better or worse (usually both), were changing.

But we were very, very mistaken, because our Ozzie & Harriet understanding of women (and men) in history was ridiculously shortsighted.

Journey with me way back in the day, before the Industrial Revolution, in your imagination. There’s pretty much always been some kind of sexual division of labor in most societies (a division different from society to society), but it looked nothing like the recent past. Why? Because almost everyone, men and women, did most of their work at or very close to home. Consider the following list of pre-industrial jobs:

  • Agrarians/Farmers raising animals for milk, meat, wool, leather, etc.; growing various plants like grains, vegetables, fruits, herbs, textile crops, etc.;
  • doing numerous farm-related jobs like making & repairing tools, making & repairing clothes, etc.
  • Craftsmen & Artisans including smiths, coopers, cobblers, candlers, carpenters, weavers, etc. Other Small Tradesmen including grocers, clarks, bankers, millers, bakers, butchers, printers (later), import/exporters, etc.

In most cases, the “business” was operated from or very close to the family home (e.g. a shop with an apartment above or behind), and the wife and children were just as active in the business as the husband. In the not-so-distant past, “business” was always considered a part of the “private” sector because it was a personal and/or familial interest. Only matters of civic culture, like government and public works (e.g. public libraries), were considered the “public” sector.

So it’s true that “in the past women almost always worked at home in the ‘private’ sector,” but the same was true of the overwhelming majority of men, because their business was at home with their families in the “private” sector. Both sexes were actively engaged, pretty much simultaneously, in both family & business.

Allow me a brief indulgence here I think that it is somewhat ironic that all the Catholic June-Cleaver-types at my former school always failed to note that their heroine, “the Proverbs 31 woman,” was very active in business as well as household tasks (e.g. buying fields, making garments to sell in the marketplace). Indeed, one wonders if “the Proverbs 31 woman” ever gets a chance even to sleep.

Pope John Paul II, meditating on the Holy Family, gives us a glimpse of what families have lost when he says: “Mary worked at Joseph’s side in a personal, feminine manner, which the Gospel accounts allow us to glimpse. Doubtless their harmony was greatly fostered by the husband’s trade: Joseph could work close to his family and introduce the young Jesus to his skilled labor as a carpenter” (Angelus Reflection “The Feminine Presence in the Family,” 19 March 1995).

In the 19th century, as the Industrial Revolution was profoundly changing family and society in both Europe and America, “upwardly mobile [English] merchants and entrepreneurs aped aristocratic ways; their wives no longer managed dairies or worked with their husbands behind counters but sought to transform themselves into ladies, creatures of fashion,” (Christopher Lasch, Women and the Common Life). In the minds of the middle class of that day, the less serious and hardworking a woman was, and the more frivolous and silly she appeared, the more “successful” the man and his family would appear. Such women were actively encouraged to be elegant, idle, and unproductive.

Other women reacted strongly against this “ornamental” idea of woman, disgusted with the “frigid sarcasm,” “habitual levity,” “indolent selfishness,” and “extravagance of expression” that characterized pseudo-aristocratic ladies. They reacted in quite different ways. Some “antifeminists,” like Hannah More, thought women should make themselves more “useful” by intellectual exertion, the cultivation of virtue, and willingness to work diligently in home and family management. Other “feminist” women, like Mary Wollstonecraft, pressed a case for women’s equality in education and in friendship, love, and marriage. They too wanted women to become more virtuous and productive members of society. Though these women often thought themselves opposed to each other, they actually shared quite a bit of common ground, so that the “antifeminist” cult of domesticity promoted by women like More actually led many women into the “feminist” convictions of women like Wollstonecraft.

And so we must never be fooled into thinking that the 19th century “cult of domesticity,” which glorified active motherhood and diligent domesticity, meant that 19th and early 20th century women worked only in the home. Far from it.

Housework and child care by no means exhausted women's energies. On the contrary, both housewives and single women threw themselves into a variety of activities that took them out of the home. They organized benevolent societies, female reform societies, and foreign missions. They put together a vast network of temperance societies. They took up charities and philanthropies of all kinds. Many of them enlisted in the antislavery crusade, the peace movement, prison reform, and of course the movement for women's rights.... Their work as volunteers sustained a vast array of public services — libraries, hospitals, nursery schools, social settlements, parks, playgrounds, concert halls, museums. (Christopher Lasch, Women and the Common Life)

Between 1890 and 1920, it was women who did much of the work in the “public” sector, according to the traditional understanding of the terms “public” and “private.” The chief reason that our contemporaries do not acknowledge these women’s work outside the home is that their labor was unpaid.

[NB: There’s always been plenty of hard labor done by women that went unacknowledged for one reason or another. Recall the words of former slave Sojourner Truth, as recounted by Frances Gage: “Dat man over dar say dat woman needs to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place eberywhar. Nobody eber helps me into carriages, or ober mud-puddles, or gives me any best place and arn’t I a woman? Look at me. Look at my arm. I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me and arn’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chillen, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off into slavery, and when I cried with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard and arn’t I a woman?”]

At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was creating an increasing separation between home and business. It is from this recent fact of life that we came to consider the marketplace and business something of the “public” sector and to reduce the “private” sector to the home.

Now you’re probably asking when Ward & June Cleaver became the “norm,” since it was obviously much later than you were once led to believe? And the answer is: in the middle of the 20th century, with the rise of the suburbs. In the words of Christopher Lasch: “In reality, full-time motherhood the rejection of which touched off the latest [2nd] wave of feminist agitation in the sixties was something new and historically unprecedented.... The modern home, which presupposes a radical separation of domestic life from the world of work, was an invention of the 19th century.” [But, as we have seen when considering women’s earlier activities in civic culture, it was not yet in the 19th century what it became in the 20th. Also, NB: the “full-time motherhood” of which Lasch speaks was often a luxury of the upper and upper-middle classes, which is why I wrote “norm” in quotation marks.]

So to summarize: Until very recently the majority of men and women were simultaneously active in both family and business, which were both considered “private” interests. And even as business was increasingly divorced from the home, women were very active in the “public” sector, especially in massive volunteer associations and unpaid civic projects. While we have gained many benefits from the Industrial Revolution, we also lost much of the positive influence of women’s presence in business and civic culture and much of the positive influence of men’s presence in the family....

[For further reading about this history I particularly recommend two articles from Christopher Lasch’s collection Women and the Common Life: “The Sexual Division of Labor, the Decline of Civic Culture, and the Rise of the Suburbs” (which includes a magnificent comparison of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique with Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd), and “Bourgeois Domesticity, the Revolt Against Patriarchy, and the Attack on Fashion” (a comparison of 19th century “feminists” and “antifeminists”). For an excellent history of Western philosophical thought about women, I heartily recommend Sr. Prudence Allen’s The Concept of Woman.]

In the Present and Future

Now that I’ve clarified the history of women (and men) in family and society a bit, I’m going to turn to the writings of Pope John Paul II to give an indication where the Catholic Church stands on these issues now and what the Pope thinks we should work to accomplish for the future.

Pope John Paul II actively encourages the increasing entrance of women into all areas of life, including work in labor and the economy, politics, ecclesial life, the arts, the sciences, etc. Women’s very real rights and responsibilities within the family provide no excuse to those who would exclude women.

I cannot fail to express my admiration for those women of good will who have devoted their lives to defending the dignity of womanhood by fighting for their basic social, economic, and political rights, demonstrating courageous initiative at a time when this was considered extremely inappropriate, the sign of a lack of femininity, a manifestation of exhibitionism, and even a sin! ....

This journey [of “women’s liberation”] must go on! But I am convinced that the secret of making speedy progress in achieving full respect for women and their identity involves more than simply the condemnation of discrimination and injustices, necessary though this may be. Such respect must first and foremost be won through an effective and intelligent campaign for the promotion of women, concentrating on all areas of women’s life and beginning with a universal recognition of the dignity of women. (Letter to Women, no. 6)

As far as personal rights are concerned, there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advances, equality of spouses with regard to family rights, and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic state. This is a matter of justice but also of necessity. Women will increasingly play a part in the solution of the serious problems of the future.... (Letter to Women, no. 4)

It is a “sign of the times” that woman’s role is increasingly recognized, not only in the family circle, but also in the wider context of all social activities. Without the contribution of women, society is less alive, culture impoverished, and peace less stable. Situations where women are prevented from developing their full potential and from offering the wealth of their gifts should therefore be considered profoundly unjust, not only to women themselves but to society as a whole....

It is necessary to strive convincingly to ensure that the widest possible space is open to women in all areas of culture, economics, politics, and eccesial life itself, so that human society is increasingly enriched by the gifts proper to masculinity and femininity. (Angelus Reflection “The Feminine Genius,” 23 July 1995)

It is time, therefore, to close the gap between the cultural opportunities for men and women.... This will benefit not only women but culture itself, since the vast and variegated world of thought and art has a greater need of their “genius” than ever. Let this not seem a gratuitous assertion! ....

Women’s increasingly qualified entrance, not only as beneficiaries but also as protagonists, into the world of culture in all its branches from philosophy to theology, from the social to the natural sciences, from the figurative arts to music is a very hopeful sign for humanity. (Angelus Reflection “Closing the Gap Between Cultural Opportunites for Men and Women, ” 6 August 1995)

Doubtless one of the great social changes of our time is the increasing role played by women, also in an executive capacity, in labor and the economy. This process is gradually changing the face of society, and it is legitimate to hope that it will gradually succeed in changing that of the economy itself, giving it a new human inspiration and removing from it the recurring temptation of dull efficiency marked only by the laws of profit. How can we fail to see that, in order to deal satisfactorily with the many problems emerging today, special recourse to the feminine genius is essential?...

It is necessary to respect the right and duty of woman as mother to carry out her specific tasks in the family, without being forced by necessity to take on an additional job.... The safeguarding of this basic good, however, cannot be an alibi with regard to the principle of equal opportunity for men and women also in work outside the family. Flexible and balanced solutions should be found which harmonize the different needs. (Angelus Reflection “Equal Opportunity in the World of Work,” 20 August 1995, emphasis added)

A long tradition has seen mostly men involved in politics. Today more and more women are asserting themselves even at the highest levels of representation, national and international.

This process should be encouraged. Politics, in fact, geared as it is to promoting the common good, can only benefit from the complementary gifts of men and women. (Angelus Reflection “Women in Political Life,” 27 August 1995)

The 1987 Synod on the Laity... asked that “without discrimination women should be participants in the life of the Church, and also in consultation and the process of coming to decisions.” (Propositio 47; cf. Christifideles Laici, no. 51)

This is the way to be courageously taken. To a large extent, it is a question of making full use of the ample room for a lay and feminine presence recognized by the Church’s law. I am thinking, for example, of theological teaching, the forms of liturgical ministry permitted, including service at the altar, pastoral and administrative councils, Diocesan Synods and Particular Councils, various ecclesial institutions, curias, and eccelsiastical tribunals, many pastoral activities, including the new forms of participation in the care of parishes when there is a shortage of clergy, except for those tasks that belong properly to the priest. Who can imagine the great advantages to pastoral care and the new beauty that the Church’s face will assume, when the feminine genius is fully involved in the various areas of her life? (Angelus Reflection “Woman’s Role in the Church,” 3 September 1995)

Pope John Paul II thanks women for being women, for contributing to society as women, and apologizes for anything members of the Church may have done to hinder women. Since most Catholics already appreciate the work and service of women within the family and in consecrated life (if you don’t, you must now read all the Pope’s writings), I focus here on women who work outside the home.

Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life social, economic, cultural, artistic, and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of “mystery,” to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity....

Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.

I know of course that simply saying thank you is not enough. Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity. Certainly it is no easy task to assign the blame for this, considering the many kinds of cultural conditioning which down the centuries have shaped ways of thinking and acting. And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry. May this regret be transformed, on the part of the whole Church, into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision. When it comes to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination, the Gospel contains an ever relevant message which goes back to the attitude of Jesus Christ himself. Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance, and tenderness. In this way he honored the dignity which women have always possessed according to God’s plan and in his love. As we look to Christ at the end of this Second Millennium, it is natural to ask ourselves: how much of his message has been heard and acted upon? (Letter to Women, nos. 2 & 3)

Pope John Paul II encourges men who are husbands and fathers to be more active in the lives of their families. Although he has spoken and written more specifically about women than men, the Pope has given us some choice tidbits to add to the mix for further meditation and development.

A mother’s presence in the family, so critical to the stability and growth of that basic unit of society, should... be recognized, applauded, and supported in every possible way. By the same token society needs to call husbands and fathers to their family responsibilities, and ought to strive for a situation in which they will not be forced by economic circumstances to move away from the home in search of work.

Moreover, in today’s world, when so many children are facing crises that threaten not only their long-term development, but also their very life, it is imperative that the security afforded by responsible parents mother and father within the context of the family be reestablished and reaffirmed. (Welcome to Gertrude Mongella, Secretary General of the 4th World Conference on Women, nos. 3 & 4)

Mary worked at Joseph’s side in a personal, feminine manner, which the Gospel accounts allow us to glimpse. Doubtless their harmony was greatly fostered by the husband’s trade: Joseph could work close to his family and introduce the young Jesus to his skilled labor as a carpenter. (Angelus Reflection “The Feminine Presence in the Family,” 19 March 1995, emphasis added)

Love for his wife as the mother of their children and love for the children themselves are for the man the natural way of understanding and fulfilling his own fatherhood. Above all where social and cultural conditions so easily encourage a father to be less concerned with his family or at any rate less involved in the work of education, efforts must be made to restore socially the conviction that the place and task of the father in and for the family is of unique and irreplaceable importance. As experience teaches, the absence of a father causes psychological and moral imbalance and notable difficulties in family relationships, as does, in contrary circumstances, the oppressive presence of a father, especially where there still prevails the phenomenon of “machismo,” or a wrong superiority of male prerogatives which humiliates women and inhibits the development of healthy family relationships.

In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family: he will perform this task by exercising more generous responsibility for the life conceived under the heart of the mother, by a more solicitous commitment to education, a task he shares with his wife, by work which is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability, and by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children to the living experience of Christ and the Church. (Familiaris Consortio, no. 25)

Pope John Paul II believes that society itself must be reorganized to accomplish these goals (women’s increased contribution to society and culture, men’s increased participation in family life, etc.).

When women are able fully to share their gifts with the whole community, the very way in which society understands and organizes itself is improved and comes to reflect in a better way the substantial unity of the human family. (World Day of Peace Message 1 January 1995, no. 9)

The challenge facing most societies is that of upholding, indeed strengthening, woman’s role in the family while at the same time making it possible for her to use all her talents and exercise all her rights in building up society. However, women’s greater presence in the work force, in public life, and generally in the decision making processes guiding society, on an equal basis with men, will continue to be problematic as long as the costs continue to burden the private sector. In this area the state has a duty of subsidiarity, to be exercised through suitable legislative and social security initiatives. In the perspective of uncontrolled free-market policies there is little hope that women will be able to overcome the obstacles on their path. (Welcome to Gertrude Mongella, Secretary General of the 4th World Conference on Women, no. 8)

There should be no doubt that on the basis of their equal dignity with men “women have a full right to become actively involved in all areas of public life, and this right must be affirmed and guaranteed, also, where necessary, through appropriate legislation.” (World Day of Peace Message 1 January 1995, no. 9)

Profound changes are needed in the attitudes and organization of society in order to facilitate the participation of women in public life, while at the same time providing for the special obligations of women and of men with regard to their families. In some cases changes also have to be made to render it possible for women to have access to property and to the management of their assets. Nor should the special difficulties and problems faced by single women living alone or those who head families be neglected. (Welcome to Gertrude Mongella, Secretary General of the 4th World Conference on Women, no. 5, emphasis added)

Now, if you’ve read this whole article carefully, you will probably notice a kind of intriguing pattern. When summarizing the lives of women and men in family and society in the pre-industrial era, I said that until very recently the majority of men and women were simultaneously active in both family and business, which was not really separate from home life. And I argued that while we have gained many benefits from the Industrial Revolution, we also lost much of the positive influence of women’s presence in business and civic culture and much of the positive influence of men’s presence in the family. Looking to the papal teachings above, we note that Pope John Paul II calls both for women’s increased participation in cultural and social life (in business, politics, ecclesial life, the arts, the sciences, etc.) and for men’s increased participation in family life. When the Pope calls for these changes, which will require a radical reorganization of society as we now know it, I believe that he is saying that we must figure out a way to recover those good things we lost in the Industrial Revolution. This is a message neither entirely novel (because women used to be more active in business and civic culture than they have been in the recent past) nor entirely traditionalist (he’s not saying to abandon all modern technology, and he maintains women’s rights in some areas not previously acknowledged). It is a message thoroughly Catholic.

[For further reading on Pope John Paul II’s “new feminism,” I recommend the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ compilation Pope John Paul II on the Genius of Women, which includes 1995’s World Day of Peace Message, the 1995 Angelus Reflections on women, Letter to Women, and other great relevant documents. Call 800-235-8722 and order publication no. 5-113. Most of these are also available free on the web. You should also acquire a copy of Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic exhortation on the dignity and vocation of women. It is available free on the Vatican website or in paperback editions from Pauline Books & Media or the USCCB Publishing.]

Can Catholics Be Feminists?

Is it possible to be both an orthodox Catholic and a “feminist”? Not only is it possible to be both an orthodox Catholic and a feminist, Pope John Paul II, who calls himself “Il Papa Feminista” (the feminist pope), has explicitly called women to “promote a ’new feminism’... 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,” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 99).

Historically, feminism has two essential and universal impulses:

  1. the express desire of women to participate in all areas of social, political, economic, and cultural life, not restricted to the so-called “private realm.”
  2. a growing recognition and condemnation of discrimination, segregation, double standards, domination, and violence against women and their personal dignity.

The Catholic Church, under the guidance of Pope John Paul II, is truly feminist because it (1) encourages the participation of women in all areas of public and private life and (2) opposes all forms of injustice against women. (See numerous quotes above.)

Although the essential impulses of feminism are good in themselves, it must be acknowledged that feminists have made their share of mistakes in the difficult and complicated process of “women’s liberation.” Some manifestations and expressions of feminism have been unsound and even harmful (e.g. NOW’s counterproductive commitment to abortion advocacy). Even so, Pope John Paul II actively encourages Catholic feminists to correct the mistakes of the past and keep moving forward. “This journey must go on!” (Letter to Women, no. 6). Inspired by these words, Catholic feminists are endeavoring to promote the dignity and genius of women “through an effective and intelligent campaign” (Letter to Women, no. 6). I am one of them.

Musings of an Amphibious Goat
October 2, 2002

© Cat Clark 2002. Used with permission.

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 Volume 2.5 This View’s Guest Column October 7, 2002 

The View from the Core, and all original material, © E. L. Core 2002. All rights reserved.

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