|Core: noun, the most important part of a thing, the essence; from the Latin cor, meaning heart.|
|Volume 2.5||This Views Guest Column||October 7, 2002|
A Womans Place
One Catholics Perspective on Women in Family & Society, Past, Present, & Future
Two things prompted the writing of this article. Last year, when I attended Serrin Fosters 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 womans 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 cant 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. Theres 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:
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 its 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 Josephs side in a personal, feminine manner, which the Gospel accounts allow us to glimpse. Doubtless their harmony was greatly fostered by the husbands 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 womens 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.
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 womens work outside the home is that their labor was unpaid.
[NB: Theres 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 arnt 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 arnt I a woman? I have borne thirteen chillen, and seen em mos
all sold off into slavery, and when I cried with a mothers grief, none
but Jesus heard — and arnt 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 youre 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 womens 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 womens presence in business and civic culture and much of the positive influence of mens presence in the family....
[For further reading about this history I particularly recommend two articles from Christopher Laschs 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 Friedans Feminine Mystique with Paul Goodmans 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 Allens The Concept of Woman.]
In the Present and Future
Now that Ive clarified the history of women (and men) in family and society a bit, Im 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. Womens very real rights and responsibilities within the family provide no excuse to those who would exclude women.
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 dont, you must now read all the Popes writings), I focus here on women who work outside the home.
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.
Pope John Paul II believes that society itself must be reorganized to accomplish these goals (womens increased contribution to society and culture, mens increased participation in family life, etc.).
Now, if youve 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 womens presence in business and civic culture
and much of the positive influence of mens presence in the family. Looking
to the papal teachings above, we note that Pope John Paul II calls both for
womens increased participation in cultural and social life (in business,
politics, ecclesial life, the arts, the sciences, etc.) and for mens
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 (hes not
saying to abandon all modern technology, and he maintains womens rights
in some areas not previously acknowledged). It is a message thoroughly Catholic.
[For further reading on Pope John Paul IIs new feminism, I recommend the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops compilation Pope John Paul II on the Genius of Women, which includes 1995s 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 IIs 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:
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 womens liberation. Some manifestations and expressions of feminism have been unsound and even harmful (e.g. NOWs 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.
© Cat Clark 2002. Used with permission.
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|Volume 2.5||This Views Guest Column||October 7, 2002|
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