WHAT BRAND OF FEMINISM?
Kathleen Sprows Cummings has written a very entertaining essay on the tensions and compatibilities between feminism and Catholicism (“Do Women Have Souls?” September 11). The only problem is that she neglected to tell us what she means by “feminism.” When somebody says, “I am a feminist,” and leaves it at that, what she (or he) means is anything but clear.
It is a word that needs specification, since there are at least four species of feminism: egalitarian feminism, which holds that all opportunities—occupational, educational, athletic, etc.—that are open to boys/men should also be open to girls/women; sexual libertarian feminism, which holds that women have a right to sexual freedom and abortion; antimale feminism, which holds that men have always been—and still are—the enemy of women, and that women should therefore adopt an attitude of reciprocal enmity toward men; finally, there is quasi-religious feminism, which, rejecting all traditional religions, draws from active membership in the feminist movement many of the moral and psychological satisfactions that most people draw from a traditional religion.
Since Cummings tells us that she is a Catholic as well as a feminist, I infer that she rejects the final three “feminisms” described above, because they are radically incompatible with Catholicism. She is, then, an egalitarian feminist-as is almost everybody else in America today.
THE AUTHOR REPLIES:
Thank you to David Carlin for his response to my essay. I would take issue with his four categories of feminism, which strike me as idiosyncratic, and perhaps based on anecdotal evidence or news reports, rather than on knowledge of actual feminists or their writings. Still, I welcome the opportunity to elaborate on the definition of feminism I accept and use, which I touch on in my essay but do not state explicitly.
My definition of feminism is taken from Stanford professor Estelle Freedman's well-regarded No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. Feminism has three components: First, feminists believe that men and women are inherently of equal worth. Second, feminists seek to accommodate innate sexual difference (that is, biological differences between men and women) but to dismantle historically contingent, and thus inessential, differences of gender (defined as the meaning that society attaches to biological differences). Third, feminists recognize that oppression based on gender is intertwined with other forms of oppression, such as those based on race or class.
Everything contained or implied in parts one and three of this definition is fully consonant with Catholic teachings about the dignity of every human being. Indeed, it was primarily because of those teachings that I became so sympathetic to feminism. Part two is a different story, though, and most of the myths, misconceptions, and controversies about feminism derive from it. There is a tremendous amount of disagreement about where sex ends and gender begins. Current discussions about where to place the dividing line are inevitably contentious, outside of Catholic circles as well as within them. Just ask Larry Summers.
The abortion question offers a case in point. For many feminists—particularly non-Catholic ones—“accommodating biological differences” does mean supporting unrestricted access to abortion. In contrast, prolife feminists like me insist that a true feminist response to unwanted pregnancies involves the implementation of familial, community, and state-supported structures that would alleviate the financial, social, and emotional burdens that too often accompany the decision to bear and raise a child.
Feminists are not against men, nor are they necessarily against traditional religion. What they are against is the way that patriarchal religious traditions have translated biological differences into social norms in a manner that, more often than not, has reinforced verifiably false and un-Christian assumptions about women's inferiority to men.
KATHLEEN SPROWS CUMMINGS
Margaret O'Brien Steinfels's article “My Chicago Catholic Bubble” (September 11) rang so true with me. I was born and raised in Chicago, along with eight brothers and sisters. I was a Jesuit from 1943 to the late, turbulent, exciting, wonderful 1960s. I experienced much of what Steinfels recalls. Oddly enough, I also had John McKenzie, SJ, as an instructor. When I was a student in the mid 1950s, he awakened in me the ability to ask, “Why do we believe this?” His mind-expanding, thought-provoking classes stood in opposition to those of his fellow Jesuit, John Hardon, who frequently categorized almost all church teaching as de fide definita. John McKenzie was the most influential teacher I had in all my twenty-nine grades.
My deep thanks to Steinfels for her insights, which helped me better understand my own history and recall the wonder of Fr. John McKenzie.
DANIEL J. McCARTHY
Allow me to provide a small footnote to Margaret O'Brien Steinfels's article, “My Chicago Catholic Bubble.” While she was enjoying Fr. John L. McKenzie's undergraduate Bible courses at Loyola, he was also bursting the Catholic bubble for scores of Chicago priests and laypeople. He and his associates were training volunteers in biblical scholarship for a Bible study program offered by the Adult Education Centers located in high schools and colleges throughout the Chicago area.
The Adult Education Centers shared office space at 21 West Superior Street with the Catholic Interracial Council, directed by John McDermott, and with Msgr. Daniel Cantwell, chaplain of Friendship House. In those days we spent many a lunch hour talking about how to help pressure Mrs. Frank J. Lewis to change the policy that denied blacks admission to the swimming pool at the Illinois Club for Catholic Women.
Peter and Peggy Steinfels were also associated with New City magazine, published by the Catholic Council on Working Life and the Adult Education Centers. We were all disappointed when they decided to move to New York, thus dashing our hope that they might one day take over the magazine. Another bubble burst.
I am an eighty-year-old great-grandmother who really appreciated Mollie Wilson O'Reilly's article “Passing On the Alb” (September 11). When I was ten years old, I longed to serve at the altar with the boys who were my classmates in catechism class at a small rural parish. But it was strictly forbidden back then, and I was a “bad Catholic” for even asking. No man will ever know the depth of the pain that brought to my heart.
When I married and had children, I did not allow our two sons to be servers. I told them, “If your two sisters can't serve, you can't either.” They accepted it, and all four children grew up as advocates of allowing girl servers. After our children were grown, we were in a different parish, where I served as RCIA director for seventeen years. In that capacity I was often near the altar helping with the rites. That helped to ease that long-ago pain. By that time our parish had begun allowing girl servers, which made my heart glad.
During a local parish's Easter Vigil service last year, the pastor had an older woman carry the lighted Easter candle down the aisle in the darkened church. She walked beside the pastor who intoned “Light of Christ” three times. At the altar steps he took the candle and placed it in the holder. My heart sang for joy. Women and girls had finally arrived! In all my eighty years no one but the priest had ever carried in the Easter candle.