A few months ago I took an online survey called Are you a feminist? I eagerly clicked through the questions because, in all honesty, I did not know the answer. I am a 30-something married woman. I work part time outside my home and the rest of the time within it (I don’t have a side business—I’m a homemaker without kids). I love my husband. I am generally not angry. I am a practicing Catholic (which may de facto exclude me from flying the feminist colours). I strongly believe that mothers are profoundly and irreplaceably important to their children. And sometimes I (gasp) wear long skirts. I don’t wear bikinis.
The survey asked: Do you believe in the complete equality of men and women?
Congratulations. You are a feminist.
(If you click No it tells you: You are not a feminist. Shame.)
That’s all? How disappointing. How naïve. How utterly simplistic. That can’t be all!
And it turns out, that’s not all.
Webster defines feminism as the “movement for social, political, and economic equality of men and women.” Feminist.com goes further. It adds:
Feminism means women have the right to enough information to make informed choices about their lives. And because woman is an all-encompassing term that includes middle-class white women, rich black lesbians, and working class straight Asian women, an organic intertwining with movements for racial and economic equality, as well as gay rights, is inherent to the feminist mandate. Some sort of allegiance between men and women is also an important component of equality. After all, equality is a balance between the male and female with the intention of liberating the individual.
Wait. What? What do straight Asians and rich black lesbians have to do with the definition of feminism—which (according to the original survey) is simply the equality of men and women?
It has nothing to do with it. That is the problem. Feminism has become this electrified buzzword synonymous with all sorts of different movements, groups, feelings, events, emotions, and causes—some of which are directly opposed. Here are just a few things I personally associate with feminism:
- the New Age movement
- the local/healthy/crunchy food movement
- anything lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender
- gender confusion
- bare-breasted, violent women attacking the clergy
- Rosie the Riveter
- abortion rights
- women’s studies/rights/issues
- Dorothy Day
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Gloria Steinem
I surveyed my friends on social media, informally asking them to put down the first thing that comes to mind when they see the word “feminism” or “feminist” and they said:
- the Bechtel Test
- Maya Angelou
- bra burning
- Edith Stein
- Alice von Hildebrand
- men being told to stop being gentlemen
- women being able to vote
- women being forced to work anywhere but in the home
- equality for women, but not for men
Talk about confusion! But there’s more.
American Feminism has some historical roots in the suffrage movement—the movement that succeeded in securing the right for women to vote and be involved in political life. Women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony encouraged women to begin trade unions and worked tirelessly for women’s rights. They were called first-wave feminists. Then there were second-wave feminists (who followed in the footsteps of Simone de Beauvoir around 1960) and then third-wave feminists (who surfaced around 1990).
Each wave came about because of the perceived failures of the previous wave and there are various offshoots of each wave. There are Standpoint feminists who addresses specific global issues like female genital mutilation, rape, and incest; Post-Modern feminists who have irreconcilable differences with second and third wavers; New Wave Feminists who ascribe to various feminist ideals but intend to reclaim the feminist label “from those who have corrupted it” and identify with the pro-life movement.
To further complicate matters, the feminist waves overlap with countless movements: social, racial, postcolonial, political, materialist, and cultural. And there are a plethora of other feminist factions (from the University of Alabama website): Liberal Feminism, Radical Feminism, Marxist and Socialist Feminism, Cultural Feminism, Eco-Feminism—I am sure the list goes on. And on and on.
A few months ago I heard Fr. Denis Lemieux speak about human beings and their relationship to technology. His central point was not to stop using technology, but to THINK about what we are doing when we use it: “Don’t let technology take you anywhere you don’t want to go. Know who you are and what your life is about. Think and be free.” I think the same concept applies here. If you want to identify yourself as a feminist, do so. But think about what you believe and know what you mean when you say it. The danger is publicly claiming association with a group that might idealize values and morals that contradict your core beliefs. Can we really say we are feminists—and Catholics? What does that even mean?
Even after my preliminary foray into the definition of feminism, I am still unsure what it means to be a feminist and if Catholicism and feminism can fit together on some level. I strongly believe in the sacredness of every human life, the equality of men and women in dignity and stature, and the necessity to safeguard the basic rights of all men and women. I am utterly grateful for the rights and freedoms that the feminist movement has secured for women. I agree most with the philosophies and goals of the New Wave or First Wave feminists. But I cannot ignore the packaging that feminism sometimes wraps around these truths: the man hating, gender bending, bitterness, violence, confusion, and anger. I am inclined to think I am not a feminist.
However, I am a Catholic—which like being a feminist but without all the man hating and clergy assault. Maybe I could call myself a Catho-nist, or a Fem-olic. But I would still have to explain what that means and what I stand for. I have a better idea. Maybe I will just call myself Sarah and leave it at that.