Last week the United Nations hosted the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), bringing together speakers from across the globe to discuss “social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.”
The Holy See mission of the Catholic Church and the Center for Family and Human Rights sponsored a panel on “Protecting Femininity and Human Dignity in Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality Policies Today.” In discussing “how to contribute to the advancement of women around the world in ways that honor their integral human development,” the panel focused on women’s traditional roles in both the west and developing nations.
I met author Sue Ellen Browder, one of the panelists, outside the entry gates to the UN. In a red coat and sensible shoes, wearing a comfortable smile, she told me, “I’m here to say my generation was wrong and your generation was right, so get to it.” She’s about my mother’s age, and I’m Gen X. I didn’t tell her we don’t really know what we’re doing either.
The UN headquarters stands tall and majestic on the edge of the East River, with views of Long Island City, the courtyard filled with tourists snapping pictures and speaking more languages than I could recognize. In hues of beautiful, luminescent blue flanked by marble, Le Corbusier’s structure gives rise to feelings of power, majesty, and good intentions.
In a chamber with long, curving desks in light wood, flanked with beige chairs, some with cracking upholstery, women and advocates for women gathered to hear what the speakers had to say about the conditions of femininity and the west’s exportation of values to the rest of the world via foreign subsidies, diplomacy, and more.
The panel featured four women who spoke eloquently about the value of life, motherhood, service, and femininity. These issues have come up a great deal in my work of late. Having recently attended a gender-critical talk with Sheila Jeffreys hosted by the Women’s Liberation Front, watched and written about Lindy West’s new Hulu show “Shrill,” and now listening to Catholic women speak about empowering women through femininity and traditional gender roles, I found a lot to synthesize. I discovered there are three (at least) very divergent trends in what is being advocated for on behalf of women and girls worldwide.
Stop Colonizing Poor Countries with Bad Policies
The panel featured Browder, author of “Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement” (as well as articles in this publication); Ann Mutave Kioko, the regional campaigns manager for CitizenGO in Africa, member of board of Kenyan Conference of Catholic Bishops Family Life Commission, and a co-founder of Africa Organization for families; Lila Rose, the founder of pro-life advocacy group Live Action; and Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D, a senior vice president for research at the Center for Family and Human Rights after a 20-year stint as an active-duty U.S. Navy helicopter pilot.
Each of these activists thinks abortion is not health care, and that the UN, the United States, and all developed nations should not be encouraging the practice abroad. As the only woman hailing from Africa, Kioko stated firmly that what women need from foreign organizations is accessibility to food, electricity, good schools, clean water, accessible hospitals, and piped water. Instead, she says, they are getting abortion services and hormonal birth control, without any education about its risks. Kioko says this does not improve lives, and that “every girl has a right to life from conception to natural death.”
Kioko took the UN and nongovernmental organizations to task for pushing birth control and abortion, and distributing pamphlets to Kenyan schools that sexualize children without parents’ permission or knowledge. While these things are routine in the west, they are being disseminated, according to Kioko, without an understanding of what Kenyan women and girls want. She says these top-down approaches and false equivalencies are not effective solutions for women and girls in villages like hers.
What Women Really Want Is Often Not Considered
Browder tackled the problem of the sexual revolution’s integration with the feminist movement. She believes the two ideologies must be separated, and that the pro-life movement is the authentic feminist movement.
Her work overturns much of what I’ve learned about abortion over the years, and is pretty damning. Basically, she notes that abortion was brought into the women’s movement against the wishes of the majority of women in the movement at the time, under the direction of men who were interested in aligning the women’s movement with the sexual revolution and redefining women’s worth as economic as opposed to domestic. Her conversion to Catholicism opened her eyes.
Catholicism also drove Yoshihara and Rose to embrace femininity along traditional terms. Yoshihara spoke movingly about her time in military service, with an emphasis on the value of service, especially for women, whom she believes can find great value in support and work that involves empathy and nurturing care.
Rose believes there is a “global crisis in how women are seen and treated by policies that are pushed by some of the most powerful and wealthy nations in the world,” and that many ideologies advanced in the name of liberation are actually oppressive because they divide women from children, femininity, and their own bodies.
Don’t Toss All Feminism’s Benefits in Reaffirming Women
As a practicing Catholic, I am very sympathetic to these ideas, specifically that fertility is not a disease to be treated, and that women’s bodies and reproductive capabilities don’t need to be socially or politically managed. However, there is a trap in determining that all women are able to express their most authentic selves by embodying a typecast ideal of femininity, and it is the same trap that the feminist movement was rebelling against in the 20th century.
In this context, femininity means the set of guidelines, or stereotypes, to which women were long expected to adhere. They include many aspects of womanhood that lots of women find comfortable, acceptable, and worthwhile, such as being pretty, sexually desirable to men, maintaining a stable home, and service to family and community.
But they also include negative expectations such as social pressures for women to adhere to unrealistic beauty standards, a desire to please men as a means of determining a woman’s worth, feeling trapped by a domestic life that does not allow for a woman’s freedom of self-expression, or service as obligation and not a welcome duty. While women may, should, and are able to embrace the aspects of femininity that bring them joy and fulfillment, trying to mold themselves to expectations and standards that do not fit prevent some women from living in accordance with their desires.
There are simply too many ways to live in the world to assume that the kind of female life that is being promoted by the Holy See is the right one for all women, or even the majority of women. Having a female body is a condition of life, but it is not a limitation, either in the positive sense of a joyful entrance into life nurturing the future of humanity through creating children or in the negative sense of having that being an unwelcome burden.
Women Should Decide Their Expression of Womanhood
While women, barring reproductive disease or deformity, are biologically made to be mothers, and motherhood is a gift, it is not a gift all women want to open, for whatever reason that is personal to them. I have written that external factors, such as a worry over climate apocalypse, nuclear war, or overcrowding should not deter women who wish to be mothers, because the future is always fearful.
But nuance is necessary. Women are individuals, with full, natural rights of self-determination. The fact of their female bodies and reproductive capabilities should not limit them from finding fulfillment where they will.
The church has an obligation to encourage women to be maternal, and in many ways, subservient. The feminist movement has a mandate to vehemently stress women’s liberation from male expectations and societal stereotypes. It is easy to see how the two modes of thought clash.
But a woman can be a Catholic feminist, who believes fully in a woman’s promise for motherhood, the importance of a stable home life in which to rear children, and believes equally in the promise of feminism, so these things can be entered as a choice, willingly, with eyes open to its difficulties and self-sacrifice.
While the women of the UN panel would each offer large and detailed complaints against the feminist movement, it is essential to realize that, despite its flaws, its main contribution was to give women the option to eschew stereotypical femininity, to own their lives outside of the boxes of traditional sex roles, and to yes, have a choice about how and when to live their sexual and reproductive lives.
Feminism’s damage to women is not greater than the damage caused by boxing women who bucked and floundered at having been boxed. There must be room for women live according to their own choosing, as complete individuals in the light of God’s grace.