Although I have always been Catholic, I was a committed feminist from the age of 12 to 22. At the age of 22 I was thrown out of a Women's Day parade for carrying a sign reading "Pro-life is pro-woman." I was picked up by two muscular women with buzzcuts who identified themselves as abortion rights activists and dumped me on the side of the road. This was witnessed and duly recorded by student journalists, so it won me five minutes of moderate fame. But it did rather end my longing to hang onto and rehabilitate the word "feminist." And when I got to theology school I discovered that many women of colour had already abandoned the word and preferred to use the term "womanist." Me, I prefer to use the word "Catholic."
The Church is not given much credit by the world for the help and support and honour she has given women since her birthday at Pentecost. It goes unremarked that she has referred to herself in the feminine for millennia, and that there are just as many woman saints in the canon as there are men. There were were female Doctors of the Church long before there were female Doctors of Oxford University. (Update: I was wrong on this one; although of course St. Teresa of Avila was born before there were female D.Phils, there were no female Doctors of the Church named until 1970.) The love and respect of Ecclesia for one woman, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is called an attempt to force women to live up to an impossible ideal; nobody mentions those saints and teachers who hailed Our Lady as a model, not just for women, but for men.
Great male mystics like St. Bernard of Clairveaux have refered to their own souls as "she." Our Lord himself is described in one beautiful verse in Scripture as being like a hen who wishes to gather her chicks under her wings. Theologians have identified the feminine figure of "Wisdom" in the Wisdom texts of the Old Testament with Christ. Great women like Teresa of Avila and Dorothy Day have lived shining lives of Christian holiness in utter loyalty to the magisterium while asserting their God-given roles in society: Teresa as a foundress and writer; Dorothy as a lover of the poor and a partisan of peace.
It is therefore surprising that there are young Catholic men and married Catholic women who discourage young Catholic women from higher education. Women, no less than men, are rational beings. We are capable of intellectual advancement, which can go on all our lives. (An absolute dunce at philosophy at 22, I read Lonergan's Insight at 33 and got A+ on my term paper.)
Or is it surprising? The post-Boomer generations inherited a terrible social mess. The Boomers gave us mass divorce, mass desertion from the priesthood and semininaries, mass abortion, AIDS and heaven knows what else. Unsurprisingly, increasing numbers of young Catholics look at the gifts of the Sixties with a jaundiced eye. And the one of the biggest scapegoats is feminism.
As my anecdote should illustrate, feminism is not a love and respect for all women. It is an ideology. Christian feminists have examined some of its ideas and principles and worked out how they might be compatible with the Christian faith; unfortunately this sometimes means stretching out Christianity on a Procrustean bed.
However, the Woman Question is over a hundred years old, and theologians whose first loyalty is to Christ have examined it in the light of Christ. Such a theologian was John Paul II, whose Mulieris Dignitatem you must read after you finish this post.
Feminism purports to be about choice, and many a Christian woman has wished that she really did have a choice and could snap her fingers, marry a good man at 24, have five children, and stay at home with them, creating a wonderful dwelling place for the whole family, with delicious meals and clean laundry smelling of lavender, and yet still having energy to go out to a concert or film now and again with her husband. This was the privilege of the average Edinburgh labourer's wife in 1960, never mind richer women. Her life did not, I hasten to add, look like a Ralph Lauren advert: there was one heck of a lot more housework and one heck of a lot less money.
Many young people, their own families having been, perhaps, less than traditional, wish to reclaim the good they observe in the 1960 family structure, while, of course, rejecting the serious problems with domestic abuse. And as far as that goes, I think that is fine. If young women find Mr. Right at any age, and then retire from the rat race to keep house, raise children or chickens, or write all day long, I think that is marvellous. But I don't see why this should discourage women from learning all they can about anything that interests them, especially if it is theology.
My one caveat is to beware of wasting your life and substance in graduate school for the liberal arts. Many take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, dreaming of becoming a tenured professor at a time when the places for graduate students outnumber the vacancies for university professors. If you are actually brilliant--and I mean head and shoulders over everyone else in your year--or as stubborn and hardworking as a mule, and as insensitive to stings and pricks as a baking tin, then go right ahead. But if what you really want is to become an educated person, then get a library card for the best library in your city and read whatever you can. Many universities sell memberships in their libraries to non-university folk.
But I will say this. Once when I worked for a statistics gatherer, I had to do a survey on children's early education. It was a massive project, involving thousands of people. And one question I had to ask was "How much formal education did the mother have?" There was NO similar question for the fathers. The social scientists did not care how much education the father had. How much education the fathers had had much less (if any) effect on children's early education than the mothers' education did.
Not only is it important for women to be educated for their own sake and, I'd point out, to make them interesting companions for husbands in companionate marriages, it is important for the intellectual development of their children.
So the next time some stupider-than-average young fogey, or a nice lady so in love with motherhood that she can't see the value in everything else, tells you women don't need higher education, feel free to use any or all of the points in this post.
Now go read Mulieris Dignitatem, so you can quote it, too. It's long, so grab a coffee.