Friday, 4 February 2011

An Educated Catholic Woman

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.


SoaringSoprano said...

Amen to that!

Anna said...

"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."

Yes! Thank you for that, both as someone who went to library school, and as someone who tries to follow that practice.

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

Nicely put. I can't imagine why any Catholic person would think anyone beneath learning, or learning beneath anyone.

One thing I'd ask, are you sure there was more spousal abuse in 1960? I believe that there were fewer legal recourses, but the leading cause of death for pregnant women today is murder - that was not true back then. It's hard to trust the 'statistics' on this one because there really weren't many and a lot of people seem to just make assumptions either way. What about the traditional maxim to never hit a woman? Certainly not everyone followed it... but I can't imagine some of the horror stories I heard from battered women even crossing a 1950s wifebeater's mind.

Alexandrine Fabian said...

Thanks for this post. I recollect back in a college a girlfriend asked me if she should marry a guy because he told he it "was a waste for her to get her BA, marry him, and then stay home with the children while he worked to pay her loan off." I was astonished and never formulated a decent answer other then speechless indignation. Never mind what kind of man tosses that in the face of his fiancee.

mormorador said...

Oxford began offering a trickle of doctorates to women from 1920 on. E.g. Ida Mann (1924, DSc). The question of recognition of female research capacities is difficult to assess because throughout the 20th C many academics did not have a doctoral degree but often just a Bachelors or a M.Phil. But there were definitely Female Doctors in existence in the 1920s.
The Church first recognised doctors of the Church in 1970. By the early 1970s, about 16pc of Oxford academic staff were women, so whatever their academic formation, it must have predated the Church's recognition by in some cases decades.
Given that the relevant point about the comparison was about *recognition* (that is the point of your comment) and not the activities for which the recognition is made, your point about Catholic/Oxford doctorates is misleading.

To be honest, the Church at the parish-diocesan cultural, spokesperson level plays catch-up on developments in the world, and then claims that these are intrinsic to its sense of female dignity, 'we have always taught that...' etc. Its mundane office holders fight tooth and nail against emancipatory reforms, and then, once these have gone through in any case, its officers (e.g. priests, bishops) turnaround and claim that they own the reform, and have always had principle consonant with the reform. (exceptions to this are abortion and contraception, where the Church's opposition has been principled and continuous, eg. Didache). Examples to meditate on are Church fights to keep illegitimacy laws in the 19th C, chattel marriage, female education, female political participation. If you want a hair-raising guide to the Church's grudging attitude to autonomy and feminism, look at its defence of illegitimacy law from the medieval period to the 19th century.

Looked at from this direction, JPII stands as a bizarre figure in Catholic Theology - whatever one thinks of the value of his theology, it is a cherry pick on the Church's tradition, the values of which are informed by/occasioned by enrichment from secular feminism. I wish rightie/Orthodox Catholics could have the honesty to admit this and have a basic level of honesty with regard to the history of ideas, and the dependencies of the Church on secular thought.

Steve said...

Women don't need higher education.

They don't need it.

Please understand: men don't need higher education.

They don't need it.

Neither gender needs higher education. As you said, a library card will meet the intellectual needs of most people. I have friends that I grew up with that are doing much better that me across all aspects of life. I was a college boy who went BA, MA, and part o' PhD before realizing that academia was a sure path to poverty. They joined the union out of high school and have worked at unspectacular but steady jobs since.

The universal "need" for higher education is one of the Great Modern Lies that is destroying our civilization.

Now whether women should be barred from higher education....

Seraphic said...

Mormorador, thank you for the information re: 1970. I had never heard that before, but I looked it up, and lo. You were right. I stand corrected.

As for JP2 being a bizarre figure, his work builds on that of St. Edith Stein, whose work on the Woman Question built on "Casti Connubii".

I do not doubt that the Woman Question has been approached in very odd ways that would astonish us today, although certainly St. Thomas Aquinas had some enlightened things to say about women. He denied, for instance, that women's bodies were intrinsically imperfect in theier femininity and would therefore we raised during the General Resurrection as male. St. Augustine presented his mother as a heroic figure. St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote the "Life of Macrina" an example of a man of antiquity praising a man to the very limits of the mental boundaries of Chrisian men of his time (the 4th century). St. Catherine of Siena had enough spiritual clout to make popes (Gregory XI and Urban VI) do what she told them to do.

One must always approach the history of Christian theology historically; it is madness to apply 21st standards to any century but the 21st. Christianity offered much to women in the 2nd century, although not the same things as it did in the 20th, obviously.

I also never use the hermeneutic of suspicion when I read or write. I prefer a hermeneutic of love, so when I read the history of the Church, I am not looking for its villains and things to whip myself (as a Catholic) with, but for heroes, heroines, lessons and edification.

The problem with a Christian feminist theology based on the hermeneutic of suspicion is that it leads to post-Christian feminist theologians. Their faith seems to finally breaks and founders on the inescapable fact that Christ was born male and called God his Father. I think this is very sad.

Clare C said...

The Church's teaching has often informed the personal/sociopolitical actions of Her representatives very little. Furthermore, as Seraphic said, these representatives existed in a particular time in history and usually don't transcend their times.
Lord knows I don't transcend my time.
The development of of doctrine and theology is a messy business, with both influencing each other over the centuries.
Because the Church does exist in time and space, She naturally learns from changes in the secular world even as she teaches. It's important to remember though, that many of the great humanistic advances of modernity stem from Christian notions of human dignity so deeply woven into the fabric of civilization that we no longer recognize them as Christian.

Basically, history, doctrine, secular thought, theology, and the lives and choices of fallen men interact in strange and tortuous ways. It is silly to say that being a good Catholic woman entails being a Stepford Wife. It is silly to make sweeping over-simplifications: Church-always good, Feminism-always bad. But constructing a narrative of oppression with the Church as the Big Bad Chauvinist is an over-simplification in its own right.

fiat said...

I'm catching up on past posts but have to say re: this one ... Thank you! This is fantastic - I pride myself on being catholic and all the dignity and glory catholicism gives to women very nicely touched upon in this post!