Two years ago, Rush Limbaugh delivered a scandalizing commentary on women and feminist culture, placing blame on feminism for “ruining women." Limbaugh commented on “dissident feminist” Camille Paglia’s article in The Hollywood Reporter that blamed Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Hollywood for ruining women. Paglia assessed American pop culture and its damning influence on female millennial attire:
As a glance at any suburban high school prom these days will show, there has been a vast increase in sexually revealing, super-adult clothing among middle-class girls. Yet most seem curiously unaware of the erotic charge of their racy regalia, which has become as standard issue as army fatigues. Sex is already routine in a hooking-up culture.
Limbaugh proposes that it is not, as Paglia argues, Hollywood that is ruining women; it’s feminism.
Has feminism “ruined women?” A wise friend and mother recently commented that "feminism has shot us in the high heels." While the waves of the feminist movement may have opened up a world of opportunity for women in America and abroad, feminism as it is sometimes understood today has gone too far. The modern feminist movement has fostered a culture of fear surrounding woman’s traditional call to motherhood and the family. For women who aren’t buying the feminist rhetoric on relationships and family, what are the alternatives?
Human intellectual history has provided women with figures both male and female who embrace womanhood and motherhood as beautiful concepts. Karol Wojtyla and Edith Stein wrote on the role of women in society without believing either that work and family are spheres for one sex in particular, or that these spheres are mutually exclusive. One work that has stayed with me in particular is Edith Stein's Essays on Woman, a book of collected works comprised of several of essays on the education of women to the philosophy of femininity that I recommend to women often, because it completely changed my view on the education of children.
In his Letter to Women, Karol Wojtyla (more commonly known as Saint John Paul II) recognizes the vocation of all women—mothers, wives, consecrated women, working women, every woman—and thanks them for their unique contributions to the community and to the world. In the conclusion of the apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) John Paul II gives thanks “for all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ that have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations.” This compliment is explored at length in his papal letter to women.
But hearing about this “feminine genius” sounds like nails on a chalk board to some. The pope missteps, feminists would argue, by invoking the “feminine” when he lauds women for their genius. Feminism has steeled the pathos of women against receiving praise laced with essentialism, making them fearful to accept such a compliment. Just consider for a moment the contemporary cultural environment that the feminist movement has helped carve out for today’s women. The idea that chivalry is “benevolent sexism,” and the oppression of patriarchy are mantras of contemporary American feminism.
In the last century, many women within the intellectual tradition wrote works to advance the placement of women without fear of philosophical traditionalism. Just 80 years ago, Stein—a veritable Catholic feminist for her time—dared to speak of the “essential.” A Jewish convert to Catholicism martyred in the Holocaust, Stein was a philosopher who wrote on the nature of men and women, asserting that there are essential qualities inherent to men and women.
Today, holding this philosophy is taboo. It has become too dated, too “normative,” too offensive to claim that there are some qualities that belong intrinsically to the sexes, and that they create differences in nature between men and women. For Stein, humans have three aspects of individuality: individual person, male or female, and human nature. Today’s culture exalts the individual person: the rights, freedom, and dignity of the fully-formed adult person; this view differs drastically from the personalism espoused by Wojtyla and Stein, in which the value of the human person is not asserted at the expense of others or the community. The differentiation between “maleness” and “femaleness,” however, is hardly a clear-cut concept. Even the idea of human nature has become relativized and both men and women are paying for that loss.
Let us consider where these movements have brought us as women. The face of feminism today seeks to dismantle any vestige of essentialism in favor of relativism, pluralism, or any philosophy that “deconstructs” gender roles and even bolsters the position of women and minorities in society. And this driving philosophy can be applied to many social and economic issues supported by feminist activists: "marriage equality," women’s “reproductive rights,” and equality in the workplace. The feminist movement is dedicated to deconstructing essentials and to revising tradition to make room for change. This is not philosophy; it’s propaganda.
Edith Stein and John Paul II, whom I’ve cited in this article as espousing an authentic Christian feminism, are among the most preeminent personalist philosophers of our era. I should also mention with them Alice von Hildebrand, whose work is just the antidote we need to what Paglia describes as the "good-girl mask over trash and flash:"
Forgotten are the privileges granted to woman from the very beginning: her body is not taken from the dust of the earth but from the flesh of a human person; she is exalted by being called “the mother of life”; she is the one whose reproductive organs are “veiled”—and the veil not only symbolizes the sacredness of her task as life bearer, but also hints at the fact that a female womb would, one blessed day, be a tabernacle.
Beyond the pages of personalist philosophy, we need women to live out their vocations as mothers, wives, and sisters in order to effect change in our culture. As women, we can live out our philosophy in the day-to-day, in simple ways like emulating the fashion of famous women like Jackie Kennedy instead of Katy Perry, which emulation is an act of donning the "veil" of proper attire that honors the tabernacle of our body rather than exploiting it.
Until the feminist movement opens its membership to the women who embrace traditional vocations—from the call of stay-at-home motherhood to the call of consecrated virginity—feminism does not speak to all women. It will continue to contribute to the deprecation of women who choose to stay home and raise their children, who choose to marry young, who elect to save their virginity for their husbands, who choose to make conjugal love that is open to life, who choose to homeschool their children, who choose life at all costs, who choose to leave their sphere of work for the sake of the family, and finally, for the deprecation of men who support their women in these choices.
We are called to lead a wholly integrated life—our identities are not divided between the workplace and the home, between the public and private self, or between the Christian and secular environment. We must be committed to living a fully integrated life in order to inspire cultural change. To borrow from artist Makoto Fujimura, our lives as Christian women should serve as examples of "Culture Care," visions of Godly femininity and family life that contribute "toward the flourishing of culture," a culture that—rather than imposing a singular, secular vision upon women and the family—embraces the dignity and vocation of all women and encourages the flourishing of the family. As I concluded my recent piece on faith and the family, Saint John Paul II asks us to reflect on our calling “to sanctify the world and to transform it"—a transformation that begins with the family.