The Difficult Quest for Authentic Femininity

As an Anglo-Catholic who has toyed with the idea of converting to Catholicism, it’s always interesting for me to try and engage with ideas from within the Roman Catholic Community. As with many things on the internet, the voice is dominated by western – particularly American – perspectives which often helps to highlight the difference that culture can have on how one interprets the articles of faith.

Currently there’s somewhat of a furore over issues such as gay rights and feminism, which, although is a pressing issue for the Church on the whole, is certainly more apparently so in the States. Or at least, that’s how it seems from the UK, an increasingly secular nation albeit of a Reformed Protestant heritage with a State propped Established Church.

As an outsider looking in, I find these discussions interesting because they reveal a lot about the ways in which the Church has learned to interact with – or more often than not, failed to – the wider social context it finds itself in. It’s also fascinating as an outsider to see how the Church sees you, to realise that what you might take as common sense, or a different cultural understanding, is perceived within the Church as an outright threat.

Now that all reads rather dramatically, doesn’t it? Essentially what I’m really confessing to is that I have a weakness for reading articles such as ‘Feminist Personalism‘ by Samantha Schroeder as they touch on all my favourite topics – gender, theology, and Edith Stein. In the article, Schroeder starts by analysing the premise that feminism has ‘ruined’ women by making the statement that:

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?

As a third wave womanist, I found myself asking precisely what the feminist rhetoric on relationships and family Schroeder was arguing have proved problematic for some women, which she later alluded to:

…[t]he idea that chivalry is “benevolent sexism”

and,

[that it is] 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

This intrigued me for several reasons. I am of the generation of a slightly disorganised type of feminism, so disorganised in fact that I tend to eschew the word feminist when amongst feminist circles. This might be ironic, but is actually meant in respect than irony. Regardless, the point is I’m more interested in an intersectional feminist perspective which can include the diversity of experience brought about by sexuality, race, class and – for me as a Christian – religion, (meant here in the broader sense as the word ‘religion’ is commonly understood in a rather narrow way). This is the same for many young women of my generation, particularly those of us who are black or queer or trans.

Discussions around gender have had to evolve, not least with the increasing visibility given to transgender and genderqueer voices, with the increasing attention being paid to feminist and womanist thinkers from non-western cultures whose perspectives are enough to put paid to the traditional western ideas of gender essentialism. This is not to say that there is no room for essentialism, but that if it exists, it will be found on an evidentiary basis, by accepting and exploring the plurality of the human experience, rather than imposing one set of definitions and ignoring anything that does not fit.

In a sense, what has always struck me is that the deconstruction of gender roles is actually far more organic than realised. By that I mean, it already happens, and it always has done. Verily, it is hard to argue to what extent as the kind of transparency we are witnessing today has not always been the case, and it might not always be so in the future, but nonetheless, in our practical reality, gender roles are as much a cultural shorthand which are invoked and discarded as necessary. That seems to be a truism for all cultures, regardless of the precise form the cultural shorthand takes.

Thus, although I agree that feminism will not be for all women, I disagree on precisely why.

You see, the current shibboleth of contemporary feminism is that of choice. Whether a woman chooses to get married young or remain a virgin until married seems to be of little concern for the feminists of my generation. The issue is that she gets to choose and her behaviour is not policed by others. ‘Prude-shaming’ is as much condemned as ‘slut-shaming’ because it is viewed from the perspective that it is yet another social judgement being made on a woman’s choice with regards to her own body and how she chooses to live authentically. Indeed, anecdotally speaking, a recent discussion on Facebook concerning the phenomenon of Evangelical girls and young women from Conservative backgrounds pledging their virginity received ire, not because of their pledge, but due to the perception that such a standard was not as heavily applied to boys (although a commenter from the same socio-religious background contributed her experience that actually, yes the standard was also applied to boys in her community though of course she couldn’t speak for every conservative evangelical congregation in the USA).

My main contention with the article is that it does not really answer what an authentic femininity is, nor does it adequately counter the theory that our ideas of gender are cultural transcriptions onto the physical person, not necessarily – or perhaps, not wholly – some innate property of the person. One proposed solution – of emulating modest but chic dressing – is somewhat ironic to me, because I know very few feminists who would hail Katy Perry as a fashion icon. That is a case not so much of the way that feminism has ruined women, but how corporate neo-liberalism has co opted cultural trends to sell a new vision of femininity/masculinity.

From personal observation, for some reason, it is the rockabilly/geek girl look which is currently en vogue amongst your average female gender-warrior, which exemplifies the ‘subversive-authentic’ femininity of contemporary feminism where we bring cupcakes to coding classes and make our own clothes implanted with soft electronics.

Now to be sure, I am from a British context and what’s more from a politically radical context too. The idea that feminists do not make room for women who choose to be mothers and homemakers is entirely foreign to me. If I consider the feminism I encountered in Manchester, the very women who might despise the Catholic Church and protest against restrictions on abortion were the same women who also campaigned for childcare benefits, who brought their children to meetings, campaigned against businesses denying women who breastfed their children in public, campaigned for environmental causes owing to the fact that (and I quote this directly) “…women and children are the thermometers of the environment”. There was no judgement on women who might choose to be homemakers or homeschoolers – their decision was appreciated for being as countercultural against the current patriarchal hegemony as the childfree – and their cause was equally fought for. Of course the women in the feminist group would probably have political and religious disagreements with your average conservative homemaker, but the point was that their decision to live their lives authentically was to be respected. Their political and religious beliefs could be debated as any others could be.

And that was only the more mainstream, predominantly white middle-class feminism. The black feminists group was equally if not more diverse in its goal of supporting women of all races, religions and socio-economic strata.

In truth, to call my take on the article a contention is unfair as it was very short and probably meant to drum up conversation, rather than go into an in depth analysis of feminism, gender and Catholic teaching. I suppose I’m attempting to articulate my issue with such attempts to engage with social trends and ideas in the by now familiarly haphanded way that many Catholic commentators are attempting to do. As someone interested in Catholicism but most definitely on the outskirts, it demonstrates that puzzling phenomenon whereby the Church seems to frequently provide suggestions that are non-answers in some ways, either because they don’t really address (or even understand) the fundamental issue, or simply won’t be a solution to the problems they aim to solve.

Certainly it has reminded me that I do need to read up on some Edith Stein, as she is one of my favourite saints. I am currently working my way through Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, so it would certainly make for some fun comparative analysis! Overall though, I would argue that whilst feminism will not be for all women, neither will – if this article is anything to go by – the Church’s vision of authentic femininity not least because, in the same way contemporary feminism stands accused of not speaking for women who dare to take up ‘traditional’ gender roles, the authentic femininity does not adequately engage with the breadth of the lived experience that is womanhood.

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