Feminists vs. the Family

Pope John Paul II used to get considerable heat in the secular press — and in some “progressive” Catholic publications — for his contention that there was an undercurrent of hostility in modern feminism toward the traditional role of wife and mother. He would get hit with the charge that he and the Church wanted to return women to the Middle Ages, one version or another of keeping them barefoot and pregnant.

Their True Colors Revealed

The women’s movement protested that the pope was creating a caricature of feminism and that feminists harbored no ill will toward women’s traditional role as wife and mother; that their intention was merely to open up new “alternatives” for women, opportunities in areas of life where they had been excluded in the past.

It has been difficult to take issue with feminists on this contention. The leaders of the women’s movement choose their comments carefully, routinely interspersing their public pronouncements with expressions of respect for their “sisters” who make the choice to remain stay-at-home moms. Even if one suspected that the feminists were not being entirely candid in this obeisance to traditional moms, it was hard to come up with the proof, specific statements of disdain from them for women’s traditional roles in the family.

Not anymore. In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks reported on Linda Hirshman, a retired Brandeis professor who has decided the time is right to push the feminist case to the next plateau, to, as she says, “radicalize feminism.” In the December 2005 issue of The American Prospect, Hirshman informs us that women who stay home and dedicate themselves to children and family concerns are shortchanging themselves and society. Why? Because the “family — with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks — is a necessary part of life, but it allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government.”

A Sweet Little Bundle of… Money

Hirshman argues that parents and schools should make clear to young women that their primary goal in life is to find careers that pay well: “The best way to treat work seriously is to find the money. Money is the marker of success in a market economy; it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family.”

To achieve this goal, she recommends that women find husbands who will share domestic drudgery equally: “You can either find a spouse with less social power than you or find one with an ideological commitment to gender equality.” And one other thing: “Have a baby. Just don’t have two.” Having two children, she argues, is the tipping point that will make it near to impossible to pursue a truly meaningful career. She warns that if talented women continue to make the bad choice of staying home and raising children, it will leave men forever in charge of the things that matter in life at the highest levels of society.

There you have it. As the mathematicians say, Q.E.D. Quod erat demonstrandum. The proof has been given. John Paul II knew exactly what he was talking about. Ms. Hirshman is not an anomaly. She represents a broad strand of modern feminism.

But that does not close the book on this question. Hirshman and the young women who will read her essay are likely to have little concern for the pope’s or the Church’s views on the role of women in our society. We will make little headway with them if we press the case that becoming a partner in a law firm or department head in a government bureaucracy is insignificant in comparison to the mother’s task of raising new life in Christ.

Just Look Around You!

There is another way to make the Church’s case, however, one that stresses common-sense observations of the world around us more than spiritual considerations. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Hirshman is wrong in strictly human terms. She is leading women down a path that will not lead to happiness. Maybe professional women in the movies experience a “full human flourishing” and greater sense of accomplishment and self-worth than full-time moms, but nowhere else.

It is true that some stay-at-home moms live lives filled with drudgery and boredom; some women marry cads and ne’er-do-wells. But there is no reason to take this as the norm, especially for Catholic young women who take their faith seriously when considering a prospective husband. Neither should we take it as a given that all professional women have exciting and rewarding careers that they are able to pursue while at the same time living a morally sound and spiritually rewarding family life. Not so. Some do; some don’t. There are too many variables.

But one thing is certain: Raising children well — doing it right, focusing one’s life on a child’s physical, emotional and spiritual development in the way that only a full-time mother can — is a responsibility at least as demanding and worthwhile as what trial lawyers and brain surgeons and US senators do for a living. And most women in the work force do not have experiences on the job comparable to those of successful trial lawyers and brain surgeons. For every professional woman we see lionized in the press or on television for her latest accomplishments, there are millions of women with advanced degrees coming home tired on the commuter train wondering how they will be able to finish all their household duties and spend some time with their children.

Many professional women are now questioning the choice they made when they decided to devote themselves to their careers. So are their children. David Brooks quotes from an essay by Mary Eberstadt published in a recent edition of Policy Review: “If yesterday’s music was the music of abandon, today’s is the music of abandonment.” Brooks notes that of late “an astonishing number of hits, from artists ranging from Pearl Jam to Everclear to Snoop Dog are about kids who feel neglected by their parents.”

It will take an awful lot of money, Hirshman’s “marker of success,” to compensate for the sight of your child covered by tattoos and strung out on drugs. That sight will be even harder to take if you are not one of the relative handful of women who find themselves in truly exciting and rewarding careers, but instead earn your living doing something much more…well, workaday.

A woman may have to work, or want to work, for a variety of good reasons. Hirshman’s warning about stay-at-home moms stifling themselves and our societal development is not one of them. John Paul II’s version of feminism has much more to offer:

In transforming the culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a “new feminism” which rejects the temptation of imitating models of “male domination”, in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation. (Evangelium Vitae, par. 99)

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net.

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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