Women are less happy than ever. In a Time magazine special report, Nancy Gibbs writes: “Among the most confounding changes of all is the evidence, tracked by numerous surveys, that as women have gained more freedom, more education and more economic power, they have become less happy. No tidy theory explains the trend.”
Who needs a theory? The numbers tell the story. The article points out:
- 40 percent of women say they are now the primary breadwinner of their household.
- There are 3.3 million married couples in which the wife is the sole earner (in more than a few cases, not by choice, I’m sure).
- Today, only about 30 percent of kids grow up with a stay-at-home parent.
- A staggering 39 percent of all births are to unmarried mothers.
Thanks to the Women’s Movement, women have less freedom. It sounds crazy on the surface, but the woman’s movement has sometimes confused the grab for control with freedom and dignity while inadvertently robbing women of both.
The movement still marches on but I’ve learned that it is the Catholic Church—that age old institution with, yes, a male hierarchy—that truly promotes the freedom and the dignity of women. I don’t claim that the Church’s history on the treatment of women is pristine. And neither are societal issues all black and white either.
A Changed World
Throughout history, men were expected to take care of women — the weaker sex. But in modern times, women en masse began wanting to take care of themselves rather than depend on others who might let them down. The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s drew inspiration from the civil rights movement, but not all issues were good. For instance, it promoted a spirit of rebellion and was strongly linked to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the birth-control pill, and then finally abortion.
Some activists in the movement pushed for ratification of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution. It declared, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." After years of efforts, the ERA died in 1982 when only 35 of the necessary 38 states ultimately ratified it. But in 1973, abortion became legal. This was considered a major victory for the women’s movement.
As a result, women are free to have sex with men that they don’t want to marry, then free to abort if a baby should come of that union. In practice, this means that women are much more pressured and expected to have sex before marriage than in the past. Before the women’s movement had pushed contraception, there was a sacredness and respect given to women who waited for marriage. Such women are more likely to be viewed as oddities or prudes these days. And if they relent and get pregnant, since women have the choice to abort, the babies are viewed as their choice–their problem. The control that women were told they won, has largely gone to men who want to free themselves of responsibility. (Not to discount men hurt by their powerless to stop the abortions of their babies. ) Half of women who have abortions, do so because they do not want to be single mothers or because their partners do not want the babies. (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1995).
Then, somewhere on the way to gaining rights, marriages fell apart in a big way. No-fault divorce meant no-strings-attached; no alimony for stay-at-home moms. Today, even if there are small children involved, divorced women are pushed to work or are considered lazy. But the face of poverty is still largely a female head of family. That seems to be something the women’s movement just cannot get at.
Many will argue that before the women’s movement, women were expected to stay home, barefoot and pregnant, cleaning and cooking to the extent of boredom even if they preferred the board room. In reality, the world has changed to the point that few women can stay home even if that is their desire. Some women dream of taking care of their family full-time. Instead, they must get up before dawn and pack kids off to daycare while figuring out what they’ll make for dinner when they return before the sun goes down–if they are lucky. Many men help at home, but survey after survey shows that when a woman works outside the home, the second-shift of housework and childcare falls mostly on her shoulders. Women certainly did win the freedom to work. And work, and work.
This article is not to ignite a battle of the sexes, but merely to point out that in many ways, the women’s movement has freed men and further burdened women. This being a fallen world, there are no easy or clear cut answers but the world’s brand of feminism often causes more problems than is solves. Women have been discriminated against and treated unfairly at times throughout history. Yet, the methods used in fighting inequality must be evaluated according to an understanding of the dignity of woman in the light of the word of God.
On the Dignity of Women
Pope John Paul II expressed this desire of the Church in 1995 when he wrote his Apostolic Letter titled Mulieris Dignitatem — On the vocation and dignity of women. This beautiful letter touches on the true value of women and cuts through mistaken notions that ultimately hurt women and society. “The Church desires to give thanks to the Most Holy Trinity for the ‘mystery of woman’ and for every woman-for all that constitutes the eternal measure of her feminine dignity, for the ‘great works of God’, which throughout human history have been accomplished in and through her."
Pope JPII agreed that women’s dignity has not always been acknowledged which resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity. He stated: “When it comes to setting women free from every kind of exploitation and domination, the Gospel contains an ever relevant message which goes back to the attitude of Jesus Christ himself. Transcending the established norms of his own culture, Jesus treated women with openness, respect, acceptance and tenderness. In this way he honoured the dignity which women have always possessed according to God’s plan and in his love.”
Pope JP II stood behind real equality in every area such as equal pay for equal work and fairness in career advancements but he always upheld morality and respect for life and stopped short of encouraging women to do everything that men do. Referring to the Book of Genesis, he said that we are then told that, from the very beginning, man has been created "male and female" (Gen 1:27). "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him" (Gen 2:18). The creation of woman is thus marked from the outset by the principle of help: a help which is not one-sided but mutual. Woman complements man, just as man complements woman: men and women are complementary. Womanhood expresses the "human" as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way.
Thus, the genius of women” is part of God’s plan in which he assigned different roles. He further explains that there is diversity in being male and female. For instance, Christ chose men to shepherd his flocks in the priesthood. “…this in no way detracts from the role of women, or for that matter from the role of the other members of the Church who are not ordained to the sacred ministry, since all share equally in the dignity proper to the ‘common priesthood"\’ based on Baptism.”
So an authentic women’s movement should be more about dignity and serving others in Christ rather than being free to do whatever one wishes — such as ending a pregnancy, becoming a priest, or engaging in licentious behavior. Such supposed freedoms, end up as slavery. It is here that we have a paradox, for the more we submit to God, as St. Paul calls it the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5) the more free we will be.
The Next Generation
This is something that is often lost on the women’s movement –t he dignity of women through serving God in the role for which they were created. It is the gem that we must hand down to our daughters –t hat they are of infinite value and dignity. Their God-given gifts are meant to be used to their fullest to enrich the world along paths God has chosen for them. This is where their strength and their beauty lies. Lest we specifically set out to teach our girls this lesson, however, they will be easily swept up in the shallow worldly view of feminism. We must consider the input of the media, literature, school or other organizations, and counteract the errors with truth.
For instance, I recently came across a book which imparts the Christian view of true femininity as opposed to feminism. Girls Rock , (Tomeo, Miller and Cops) is part of the “All Things Girl” book series for pre-teens and young teens. Examples in the New Testament reveal that Jesus treated women as first class citizens. The book also shows that there are many instances of women of great influence in the Church throughout history and in modern times. The examples of modern Catholic women making a difference in the world, shows girls that the Church and God’s teachings do not hold women back, but rather empowers them. It points out that women and men are made the same in that we are made to know, love and serve God. Yet, it explains this in light of the fact that men and women are not always called to serve in the same ways–the priesthood and motherhood being prime examples of different ways.
The book also contrasts the Feminist Movement with True Femininity. For instance, the Feminist Movement tells women: Motherhood takes away freedom and freedom is doing whatever you want without rules. True Femininity tells women: Motherhood is a fulfilling gift full of joy and true freedom is the ability to choose what is right and good.
Although this article may be preaching to the choir, we must take care to pass the truths we have come to know down to the next generation. Then, if we are successful in teaching our daughters what true femininity is, we really will be able to announce: “You’ve come a long way, Baby!”