Marching Toward a “New Feminism”

The aftermath of this year’s several Women’s Marches around the country has offered me an opportunity to reflect upon the role of women, both in the country as a whole, as well as in my own daily life. I spent a great deal of time thinking back to that Saturday morning in January when I first saw such a march in-action. As I watched the barrage women walking down Ninth Avenue in New York on the Upper West Side that morning, I was befuddled by the amount of women who carried signs that both defended their “right” to kill their own children, and condemned the patriarchy. How could one support a “right” that has been constructed using justification for, and predicated upon, logic that capitulates to the very reality it so adamantly condemns? This irony stems from an ethical and existential blunder that occurred quite some time before mainstream feminists acquired their current platform. During the political power struggles that pervaded at the end of the 19th century, propelled forward in part by the likes of Karl Marx, there was a radical shift in the relationship between the notions of liberation and power. Liberation became inextricably linked to the assertion of one’s individual power and dominance, especially over those who are already in power. This model of liberation can be likened to a “turning of tables” type of dynamic: in order to be liberated from oppression, the oppressed must overturn the current dynamic, thus dominating those who are already dominating them. The “subversion of power” is the cornerstone of Friedrich Nietzsche’s conception of the Ubermensch who places the preservation of his own existence above all other things. Thus, true liberation comes only from asserting one’s individual autonomy, or their “will to power”:

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies, and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power.1

The will to power posits the individual’s (in this case, a female’s) fulfillment within a ceaseless cycle of oppression and domination, in which she must fight against a sea of other individuals in the name of affirming her own autonomy. Upon dominating the oppressor, who will accompany this individual as she seeks to discover the purpose of her existence? Who will answer to her yearning for a meaning that the individual, no matter how powerful she is, cannot construct for herself?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached about this “turning of tables” in a sermon he gave in 1967 to the 11th Annual SCLC Conference in Atlanta:

You see, what happened is that some of our philosophers got off-base. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites, polar opposites, so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. It was this misinterpretation that caused the philosopher, Nietzsche, who was a philosopher of the will-to-power, to reject the Christian concept of love. It was this same misinterpretation which induced Christian theologians to reject Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will-to-power in the name of the Christian idea of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.2

King draws out the danger of removing love from the notion of power. What St. Augustine referred to as the libido dominandi—the will-to-power for the sake of self-preservation and autonomy—is what led to the downfall of the original man and woman, Adam and Eve. Namely, in seeking to assert their own existence as self-sustained, rather than relational and codependent, Adam and Eve cut themselves off from the reciprocal dynamic of God’s transcendent love. This estrangement from divine love, rather than liberating the first man and woman, enslaved them, rendering them powerless in front of temptations that wounded their dignity, rather than affirming and fulfilling it. Only the power of love can transcend the endless power struggle in which individuals battle against domination and oppression. Those who seek power for its own sake are, ironically, rendered powerless against the others who vie against them in the ceaseless sea of competition and self-preservation.

Notions of female liberation that are predicated upon the woman’s right-to-choose to terminate the life of her own child are the brainchildren of Nietzschean conceptions of greatness and fulfillment. The libido dominandi, rather than enslaving the woman and impoverishing her capacity to flourish and attain the “fullness of life,” is her one-way ticket to freedom, is the theory. Only if she is granted the right to dominate the life in her womb can she be emancipated from the enslavement of co-dependency. This assertion falls into what feminist, Sidney Callahan, calls a “phallic fallacy.”

Many pro-choice feminists adopt the male perspective when they cite the “basic injustice that women have to bear the babies,” instead of seeing the injustice in the fact that men cannot. Women’s biologically unique capacity and privilege has been denied, despised, and suppressed under male domination. Unfortunately, many women have fallen for this phallic fallacy. Childbirth often appears in pro-choice literature as a painful, traumatic, life-threatening experience. Yet, giving birth is accurately seen as an arduous but normal exercise of life-giving power, a violent and ecstatic peak experience, which men can never really know or experience.3

Basic human valueslike dependency, receptivity, generativity, and sacrificewhich women are intimately familiar with and inclined to, thanks in part to their psychophysiological structure, are to be trampled upon in the name of personal autonomy. Such a conception of power and freedom are sharply and exclusively masculine in nature. Men, who can never experience the phenomenon of carrying a new life in the womb, and bring it into full existence, can easily make the dangerously distorted claim that the ideal for all human beings is to be free of ties to other external beings, and to assert one’s individual will- to-power. To exhort women to conform to this conception of freedom denies the given reality of her body and psyche. Rather than developing a conception of freedom that values the unique gifts that women have to offer, in particular their power to bear life, mainstream feminists continue conforming to the same patriarchal vision, whose walls they have made their business to tear down.

In our male-dominated world, what men don’t do, doesn’t count. Pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing have been characterized as passive, debilitating, and animal-like. The “disease model” of pregnancy and birth has become entrenched. This female disease or impairment, with its attendant “female troubles,” naturally handicaps women in the “real” world of hunting, war, and the corporate fast-track.4

Any notion of human freedom that rejects the gifts and capacities inherent to a particular group is hardly an invitation to happiness and flourishing. Thus, unfettered access to abortion, rather than furthering women’s liberation, continues to curtail it.

As our society increasingly endorses this male-oriented, permissive view of sexuality, it is all too ready to give women abortion on-demand. Abortion helps a woman’s body to be more like a man’s. It has been observed that Roe v. Wade removed the last defense women possessed against male sexual demands. For those of us committed to achieving sexual equality in the culture, it may be hard to accept the fact that sexual differences make it imperative to talk of distinct male and female models of sexuality. But if one wants to change sexual roles, one has to recognize pre-existing conditions.5

Callahan calls for a new feminism, which takes into account, and even accommodates, the gifts and powers that are unique to women: 

I think women will only flourish when there is a feminization of sexuality, very different from the current cultural trend toward masculinizing female sexuality. Women can never have the self-confidence and self-esteem they need to achieve feminist goals in society until a more holistic, feminine model of sexuality becomes the dominant cultural ethos … For women to get what they need in order to combine childbearing, education, and careers, society has to recognize that female bodies come with wombs. Women, and their reproductive power, and the children women have, must be supported in new ways. Another and different round of feminist consciousness-raising is needed in which all of women’s potential is accorded respect. This time, instead of humbly buying entrée by conforming to male lifestyles, women will demand that society accommodate itself to them.6

Callahan’s vision of a distinctly, and authentically feminine notion of empowerment, heavily employs the logic of “feminine genius,” which is made reference to in the works of several other “different” feminists, like Pope St. John Paul II. In his apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II affirms the “special” role that women play in the development of society and culture:

Motherhood, as a human fact and phenomenon, is fully explained on the basis of the truth about the person. Motherhood is linked to the personal structure of the woman, and to the personal dimension of the gift. The Creator grants the parents the gift of a child. On the woman’s part, this fact is linked in a special way to “a sincere gift of self” … The woman’s motherhood constitutes a special “part” in this shared parenthood, and the most demanding part.7

John Paul II draws upon the “hermeneutic of the gift” to speak about the ultimate vocation and dignity of all humanity. Conceiving human freedom in terms of its capacity to give freely of oneself in love, he challenges the will-to-power model of freedom. Women play a particularly educative role in witnessing to all of humanity, thanks to their feminine genius, what it truly means to pursue liberation through reciprocity and inter-dependency, rather than autonomy.

It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men in paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother.8

He furthers this point in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

Women first learn and then teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person, and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty, or health. This is the fundamental contribution which the Church and humanity expect from women. And it is the indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change.9

Very much in accord with Callahan’s proposal, John Paul II calls for the development of a new feminism that takes into account the feminine genius, and challenges narrowly masculine ideals of domination and power.

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.10

I must say, as a man, that I desire that we develop a new feminism for the sake of my very own dignity and sense of humanity. As a “child (especially as a son) of modernity,” I struggle with the temptation to approach the question of my own happiness as a matter of dominating others, and asserting my own autonomy. I often look at my own dignity as if it were defined by “considerations such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty, or health,” rather than the very fact that I was loved into existence. I look at dependency, and being “tied down” to other people and tasks, as a burden, as a limit to my freedom, rather than an invitation to discover my freedom, in all of its complexity and fullness. Without the presence of women in my lifethat is, humans who have the capacity, and say “yes” to, carrying around a co-dependent, living being for nine months, and spend countless years in service to that being for the sake of its happiness, often at the cost of that woman having to sacrifice her own “will to power” and autonomyI would continue to trick myself into believing the “phallic fallacy.” I would continue living as if my own happiness is about living out the libido dominandi, rather than learning to love, and be loved.

Thus, I support women’s dignity, as a markedly feminine dignity, as opposed to encouraging women to conform to male-conceived notions of dignity, that tell women that their bodies are “troublesome” and problematic. Without an appreciative attention to the woman’s distinct capacity to receive and give life, my own masculine genius is impoverished. I need my mother, my aunts, and my female friends to teach me what it means to say “yes” to God’s initiative in my life, and to depend on His transcendent love.

I close this reflection with the words of a friend, who felt slighted by the rhetoric used by many (but not all) of the marchers. Let us pray that the Women’s March, and all other efforts that strive to promote the dignity of women, will become a opportunities to embrace all women in all of their womanhood: 

I am horrified that women go out and buy themselves “pussy caps” to wear to the march, and are so convinced that “thou shalt not take away my reproductive rights. (Fallopians 12:1)” is freedom, and that my right to abortion makes me happy. I am not my vagina. I am not my fallopian tubes. I will not wear a hat that looks like genitalia, because that’s not ME. Also, how is freedom something that tells me that I’m made intrinsically badly? I can have a baby. I can get pregnant. I need to work with a man to make that happen. I’m the one who bears the child. Yet, the whole premise of women’s rights is that I’m intrinsically inferior because of this, and my uterus is a burden, and I am poorly made, so freedom is the power to choose to demolish the life that’s inside me. And we all gobble up this nonsense as truth. Why don’t we focus spending more money on helping pregnant women have a beautiful, clean, affordable place to go when they’re abandoned by their man, that will help them with adoption, if need be, and accompany them, step-by-step, through the nine months of pregnancy? Why don’t we educate men not to abandon women when things get hard? Instead, the answer is that women should choose what to do, alone (or with other like-minded “nasty women” who think the same things as us, and use the same cliches) …because we’re at a disadvantage with our child-bearing bodies that are poorly made. Freedom can’t be a freedom despite my body.
And … I’m wonderfully made!

  1. Nietzsche, Friedrick, Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann, s. 636, <theperspectivesofnietzsche.com/nietzsche/nwill.html>.
  2. King, Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here?, 11th Annual SCLC Conference, August 16, 1967, kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/documentsentry/where_do_we_go_from_here_delivered_at_the_11th_annual_sclc_convention/index.html.
  3. Callahan, Sidney, Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Pro-Life Feminism, lib.tcu.edu/staff/bellinger/abortion/Callahan-Wolf.pdf
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, Apostolic Letter, August 15, 1988, <w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1988/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19880815_mulieris-dignitatem.html>§18.
  8. Ibid. John Paul II continues: “Parenthood – even though it belongs to both – is realized much more fully in the woman, especially in the prenatal period. It is the woman who “pays” directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul. No programme of “equal rights” between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account. Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman’s womb. The mother is filled with wonder at this mystery of life, and “understands” with unique intuition what is happening inside her. In the light of the “beginning”, the mother accepts and loves as a person the child she is carrying in her womb. This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings – not only towards her own child, but every human being – which profoundly marks the woman’s personality.”
  9. Ibid.
  10. John Paul II, Evangelium Viate, Encylical Letter, March 25, 1995, <w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html>§99.
Stephen Adubato About Stephen Adubato

Stephen Adubato received his B.A. from Fordham University in Religious Studies and Spanish Literature, and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Ethical Theology at the Immaculate Conception School of Theology at Seton Hall University. He also teaches Religion and Philosophy at Benedictine High School in New Jersey. His most recent work was presented at a theological colloquium at Benedictine College. He also blogs at Cracks in Postmodernity: cracksinpostmodernity.wordpress.com.

Comments

  1. Parochial Vicar says:

    I appreciated the article in pointing out the fallacies and contradictions in the errors of feminism and socialism. I think there is a danger however in adopting a concept like “feminism,” albeit a reinterpreted one. For example it could lead to the demonization of the word “patriarchy” and the importance of the concept which is such a part of ordered family life and our faith life; God worked in salvation history through the patriarchs. Important to remember in a world in need of holy fatherhood.

    http://www.returntoorder.org/2017/06/the-father-figure-as-he-should-be/

Trackbacks

  1. […] This article is a response to the recent Women’s Marches. I find that our discourse on gender has become severely impoverished by reductive understandings of personhood and culture. It’s as if our only ways of conceiving gender is through narrowly constructed notions of performativity or as something that is totally relative. I find JP2’s concept of the “new feminism” to be rather helpful in navigating current questions about gender identity. […]

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