From Woman to FeminismJOSEPH M. DE TORRE
While Women's Liberation has grown out of a legitimate and ethically justifiable desire for equality with men regarding civil rights, occupations, and political rights, along with these reasonable claims, have come others leading to sexual irresponsibility.
A whole code and etiquette of reverence towards woman grew up in the various fields of the arts, literature, family organization, external and public manners, with definite forms of address and courtesy. The king epitomized this attitude in his public deference and respect for the queen. It is in those centuries of christian chivalry that the custom was introduced of addressing the Blessed Virgin as Our Lady, just as a knight would address his lady. Two of the greatest works of literature of christian culture present their hero as inspired and led by the lady of their dreams: Beatrice for Dante, and Dulcinea for Don Quixote.
In those centuries, to the extent that they were truly christian, there was no question of woman “achieving” equality with man. Woman was simply in a higher category than man: as mother, spouse or sister, she was superior to man, and man showed this by bowing to her or kissing her feet. She left to man the prosaic and menial task of running the economy or the state, and engaging in the various professions and trades. Not that she would not have the capacity for these tasks, but her proper and specific feminine qualities had to be reserved for the far more important work of educating the children at home and actually running the home. She was the irreplaceable educator of citizens in the irreplaceable school of the home.
But Marx had a new reading of this reality. According to him, woman had been “enslaved” in the capitalist society. This thesis was shared by other socialists as well. They pointed out that the home, the family had tied down the woman and deprived her of her liberty. The socialist revolution would “emancipate” her through “free love”: she would be free to have children or not by the use of contraceptives or abortion, and free to educate them or not, and free to have sex with any one of her own choice.
Also included in the agenda for the “emancipation” of women, now called Woman's Liberation or simply Woman's Lib, was the absolute equality with men regarding civil rights and occupations, as well as political rights. These claims were quite legitimate and ethically justified taken into account the fundamental equality of the sexes, but we have just noted why the issue had not been raised in the christian centuries. And besides, together with these reasonable claims were the other ones about the sexual irresponsibility also just noted.
Regarding political rights, it was true that women were very much discriminated against, because when the power of parliament became widely accepted over the kings who were the rulers, the power to vote in elections became very strictly regimented. What were the qualifications for the political right to vote? First it was to own property, then to be a male, then of legal age, and then literate.
During the industrial revolution the franchise of the power to vote was extended gradually, first to landless capitalists and then to non-owners and illiterates. But woman remained unqualified until the end of the First World War with the triumph of the Suffragette movement (from suffrage” = vote) which had grown throughout that war. At the same time the fields of education, professions and public service were also gradually more open to them. Was this a positive achievement? Undoubtedly yes. But, like in almost all human achievements, there are shadows as well as lights, and some observations are here pertinent regarding the impact of these developments on the family and its position in society.
Marx accused the capitalist system of having enslaved woman by tying her to the home and the family. He viewed modern liberalism and its capitalist system as carrying on this enslavement of woman from the previous dialectical stage of medieval feudalism. But it is precisely on this alleged continuity that his judgment did not agree with the facts, since as noted earlier, in the medieval christian culture and civilization woman held a superior status in relation to man. The male member of society bowed with reverence before the higher dignity of womanhood, just as the king bowed to the queen, precisely as mother of the family. The medieval society was truly a matriarchal society, aside from being royal and aristocratic.
Then in the 17th century, as a revolt against royal absolutism, there came the liberal revolutions beginning with the English Puritan revolution of 1640 claiming the power for the people and initiating a trend towards republicanism and individualism. This movement, which culminated in the 19th century liberalism and socialism, was undoubtedly beneficial for human liberty, equality and fraternity. However, due to its proclivity towards either individualism or collectivism, as well as its tendency to hedonistic materialism. it was at the same time detrimental to the family and its values, with the consequent downgrading for woman, since woman is superior to man precisely as mother, as heart of the family, as lady and queen of the family. Either the individual or the collectivity were to eclipse the primacy of the family.
By “equalizing” woman to man as just individuals, woman was in effect downgraded and placed in a position of inferiority in relation to man. This is precisely what precipitated the feminist movement towards equality with men, with the proliferation of marital infidelity and divorce as expressions of individualism and hedonism. It was not for the reason given by Marx, who, therefore, was also wrong in proposing free love as the way of emancipation or liberation for them.
Whenever the matriarchal lifestyle has been preserved with the primacy of the family based on an unbroken marriage, women have always been treated with respect and reverence, bowing to them, taking off one's hat, offering them one's seat, kissing their hand and so forth, even using particularly refined and polite language in front of them. All of these have been falling out of use in modern individualistic society (see chapter 21).
In the pre-industrialized, pre-individualistic society, more communitarian and family centered, women were regarded as potential mothers, sources of human life, and since human life was considered as having its origin in God (this is clearly stated in the first pages of the Bible, and always assumed thereafter: hence the prohibition not to kill), women were highly revered as closer to God. This religious reverence for woman was logically extended to human sexuality and marriage: hence the prohibition not to make sex impure by degrading or adulterating it.
Motherhood was thus the first dignity of womanhood, to which Christianity added the motherhood (and fatherhood) of the spirit in apostolic celibacy. And in both cases, whether married or not, woman is the irreplaceable provider of mercy and tenderness and generosity for human society, as Pope John Paul II has shown so lucidly, especially in his outstanding Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem of 1988.
All of this was largely and increasingly downplayed in the course of the industrial revolution and the rise of modem individualism. And then came socialism, with its obsession with equality of the sexes that would in effect downgrade the woman to the level of man, instead of preserving her superiority.
Of course, these are only the shadows of the movement. But one should not overlook the lights, namely the attainment of equality of civil, economic and political rights for both sexes, whose absence had indeed been a longstanding injustice in preindustrial society. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged, for a fair and objective assessment of the feminist movement or movements, that they have been affected by both its lights and its shadows, and a great deal of discernment is required in order to sort out the wheat from the chaff. The present Pope has also accomplished quite a lot in this respect.
Motherhood is the privilege and greatness of woman: hence the unnaturalness of the contraceptive mentality that splits sex from its procreative power and goes to the extent of maintaining that the purpose of sex is simply its own pleasurable enjoyment, cutting it off, either mechanically or chemically, from its openness to the transmission of human life, as Paul VI showed so profoundly in the famous Humanae Vitae. The use of contraception, and its logical sequel of abortion, far from liberating woman degrades her, since it steals from her her true glory, which is precisely to give herself with a love of self- giving (like God's) and so to be the source of human life and then the perfect educator of her children.
The shadows of feminism are the misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding motherhood just noted. They have confused the fundamental and complementary equality of the sexes with physical and quantifiable equality, as if women can do all things that men can do, which is a ridiculous statement to say the least, just as it would be ridiculous also to say that men can do all things that women can do. Any one can see that women are no match for men in sports for instance, while men are no match for women in care for persons and home management. And in the Church, likewise, just as only a woman could be the Mother of God Incarnate, only a man can be a priest in persona Christi, since the Son of God in his Incarnation assumed male, not female humanity. A male person is a male person, and a female person is a female person. They are not interchangeable. Human nature incarnates in two different but complementary ways.
Genetically, anatomically, physiologically, psychologically, and even intellectually, the two genders show an astonishing differentiation and complementarity. Perhaps the most striking appears in the irreducible difference between the male brain and the female brain. In the latter, the corpus callosum which divides the two hemispheres of the brain into left and right contains many more jump-leads communicating both halves than does the male brain. As a result, the different functions of the brain are more continuous and symbiotic in the female, and so more sensitive to the continuum of reality than the male, who is more inclined to a digital measurement of reality, and more inclined to activity than to receptivity. This makes women more intelligent” and men more “rational”. They need each other essentially and existentially.
It stands to reason that we have to accept first the evidence of this differentiation and complementarity of the sexes, and second that such differentiation and complementarity are good and explicitly willed by the Author of humanity. And this calls for a return to the sources of that respect for womanhood which was taken for granted before individualistic liberalism flooded the industrialized world. We must, of course, welcome the achievements of the liberal dynamic capitalism which created so much wealth and eliminated so much poverty. But we ought to take note also of the negative aspects of individualism, such as the artificial and erroneous equalization of the sexes which overlooks the fact that an individual is necessarily either a male person or a female person, and that he or she is also necessarily the member of a family, not just an isolated individual that can ignore society.
Woman must once again be enabled to occupy her proper place, for which God has endowed her with unique and exclusive qualities, as mother, as wife, as sister, as daughter, in short as woman, with a contribution to the common good which the male cannot provide, as lacking those qualities or possessing them to a lesser degree: tact and sweetness in human relations, tenderness, compassion, attention to details, generosity, self-denial, elegance, concern for beauty and so on and so forth. The Blessed Josemaria Escriva dwelt at length with this point in his Conversations he was indeed, in his teachings and in his achievements, an outstanding advocate of womanhood.
Marxists say that woman will be “emancipated from the “drudgery” of home life. But this is a gross misunderstanding of womanhood. It is a fact that ordinarily a woman finds her fulfillment and happiness precisely in the life of a home, in being a mother and educator. This is the prime outlet for her need to love. Thus she fulfills herself, as countless women can testify. In fact, the Church has canonized not a few of them, such as St. Margaret of Scotland and St. Elizabeth of Portugal.
Does this mean that women should be discouraged from pursuing careers outside the married life? Of course not. In fact, intellectually woman is a peer to man, and she can accomplish just as much if not more in intellectual pursuits such as liberal professions, education, public service and the arts. A woman can perfectly fulfil herself and lend her rightful contribution to the common good by pursuing one such career, like medicine or law or business, without getting married. But in this case, her moral motivation should be not to spare herself the burdens of married life, but to be more dedicated to the common good, namely God and society at large.
Let us conclude with a word about the role of man in society. as distinct from that of woman, in order to have a better evaluation of the feminist movement. Some cynics have even talked about a Man's Lib...
One of the ethical stipulations that the Church makes regarding the question of the “just salary” is that the salaries for men should be such that their wives are not forced to seek employment outside the home in order to supplement the husband's income. In other words., salaries should be tailored to the family, not just to the individual. This facilitates that the woman can do her own irreplaceable work of home management and education of the children. Domestic helpers can only be helpers, but there is no adequate substitute for the manager. And the best qualified manager for the home is the mother.
The reason why the man should be the breadwinner is not that the woman cannot be that, since intellectually they are peers, but that the man lacks the suitable qualities for home management: just compare the looks and the atmosphere of a home to those of a barracks. . .
The common good of society demands, therefore, that there should be such economic development (and economic development can only be produced by freedom of enterprise and market with the right of private property) that the stability, security and fruitfulness of the family can be ensured, by first defending and protecting the unbreakability of marriage, and then facilitating the rearing of children by their own mothers in their own homes. This is the way to produce good citizens. How strikingly Tocqueville emphasized this when talking about American mothers!
The first, primary and most decisive educator of children (future citizens) is not the teacher or mentor in school but the mother at home, supported and assisted by the father. She has all the God-given capacity to teach the children how to love, to be a human being, to be “assets” and not “liabilities” constructors and not parasites, givers rather than receivers, to work for the common good, to develop a social consciousness from their tender age, a social consciousness and a social conscience, a true moral orientation. Only a mother can effectively teach this to the children, supported and assisted by the father, brothers and sisters and all the household. In the absence of this, the child is in grave danger of becoming a confirmed egoist, a violent rebel, a criminal, or an escapist. He needs to be taught how to love, how to be generous and other-regarding, and the mother is the indispensable teacher of this. The family is the “domestic church”. The school can only be built on that foundation. Let me conclude with the following excerpts from Pope John Paul's Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem of 15 August 1988:
“Thus in the same context as the creation of man and woman, the biblical account speaks of God's instituting marriage as an indispensable condition for the transmission of life to which marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordered: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it' (Gen 1:28). (No.6) (Italics in text)
“In our times the question of women's rights has taken on new significance in the broad context of the rights of the human person. The biblical and evangelical message sheds light on this cause, which is the object of much attention today, by safeguarding the truth about the 'unity' of the 'two', that is to say the truth about that dignity and vocation that result from the specific diversity and personal originality of man and woman. Consequently, even the rightful opposition of women to what is expressed in the biblical words 'He shall rule over you' (Gen 3:16) must not under any condition lead to the 'masculinization' of women. In the name of liberation from male 'domination' women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine 'originality'” (No. 10) (Italics in text)
“The dignity and the vocation of women as well as those of men find their eternal sources in the heart of God. And in the temporal conditions of human existence, they are closely connected with the 'unity of the two'. Consequently each man must look within himself to see whether she who was entrusted to him as a sister in humanity, as a spouse, has not become in his heart an object of adultery; to see whether she who, in different ways, is the co-subject of his existence in the word, has not become for him an 'object'; an object of pleasure, of exploitation.” (No.14)
“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. It is therefore necessary that the man be fully aware that in their shared parenthood he owes a special debt to the woman. No program 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 which profoundly marks the woman's personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man even with all his sharing in parenthood 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. One can say that this is a part of the normal human dimension of parenthood including the stages that follow the birth of the baby, especially the initial period. The child's upbringing, taken as a whole, should include the contribution of both parents: the maternal and paternal contribution. In any event, the mother's contribution is decisive in laying the foundation for a new human personality.” (no.18) (Italics in text)
“In our time, the successes of science and technology make it possible to attain material well-being to a degree hitherto unknown. While this favours some, it pushes others to the edges of society. In this way, unilateral progress can also lead to a gradual loss of sensitivity for man, that is, for what is essentially human. In this sense, our time in particular awaits the manifestation of that 'genius' which belongs to women, and which can ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance: because they are human!” (No. 30) (Italics in text)
de Torre, Rev. Joseph M. “From Woman to Feminism.” In Generation and Degeneration: A Survey of Ideologies, 175-184. Manila: Southeast Asian Science Foundation, Inc., 1995.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Copyright 1995 by the Southeast Asian Science Foundation, Inc. P.O. Box 478, Greenhills Post Office, Metro Manila, Philippines. ISBN 971-8527-249, $15.50 U.S.
Fr. Joseph M. de Torre is Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Asia and the Pacific, Manila, Philippines and has written widely on many issues. Father de Torre is on the Advisory Board for The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 1995 Southeast Asian Science Foundation, Inc.
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