Monday, June 14, 2010

Do we really need another feminism?

There are many strands of feminism out there, and it's a valid question to ask if another one would just be superfluous. Is New Feminism really any different from the other ideologies floating around?

Yup. To illustrate this, we can compare it to two extremes: radical feminism and anti-feminism. New Feminism is really the perfect middle ground between these two poles. For example, take the whole work or stay at home issue. Radical feminism thinks all women should work and it's demeaning to stay in the home. Anti-feminism thinks no women should work and they should all stay in the home. New Feminism recognizes the very valuable contributions of both women who work and women who stay at home, and says there is no one right thing to do.

We can also see New Feminism's realistic moderation when it comes to social reform. Radical feminism thinks everything was bad before; we've made some progress but still have a long way to go. Anti-feminism thinks everything was good before, but the feminists really messed it all up; they generally long for a return to a clearly patriarchal society. New Feminism acknowledges there was inequality and a need for change before; some progress has been good and some of it has been harmful; and it seems to take a more global aspect on what still needs to be done.

A great many tenets of New Feminism are felt by many (a majority of?) women: for example, not hating men (even liking them and wanting to marry them!) and the understanding that men and women are both equal and different. However, New Feminism is more than just putting a name to what many women already feel and live, as important as that is. It also takes it a step further. It's a pro-life feminism (which contrary to what some say does not mean it's anti-feminism in sheep's clothing). It embraces our bodies in a way that most modern women have never considered. It truly promotes women and leads to an authentic freedom.

Have you ever longed for any middle ground between the feminist/anti-feminist extremes? Or do you identify more with one side than the other? Do you think feminism is even (still) necessary?


  1. Hope your visit with your mom was wonderful and great first post back. As for you're questions, I do think New Feminism is a much needed middle and I'm glad it has a title because it gives name to what I have felt all along. I never called myself a feminist because I always think of the radical mindset and that doesn't leave room for choice or discerning your true vocation.

    I think new feminism is needed because we need to remember what is special about our roles as women. We can celebrate women without saying we are superior or that we must be in the home. I think we have come a long way but need the guidance that new feminism can bring. Thanks for writing about it :-)

  2. Hi, Elizabeth!

    I've started typing a response to your well-written, thought-provoking post several times and haven't finished. Here's to completing a response this time. :-)

    I'll start by saying that I do not want to criticize what you've written. This (very long) response is a comment, but not meant to be critical or mean in any way. I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts thus far! :-)

    I suppose I would fall into the "anti-feminist" camp, but I don't really like labels. They're so limiting. It sounds like the New Feminism you're describing is very similar to what scholar Christina Hoff Sommers calls "equity feminism." I would highly recommend this short speech as an intro. See here.

    Defining feminism is, of course, an extraordinarily difficult task. There are so many "strains" of feminist thought today that it's like trying to nail jello to a wall! Many radical groups claim that their followers and groups with the same goals have the exclusive right to use the term "feminism." (Jessica Valenti, author of The Purity Myth and editor of, is a prime example.) And then, there are folks who agree with Wendy Donigar, who commented in regards to Sarah Palin: "Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman." See here.

    You wrote, "Radical feminism thinks everything was bad before; we've made some progress but still have a long way to go. Anti-feminism thinks everything was good before, but the feminists really messed it all up; they generally long for a return to a clearly patriarchal society."

    As an anti-feminist, I would suggest that very few of us believe that everything was good before feminism (in whatever incarnation is at hand). God's goodness in giving us the technology for indoor plumbing testifies against that! *wink* :-)

    We recognize and bemoan the abuses of patriarchal cultures in the past. Those weren’t the answer. They weren’t in line with God’s word. Rather than return to the "good old days," we need to focus on restoring a comprehensive Christian ethic of sexuality and personhood to social debates. Neither men nor women are well-served by feminist thought. From the get-go, feminist thought has promoted emasculated men and scorned the idea of male leadership. Even the phrase "women’s issues" is, perhaps, a misnomer. "Women’s issues" are human issues. Issues of sexual ethics touch on everything that makes us humans, that makes us children of God. They get to the heart of personhood itself.

    Uh oh, this is getting long. Continued in another comment...

  3. All of this brings me to the main point that I'm attempting to make: I think what's critically important when studying feminism is to trace the development of feminist thought throughout history. It didn't begin in the 1970s, the 1920s, or even with Seneca Falls. At its core, feminism is about redefining womanhood. It goes back to the Garden of Eden, when the serpent asked Eve, "Did God really say...?" This is the first attempt we see to define womanhood and the person of a woman apart from God's word. Margaret Sanger traced the origins of feminism to the Enlightenment. (See Women and the New Race, (New York: Truth Publishing Co., 1920), vii.) Friedrich Engels saw the family as an institution to be abolished and deconstructed. (“The monogamous family must cease to be the industrial unit of society,” in The Origin of the family, private property, and the state tr. Ernest Untermann (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1902), 90. Full text available here.

    Throughout history, feminism has always attempted to redefine womanhood, marriage, and the family. Even if a strain of feminist thought breaks free from its more radical sisters, it turns, inevitably, back to its origins. "New feminisms" never achieve a goal of affirming the uniquely female aspects of a woman’s nature. This occurs for a variety of reasons; I’m happy to come back and list the journal articles that explain why. The family is a unit to be "deconstructed" (see, in particular, the article by David L. Chambers in volume 95 of the Michigan Law Review (1996) & its numerous footnotes), "reformulated," and eventually abolished. This point is clear in treatises from the early writings from Plato to those by modern thinkers like J. S. Mill, Jeremy Betham, Marx, Engels, and other philosophers.

    Today, religious feminists seek to reform the Bible to institute gender-neutral language, emphasize God’s motherly aspects, and advocate for changes in hymns that they see as sexist. Certainly, our great God has many character traits that would line up with what we would see as maternal. But He cannot be confined to one set of traits or the other. In an Episcopal church I used to attend, the pastor would refer to the Trinity as "Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer" – which sounds great, except that it was a substitute for "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." The latter phrasing of the Trinity was deemed too sexist. Mary Daly's writings on the evolution of religious feminism are particularly useful in elucidating how what started as a more moderate attempt to institute reforms ended up on the very radical side of things.

    Personally, I don't feel a need to label myself a "feminist" of any stripe. I'm a Christian. Christianity is what makes me a whole person in God. Christianity provides a solid foundation for a sexual ethic based on Truth and the grace of God. I enjoy history, and I enjoy exploring the history of feminism and the way the label is used in contemporary discourse. However, I would have to gently disagree with the idea that we need a new feminism. We need a new way of thinking about men and women, in that we need to line our priorities up with God's! :-)

    Love in Christ,

  4. I identify as a radical feminist, meaning I like to look at the root causes of inequality and injustice that is inherent in our society. While I can only speak from my social group and have not done extensive research, I suspect that your characterisation of a radical feminist as a man-hating, forcing-women-into-the-workplace, woman is a bit off. That's not to say those voices don't exist (because they totally do), but that they represent an extreme viewpoint. Just as we don't judge Christianity as a whole by the Westboro Baptist Church, we don't judge the feminist philosophy as a whole by Andrea Dworkin.

    The whole goal of feminism and discussing inequality and injustice is to work towards a world in which people (not just women) have choices. If a woman (or a man) feels called to take care of the home or work outside the home, to be a primary caregiver for their family or study to become a doctor, or deliver babies, or assist people with grief or whatever they feel called to do, then it should be something they can strive for. Gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity -- these things make us different and give us different perspectives through which to see the world, but shouldn't bar us from giving back to our communities and finding a way to support ourselves and our families. The same thought pattern that says "women MUST be in the home at all times" usually follows with "men MUST be fulfilled outside of the home at all times", and that's damaging to everyone.

    Thanks for letting me share and listening. I've always enjoyed reading your blog and I find this series on the New Feminism quite interesting.

  5. You know, after being at a very conservative Catholic college for 4 years I don't think I ever really heard of the term New Feminism until I started reading yours and Sarah's blogs. I agree with all you are saying and wonder why I can't feel motivated to learn more about it. Perhaps because no woman I know "in real life" thinks this way, which makes me very sad. I'll have to motivate myself to read more into New Feminism! This is a wonderful article, and judging by your previous comments, is something that is near and dear to most women!

  6. I appreciate "New Feminism" because it gave me a philosophical home where I might be be both a feminist and pro-life ~ and I am a feminist because I believe the truism that "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" and so do not trust and can not support a system that says all of the power and decisions of about vital issues regarding myself and my family belong in the hands of just one of the genders: men ~ I will be forever grateful to those early "feminist" who fought so that I as a woman might vote, sit on a school board, seek higher education, give consent or not for medical procedures, etc.

    And until it is so fully understood and believed within the core of my country and my church that I am fearfully and wonderfully made in the image and likeness of God so as to never be doubted and questioned then yes we need feminism (humanism, womanism)

  7. Well, I think you know how I feel about "new" feminism (I think it's the bee's knees), but I enjoyed Luci's comments. I have heard something to that effect before, and I think it's interesting.

    As Catholics, we rely on not only the Word, but on Tradition (which includes the Church fathers, doctors of the Church, and other Papal writings) to form our ideas of what a woman is/should be in God's view. So I guess for me, I have a hard time seeing how there is just one fixed definition of what a woman is (or should be) based on *both* Scripture and Tradition. There are many strains throughout both. The example of biblical women (Sarah, Hannah, Hagar, Ruth, Esther, Judith, etc. etc.) not to mention Mary and all female saints ought to be looked to as well in defining what a woman is/ought to be from a Christian perspective. It then gets difficult to say definitively where a woman's place is, because women that Scripture hold up as examples, and women the Church hold up as examples, often have contributed to the world in wildly different ways. One example of this would be on one hand, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and on the other, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, or St. Teresa of Avila, or St. Joan of Arc.

    One of the beautiful things about "new" feminism is that it uses the ontological truths of the *human* person to shed light on woman's essential nature, without making explicit proscriptions about how/where women should serve.

    Sorry to leave a novel!

  8. P. S. Elizabeth, I'm sorry for commenting a zillion times. But I do have an honest question after reading fumblingtowardsgrace's comment! :-)

    Simply put: why do we need the label "feminism" in order to achieve the goals of "new feminism"? What purpose does the label serve?

    I'm truly curious. This isn't critical in any way. I've loved learning from the comments at your blog and look forward to continuing to do so. :-)

  9. I don't want to take over Elizabeth's com-box, but I love your question Luci! I think John Paul II used the term "new feminism" as a way of explaining what he meant, but calling it something that people could relate to. That's my take anyway. But ultimately the labels are pretty unimportant, it's the substance that matters. I think "new feminism" could also aptly be called "authentic femininity". Anyone can jump in here and correct me. :)

  10. Just my two cents (not meaning to offend anyone):

    There seems to be a lot of arguing about semantics. "Feminism" is a charged word in society. Personally, I agree with fumbingtowardsgrace, I don't think that the word is as important as the concept that you are proposing.

    It seems like you are trying to describe a position in the middle between extreme patriarchalism and extreme feminism. Which is why the examples of the two sides are so stark.

    I really like the concept. Like anything, discovering what being a woman (or a man) means is an ongoing journey.

  11. i was inclined to go with your post, elizabeth, but the whole "feminist" label, no matter the qualifier always makes me a bit uncomfortable.

    i LIKE traditional gender roles - they're traditional for a reason - 9 out of 10 times they work! they don't always, and history shows that - women have always had to work "outside" the home for financial and pratical reasons, etc etc. but equity between men and women needs to be based on God given human dignity not role requirements.

    thus, Luci's comments really spoke to me. i'm in her camp :)

  12. "Have you ever longed for any middle ground between the feminist/anti-feminist extremes? Or do you identify more with one side than the other? Do you think feminism is even (still) necessary?"
    I think that feminism is necessary. Luci points out that in her view feminism started with the fall rather than with say Seneca Falls. But I don't see how we can eliminate feminism without also eliminating Seneca Falls. And that would be a horrible pity.

    I don't often use the term feminist on my blog because it isn't helpful for most people who understand the word however it is they happen to want to understand it. But I am unwilling to toss the term because it is oh-so-very useful for reaching people who understand feminism to mean a *just* valuation of the wonderful worth of women. Misogyny is real. The horrible history of degradation of women is real. And it still influences the way that we think.

    And sometimes the only way to reach out to others it to use the language that they speak. And it is often the case that the language of feminism is the language which best conveys God's great love for all of humanity, not just men.

    Paul said "To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law--though I myself am not under the law--to win over those under the law.

    To those outside the law I became like one outside the law--though I am not outside God's law but within the law of Christ--to win over those outside the law.

    To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.

    All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it."

    So when dealing with anti-feminists I do my best to think like an anti-feminist to the extent that I can without compromising the Gospel truth that women too are made in the image of God. And to the feminists I become a feminist to the extent that I can without compromising the truth that two wrongs do not make a right.

    And that is why I am a new feminist, even though I'm still not sure about the "new" part. :-)

    And I won't apologize for the long comment because you were just begging for them with this post and those questions. ;-)

  13. I thought I'd follow up on the comments posted since I ... er, wrote too much earlier today. :-)

    Rae wrote, "Misogyny is real. The horrible history of degradation of women is real. And it still influences the way that we think." I completely agree. We are all children of God, and we're all called to work against abuse of men and women wherever it happens to occur.

    Perhaps I was wrong to mention Seneca Falls; doing so prompts thoughts of women's suffrage. What I should have made clear was that the issues I have with the Seneca Falls Declaration are largely due to the fact that the authors railed against the exclusion of women from the priesthood and pastoral offices. I believe that Scripture is clear on the need for officers of the Church to be male, but that's an entirely different topic! :-)

    Feminists in the 19th century sought political goals with which I'm not comfortable. They promoted the births of children out of wedlock, which social science data indicate are detrimental to children and parents alike. The laxity in sexual morals that they promoted disturb me as well.

    Were all feminists like this? Are they today? Certainly not! But, the goals of feminist leaders have remained largely the same over the past 150-200ish years. Many goals were laudable. Many leaders pointed out true injustices that required immediate social attention. But, now that we are largely past institutionalized misogyny, the social and political goals remain the same. And I find those disturbing.

    What unites us is the Gospel message of hope and Truth. Semantics are far less important! It's a true joy to see women from all over, from all political and social backgrounds, embracing their femininity.


  14. Hi Luci, it seems to me that we've been educated very differently about feminism so it would take much longer than is appropriate here to hash out the differences in our views.

    But for everyone else I wanted to link to the Declaration of Sentiments so that they would know what we were talking about with Seneca Falls.

    This is the one thing that everyone agrees is feminism!

  15. Ladies, I am loving this discussion. I suspected I might be taken to task for simplifying and stereotyping both radical feminism and anti-feminism, and was actually somewhat glad when I was - it means people aren't afraid to charitably correct me and engage in discussion!

    And no worries about long comments - they're encouraged :)

    It does seem that the label "feminism" is an issue here. Outside of that, we share many concepts!

    For example, Luci, I think that we agree on a great many things! Including:
    "Neither men nor women are well-served by [a great deal of] feminist thought."
    ""Women’s issues" are human issues."
    "Certainly, our great God has many character traits that would line up with what we would see as maternal. But He cannot be confined to one set of traits or the other."
    "The laxity in sexual morals that they promoted disturb me as well."
    "I'm a Christian. Christianity is what makes me a whole person in God. Christianity provides a solid foundation for a sexual ethic based on Truth and the grace of God."

    I am curious about your comment that ""New feminisms" never achieve a goal of affirming the uniquely female aspects of a woman’s nature." As nerdy as it sounds, I actually would be really interested in reading some articles on that. I think that since this is indeed one of the central goals of the New Feminism I'm discussing (celebrating the "feminine genius"), that it is indeed possible. I'm an optimist :)

    Finally, you note that "now that we are largely past institutionalized misogyny." That does seem to be the case here in the US... but what about elsewhere? As the first source you listed noted, there are still rampant discriminations and problems throughout the world, and unfortunately things like sex trafficking do touch us here in the US. I suspect you would agree that these things are wrong, but that we need a fuller understanding of human dignity as opposed to just women's dignity.

    Again, thanks for such an interesting and charitable discussion everyone!

  16. Having grown up "anti-feminist" and hating it, I think there really does need to be some balance. I'm not familiar with "new-feminism", but I don't really like the gender-role stuff at all. I'm actully writing a post about it right now.

  17. I just wanted to say that I don't think there's a problem with your alleged "oversimplification." I think sometimes you need to oversimply the issue to make a point, as long as you and your readers are conscious of what you're doing. I, for one, really appreciated this post and I think New Feminism works really well to balance two extremes.

    (Oh, and thanks for the link to Project M in your earlier post. It was very generous!)

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