Feminism and young Catholic women in the UK

Conversations with young Catholic women— married and single, graduates and professionals, cradle Catholics, and recent coverts— in the UK about feminism, marriage, and modernity.

There’s a serious crisis of Catholic masculinity and femininity. Today’s men and women are pulled between an ideology which places men and women in hostile competition—the ‘battle of the sexes’—on the one hand, and the newer gender theory which claims sexuality is fluid and changeable, on the other. How are Catholics meant to navigate the world of finding someone to marry, or seeing the value of a life of celibacy? Is it any wonder long-term singleness and later marriage have become normal in Catholic circles?

The decline in men pursuing the priesthood and men and women entering religious life indicates a serious crisis among the Catholic laity from which vocations come. The decline in Catholic marriage reflects the prevailing trends of the secular societies of the Western world. It’s no wonder that Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona, felt the need to issue a recent apostolic exhortation to men, since many men need to be shown and taught, for the first time, what it means to be a Catholic man. “This crisis is evident,” notes Bishop Olmsted, “in the discouragement and disengagement of Catholic men like you and me.”

We’ve heard quite a bit about the dignity of woman, of motherhood, and the ‘feminine genius’ as Pope John Paul II called it. There is not nearly as much mention of men—no ‘masculine genius’, little or no ‘dignity of manhood and fatherhood’ writings or speeches. The Final Report of the 2015 Synod of Bishops, in a similar way, had much more to say about women, wives, and mothers than it did about men, husbands, and fathers.

I recently spent several weeks talking to a wide variety of young Catholic women here in the UK: married and single, graduates and professionals, cradle Catholics, and recent coverts. As Catholic women in 2016, their lives often straddle two conflicting worldviews and sets of expectations, not least over the issue of feminism and its impact on male-female relationships.

My essential question to these women was a simple one: “Are young Catholic women saying ‘No thanks’ to feminism?” Their answers were revealing, thought-provoking, and counter-cultural.

What does feminism mean?

I met Marie, 27, at a wine bar in central London. She works in the charity sector. I ask what feminism means to her. “I think typical feminists were old, single, frumpy and angry, but that’s changing,” she said. “There’s a new image with actress Emma Watson heading it up. Her ‘He for She’ campaign with the UN is starting a dialogue.

I’ve started to like Germaine Greer a bit too, she’s standing up for women in a movement that is cloudy and post-modern,” she says in reference to Greer’s comments about Bruce (now called “Caitlyn”) Jenner.

Emily, 23, is a graduate working for the family business. We chat over Skype. “Feminism is an ideology that says men and women are equal, but equality doesn’t mean sameness. I mean respect and equality of opportunity,” she explains.

There’s a type of feminism that’s like a religion with lots of rules, calling out people who disagree. Scholar Christiana Hoff Sommers calls them gender feminists. They think patriarchy is bad, and everywhere. They have a victimhood mentality. If you disagree, they say you’ve internalized your oppression—there’s no impartiality.”

But some say that’s real feminism,” I suggest.

“Former feminists wanted equality, legal protection, the right to vote. The new ones think women need privileges because they’re victims,” retorts Emily.

While not advocating special privileges, finance professional, Nicole, 27, tells me that employment schemes are needed to help women progress. “They help put legal changes into practice,” she says.

Later on, at a suburban home filled with children, I meet Zarah, 28, with two of her sisters-in-law. Growing up in a single parent home in Belgium, she was an ardent atheist and radical feminist. She’s now an ardent Catholic, wife, and mother of two. “Feminism started for a good cause, like the right of women to vote, but through the ages it has become what it wasn’t mean to be,” she says.

Her cradle Catholic sister-in-law, Giovanna, 35, continues: “Now it’s militant. Women are seen as superior to men, it’s about women’s power. A lot of extreme stuff has come through to us. We’re living in the aftermath.”

Is feminism compatible with Catholicism?

If today’s feminism is extreme, the straightforward answer is that young Catholic women are saying no to feminism. But things aren’t clear cut; there is, many indicate, a spectrum in what is called “feminism”.

I’m a new wave feminist,” enthuses Emily. “They’re a really fun group, very on point about the culture, uncompromisingly pro-life, pro-woman, and not anti-man. It’s popular among Catholics and those tired of modern feminism.”

Their website says they want to “Take feminism back from those who have corrupted it,” and advocates the “early American feminism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, which was righteous, virtuous, intelligent and moral.”

(Stanton, who is not as well-known as Anthony, campaigned for liberalized divorce laws, had the word ‘obey’ removed her wedding vows, and blamed Christianity and the Bible for perceived sexism and female subjugation. In 1896 the National American Woman Suffrage Association disavowed itself of Stanton’s The Women’s Bible.)

Like Emily, Marie says she’s a “Catholic new school feminist,” but is wary of labels. “It’s a new feminism, moving on from fourth wave, leaving behind contraception, abortion, and man-hating.”

Gender and international law graduate, Julia, 24, says she’s definitely a feminist. “People think they’re not compatible, because of the Church’s pro-life teachings, but I think they’re pro-woman,” she says. “Being pro-abortion means women can be used for sex. Keeping babies in the picture makes people more respectful, but sexism by men and women is still with us,” she tells me over coffee. For Julia and the others, the word ‘respect’ crops up regularly.

Is ‘Catholic-friendly’ feminism the norm, coupled with long-term career plans, educational achievement, professional qualifications and promotion? Is delayed marriage, fewer children, and a strong sense of independence and preference for one’s freedom for leisure and lifestyle, the preferential option and result?

Yeah, I’d say so,” replies Marie. “I do that myself to a degree.”

Nicole states, “Society teaches you to be independent. To have marriage as a priority from a young age can be foolish. It can leave you unhappier then if you’d stayed single.”

But is it a proactive decision, or chosen in the absence of a much-wanted husband and children?

Chiara is 35. She married at the age of 19, and has five children. “I’m surrounded by Catholic and non-Catholic women in their 20s and 30s. We’ve grown up with the negative effects of feminism, and within them there’s that feminist element, it’s become the norm.

They think like the world does. They think that as women they shouldn’t be at home bearing children, they fight against this mentality. They don’t call themselves feminists, but their mentality is [feminist],” she says.

Are Catholic women finding good Catholic men?

I ask if feminism has affected men. “Absolutely, it’s negatively affected Catholic men, they’re less manly,” says Giovanna. “Women need to let men be men. Small things like letting them pay for a meal or pouring the wine at a dinner makes a difference. When you give them that space, they grow to be a man.

I think men are now more afraid to get laughed at. I feel for them. They lack the courage to ask you out.”

Nicole thinks men do still approach women, “But it’s not done in a very sensitive way, so they get the wrong reaction and don’t do it again.” She recently witnessed a man scolded by a woman for gently offering his seat to her on the train, yet she feels there’s been a loss of chivalry in society.

Marie adds that there are lots of Catholic women who are finding it difficult to find a man to commit to a relationship and marriage. “Men need more love and respect than we’re giving them. We need to let men feel manlier. We’ve suffocated them,” she argues.

Is that due to feminism? Have we trampled on men’s masculinity? It must partly be due to feminism, along with other factors. I find computer games a problem; they’re like a low commitment, low maintenance girlfriend that let men feel manly,” she says.

Other factors could be at work. “The newer type of feminism has coincided with individualism—not being tied to anyone. Women are interested in how they feel and what they want. Feminism has fostered mistrust,” adds Emily. I wonder if feminism has coincided, or has that individualism always been part of it?

I ask Emily if she sees a crisis of Catholic masculinity. “There is some truth to it, like how men approach dating. It’s less masculine and not effective. Lots of Catholic women lament that there aren’t many strong Catholic men. I’m sure that’s not true, men just need to know they can speak up.”

Is male headship a thing of the past?

The ups and downs of dating don’t end on the wedding day. Chiara and Giovanna say that for a wife to allow her husband to be the authority in the family leaves a woman “looking like an idiot, like it’s something that doesn’t belong in the modern world.”

My family and friends in Belgium see me as oppressed under my husband,” says Zarah. She says the situation becomes bad for mothers too. “They become very resentful. They think they can do everything and therefore they want, and have, to do everything.”

Having been to university and aspired to a career, she says she’s happy being a stay-at-home mum who sees great value in the humble work of raising young children.

Chiara also offers a different insight. “My upbringing in Italy was matriarchal. My mother, grandmother and aunt ran the house. The men kept a low profile.

When I married I recognised that my husband had to be the head of our family. I’ve experienced one version of family life, and found myself drawn to the alternative.

Now my mother can see how it works. There’s a natural life within the family that flows with the father being at the head, and the peace and stability that brings.”

I ask if that’s a popular view among Catholic women. “No, no it isn’t,” replies Chiara and Zarah. Giovanna adds that often it’s an economic necessity for mothers to work, but it doesn’t mean they want things that way.

Recent graduate and feminist, Joanne, 22, suggests the traditional roles of homemaker and breadwinner have broken down. “It’s more acceptable to be a stay-at-home father and take paternity leave. No doubt some men will feel short-changed,” she says. That short-changed feeling stings when a marriage breaks down.

Parental separation is a sad fact for many Catholic families. Student Maria, 19, felt appalled at the situation. “Men have been disadvantaged. Look at the number of divorced families where the mother gets full custody, even when the man has done nothing wrong, it’s unbelievable and extremely damaging.” Marie says she strongly rejects feminism, but would be more sympathetic if mainstream feminism wasn’t so obsessed with abortion.

What about the appeal of Islam?

Something I wasn’t expecting during our conversations was the issue of Islam, yet the Catholic women I spoke to spontaneously brought it up on several occasions.

Giovanna says women would love it if men would take more control. “That’s why there’s so many women converting to Islam. Muslim men know what they’re about, they are sure of themselves, they know what they believe.”

Zarah pitches in. “Yeah I agree, my sister in Belgium married a Muslim. She’s not converting, but she is with a Muslim. If you ask her why, it’s the family focus; there is structure. That’s what she liked.”

However, Nicole tells me about a Muslim friend who married a Muslim woman. “He has to do everything around the house, even though he works full-time. She just stays at home. They don’t have children yet. It’s changed his views on women for the worse.”

A 2011 study found that around 5,200 people convert to Islam annually in the UK, three quarters being women. The average age is 27. As of 2011, some 100,000 British people have converted to Islam. Again, three quarters are women. A similar pattern is found in the US.

Julia also had her own experience of Islamic relationships during her charity placement in Sierra Leone. “I saw women treated like fifth class citizens. Many of the women were one of three or four wives, because they were in polygamous Muslim marriages.” Nearly 80 percent of the population is Muslim, with around 40 percent of women in a polygamous marriage. “It made my feminist beliefs stronger,” she says.

Joanne’s perspective was also global. “We’re pretty good in the UK. It’s places like Somalia and Saudi Arabia we should be looking at, they have very deep problems. I’m more interested in what we can do for girls and women in other countries.”

Conclusion

The women I’ve spoken to seem to have reservations about modern feminism, and generally did not see as a path to happiness. Yet, rather than reject all feminism, some are opting for a ‘Catholic-friendly’ version, partly as a tool for speaking with non-religious women about abortion and related issues. These women reject abortion, contraception, and man-hating, and some have a global perspective on the relationship between men and women.

The issue of Islam was a surprising one, and perhaps an indication that the Church needs to consistently and firmly present what she has always taught about the family, the roles of husbands and wives, and the unique nature of the marriage relationship. What seems clear is that the difficult and often confusing relationship between Catholic belief and modern assertions about women will continue to present challenges which affect not only women, but men, children, and society as a whole.


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About Daniel Blackman 5 Articles
Daniel Blackman is a journalist who has written for New Blackfriars, Catholic Herald, Catholic Times, Pro-Life Times, SPUC blog, Humanum, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Human Life Review, MercatorNet, Christendom Awake, The Remnant, Regina, Catholic Voice, Thomas More Institute, LifeSiteNews, Aleteia, and Israel Affairs.