Over the last 60 years or so, the “sexual revolution” has transformed nearly every aspect of American society. Propaganda for the sexual revolution flowed from the pages of such publications as Cosmopolitan, where a young journalist named Sue Ellen Browder (among others) worked hard to push unmarried sex, contraception, and abortion as integral aspects of feminism and liberation for women. Browder’s life and her role in the movement are chronicled in Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement (Ignatius Press, 2019). Browder now works tirelessly to make reparation for the part she played in the sexual revolution.
Her latest book is Sex and the Catholic Feminist: New Choices for a New Generation (Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute, 2020). In this book, Browder looks at the Christian and Catholic thread of the feminist movement, exploring how it has been ignored by the mainstream media for over 50 years. She challenges the notion that feminism is inherently atheistic. She emphasizes that feminism is about a search for personhood and identity—a search that will only find what it seeks in God.
Browder recently corresponded with Catholic World Report about her latest book, feminism, and her role in the sexual revolution (and how she hopes to atone for that).
Paul Senz, for CWR: How did the book come about?
Sue Ellen Browder: I wrote this book as an act of atonement. From the 1970s into the 1990s I worked first on staff, then as a freelance writer, for Cosmopolitan magazine, where many stories we concocted about women having all these exciting, “fulfilling” sex lives were completely made up. Cosmo‘s editor-in-chief, Helen Gurley Brown, even had a list of “rules” on how to write for Cosmo, which included guidelines on how to fabricate anecdotes about women who were living this supposedly carefree Cosmo lifestyle. It was only after I became a Catholic that I saw what terrible damage those lies had done. That’s when I realized I had to write a book about all the lies we told—to set the record straight and to keep more women and girls from being hurt.
CWR: “Feminism” is a term that is just loaded with baggage today. There are so many competing definitions of the term, so many appropriations of the feminist ideology. Has the term always been so divisive?
Browder: I think the word “feminism” has always been divisive because it’s been associated with political movements, like the campaign to win women the right to vote (which was quite a controversial demand in its day). But the term became even more divisive in the late 1960s when feminism became so closely aligned with sexual politics, including gender ideology and the sexual revolutionaries’ demands to repeal all abortion laws. There are so many forms of “feminism” in our culture today that many people understandably believe the word has become meaningless. But as Joseph Pieper wisely put it, abuse of language is abuse of power. Rather than abandon the word “feminism,” Christians need to restore it to its proper meaning. In the days of the suffragists, feminism was primarily a Christian movement. That’s just one reason we need to reclaim the “F-word” (feminism) and shout it to the skies.
CWR: How would you define true, authentic feminism?
Browder: True, authentic feminism is about defending a woman’s personhood. Authentic feminism, which includes mothers, calls for women to be treated with equal dignity and respect in all areas of our society, both at home and in the public square. What did Betty Friedan, who launched the 1960s feminist movement with her book The Feminine Mystique, say feminism was all about? Was it about sex? Gender? Money? Power? No, Friedan said feminism was all about a woman’s personhood. And where does a woman find this fullness of her personhood? We find our true personhood—or what’s popularly called the “true self”—not by demanding power for ourselves but through self-giving relationships of love with God and others. Pro-life feminism defends the dignity of every human being’s true personhood from conception to natural death, which is exactly what the Catholic Church teaches. That’s why I am now firmly convinced the pro-life movement (visible in the March for Life, Feminists for Life, and hundreds of other pro-life organizations) represents the authentic women’s movement of the 21st century. Pope St. John Paul II called upon Catholics to embody a “new feminism,” and I believe pro-life women (along with the pro-life men who support them) are doing exactly that.
CWR: Why do you think it is that so many people see the terms “feminist” and “pro-life” as contradictions?
Browder: Because that’s the way the media (myself included) have framed the story for the past 50 years. What we didn’t realize is that it was primarily pro-life feminists who won women the right to vote, opened up academia to women, forced newspapers to stop running “Help Wanted (Male)” and “Help Wanted (Female)” classified ads, and lobbied to win the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (which made it illegal to fire a woman just because she was pregnant). I’m not saying pro-life feminists won all these victories single-handedly; pro-abortion feminists worked on those issues, too. But I do think it’s safe to say pro-life-for-all feminists did a huge chunk of the work and legal-abortion-for-all feminists received most of the media credit.
CWR: What do you mean when you refer to the “Catholic feminist”? What distinguishes a Catholic feminist from another (apart from their being a Catholic)?
Browder: This book could easily have been titled Sex and the Christian Feminist, because while some early pro-life feminists were Catholic, others were Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. Christian women of many denominations have always defended the full dignity of all human persons. But because the Church has been defending the whole truth taught by Christ since the apostolic age, when we speak that truth clearly with love, I think we’re given a special grace to unite many people of goodwill in all nations and all walks of life, including nonbelievers. As James Joyce famously put it in Finnegans Wake: “Catholic means ‘Here comes everybody.'”
CWR: Do you think your personal history has helped you have a greater insight into the problems with the mainstream “feminist” movement?
Browder: Yes, absolutely. When I was sitting at my little blue desk in the offices of Cosmo in 1971, I observed one small fact that was obvious to anyone who was there at the time but which has now been forgotten. In those days, the sexual revolution (as we were promoting it at Cosmo) and the feminist movement (as it was led by Betty Friedan) were two radically separate movements. Although Helen Gurley Brown would have loved for her sex-revolution magazine to be part of the feminist movement, Betty Friedan called Cosmo “quite obscene and quite horrible.” Feminism, as Friedan saw it, was a call for a woman to be able to exercise her full potential—her full personhood—both at home and in the public square. So how did we get to the point where so many young women in our nation today believe that to be a feminist means when it comes to sex “anything goes”? How did those once radically separate movements get joined together in so many people’s minds? After I became a Catholic, that question kept haunting me, and I started researching Subverted to find out the answer. Sex and the Catholic Feminist takes what I learned during the five years I was writing Subverted and carries those findings one giant step further.
CWR: Was there anything you learned over the course of writing the book that you found especially surprising?
Browder: Oh, my, where to begin? Both books are filled with surprises! It was a great surprise to discover how abortion was inserted into the women’s movement behind closed doors by the vote of only 57 people! I was stunned to learn how two men most of us have never heard of managed to foist off abortion and contraceptive drugs on American women as “rights” we all need to be “free.” I was amazed to find Betty Friedan defending motherhood and the family in such strong language she almost sounded like the pope! There are so many unexpected twists and turns in this previously untold story, I can’t begin to name them all.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Browder: I would simply urge all women who are searching for the whole truth to read this book, both older women of my boomer generation (who want to know how it all happened) and younger women (who need to know how to avoid being duped by what the loudest voices in our culture are saying). Sex and the Catholic Feminist, which is a very quick read (only about 100 pages), is also written for good dads who want to know more clearly how to protect their daughters from all the fabricated half-truth, limited truth, and out-of-context truth (i.e., propaganda) about so-called sexual “freedom,” which dominates our culture and is being aimed nonstop at our girls before they’re even old enough to think.
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