Words Fail Us: Feminist Theology, 2

Feminism has been a large and meaningful part of my life. Lately, though, it doesn't seem as central to my identity as it once did.

The issues are still there, of course. We still haven’t passed an equal rights amendment. Discrimination and pay inequity and sexual harassment in the workplace are still going on. The ranks of the most powerful – the CEOs and our Congressional representatives – continue to be overwhelmingly male.
  • Women currently hold 98 of the 535 seats in the US Congress. That’s 18 percent. It’s an incremental improvement over the last congress (16.6 percent), and certainly a very big difference from 1972 (2.8 percent).
  • In state legislatures, women are up to 24 percent. Progress, yes, but still a long way from 50-50.
  • Only 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies are headed by women.
Rights to reproductive choice are under assault and rolling back. Last year, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade, a Time magazine cover noted:
“Forty years ago, abortion-rights activists won an epic victory with Roe v. Wade. They’ve been losing ever since.” (2013 Jan 14)
Violence against women continues: two to four million women are battered by intimates every year in this country. Every day, four times a day, 1,400 times a year, a woman dies in this country as a result of domestic violence.

It’s still more the rule than the exception that girls in our culture grow up learning to measure their worth from their sexual attractiveness to males – while boys grow up learning to measure their worth from what they do.

Yet I find, looking at myself, that the label “feminist” has gradually come to seem less important. It seems less clear than it did 20 or 40 years ago what this label ‘feminist’ means. So many claims and practices have gone under the name of feminism, that it is hard to say just what it is all about.

Words fail us. And this itself is a point some feminists have made: we have to stay attentive to experience, we can't rely on words, on an articulation of moral principles alone. The same words that help and empower might also disempower.

Perhaps this is a case of, as many wives have said to many husbands – probably for centuries -- “It’s not what you said, but how you said it.” This has -- probably for centuries -- baffled husbands who can't quite grasp that the same words that disempower might, in a different context with a different tone, empower.

Consider, for example, that in that same year of Ms. Magazine’s inauguration, 1972, Pope Paul VI said:
“true women’s liberation” does not lie in “formalistic or materialistic equality with the other sex, but in the recognition of that specific thing in the feminine personality – the vocation of a woman to become a mother.”
“Boo, hiss to the Pope,” my 13-year-old self said.

Feminism as I understood it in the 70s was indeed precisely about formalistic and materialistic equality and the rejection of the idea that there was any such “specific thing in the feminine personality” or “vocation of a woman to become a mother.” Then, in the 80s and 90s, I began noticing women writers who sought to value the feminine by recognizing a special connection to creation through motherhood – through an innate psychology, they said, that comes with the capacity for pregnancy and childbirth, even if they aren’t actual mothers. The ecofeminists, for instance, connected patriarchy with environmental degradation, and called upon a woman-centered view, because of its connection to nurturing and motherhood, to save the planet.

I was confused. I so wanted to be on the side of assertive and articulate women, but I was confused. What exactly was the difference between what these feminists were now saying and what the deplorable Pope was saying back in ’72? Aren’t they both calling for recognition of the special qualities of the feminine personality, especially mothering?

The words fail us – because the same words that the Pope was using to undermine women’s empowerment were being used by these feminists to advance women’s empowerment. Words that glorify the feminine might be nostalgic for imposed limitations, hearkening back to times when women were kept in the background, out of positions of leadership. Or those words might be part of making the case that women’s experience, or even women's biology, do offer a grounding for a particular wisdom -- a wisdom needed not just within a circumscribed role for women, but in the public sphere.

Words fail us because the same words that help and empower can also be used to disempower. Feminist theologians have, in fact, made it a key point that words -- without attention to context and tone -- do fail us.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Feminist Theology"
Next: Part 3: Never Liberated, Always Liberating
Previous: Part 1: I Was a Teenage Feminist
Cover Credit: Photograph by Jamie Chung for TIME

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