Can Women of Faith Lead the Next Wave of Feminism?

The second-wave feminism of the sixties and seventies put women in a bind that persists today. Specifically, it pitted women against their natural inclination towards marriage and motherhood and framed them as challenges and impediments to female flourishing, as opposed to vehicles for women’s empowerment. Prominent feminists like Gloria Steinem labeled marriage a “comfortable concentration camp,” and Simone De Beauvoir wrote that, “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.”

Fast-forward to today, and studies consistently find that even while marriage and birthrates are down, women very much want to marry and be mothers.[1] But so many women look around and feel great anxiety that getting married or becoming a mother will stand in the way of their success. Today’s women remain very much under the spell of second-wave feminism; we are left feeling conflicted about our own gender, as motherhood especially is written into our biological natures, yet we are told that it will undermine our success.

But why isn’t motherhood viewed as success?

A new feminism is needed, one that builds on the real progress of the last century that has enabled today’s woman to be more educated and independent than ever in human history. This feminism needs to be expanded to include marriage and motherhood as positive developments in a woman’s life, as forms of personal success and flourishing that contributes to society and the common good in a most essential way. And it is religion that is best suited to be the driver of this new, more expanded feminism. 

Every major world religion portrays motherhood and female fertility as something worthy of awe and wonder, something that sets woman apart from man, a spiritually profound means by which woman plays a role in the faith. In the Catholic faith, the most revered of God's creatures is a woman. Mary, the mother of God, is also the mother of the Church and the Queen of Heaven. It is her free-will ascent to motherhood that enables the unfolding of the Christian faith. Catholics believe that God chose a woman as a vehicle for Christianity, and motherhood and marriage as the institutions by which that vehicle moved. Essential to Mary’s divine role was Joseph, whom the Church describes as “her loving and chaste” spouse. 

The unfortunate portrayal of this Christian understanding of woman has been the representation as marriage and motherhood as the end to woman’s contribution to the faith and to society. But a closer look reveals this to be false. Sainthood is the greatest calling of any human person, and the Church has been canonizing women since the dawn of Christianity. Countless saints rank among the doctors of the Church, the martyrs, and the great leaders of spiritual movements. Many of these women have been physical mothers, many others, spiritual mothers. St. Joan of Arc was a battle warrior, St. Teresa of Avila was a theologian who co-founded a religious order, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was an educator, and St. Gianna Berretta Molla was a physician, to name a few. All of these women pre-date second-wave feminism. 

And beginning in the last century, the Catholic Church began to articulate a better and broader understanding of women’s role outside of marriage and motherhood that was consistent and very much rooted in the Christian faith. Pope John Paul II pioneered what Catholics call “The New Feminism,” which praises the dignifying presence woman brings to all walks of society, whether it be the halls of government, the court room, the private sector, the healthcare industry, the academy, or social services. 

Pope John Paul II opens his papal encyclical, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Woman), with a passage from the closing message of the Second Vatican Council:

The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at his moment when the human race is undergoing so deep a transformation, women imbued with a spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid humanity in not falling.

While a quick scan of most feminist websites or literature shows that many see the Catholic Church as seeking the repression of women through its teachings, the Church has actually been pioneering a more wholesome view of women than what modern feminism has to offer in that marriage, motherhood, and the professional world are all channels through which women achieve personal fulfillment and contribute to the bettering of society. 

And it is not just the Catholic Church that does so. In the Jewish tradition, the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is considered to be the First Commandment, and it is once again the cooperation of women in this command that perpetuates the Jewish faith. The faith is passed down through the mother, both in blood and in teaching. Because Jews do not proselytize, it is through the bearing and raising of children that the faith carries on. The home is considered the most important sphere, and women are given control of that domain. Like Catholics, Jewish women look to figures such as Rachel and Sara whose maternity is an essential part of the Jewish story. 

Other faiths prize marriage and motherhood as well. The Hindu faith has numerous goddesses devoted to motherhood and fertility. Islam’s Prophet Mohammed said that, “Paradise is at the feet of mother.” His first wife Khadijah was a woman of great stature and is considered to be the first believer in the Muslim faith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints defines motherhood as “an eternal partnership with God.” The list could go on and on.

That different religions prize motherhood in their own way suggests that humanity is oriented towards revering motherhood, rather than protesting it, demeaning it, or viewing it as an obstacle. Indeed because only women can endure the physical and emotional difficulties of childbearing, society has an obligation to women to maintain a special status for motherhood.

Many nations are still struggling with how to preserve and protect motherhood, culturally and legally. While American mothers enjoy great freedoms and privilege that mothers in many countries do not, we still struggle with our own stigmas on motherhood, whether it’s treating fertility like a sickness, or not viewing motherhood as “work,” or looking at women who opt to stay home with children as failures, or pressuring women to return to the workforce before they are physically and emotionally ready, America has much room to improve.

Perhaps it is here that America, and especially American feminists, can look to religion for a deeper understanding of motherhood and the partnership of marriage, one that complements our efforts to continue expanding opportunities and possibilities for women in other domains. Because a feminism without a well-developed understanding of motherhood is incomplete and risks turning into a different type of shackle on women. 

So many are eager to proclaim that faith is dead. But it is quite the opposite. Faith is very much alive, and women of faith are very much poised to breathe new life into a withering movement whose aim, the societal equality and flourishing of the female sex, is essential. 

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[1] According to Pew Research Center, only 12 percent of unmarried women say they do not want to get marriedAnother study found that 40 percent of women at the end of their childbearing years wish they had more children. 

This posting is part of a collection addressing the nexus of women, religion, and the family. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Berkley Center or WFDD. The goal of the entire collection is to generate discussion around these important topics.

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