New Feminism & Motherhood Since Mulieris Dignitatem: Gains Made & Challenges Ahead

This is the fourth in a series of articles on the dignity and vocation of women, published in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem. Read Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, and Part V here.

When I tell people that I have studied at a seminary and am writing my doctoral dissertation on “the new feminism,” I am usually met with one of two reactions. Either people enthuse, “how neat!” or they offer a cautious, “and what is that?” Often the enthusiasm and suspicion arise from the same presumption, which I am quick to correct: “I don’t want to be a priest!” I hurriedly assure them.

If I am not out to undermine the hierarchy, then “what exactly is behind this ‘new feminism’?”, they want to know. Depending on the time we have, I may give a longer explanation of the challenges brought on by the word ‘feminism’, which encompasses a whole host of various and often conflicting beliefs, but usually I cut straight to the summary version: “Basically, feminism did much good for women with things like the right to vote and wider access to higher education, but it left a very negative legacy as well, with practices like no-fault divorce and abortion on demand. Pope John Paul II saw this, and so he asked that women work towards a ‘new feminism’ that would keep the good and repair the damage done by the bad.”

The late Pontiff first issued this call in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, but he had already begun to pave the way for such a movement in his 1988 Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, which explored his ideas on Mary as a model for all women and Jesus’ own interaction with women. Those who look to Mulieris Dignitatem as a treatise on the new feminism or the last word on women and the Church will be disappointed, for it was intended to be a starting point: much work remains to be done.

Nonetheless, the encyclical helped to lay a more solid foundation for a new feminism that seeks to mend the wounds left by radical secular feminism. Although there are many areas in which this foundation can be seen—for example, the inherent dignity of woman as a person or the proper relationship between the sexes—I would like to focus on one issue that is perhaps so common as to be self-evident: that of motherhood.

In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II spoke of the importance of motherhood as a good: not only physical motherhood which “involves a special communion with the mystery of life” (no. 18), but also motherhood “according to the spirit.” These two forms of maternity work together “in order to respond to the whole truth about the human being who is a unity of body and spirit” (no. 21). The late Pontiff recognized motherhood, in all its forms, as a key to understanding woman. He did not view maternity as a limitation, but rather a way in which women could express their unique “genius,” their orientation toward others (no. 30).

Since the publication of Mulieris Dignitatem, much ink has been spilt (mostly by Catholics) on the glories of motherhood, both biological and spiritual. Women are revered as “tabernacles of new life” and “icons of Mother Church.” But while we have been involved in our own discussions about the sacredness, beauty, and mystery of bearing life, the secular world has been caught in what Helen Alvare has called “a natural experiment” that allows us “to observe what happens when a substantial number of women can choose how they wish to spend their lives.”

Radical feminism of the 1960s and 70s rejected both marriage and motherhood as forms of “slavery.” To free themselves from this yoke, women turned to contraception, abortion, and divorce. That legacy lives on in the current numbers, which are frankly staggering in these regards: by age 45, 3 out of 10 American women will have an abortion. Sixty two percent of women in their childbearing years are using contraceptives. Divorce rates are between 40-50%.

Yet despite all these statistics, despite the 77% of women who consider their careers to be successful, (though younger women show shifting priorities), even despite the growing popularity of being “childless by choice,” studies find that most women want to be wives, and furthermore, regardless of marital status, the majority of women still have children. Although the number of childless American women is on the rise, 4 out of 5 women still become mothers.

The disagreements continue about the best way to be a mother (“stay-at-home mother,” “working mother,” “working from home mother,” “adoptive mother,” “single mother,” etc.), but the goodness of motherhood itself is now widely acknowledged. Many young women at Ivy League Universities now include motherhood as one of their life goals. Women who have already achieved a successful career bemoan the difficulties of balancing it with their responsibilities at home. But perhaps the most telling sign reveals itself when the daughter of a famous feminist openly rejects her own mother’s anti-motherhood position. The debate is rarely about whether or not to have children, but rather when and how and with whom, if anyone.

While the discussion certainly must continue, we should also stop to be grateful for the shifting grounds of debate: to claim motherhood as a high calling or a life-goal in the 1970s was to cut off all ties with feminism. Now New York Magazine runs feature articles on self-proclaimed feminists who stay home with their children.

This shift towards the acknowledgement of the goodness and desirability of motherhood, however, often comes as a double-edged sword: the attitude toward maternity is now frequently accompanied by one of “consumerism.” One only need think of the famous feminist Germaine Greer, known for her radical rejection of all things domestic, who in the year 2000 admitted to spending “enough money to buy a Picasso” on fertility treatments to have a child, despite having already aborted one.

The new feminism must applaud the rejection of a radical mentality that views motherhood as slavery, while carefully maintaining an approach of humility towards new human life. We must affirm the idea of motherhood as a good, while rejecting the idea of maternity as a right to be claimed at any cost. Sadly, too many women find themselves “cheated” out of having children by any number of factors: age, lack of a husband, infertility. They often find themselves with a natural longing for children; their desire for a good becomes tainted, however, when they place it above the child’s own good. IVF and other technologies would make it seem like new life is ours for the making, but those conceived under such circumstances give witness to its often tragic complications.

Motherhood is now correctly perceived as a good for women – but if only seen as a good for women, it becomes yet another goal to be striven for, achieved, or grasped at. Rather, viewed through a wider, more holistic lens, motherhood can be seen also a good for children, men, and society at large.

Blessed John Paul II’s description of motherhood, both biological and spiritual, is characterized primarily as a gift. Maternity involves an “awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way” (no. 30). Children are not commodities to be produced, bought, or sold, but rather they are persons who are entrusted to the care of others. In fact, this idea of human life as gift applies not only to children, but to every person. Motherhood is not only about women, or even just about women and children, but it necessarily must also include the men who participate in fatherhood. “To say that man [the human person] is created in the image and likeness of God means that man [the human person] is called to exist ‘for’ others, to become a gift. This applies to every human being, whether woman or man, who lives it out in accordance with the special qualities proper to each” (no. 7).

A new feminism, then, will applaud the advances made in the appreciation of the goodness of motherhood without allowing that appreciation to morph into a distorted desire for control over the good. Rather, we must continue to emphasize the goodness of motherhood particularly because of its nature as a gift (to the woman, child, man, and humanity at large), accompanied by the “joy and awareness” that motherhood involves a sharing “in the creative power of God” (no. 18).

Kerri Lenartowick currently lives in Rome where she is pursuing her doctorate in Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University and working for Catholic News Agency/EWTN News. She obtained her S.T.L. and S.T.B. degrees from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit MI, and her M.A. and B.A. in Theology from Ave Maria University and the University of Dallas, respectively. Over the years, she has worked for various aspects of the pro-life movement and spoken to women’s groups across the country.
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