By Jo Gracia-Cobb
Pope John Paul II's exhortation for women to develop and promote a "new feminism" in his 1995 encyclical has flowered into "the new feminism," a philosophical and theological work in progress and, more palpably, a fast-growing grassroots movement.
This new feminism is being publicly lived out by women in groups large and small gathering in homes, at parish halls, convention centers and at the Vatican to unpack the feminine treasures of Sacred Scripture, Church documents and the lives of female and male saints who have championed the feminine genius. There's also a plethora of books and articles, both scholarly and popular, websites and blogs that have begun to flood bookshelves and cyberspace.
Proponents of the new feminism recall the concrete beginnings of its grassroots movement taking place in 1996 in Washington, D.C., at a conference sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in conjunction with Women Affirming Life, a national organization of professional women. The conference called on women to birth a new feminism.
This appeal had a ripple effect in America and overseas. Word from the conference sparked a quiet revolution -- one that had been brewing up even before Evangelium Vitae came out. "Many Catholic women had been musing about a feminism that was in service to life and rooted in Catholic teaching," Helen Alvaré, mother, lawyer, professor and conference participant, told Our Sunday Visitor.
"More than 10 years before Pope John Paul II coined the term 'new feminism,' we have, from the beginning, regarded his insights on authentic personhood as foundational to all our efforts," said Helen Hull Hitchcock, founding director for Women for Faith and Family (WFF) and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices.
Hitchcock said that in 1984 WFF came out with a statement, an "Affirmation for Women," that recognized the equality and complementarity of both male and female and its rejection of ideological feminism, which denies the fundamental psychic and spiritual distinctiveness of the sexes and which devalues motherhood and the nurturing role of women in the family and in society.
The grassroots exhortation from the 1996 women's conference found its way into the hearts and minds of women throughout the United States and beyond. In one instance, it reached Katrina J. Zeno, now author and speaker on the new feminism, through a friend. Then living in Steubenville, Ohio, Zeno took Evangelium Vitae to heart. She and friend Zoe Romanowsky met weekly to pray for guidance on how God would have them respond to the pontiff's exhortation. Months later, they decided to found Women of the Third Millennium, a nonprofit organization devoted to bringing Pope John Paul II's thoughts on the dignity and vocation of women to both men and women.
"We began alerting people to John Paul's writings and how liberating and life-giving they were," said Zeno.
Zeno's own journey found deep grounding in Pope John Paul's writings on women. "I was married 10 years, had one son, and was a stay-at-home mom. Then, my marriage of 10 years failed and was annulled," she told OSV. "My period of recovery launched me back to basic identity questions that boiled down to rediscovering who I was as a woman."
Zeno found solid guidance in Pope John Paul's apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem ("On the Dignity and Vocation of Women") in the process of reconfiguring who she was as a woman. "It helped me to figure out how God was calling me to live out my life as a woman, not merely on the basis of roles, accomplishments and a failed marriage, but on the basis of making a gift of self. This idea lit up my world. The joy of having lived it is unparalleled," Zeno told OSV. She later wrote a book, "Every Woman's Journey: Answering Who Am I for the Feminine Heart," the fruit of her own journey into the discovery of authentic Christian womanhood.
The development of the new feminism, Zeno said, has happened organically with women pondering individually and collectively Pope John Paul's writings on women and experiencing their liberating truth. Because the pontiff didn't define this new feminism, women have had to take the ball, so to speak, and run with it.
Zeno suspects that it was precisely because he didn't define the term that women have made it their own. To illustrate her point, Zeno recalls a speech given by Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard law professor and former ambassador to the Holy See, in which Glendon related a meeting that she had with Pope John Paul. During the meeting, she asked him when he was going to write more on the new feminism. He smiled and said to her, "That's your job."
Since then, Glendon, like many others, has been running with the ball by continuing to pray, ponder, write, speak and live out the new feminism in her own special way.
"What's important about the new feminism is the way we live out the feminine genius, which is the special way that a woman incarnates the feminine gift of self. The new feminism is the collective and societal experience of the feminine genius," Zeno said.
Pia de Solenni, moral theologian and author of the forthcoming book "Different and Equal: The Old Feminists and the New Feminism," has a similar take on new feminism.
"The 'new feminism' is an umbrella term that makes room for everyone to live out her feminine genius in the unique way that God is calling her to. It's not an ideology, a box to fit into, or a club to join. I don't think John Paul II wished for another box to fit women into," she told OSV.
Michele Schumacher, theologian and author/editor of "Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism," a compilation of essays that helps to lay out the theoretical foundation of the new feminism, cautioned that this new feminism cannot be reduced to a mere reaction to mainstream feminism or a mere movement, because of its fundamentally contemplative outlook.
Schumacher deferred to Pope John Paul's description of this outlook from Evangelium Vitae: "It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image (see Gn 1:27; Ps 8:5)" (No. 83).
Zeno said Pope John Paul's theology of the body undergirds the new feminism: "I see the new feminism as the flowering of John Paul II's theology of the body because it explains why we're made in God's image as male and female, and how each person is called to image God by making a gift of self."
Zeno finds it helpful to put the new feminism in a historical context and to think of how life was like for her grandmother, who lived to be 101, and lived through what's known as the three waves of feminism.
The first wave, covering the 19th and early 20th centuries, focused on overturning legal obstacles to equality, such as voting and property rights. The second wave, which began during the early 1960s and lasted into the late 1970s, addressed a wide range of issues including sexuality, family, the workplace and abortion. The third wave, identified with several diverse strains of feminist activity from 1990 to the present, arose as a response to perceived possible failures and backlash against initiatives created by second-wave feminism. It also addressed issues that hadn't been deeply delved into, such as sexual harassment.
"My grandmother was the first woman in her town to go to college. But when she got married, it wasn't an option for her to be married and to work," Zeno said.
Looking at the new feminism in a historical context, she added, helps one to see some common ground between the old feminisms and the new feminism, now viewed in some circles as the fourth wave of feminism.
All waves of feminism have sought to uphold the equality of men and women and fight all forms of injustice against women. Where the new feminism parts ways with older strains of feminism stems from its insistence for an understanding of the true natures of male and female.
Alvaré also pointed out that the old and new feminisms diverge when it comes to the new feminism's position of openness to God and revelation for understanding human beings, as well as the places and meanings of domestic work and work outside the home.
"It appears that second-wave feminism tried to disassociate a woman's identity from her feminine body because, very often, the body was experienced as a source of inequality and limitation," Zeno said.
Such was the view propagated by feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, especially in her book "The Second Sex." Her writings and others led many women to act like men, think like men, dress like men, climb the corporate ladder like men, and to see their wombs as a curse and babies as predators.
The pervasiveness of second-wave feminism has left countless Catholic women assessing its impact on their lives. "I can't think of a woman who hasn't been impacted by the feminist movement of the '60s and '70s. I see many Catholic women now coming to terms with whatever impact it's had on their life, and are doing something constructive about it," Kathleen Sundaram, co-founder of the California Catholic Women's Forum (CCWF), told OSV.
One such woman is Teresa Tomeo, a Catholic radio talk show host and writer whose "Eye on Culture" column appears biweekly in OSV. Her testimony isn't uncommon: "I had bought into the lies that family and children were a burden and that career had to come first. I felt angry at myself that I didn't look further." Tomeo has written about her conversion from radical feminism in her latest book, "Newsflash," and has co-authored a book series, "All Things Girl," which helps Catholic girls understand the new feminism.
Like Tomeo, Sundaram recognizes that the tenets of the new feminism have always been an integral aspect of the Catholic faith, but that they had never been highlighted: "The old feminism stirred women against their nature, their sexuality, and their fertility. JPII says, 'No, these are gifts that only women can give to the world.' All these things need to be highlighted again."
"I really think there are openings in the culture for a more authentic Christian view of womanhood to take hold," said Colleen Carroll Campbell, journalist, host of EWTN's "Faith and Culture," and author of "The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy."
Campbell said she has encountered numerous women, particularly young women, who do not like the antipathy toward faith, family and motherhood that they sense from establishment feminism. She also cited a recent report showing that establishment feminism, as represented by such groups as NARAL, NOW and the like, has been struggling for years to stem the hemorrhage of young members from their rolls.
Moreover, Campbell recognizes a deeper and growing awareness that men and women are equal, but different, and that women were made for a purpose far greater than domestic or professional work -- "to know, love and serve God and to be bearers of His love to the world through our private and public lives."
"That's a radical message in our secular society today, but it's a message that resonates with the deepest longings of a woman's heart," she said.
It's the very message that's at the heart of the new feminism.
For a group of women on fire for the Gospel in California's Silicon Valley, anything is possible.
In a search for outstanding manifestations of the feminine genius in a group of women actively engaging the wider culture about the new feminism, the California Catholic Women's Forum (CCWF) comes as an easy find.
"We're a lot like the woman who encountered Jesus at the well. We love to spread the Good News wherever we can," Kathleen Sundaram, mother of four, registered nurse and co-founder of CCWF, told Our Sunday Visitor.
Originally known as the "Thursday Club," CCWF was formed in 2003 by a group of employed wives and mothers who, as described on the CCWF website, "were fully immersed in the age of the so-called women's movement."
Since its founding, CCWF began by organizing forums open to the public and later instituted the "Seeds of Life Series" of educational programs for health care professionals.
This series explores the health care professional's role as advocate for human dignity at all stages of life. Participants receive credits approved by the California Board of Registered Nursing.
"It's amazing what can be accomplished at the kitchen table," quipped Sundaram, who highlighted the efforts of CCWF to make sure that what's accomplished at the kitchen table finds its way into the public square.
CCWF's past forums have included True Feminism for Real Women, The Church's Perspective; The Catholic View for Women of the 21st Century; Truth & Beauty: Tools of the Feminine Genius; Women of the Bible: Trailblazers for Life; and Vive La Difference: Gender Differences & Complementarity.
"I am very encouraged by the speakers and by the presence of so many women who recognize the beauty of Pope John Paul II's teaching," said Cathy Norman, from Fremont, Calif., about one of the forums.
These forums featured leading experts and were strategically held in public venues for anyone who was interested. They were advertised, recorded on CDs or DVDs made available through the CCWF website for a donation, and their proceedings reported in the mass media.
"We've found ourselves overwhelmed with opportunities to co-sponsor with other organizations, and our learning curve was steep as we ploughed through building a culture of life in California," said Michelle Coldiron, CCWF executive director.
CCWF has offered the following continuing education courses for health care professionals: Keeping Women Healthy in their Reproductive Years; Humanae Vitae: Cornerstone of the Culture of Life; Cultivating the Seeds of Life: an Ethical Approach; End of Life Issues; and Urged on by Christ: Catholic Health Care in Service to the Human Person.
In recognizing how the culture of secular humanism and radical individualism has taken its toll in American society as well as overseas, Coldiron said that at the heart of CCWF's work "is the truth about the human person."
"It's a beautiful thing. Knowing who we are and that God has a plan for each of us is so very satisfying and brings peace to the heart," she said.
While the term "new feminism" has been used to mean something different from the Catholic model, there's abundant evidence that the Catholic model has gained greater ground in the public square by the sheer creative output of its architects and proponents. In addition to the women interviewed in these pages, here are some of the major proponents.
Mary Ann Glendon - Harvard law professor and former ambassador to the Holy See presided over an international congress on new feminism in 2000.
Sister Prudence Allen, R.S.M. - Professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver was instrumental in the formation of ENDOW and has written extensively on women's identity for various journals.
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese - Late historian was a noted feminist known for her Marxist leanings before her 1995 conversion to the Church and her embrace of traditional marriage and family.
Janet E. Smith - Professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit has written extensively on feminism, women and the family.
Alice von Hildebrand - Catholic philosopher and widow of Dietrich von Hildebrand is the author of "The Privilege of Being a Woman."
Mary Beth Bonacci - Internationally known speaker who talks about love, relationships and chastity is the founder of Real Love Inc. and the author of two books and several periodical articles.
Mary Ellen Bork - A writer on Catholic life and culture and a theology of the body facilitator, Bork is a co-founder of Women Affirming Life and member of the Voices editorial board.
Johnnette Benkovic - Founder of Women of Grace, an apostolate for Christian women dedicated to promoting the true feminine genius through conferences and programs.
Proponents of the new feminism ascribe to common principles drawn from Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and Church documents -- especially the writings of Pope John Paul II on women and the family, such as the 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem ("On the Dignity and Vocation of Women"), his 1995 "Letter to Women" and the 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio ("On the Christian Family").Other Catholic philosophers and theologians whose works are foundational in the development of the new feminism include Hildegard of Bingen, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Edith Stein.
Core principles that guide the new feminism on a practical level include:
Male and female are equal, but not identical. New feminists recognize the equal dignity shared by men and women, as they are made in the image and likeness of God. Their differences as male and female are made to complement each other. Women can fulfill their vocational calling by acting as spiritual mothers in their chosen occupation: as wife, mother, consecrated woman, working professional or single woman.
Marriage as communion. Far more than a partnership, marriage is lived as a sacred union that entails the self-giving of persons in free, total, faithful and fruitful communion. Such communion calls for a life of mutual service toward one another, and for the unique place of marriage in providing for the partners, the children and the world a glimpse of what God's Trinitarian love is like.
Celebration of the family and the home. There is an emphasis on true feminism as being not just about women, but about the family -- both individually and collectively in the Church and humanity. It addresses the struggles of many women to balance domestic and professional work by working to create support systems that allow both women and men to not compromise the care of the family. Women's work as mothers and in the home is considered indispensable, and is valued as being good in and of itself. Yet, far from limiting the scope of women's influence -- to the domestic sphere, for example -- it seeks to foster it within "every aspect of the life of society."
Love and service, not power and domination. New feminists seek to overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation without the bitterness common in some older strands of feminism. They believe in the power of love and forgiveness to overcome the wounds of injustice. They look for cooperation and collaboration between men and women in a spirit of mutual love and service, in the model of Jesus Christ. There's also the recognition that women are in a way "first" in the order of understanding what it means to place one's self, body and mind at the service of another human life due to their experiences of pregnancy and child care.
Freedom grounded in truth. New feminists witness to the fruits of lasting joy and fulfillment that comes from exercising freedom as it relates to truth, as incarnated in Jesus Christ. They recognize that the true exercise of freedom involves, not a reliance on purely subjective and changeable opinions, or one's selfish interest or whim, but on divinely revealed and unchangeable truths.
From its humble beginnings as a small group of women looking to deepen their Catholic faith, ENDOW -- Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women -- has blossomed into a national organization dedicated to the promotion of a new feminism based on the teachings of Pope John Paul II. And it has earned the admiration of one of the best-known bishops in the United States.
"One of the best success stories of Catholic lay action in my 12 years as archbishop has been ENDOW," Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., wrote in a recent column in the Denver Catholic Register. He noted how the organization has drawn women from all walks of life and has a special appeal for young women to develop their talents and leadership skills in a way that serves the Gospel.
Thousands of women from all over the country have participated in an ENDOW class since its founding in 2003. Groups in Canada have also adopted the ENDOW program, while a group in Australia is getting ready to start one in the fall.
The organization has developed study materials for small study groups, and holds conferences and retreats to cultivate faith, fellowship and formation. Study groups meet weekly or bi-weekly over an eight- to 10-week period, with no homework required, and are led by trained facilitators.
ENDOW's study materials draw from Sacred Scripture and the writings of Catholic saints, philosophers and theologians, including Thomas Aquinas and Edith Stein, whose writings are foundational in the formation of Catholic feminism.
"The ENDOW program has given me much-needed healing and spiritual growth," Michele Schmidt from St. Aidan Parish in Livonia, Mich, told Our Sunday Visitor. "It has also reinforced my love for our Holy Mother and Pope John Paul II. The ENDOW sessions at my home parish continue to grow, and we're reaping the fruits of great bonding, friendships and sharing among a lot of wonderful ladies."
The impetus to start ENDOW came from a Catholic women's conference held in Mexico in 1999. Marilyn Coors, then a board member of Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust of the Archdiocese of Denver, attended the conference. She then shared her experience of the conference with fellow board member Betsy Considine and Terry Polakovic, who was serving as the executive director of Seeds of Hope.
"Marilyn, Betsy and I began to do reading and research on John Paul II's writings on women and the theology of the body. After a great deal of prayer and discernment, and even though we are not theologians or philosophers, we decided that this was definitely a message that other women needed to hear," said Polakovic.
They approached Archbishop Chaput with the idea of starting some type of program that would make these teachings accessible to "women at the pew." After a bit of coaxing, he agreed to support the project and gave the group 18 months of free rent in the Chancery Building, where ENDOW still has its office. Polakovic quit her job in 2003 to become the new organization's executive director.
Then came a new challenge -- getting the program off the ground. "We quickly realized how unprepared we were for this task," Polakovic told OSV. "We had no experience or formal training in this area."
A friend suggested seeking the assistance of Religious Sister of Mercy Prudence Allen, who had spent much of her professional life teaching and writing about Catholic feminism, and is one of the leading experts in the field. She had recently moved to Denver, as had several other members of the Religious Sisters of Mercy. Their assignment was to help start St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.
"Once I learned about her, I approached her to help us with this project. We laugh today because she initially refused, claiming that her purpose in Denver was to help start the seminary," Polakovic told OSV. But after a little bit of coaxing, Sister Prudence offered to teach one class.
Polakovic recalled feeling overwhelmed when 40 women showed up for the first class. "Well, that one class turned into four years worth of classes and a beautiful friendship with the Religious Sisters of Mercy. It was from that initial experience that we developed the ENDOW model," she said.
For more information on ENDOW, visit endowonline.com.
Jo Garcia-Cobb writes from Oregon. She has written three books on the life and work of Pope John Paul II.