The Women Left Out of the Women's Movement
Who's in? Who's out?
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I’ve read more than a handful of books on the suffrage movement, and one thing that strikes me every time is this:
Those women were at each other’s throats.
This was not some happy clappy gathering of like-minded believers. While I hate to fall into the unfortunate stereotype of bickering women + backstabbing activists, the truth is that the suffrage movement had moments of sisterhood and sweetness, but a great deal of it was arguing. Arguing about who they should prioritize, and when. Arguing about what they should wear to suffrage parades to look uniform. Arguing if they should come at arguments from a religious article. Arguing if they should partner with men or kick men out of the movement.
In other words, arguing about who’s in, and who’s out.
Many first-wave feminists were passionate abolitionists.
Martha Coffin Wright, one of the organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention, ran a stop on the Underground Railroad. Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton put forth great effort when it came to ending the practice of slavery.
But there was an anti-black mentality that thrived in the US, particularly in the southern states. Suffragists like Ida B. Wells and Marcy Church Terrell were told they couldn’t march side by side with white women, to “keep the peace”with racist members of the feminist movement. In the 1913 march for suffrage in Washington, DC., Ida B. Wells refused to do so and instead marched right up front with the white marchers, infuriating certain white feminists. There was also a racial component to the confusion over who should get the vote first: black men or white women. Frederick Douglass believed in suffrage for white women, but thought black men should go first. Susan B. Anthony believed in suffrage for black men, but thought white women should go first. They remained lifelong friends, but both said horrendously offensive thing about the other’s political priorities. This was such a tense sticking point that after the Fifteenth Amendment passed in 1870, guaranteeing the vote for black men but refusing it to women of any color, the feminist movement split in two. While the two groups did reunite in 1890, a long standing cloud of racism has lived over the history of the feminist movement ever since.
Black women were out.
The personal is political quickly became the slogan for second wave feminism in the 1960s. It “identified women’s cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked and encouraged women to understand how their personal lives reflected sexist power structures.” (Source) Essentially, it said that these problems that day-to-day problems may seem small—division of domestic labor, power imbalances in relationships, etc.--but are actually systematic and fundamental to a woman’s struggle. One great light that came out of second wave feminism was the beginning of a focus on protective legislation like workplace benefits for mothers. Another was that hundreds of domestic violence shelters were founded, since domestic violence was rampant after PTSD-afflicted soldiers returned home from war.
Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953) were two important works that help give the problem of systematic sexism a name. However, these controversial works also lead to a deep divide within the second wave of feminism, and this divide continues today. For instance, when talking about the role of women, second-wave feminists again began to see women as a monolith. Simone de Beauvoir believed that the most important things women could do was work outside of the home for their own finances, because it gained them independence. De Beauvoir writes that “to be feminine is to show oneself as weak, futile, passive, and docile,” essentially spitting in the face of women who take pride in a gentler nature, love of beauty, and desire to make a house a home in a particular way.
Women who had a meeker nature and a desire to opt out of the typical American workplace were out.
The third wave of feminism brought about the advent of sex-positive feminism, a movement teaching that sexual freedom is an essential component of a woman’s liberation. This leads to the belief that any legal or cultural efforts to control sexual activity goes against a woman’s freedom. There was a huge movement in the 90s for women to embrace their sexuality in a more outward, open way. Think of the rise of shows like Sex and the City or the flamboyance of a Madonna performance. Acts that had once been considered sacred were now being shown to millions. An effort with a good intention—to eliminate the shame associated with sex—turned into sex suddenly being something we should have visual access to, day or night. As Allison Yarrow writes in Time, linked below, “Parity, it turned out, was paradox: The more women assumed power, the more power was taken from them through a noxious popular culture that celebrated outright hostility toward women and commercialized their sexuality and insecurity. Feminist movements were co-opted. Soon, women would author their own sexual objectification.”
Women who pushed back against sexual objectification were out.
I have been told, lately, that I’m the one leaving women out of feminism as a Catholic.
I’m a TERF. I’m a SWERF. I’m not invited to marches. I’m exclusionary, backwards, and anti-autonomy. I care only about rich white mothers with automatic garage door openers and Ring doorbells. I do not care about placenta previa; I do not care about gay women; I do not care about working moms—ignoring the fact that, of course, I’ve now been writing about women’s rights online for a decade.
To this I say: no. I fling the doors wide open. I walk outside, banging my pot with a wooden spoon, calling in the chickadees.
I’m here for everyone, which is why I believe everyone has a right to be born and a right to a natural death. I’m here for everyone, which is why I believe the path to joy is through Jesus but also acknowledge your autonomy and freedom and wish you will if you choose a different one. I’m here for everyone, which is why I’m going to continue to speak out against male violence, something one in three women globally will be a victim of. I’m here for everyone, which is why I believe in the truth that womanhood isn’t something you can put on and take off like a hat.
I’m not the one pushing people out, friend. I will sit and talk with you all day about what makes a woman a woman and why abortion is ableist. Proximity changes hearts and changes minds and remind us that we, as Mother Teresa said, belong to one another. I am not an exclusionary-feminist in any sense of the word; I believe all women have a right to freedom, joy, and the peace of Christ.
This International Women’s Day, I want to remind you to leave the doors wide open. I have never claimed that my corner of the internet was a place you wouldn’t get your feelings hurt, or a place where we wouldn’t clash and have conflict. But the thing we have in common is that we are all here to celebrate women, and rejoice in the gift of one another. Women! The things we’ve gone through in this world, but the things we’ve contributed, too. Ice cream makers and globes and fire escapes—all of these things came from the minds of women. The books we’ve written, the art we’ve created, the songs we’ve composed. All while being discriminated against and shut down, but finding a way to wrench beauty out of hardship and delight out of difficulty.
Six years ago today, I launched the Catholic Feminist Podcast. I can’t believe it’s evolved into what it is now: essays and roundtables and pilgrimages and read alongs, and a community that’s so, so dear to me.
We can’t shut each other out, sisters. The instant we dehumanize one another is the instant the evil one has won, and in the name of Christ I rebuke that bullshit. Nobody is “out”, here. I pray that we can love one another the way Jesus loves us—in truth and charity and tough conversations and servant leadership.
I leave you with the words of Saint John Paul the Great—words of gratitude. Because I see you. And I’m glad you’re here. Whether you and I voted for the same person or believe the same things about education and gun violence and sexual ethics, it is good that you exist. And I thank you for the gift of your womanhood, today and always.
“Thank you, women who are mothers! You have sheltered human beings within yourselves in a unique experience of joy and travail. This experience makes you become God's own smile upon the newborn child, the one who guides your child's first steps, who helps it to grow, and who is the anchor as the child makes its way along the journey of life.
Thank you, women who are wives! You irrevocably join your future to that of your husbands, in a relationship of mutual giving, at the service of love and life.
Thank you, women who are daughters and women who are sisters! Into the heart of the family, and then of all society, you bring the richness of your sensitivity, your intuitiveness, your generosity and fidelity.
Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life-social, economic, cultural, artistic and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of "mystery", to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.
Thank you, consecrated women! Following the example of the greatest of women, the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, you open yourselves with obedience and fidelity to the gift of God's love. You help the Church and all mankind to experience a "spousal" relationship to God, one which magnificently expresses the fellowship which God wishes to establish with his creatures.
Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world's understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.”
Saint John Paul the Great
Letter to Women (June 29,1995)
On My Nightstand
The Mitford Affair by Marie Benedict: Marie Benedict is one of my favorite historical fiction writers, and this one didn’t disappoint! I find the six infamous Mitford sisters fascinating. The book disappointed me slightly in that it seemed to suggest Diana Mitford, who was a horrendous fascist, was only in that crappy belief system because she was trying to snag a man. I personally think she was a true believer in the grotesque ideology. But it did present interesting questions about how personal politics can get.
Revival Happens in the Streets: Honestly, Catholics don’t really…do the revival thing. It’s kind of like church planting. Not our circus, not our monkeys. I had to legitimately google what is a revival when I started reading about the Ashbury business. I found this essay on the situation compelling. “But revival is not an extended worship service. Revival is the fruit. Revival does not live inside walls. Revival happens in the streets.”
America’s Teenage Girls Are Not Okay: No, they are not. Every piece of evidence I read points to the fact that we are in a MASSIVE mental health crisis in this country, and it’s affecting our youth the hardest. They need our prayers + our real-world support.
In case you missed these Letters:
No, Being Asked to Include Women Isn’t Tokenizing - for subscribers
A Weary World, Not Rejoicing - for subscribers
Where is the Pro-Live Movement in a Post-Roe World? - for everyone
Did you know I’ve written three books for Catholic women?
Girl, Arise: A Catholic Feminist’s Invitation to Live Boldly, Love Your Faith and Change the World
In Full Bloom: Finding the Grit and Grace to Thrive Wherever You’re Planted
FOLLOW: Logging Out and Leaning In (serialized for full newsletter subscribers)
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A dear friend of mine, who is a devout Catholic and a guy, once said (in jest but with love): "Poor Nicole. Can't hang with the feminists because she's Pro-Life, can't hang with the Catholics because she's feminist." We laughed, and we're good enough friends for me to know that he knows all my Catholic Feminist talking points. But there was truth to it then and even more truth to it now. Many of my social justice friends have cut ties with me due to my being pro-life or questioning aspects of the transgender sphere. I wouldn't call myself a TERF, but reading The Genesis of Gender brought a lot of things in perspective for me. If I had to place myself in a camp it would be that we, as humans, definitely don't know the right answer to this issue yet. But anything other than a whole throated endorsement of fluid gender is seen as an act of aggression.
The article you shared, America’s Teenage Girls Are Not Okay, actually fuels a lot of my opinions on this matter. I'm lucky enough to get to spend lots of time with teenagers as a CCD teacher and as a Speech and Drama coach. Our girls (and boys) are not getting the support they need and deserve. The Zoomers are facing issues in middle school that most Millenials didn't have to confront until college. And the way that they're written off for feeling their feelings is despicable. I don't know what the correct answer is. But I do know that if I can be a safe haven for a kid by acknowledging the name and pronouns they prefer in a town where they're had their tires slashed and house egged, then I'm going to do it.
I may not be representative of your *typical* reader as an almost 60 y/o woman, married for 36 years, Mom of 3 grown women, and Grandma to 4 little ones. I wanted to say 2 things,
1) your article is both powerful and necessary, and
2) provided such a valuable counterpoint to the message that feminism is about empowerment which looks like this <insert culturally accepted litany, no room at this inn for any faith-based belief>
My daughters are 32, 29, and 26. One practices no faith, has chosen “queer” as her identity, and is in a polyamorous relationship, she’s very accomplished in her field and is a published author. One is married for almost 6 years, practices a deep and daily Catholic faith, has 4 children and works outside the home as an Occupational Therapist, while her husband cares for the kids. And one is an ER Nurse in a city hospital, recovering from a relationship where she prioritized him and lost herself for a time in the process; she has a connection to the Catholic faith, but doesn’t actively pursue practice or understanding. All this sharing is to say both young women and older women have been fed and surrounded by a particular worldly and cultural drum beat that deeply influences how we think and what we choose to act on - without questioning whether the source of that drumbeat has any stake in our pursuit of an eternity with the One who created us and whose love for us gives meaning to everything we say and do and desire.
Anyway, thank you for your vocation in this. Your words are a balm and I’ll continue to follow and support. And to pray for you!