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Can Catholics Fix Feminism?

Carrie Gress explores the intricate relationship between feminism and Catholicism. From tracing feminism’s historical roots to discussing its impact on modern society, she offers an insightful perspective on how the Church can provide an alternative to the prevailing feminist ideology. Tune in as she navigates through complex topics with depth and clarity, shedding light on the path forward for Catholics in today’s world.


Cy Kellett:

Hello and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers Podcast for living, understanding, and defending your Catholic faith. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and what are we to make of feminism as Catholics? What are we to do about feminism as Catholics? One of the things I noticed, you have probably noticed this as well, that within the Catholic Church, every possible response to feminism seems to be perfectly legitimate and present, some of them in large numbers. Everything from Jesus is the original feminist to Jesus is the source of the patriarchy. Everything from the church itself is a great feminist organization to feminism is the great enemy of the church.

So what are we to make about all of that? And is there something that the Catholic Church has to offer to modern feminism? That’s our discussion topic today, and we have a great guest for that. Philosopher Carrie Gress is our guest. Her doctorate is from the Catholic University of America, and she’s the editor of the online magazine, Theology of Home. Dr. Gress is a fellow of a Washington DC based think tank, the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She’s a scholar at the Institute for Human Ecology at Catholic University of America, and her latest book out in August from Regnery is The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy Has Destroyed Us. Dr. Carrie Gress, thank you for being here with us.

Carrie Gress:

Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be back with you.

Cy Kellett:

Are you really doing all those things that I just said?

Carrie Gress:

I’m doing all of those things and homeschooling children and, yeah, it’s running a store and a blog and, yeah, it’s busy.

Cy Kellett:

Well, I do a podcast, so we’re basically the same.

Carrie Gress:

Oh, my goodness.

Cy Kellett:

We’re basically the same. All right, so I read a bit of your book and here’s a thing that stands out to me. Do you really mean this? “Feminism has left a trail of tears, misery, and confusion.” Is that the truth about feminism?

Carrie Gress:

Yes, it is.

Cy Kellett:

Well, that’s not good.

Carrie Gress:

No, it’s not good at all. So yeah, no, I mean it’s really fascinating when you start digging into feminism and what was really there. I didn’t start doing this research on women and feminism to debunk it. I just wanted to know what really happened and all of that. And yeah, I’ve really concluded that it is actually the apparatus that has led to what we understand as the abortion industry in the world, and I think it’s actually the deadliest ideology in all of human history. I think we have a very sugarcoated vision of it, largely because of the incredible marketing that has been done to promote it, but I think it’s incredibly problematic.

Cy Kellett:

It’s funny that you say that because I remember as a kid, I was born in ’64, so in the ’70s when all the feminism was … It was called the Women’s Lib Movement and all that. And I remember my mother being very much against it, and as a child, “Why? Why are you against it?” It entirely had to do with abortion. Her entire thing was this is what they’re selling, this is what they’re pushing, this is what they want for women.

Carrie Gress:

Yeah. No, and that’s exactly right. I mean, this is what I discovered in my research was that feminism started with the wrong question. They didn’t start with how do we help women as women? They started with a question of how do we help women become like men? And so when you start with that question, you’re going to end up with a wrong answer, and we can see this in spades. You just look around. This is why we can’t define what a woman is because we’ve tried to take our fertility out of it and reject motherhood in all of its different ways in which it’s expressed.

Feminism has tried to make women workers, ideal workers, and there’s a whole connection to socialism and communism that I dug up and have found and discovered, and they knew that they couldn’t just come in and arm wrestle us into that position the way that that happened in the Soviet world where women were made workers. So they had to use a lot of psychology and marketing and all those kinds of things. And this is what we’ve ended up with is this idea that we’re meant for careers and that that’s really the goal. And of course, in order to be a good worker, this is why we have to have abortions. So yeah, they’re very much joined at the hip, those two issues.

Cy Kellett:

I have to say, one thing you said though, I wonder if it’s true or what the evidence for it is, because I think most people assume, and most even Catholics assume it is not true, and that is, it’s original idea was flawed. I think most people would say no. If you go back to the Suffragettes or the women’s rights stuff from the 19th century, maybe even early 20th century, its original idea wasn’t flawed. That’s what they’ll say.

Carrie Gress:

Yeah, and that’s what I thought. I mean, that’s why I started going back. I looked at the first wave and I thought, “I’m going to spend a couple of days on the first wave and just make sure I really understand it and maybe get some nice quotes from it for the book and then just move back on to the second wave.” And that’s when I was just astounded at all of these issues, and I have to be very clear about what I mean when I say feminism. I wrote the book The Anti-Mary Exposed, and in that there were things that congealed, different ideas that congealed in the second wave.

One of them was this idea of the occult being a really prevalent piece. The other idea is this idea of free love or getting rid of monogamy, getting rid of the nuclear family. And then the third piece is what’s well known now as smashing the patriarchy, but this idea of egalitarianism. So I thought all those were really new ideas, and this is what we hear over and over again, that feminism was hijacked in the second wave. But I found all of those ideas in the first wave, actually articulated by a man, Percy Shelley in the, I think early 1820s, all three ideas at work. And he had a poem about this woman named Cythna and talked about these elements of creating this idealized woman who didn’t have a husband or children, and she was just free and in control of her own life, and that really became the model.

But all of those elements of the egalitarianism was there, the free love idea was there, and the occult was definitely there in Percy Shelley, he [inaudible 00:06:44]. And he was actually the son-in-law of Mary Wollstonecraft. They didn’t know each other because she died in childbirth with her daughter, Mary Godwin, who became Mary Godwin Shelley who wrote Frankenstein. But there’s just this really fascinating history that I dig into in my book and just show these four people, Mary Wollstonecraft, her husband, William Godwin, Percy Shelley, and then of course Mary Shelley, just the damage that came out of those four people and really made the platform of feminism what it was in the 1820s and then the way it was mimicked.

And one of the things Shelley did too that was really interesting was he talked a lot about this idea of Eve being framed or Eve … Genesis 3 was really an opportunity for Eve, not a temptation or a fall. And that is all over the 19th century literature, that element of going back to Genesis, rewriting Genesis, reorienting Eve to be a heroine instead of tempted and fallen. So yeah, all of this was at play, this very anti-Christian, free love, crazy spiritualist stuff going on. I was shocked.

Cy Kellett:

Right from the beginning.

Carrie Gress:

Right from the beginning, yeah.

Cy Kellett:

Okay, because I do think there’s many people who would say, “Look, the definition of feminism is equality for women,” and is that the definition of feminism?

Carrie Gress:

You see, that’s a hard thing is that you could use that definition and mean that, but then you run into all these other people like the Kate Milletts of the world and Betty Friedans who are using it in a much more politically fevered-pitched leftist kind of way. And that’s really what we see around us, all these celebrity women are living out these three things. The occult is there, the free love is there, and then this idea of smashing the patriarchy. Go to any women’s event and these things are going to be on the table. And I think the problem is, again, we’re sugarcoating it by just saying it’s equality for women.

Women’s equality has come from Christianity. I mean, that’s the place from which it has come, and it certainly was in Christ and it’s scriptural. We also see it in the development of interest in the Blessed Virgin Mary. We see it in female saints. But I think what feminism again has done is it has stripped us of our fundamental identity, which is motherhood, and I don’t just mean that in terms of biological or adoptive parenting. I mean that in terms of a broader way in which women are psychologically mothers, they spiritually mother other people. This is a more general concept, and that’s really what’s been taken away from us, and you can see it too.

I mean, it’s really interesting to even just compare it to the church as a mother. We understand that as an icon of Christianity. St. Peter’s Square is such a great example of that, the embrace of the arms of St. Peter’s and what happens in a church. We’re nourished, we’re sheltered. It’s a sanctuary. It’s comforting, all these things that happen in a home happen in a church as well, and presumably happen in heaven as well.

So the fact that we’ve stripped that from womanhood and negated it, erased the fertility of a woman creates all kinds of havoc among Christians as well. And this is one of the reasons why Christians and Catholic women are contracepting and aborting their children at almost the exact same rates as regular culture. So yes, it would be lovely if we could just say feminism was this very simple, superficial, shallow concept, it was just there to help women. But when you really look at the ideology and the way that it’s developed and informed over the years, it’s just really dark and really deformed us and really deformed the church and really destroyed the family I think as well.

And this is one of the reasons why women are so unhappy. Feminism hasn’t made women happier. It’s made us less happy because of the fact that we’re operating off of this idea that something that goes against our human nature is going to make us happy. And you’re never going to find your ultimate fulfillment in a job. Women are made for community, we’re made for rich relationships. We’re made for this kind of mothering that we do on a general scale. And when you take that away from women, we’re going to find surrogates. Pets are suddenly going to become our children. We’re going to find a way to express that desire to love others in this very uniquely female way.

Cy Kellett:

So if feminism, the -ism of feminism, not speaking of it as, like you said, some kind of shallow, almost a greeting card version of men and women are equal. Which is actually, as you said, quite a profound thing that if you ask an ancient Roman or an ancient Persian if that was the case, they would’ve laughed at you. It was Christianity that introduced that idea, and I challenge anybody to prove otherwise because that is the fact, that’s what happened.

Carrie Gress:

Yep.

Cy Kellett:

But if we say that feminism now is one of the isms of the post-industrial age, and as such has a very dark side just as fascism or Marxism or the other -isms of the capitalism, they have their dark side.

Carrie Gress:

Yeah.

Cy Kellett:

Can we say, though, that the Catholic Church might, in its relationship with the world, it doesn’t just hate the world, it doesn’t just reject the world. It’s constantly trying to call people back to a truly human vision and that human vision must include God. Can we fix this thing? Can we fix this feminism that now is just a fact all around us?

Carrie Gress:

Yeah, I think that’s a really great question. I’ve come down on the side of the fact that I think it’s too big. I think it’s too deadly. I think it’s deformed us too much. And I think this is the beauty of Catholicism is we have actually a proper and ordered response to it. We have all these amazing women. We have all this incredible writing about womanhood over the centuries. We have the example of all these saints, female saints, none of whom look exactly the same. They just have these incredibly unique vocations, and we know that the holier we get the more unique the call comes and gifts are within the framework of virtues. But I think one of the objections I hear a lot, and actually someone just wrote this in print suggesting that maybe I’m not sufficiently Catholic because I’m questioning John Paul II’s call for new feminism.

I think the problem is people have overstated what it was that John Paul II was asking for. If you look at his encyclicals, the word new feminism is used once in Evangelium vitae, and he calls for a new feminism, which of course suggests that there’s an old feminism, that there’s something that we ought to reject, and I don’t think that we have done that properly. I think we have just tried to sugarcoat it and say, oh, we just need to be pro-life without really recognizing the rot that’s there that’s connected. It is really connected to Marxism and is really connected to the occult. So I think that’s important.

I think the other thing that’s fascinating to me too is he’s got this beautiful document. [inaudible 00:14:17] you talked to him. Feminism isn’t used once in that whole document, so I think it’s overstated. Then people think that we have to have this Catholic feminism. And again, I think it feels very shallow and superficial. And I know that there are women who have done deeper work on the academic level, and I think that’s challenging because a lot of times it’s very inaccessible. Most people are not going to pick that up and read it cover to cover. And this is one of the reasons why I’ve written my books in the way that they’re written so that they’re highly readable and don’t get too deep into the philosophical weeds.

But I think a lot of people that are riding on a more popular scale are probably not formed sufficiently to see where the problems are. They’re sugarcoating them. I heard a woman say a couple of years ago that she thought that Pope Benedict was a feminist and just like no, Pope Benedict was not a feminist. And again, I think she meant this superficial, he believes in the equal dignity of woman. That’s not really what feminism is, and so I think we just have to be very careful about what we mean. So if you read somebody talking about feminism, make sure that they’re defining their terms and are very explicit about it. But yeah, I think it’s really challenging to see a way forward and to keep that name because of the fact that it’s so connected with the secular culture, with this incredible amount of death and destruction.

Cy Kellett:

Oka. So in other words, we have to offer an alternative, not a reinterpretation, but to be quite clear that this is an alternative view.

Carrie Gress:

Yeah.

Cy Kellett:

One of the wonderful things, at least in my experience of the Catholic Church, of Catholic life, of the Catholic way of thinking, is that it’s very resistant to dividing people up into groups and classes and the working class against the wealthy class or men against women and all that. So would the Catholic response, the Catholic way forward out of a world that has been poisoned by all these isms, have to include something that can bring men and women together again rather than just be about women?

Carrie Gress:

Yeah, I think that that’s a great way to look at it, and obviously the family is really a huge part of that, and that’s one of the things that I’ve seen too about feminism is men are really reticent to talk about feminism. They feel like it’s an argument they’re never going to win. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten from men saying, thank you for saying this, or several have sent me actually a bunch of research that they’ve done on feminism that they knew they could never get published anywhere, that as a man, they just couldn’t publish this kind of thing. And I think that it’s just amazing how successful that accusation of sexism, how effective that’s been in silencing men, good men, good men that are thoughtful, that want to heal a rift, that want to see the family restored and this kind of thing, and they’re just incredibly silenced.

So I think that’s something that is really important is to get back to this place where we can actually have a real discussion about it instead of just mudslinging or making it about sexism or making it taboo topics like men can’t talk about women, that somehow women can talk about men. It’s this bizarre double standard that’s in the culture.

And I think the other thing, feminism at heart, it really makes women this victim, and we are automatically victims because we’re women and men are automatically the oppressors because they’re men. And I think that that’s where a lot of its danger and potency comes from, and that’s just not any way in which people can live and thrive and actually live in relationship with one another too. So I think that’s a fundamental problem.

But yeah, again, there’s a lot of really beautiful work about women that has been written over the ages and a lot of it’s being ignored or it needs to be presented in a way that’s more readable, but it’s certainly out there, and I think it’s an encouraging area. I meet a lot of young women who are looking for thesis topics or dissertation topics and things like that that are interested in writing on this kind of thing. So I’m not the only one out there anymore that’s writing on this, so that’s heartening to see. But yeah, I think this is just the beauty of the church is to see the incredible gifts that there are in the complementarity of man and woman and pressing in that dynamic, that relationship that exists instead of continually living with this wedge between men and women.

Cy Kellett:

I want to ask for your help or your insight in one area of this and that is that in the Catholic world of social communication, blogging, podcasting that you see out there, there are certain men who are very anti-feminism, but seem to me to be doing it in an almost little boyish way of denigrating women, of treating the idea of wives be submissives to your husbands as some kind of invitation to treat women as less than. Do you see what I’m saying? And it seems to me like I don’t want to do a conversation with you about this that provides any fuel to that very … It really just seems so adolescent and stupid thing that’s going on out there.

Carrie Gress:

Yeah, no, and I would wholeheartedly agree with that. I mean, I think that the people that are doing that, there’s something interiorly that’s broken or wrong and off and a lot of … because it comes about power. I mean, feminism is ultimately about power and control, and I think the reaction in that respect is also about power and control. It’s not about authentic love, charity, respect. And this has been one of the greatest things I never dreamed I would see in terms of my book, is just that men, I think rightfully have built up a lot of resentment towards women. And I’m not saying these men are necessarily … This could be some of it, but I think there’s a bigger issue at play. That’s their own brokenness, that is a different thing.

I spoke at Georgetown University a couple of years, and I remember in the room there were these two young men in the back corner and they were asking me a question that was … I don’t remember exactly what the question was, but it was something of the fact that they were trying to get me to really be hard on women in a bad way. And I remember just saying, the reality is most women didn’t choose this. This has been in the water. We’ve been indoctrinated to this since the day that we were born, this sense of I got to compete with the guys and I’ve got to be one of them, and I’ve got to be powerful and strong and all this stuff that we keep hearing, and we didn’t choose this.

It was just fascinating to watch their body language go from really hostile almost and a character of themselves to a relaxed compassion. They suddenly were like, oh. The bitterness that they had towards these women in their lives that they resented because of the way that they were treating them, there was suddenly this sense of they didn’t choose this. They were indoctrinated into this. I think that that’s a really important piece that men have to be aware of is just how deep this indoctrination has been on the lives of women and the kind of confusion about how it is that we ought to live our lives.

I remember being probably in sixth or seventh grade, and I had this woman babysitting me. She was a teenager, and I remember her saying to me … We were walking through the mall, I remember it so vividly, and she said, all is fair in love and war. And I thought that makes a lot of sense, and I just really-

Cy Kellett:

Oh, that’s scary.

Carrie Gress:

It is, and it was one of those things that it took me a really long time, even in my relationships with my dear friends, to see a lot of processing of that as a young girl. And I think with that, and also being told you have to be independent and take care of yourself, I mean, all of those kinds of very subtle things just are deeply in the culture. And so yeah, I think we have to parse out good men who are authentically trying to help women and navigate this versus those who are using the cudgel of be submissive in a really unhealthy and disordered way. And it’s sad because it’s certainly there in the secular culture, but the fact that we’re seeing it in the Catholic culture is really disappointing.

Cy Kellett:

Well, I mean, there are biblical texts that can be almost used as proof texts for a Jesus wants me to boss women around attitude.

Carrie Gress:

Yeah, and that just shows somebody who doesn’t understand what it really means to love someone and pour oneself out for them and charity and all of that, so yeah.

Cy Kellett:

Exactly. So this way you speak about people, their own wounds, their own difficulties, their own hurts, this is actually part of your analysis of feminism as well, is that when you talk about these men who want to boss women around, well, there’s something happen to you that makes you want to boss women around. But when you get into these women, many of whom are very well-known, much lauded names, these women actually had terrible hurts at the hands of men.

Carrie Gress:

Yeah, and at the hands of women as well. Yeah, this was a fascinating thing, was just to start looking at broken people break other people. And a lot of the response across the board, starting with Mary Wollstonecraft is that these are incredibly broken people who have not had modeled to them what authentic love is. And Mary Wollstonecraft had these horrible parents. Her father was a drunk and abused his wife and hung the family dog. I mean, awful things. She just never had the example of what it actually looked like to really love someone well, and this was that pattern that emerged was all these women had some kind of brokenness and instead of saying, let’s go back to the Christian model, they all went to this, let’s get rid of the model. Let’s move in this direction that gets rid of it entirely.

And we can see that happening in our own day very dramatically. Rather than saying, let’s go back to something like the 10 Commandments, it’s more, let’s throw this all out and just exist in this realm where moral laws and human nature don’t exist. So that’s the saddest thing, is just how these broken people have fundamentally formed who it is that so many of us have become in the culture because of these very bad ideas, these very broken relationships that they were in, and just the way in which they were taught to respond themselves. So yeah, it’s incredibly amazing to see how deep the sins are, and a lot of them aren’t their own sins. They’re sins of the generations before them and around them.

Cy Kellett:

And in some, they convinced the world to … especially the women of the world, generations now, generations and generations of women to seek to liberate themselves from that which truly liberates, that is to seek to free themselves from the one who offers freedom as a free gift.

Carrie Gress:

Yeah, no, without a doubt. I mean, it’s very hugely anti-Christian. Elizabeth Cady Stanton very much worked hard, this is in the 1880s, 1890s, to separate Christianity from the women’s movement. And she had this book called The Women’s Bible that you can still buy, and she and a number of women made commentaries about scripture and reading it, it reminds you of an angry teenager. Anytime a man is mentioned, it’s just very superficial, but it had some serious reach in terms of what … the belief that Christianity was bad and confining and all of that. And instead, she’s grasping at spirit tables and seances and the spiritual world for advice instead of really fundamentally Jesus.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. Yeah. Carrie Gress is our guest, and her latest book is The End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy has Destroyed Us, just came out August of last year. You can get it from Regnery. Do get it. We’re always so delighted when you’re here. I feel like I’ve missed you, but we’ve missed you for a good reason. Didn’t you step back from a lot of the public stuff because there were people who needed you?

Carrie Gress:

Yeah, yeah. I had another baby, and it’s just really hard to do podcasts when you’ve got one, 2-year-old, 3-year-old around with no one to reign him in. So yeah, yeah, I stepped back a lot from that. No, and it’s great to be back. I appreciate you tackling this. I mean, it’s such a heavy topic, but I think this is one of the things I tried to do with the book was just really, especially at the end, give people hope and really a beautiful and renewed sense of what womanhood can look like and the beauty and the joy that are connected with it too.

Cy Kellett:

Well, it does give me hope, the work that you’ve been doing, which is recovering. It does seem to me that very much your career is a career of recovery, recover those things that actually bring life so that we can heal people in this culture, which is a culture of killing.

Carrie Gress:

Yeah, no, without a doubt, and I think I’ve been really inspired by work of other people, not necessarily Catholics. There’s a woman named Erica Komisar who’s done all this work on how women have lost this instinct for empathy for their children. And as soon as I heard that line, I was like, yes, that’s exactly what we’ve lost. We’ve made ourselves the center of attention and really lost a sense of the importance of raising them empathetically. And a lot of that, again, is we’re competing for goods and that the children just become additional competition in our lives.And it’s those kinds of things, that’s what led to just the incredible sadness that so many women live with and are missing in their lives.

Yeah, and I think it can be done joyfully and beautifully. And this has also been obviously the goal of Theology of Home too, to really start helping women understand what it looks like to live in this world where you are happily married or you are happy to be a mother instead of resenting these things or trying to cut them out of your life entirely, and we haven’t seen it in 50 years. Nobody said anything good about motherhood really for 50 years, so there’s a lot there. I think there’s a lot of potential, and I think a lot of people are waking up to it now and seeing … The scales are falling off of people’s eyes, so it’s been really heartening in that respect.

Cy Kellett:

I think they are falling off, but I think they’re also being peeled back by some very smart and helpful people, and you are one of them. Dr. Carrie Gress, thank you very much for the time.

Carrie Gress:

My pleasure. Thanks for having me

Cy Kellett:

Check out the book, the End of Woman: How Smashing the Patriarchy Has Destroyed Us. Thank you for being here with us, for spending the time. We appreciate that you do that. We appreciate also that wherever you listen, wherever you get this podcast, you give it those five stars and maybe a few nice words that helps to grow the podcast. If you’d like to get in touch with us, maybe about this episode, maybe you have an idea for a future episode, for whatever reason, if you want to get in touch with us, just send us an email. Focus@catholic.com is our email address, focus@catholic.com. That’ll do it for this one. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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