A Feminism with a Fuller View of Woman

Interview with Pontifical Prize Winner Pia de Solenni

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ROME, JAN. 24, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Secularized feminism raises excellent questions but cannot answer them, says an American theologian who points to a Christian feminism as an antidote.

Pia de Solenni, 29, was awarded the 2001 Pontifical Academies´ Prize by John Paul II last November for the defense of her doctoral thesis at the University of the Holy Cross here.

The thesis is an analysis of feminist theories in light of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. De Solenni, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in her native California, expounded on her ideas for ZENIT.

Q: Could you explain what “feminism” means, in light of your studies of St. Thomas Aquinas?

Solenni: Woman is created in the image of God. Like man, she is created for the purpose of knowing, ultimately knowing God. True feminism, therefore, respects woman´s essential identity as an image of God. Where she differs from man, a true feminism understands that these differences are constructive and complementary.

As a result of many feminist theories, woman begins to be considered an atomistic individual, an individual without relations to others. Yet, we see that every aspect of our life –for both men and women — we need others. Our happiness relates intimately to our relations with others because we come to know ourselves and others, including God, through these relations. The Christian tradition has shown us that the feminine vocation is lived out in countless ways — look at the women saints. You can´t put it in a box and say that a woman should do x, y and z.

True feminism concerns itself more with how a woman exists, rather than the jobs that she can do. Whatever she does, she does as a woman, not as a genderless creature. The same is obviously true for man.

Q: Could you outline the various interpretations and distinguish what is acceptable from a Christian perspective and what is not?

Solenni: Feminism can be categorized in many different ways. I think it´s easier to break it down into general groups based on how the individual man and woman are considered in relation to each other. Under each of these groups, you´ll find people who might not even agree on their views, but their essential understanding of man and woman is the same.

That would give us about four basic categories.

First, there´s feminism of equality. This feminism maintains that women and men are absolute equals and exactly the same. The differences are conditioned by external factors. This tradition can be traced to Plato who considered the body to be nothing more than the container of the genderless soul. It´s also the tradition found in the 18th-century feminism started by Mary Wollstonecraft. John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor developed this thought in the 19th century. It´s also held weight into the 20th and 21st centuries, especially in theories of androgyny.

Out of the feminism of equality arises feminism of difference. Within the feminism of difference, there are two major trends: polarity and complementarity. Polarity asserts that one sex is superior to the other. This trend includes thinkers like Mary Daly, Carol Gilligan and even Aristotle. Complementarity maintains that man and woman are different, but equal. John Paul II has most notably developed this thought.

Anti-essentialist feminism grew out of mid-19th century existentialism and the increasing sensitivity/awareness of the differences between man and woman. It´s similar to feminism of equality, but it takes the claims much further. Within this view, women are understood to be limited by society´s imposition of stereotypical feminine roles and prohibited from freely living out their own existence and creating their own essence. They seek an existence which is free from the impositions of others, especially those of a male-dominated society.

Deconstructivist feminism builds on all three groupings of feminist traditions. Besides saying as the anti-essentialists do — that essence is something created by experience, in the context of a community — deconstructivists maintain that things which are seen as true and somewhat absolute are, in fact, relative to the person. Most postmodern feminists are deconstructivists.

As Christians, we recognize the inherent equality of all human beings, man and woman. The differences are constructive even if we don´t understand them. Remember that the differences existed before original sin. The tensions that arise from them, however, are due to original sin.

Why should we settle for any system of thought that gives us anything less than being created in the image of God?

Q: What does Aquinas say about the equal human dignity or personhood of women and men?

Solenni: Aquinas states the obvious: that men and women are both created in the image of God.

Often, Aquinas has been represented as being a misogynist who claimed that woman was a misbegotten man. Well, he does say this in a few places, but they are all objections, meaning that they are not his own view. Rather they are the position of the objector.

Aquinas also addresses the fundamental equality of men and women when he discusses the relation between husband and wife. He starts with the creation of woman. Why was she created from his side? He answers that she was not created from his head to rule over him, nor from his foot to be ruled under him; but from his side to rule with him.

He understands the headship of the husband to be an economic order which is imposed to create order for the good of all the individuals participating. Servile subjection, on the other hand, exists only for the good of the one commanding.

I think we can understand the concept of economic or civil subjection better if we back away from the example of marriage and look at democratic societies, or even sports teams. You pick a leader for the good of all the members, but the leader isn´t necessarily the smartest or even the most virtuous.

Q: Given the fallout of secularized feminism — abortion, broken families, etc. — do you see any signs that people would be more open to a Christian understanding of feminism?

Solenni: Definitely. In the U.S., for example, you see a lot of young women in my generation — Gen X´ers — who have already lived through secularized feminism.

A lot of excellent questions have been raised by the feminists, but most of their theories don´t adequately answer them. They answer specific questions about woman in a specific role, for example, as a lover, as a worker, as a parent, as a wife; but they have yet to offer an integral view of woman and who she is. She´s a rational creature made in the image of God. Whatever she does in her life has to be understood in that context if she´s going to be happy.

Studies indicate that a growing number of young women are choosing family and home over a career. This is particularly striking when you stop and realize that they´ve been groomed for a career all of their lives. But from what they´ve seen, they´re returning to traditional roles.

A lot of men aren´t all that happy with the results of secularized feminism either; so the time is ripe for offering a more substantial feminism. But I think we have to be careful not to go backward. Some things might have been better, but there were substantial issues raised by the feminists. We come from an incredible tradition and faith that can provide substantial answers — if we´re willing to work at it.

Q: A speculative question: With the rise of Islam in the West, is there a way that a Christian feminism could impact on Muslim women? Could it impact on evangelization in general?

Solenni: Christian feminism offers a much healthier understanding and appreciation of difference than Islam. Muslim women throughout the world are dealing with serious concerns. Our constructive and creative approach will do substantially more for Muslim women, and all women, t
han some of the so-called pro-woman initiatives that include “reproductive health.”

Those initiatives communicate to women that part of them, namely their fertility — and vulnerability — is not acceptable. In order to be happy, they have to deny that. Most women don´t want that. They do so only because they feel that they have no choice. We have to be very careful about how we communicate our message.

Our message isn´t about what you can´t do — no contraceptives, no abortion, etc. It´s about what we can do. That´s why the other “side” is so effective. They say that if you only do these few things — such as reproductive health — then you can do anything and everything. We need to rephrase our message and get it out there, in every medium including our personal lives.

The same applies to evangelization in general. The faith isn´t about what we can´t do. It´s about what we can do. It´s about making each one of us truly free, right?

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