This blog by CWS member Rebecca Bratten Weiss first appeared on Patheos website on April 24, 2017.
A few days ago on Twitter, Christian feminist writer Sarah Bessey started a conversation about the misogynistic things that “only Christian women hear.” And it went wild. Women (and a few men) of all denominations shared their experiences of a sexism ranging from well-meaning but misguided adulation, to downright abuse and victim-blaming. You can see some prime instances here, at the Church Leaders site.
I started a conversation about this topic on my Facebook page, and it blew up, with nearly 900 comments, mostly women sharing their experiences, reacting, commiserating. A few men also participated, some with empathy, though a few with criticism. A few women were critical as well. But the general sense was one of catharsis, getting it off our chests, laughing about it and raging about it and posting the appropriate head-desk emoticons. We’d heard most of it before. But it was good to share and experience solidarity. Some of the comments we brought up were from non-catholics – making assumptions about how stupid we are, to ally ourselves with the backwards superstition of religion, how benighted not to use birth control. Or surprise that someone who “seems smart” would be Catholic. But the majority of the complaints were about “Catholic on Catholic” misogyny.
“Your fulfillment comes from being obedient to your husband.”
This was said to a woman who recently escaped from a horribly abusive marriage. But the mechanism is in place to remind women that it’s probably our fault. A priest told a young woman in confessional:
“Boys will do whatever you let them, you know what I mean? You have all the power. You have to protect their purity.”
This is part of a skewed perspective on women, men, and marriage, in which a woman is made to be subordinate to men. Oh yes, the word “complementary” is tossed around a lot. Occasionally it is even spelled correctly. But there are various types of complementarity, and there’s a tendency to view women rather as garnish than as a valued equal component in a dialectical relationship, the “integral complementarity” Sr. Prudence Allen teaches.
“I suspect you have a vocation to marriage, and you’ll get the validation you need and your sense of self worth from your husband.”
And from a professor, to a classroom:
“Men should know who they are before they start dating, but women don’t need to worry about this. Who they are will be formed by their relationship.”
We’re regarded both as a male dependent, and as a means to the end of reproduction:
“Are you having another one soon?”
“You’ve been married for ten years, and you only have FIVE kids? Kinda lagging behind, dontcha think?”
“If you don’t like breastfeeding, you must have a problem with your Creator.”
And it is because of this, partially, that people can be so cruel to women when the issue of abortion comes up:
“I’m sending screenshots of this conversation of your abortion history to your priest to show you’re unworthy of receiving communion.”
Then, of course, there’s the issue of how we dress. It’s a guarantee that in “traditional” Catholic circles, any conversation about the dignity and vocation of women will eventually degenerate into a series of imperatives about covering our bodies:
“Women with curves have a greater responsibility to be modest, even though it’s difficult.”
“You are a distraction to the servers at Mass by not covering your head. Dress appropriately.” (from a priest)
“A woman is responsible for a man lusting after her. He has no control over his body and if you dress poorly he will lose control.”
“Wearing pants is a mortal sin– you WILL go to Hell!”
There was the usual denigration of women’s sense of vocation and purpose in any venue outside the home:
“You’re so pretty. Why don’t you just get married? There’s no future in philosophy anyways. *nervous laugh*” – from a male professor
“You can’t teach in a seminary. You’re a distraction to young vocations”
“Women who work are the ones who are messing up their kids by not being in the home”
“If you don’t like that women can’t be priests why don’t you just leave?” [be careful who you say that to, she might just take your advice.]
And, our very identity gets appropriated and explained:
“You can’t be Catholic and a feminist. It doesn’t work that way.”
“Women who wear makeup clearly don’t understand their metaphysical beauty without it.”
A favorite was one I’d heard already in person: about a male professor telling a female college student, aged twenty, that she should really check out NFP and learn about the effects of breastfeeding because “it will help me understand what my identity as a woman means.” I’m sure he meant well, but it is disheartening to think that the work women have done in getting to know our bodies internally as well as scientifically, and to train ourselves in this bodily awareness that is given to us, should be appropriated as some special form of knowledge possessed by men. Imagine if I, a female professor, were to tell a male student half my age that he should familiarize himself more with the functions of his genitalia? I would expect to be accused of harassment.
If you have read this far, you may be nodding your head, because you’ve heard it all before, and you’re glad it’s coming out in the open, and maybe even hoping that the communication technologies of social networking will allow these conversations to be addressed across a broader sphere, not just within closed bubbles or in solitary complaints. As several people pointed out, this is not an exclusively Catholic problem, nor a Christian one, nor even a religious one. My contention is that misogyny and sexism have no place in a true Christian ethos, not even gussied up as a form of faux feminism – and that the threads of sexism in our tradition came from external power-pressures, and of course from original sin. So naturally, sexism is found everywhere. It’s just very disheartening to find it so solidly rooted in some Christian cultures.
If you have read this far, you may also be wondering: what’s the point of complaining about this? Isn’t this just a bitch-fest? Why not just laugh it off and move on?
Well, a few points:
Women need to share these stories with one another so that we can understand that what we are experiencing is part of a larger system, that it’s not just isolated incidents. We haven’t just happened to be unlucky. By sharing with one another we can achieve solidarity, and thus work together better to combat misogyny wherever is arises.
And this means that those who have said these things are not necessarily motivated by personally cultivated, deliberate misogyny, but rather by structural sexism. We need to understand that often they are repeating what they have been told, so we know that what needs to be opposed is not these individual persons, but rather a broader web of ideology and power.
We can laugh it off, certainly, and do. But since this is systemic injustice, we have to do more than laugh it off. Laughing at it can be a powerful weapon, and one that I enjoy using. But you can not demand that a woman who has been hurt and abused because of sexism should just bear it lightly. It’s not her job to make other people feel more comfortable about sexism. It’s our job to help her to heal, and to dismantle the structures that harmed her.
Anyway, why is it that women are always expected to be so thick-skinned, if we are supposedly the weaker sex? I can’t count the number of times I’ve been called out for seeming to be overly critical of men. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” is taken as an unbearable affront, but I’m supposed to read all the nasty or denigrating things that significant male thinkers – even saints – have said about me, over the ages, and just shrug it off? I mean, I do shrug it off – personally. I’m not triggered by Aristotle. But ideologically and politically, I oppose it.
Lastly, and this is huge: whenever we have an exchange like this, about the sexism we have experienced, someone will inform us that this actually is not a real problem. We only experience it because of where we live. Or because we somehow seek it out. We needed something to blog on. Anti-Catholics will tell us that we just need to leave the church, and be free (because there’s obviously no sexism in the secular world of fashion porn, militarist violence, and liberal politics. None). Catholics will tell us we’re blowing things out of proportion, or seeking melodrama, or have a victim mentality. But if this is the case, why do these topics always generate such explosive conversation? Why is the conversation not confined just to a few traddy circles? Why did the Religious Right throw enthusiastic support behind a self-proclaimed grabber of women, and his sidekick who is afraid even to dine with us because Sin? Often they’ll say : “the real sexism is with Islam.” But I have conversed with Muslim feminists and what we find, typically, is a series of parallel lines. We’ve had very similar experiences. And not just with the fundamentalists.
So, this is why we speak about what we hear. And we hope that finally others will begin to listen, and stop informing us that our experiences are somehow not important.
image credit: https://pixabay.com/en/woman-mouth-lips-silence-excluded-1445917/