Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Kaya OakesNovember 09, 2018
2018 Women's March in Missoula, Montana. Image via Wikimedia Commons

For over a decade, I have taught a writing class on the intersection between music and social movements at the University of California, Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement was born. On the first day of class, we talk about the history of protest music, and I give the students the etymological definition of the word “protest”: from the Latin pro testari, to protest means to witness and then go forth and testify.

Two years before the #MeToo movement sprung up, I added Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me to the syllabus so my students could explore the connections between music and a resurgent feminist movement. Ms. Solnit, a highly prolific historian, activist and social critic, did not coin the term “mansplaining,” but in the title essay from her book, she talks about a time when a man she met at a party refused to believe she was the author of one of her own books. Mansplaining is just one example of the ways in which women’s expertise and experiences are devalued, doubted and silenced. It is also unfortunately rife in the Catholic Church.

One of the questions I’m most often asked as a writer is how I can be a Catholic and a feminist.

One of the questions I am asked most often as a writer is how I can be a Catholic and a feminist. My usual response is to ask how I could be Catholic and not be a feminist. I was raised in the church and nurtured in catechesis by women, educated in Catholic schools by women, and my writing is inspired by the work of towering Catholic theologians Elizabeth Johnson, M. Shawn Copeland and Sandra Schneiders, activist Catholic laywomen like Dorothy Day, and contemporary Catholic writers like Natalie Diaz, Toni Morrison and Rebecca Brown.

Yet the most frequent responses to my work in Catholic publications often ring of bias against my gender. A male reader once told me it was not my job to question the church; it was my job to “get down on my knees” and be thankful to belong to it. That is one of the printable comments I have received. We will skip the unprintable ones. The irony is that weekly, I do get down on my knees in church and give thanks. But that does not mean I shouldn’t occasionally stand up, too.

Feminism is not about women being better than men. It is about women being recognized as equals, about men and women working alongside one another.

I write this a few days before the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, who is referred to as the “apostle to the apostles.” But Mary Magdalene is more than that: Chosen by Christ to be the first witness to the resurrection, Mary Magdalene goes forth and testifies about the good news. And the reaction of the male apostles is telling. They do not believe her. They doubt her testimony. She is my patron saint, chosen when I went through confirmation, but she is also the patron saint of the mansplained.

Feminism is not about women being better than men. It is about women being recognized as equals, about men and women working alongside one another. That means recognizing our accomplishments as well as the struggles we face. Believing the testimony of women is what makes the #MeToo movement so crucial. For Catholic feminists who are regularly told we should just quit the church or that we should quiet down, it also means bearing witness to the beauty and grace of being Catholic women and to the challenges as well.

The Catholic “both/and” is useful here: Feminism is both necessary for being a Catholic woman and one of the reasons you will be tested as a Catholic feminist. Platform is privilege, and those of us with a public role to play in conversations about women in the church are called to use it to challenge outdated notions about the inferiority of women. We are both Catholic and women. God created us to be our full, authentic selves, and God sees us as our full, authentic selves. And sometimes we have to stand up and say this: We hope the church can do the same.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Phillip Stone
5 years 7 months ago

Please give me a succinct but academic summary of how feminism is able to be derived from the Old Testament, the New Testament or the traditions of the institution of Catholicism.

I ask this because it is in the public domain that feminism is one of several liberation movements based on the atheistic social theories of Karl Marx.

Hint, women are equal to men ... in?

Marianne Gallagher
5 years 7 months ago

Genesis 1:27

Catherine Rogers
5 years 7 months ago

Galatians 3:28

Rachel Keeney
5 years 7 months ago

The Gospels. Jesus treats women as fully human, capable of being disciples - not only did they follow him on his travels, but those who were wealthy provided his living. (Stop imagining only twelve men when the text says "disciples." They were chosen and named to represent the totality of salvation for Israel.) He takes women's questions and challenges in life seriously. He does not draw back in disgust when the "women with the issue of blood" touches him, he doesn't call her polluted or demand that she stay isolated until she dies. He doesn't value traditional roles (Martha) over their desire to learn (Mary). He describes God as a woman in the story of the lost coin. He sets women free from male "ownership" when he says that people in heaven neither marry nor are given in marriage - meaning a woman's relationship to God is her own; she is a person, not just property.
In the rest of the New Testament, women preach, prophesy, open their homes to serve as house churches, and serve as deacons and apostles.
Please, stop reading what you expect to see, and look at what's actually on the page.

Bev Ceccanti
5 years 7 months ago

Given the gruesome reality of the ongoing slaughter of millions of innocents in the womb, and given the relentless support of this culture from women who proudly wave the ' feminist' banner, I beg to differ. I am Catholic educated woman myself and I find the pseudo intellectual whining from mostly white suburban women to be exceedingly trite, narcissistic and shockingly insensitive to millions of vulnerable pre- born babies facing imminent and savage destruction by 'abortion on demand'. I've never heard a single 'feminist' voice raised in defense of these innocents. I am grateful for the precious truth that is still visible in the Church Who will pass it forward to all humanity. There are plenty of 'religions' that have been started by those who wished to reshape what Jesus left us to fit their own issues. Do you recall the teaching that the least shall be first? Feminism has no humility!. How can anyone buy into tripe that insists that a woman's accusation, sans evidence, is enough to ruin a man's life! Also........... how can self respecting men get suckered in by tripe, to the end they are effectively muzzled on issues critical to all of society, Some are being led astray but Jesus said the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church... I'm counting on that promise.

Jim Lein
5 years 7 months ago

Since 1973, politicians have been able to strip away programs that support pregnant women and their unborn by claiming to be the pro-life party. Here we are 45 years later, and the stripping away continues and the law has been unchanged. In the mean time, other countries with adequate programs to support all, including pregnant women and their unborn, and where abortion is legal, have the lowest abortion rates. Our country has had periods of time during depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s, when abortion was illegal and when we had higher abortion rates than now. Starving families could not support another child; the birth rate dropped during these times.

Relying on a cold hard impersonal law change seems futile and is relying on Caesar's impersonal way rather Jesus' personal way of meeting needs, including those of the unborn by providing sufficient nutrition and medical care, before satisfying our wants.
And of course there are us guys, who are responsible for all unwanted or problem pregnancies. Shouldn't we change our behavior and not hide behind law change as a way of reducing abortions?

Julia Ashenden
5 years 7 months ago

I agree with you Bev, insofar as the word "feminist" (or "feminism") brings up pictures in my mind of women demonstrating - often angrily - for abortion.
And always women from the western world, the world that is capitalist, where women demand entitlement. It doesn't make me think of St Mary Magdalen or many other great female saints like the three Saint Teresas, or Catherine of Siena . I've been a working woman all my life and have a family which had to be balanced with work, but I just got on with it. I don't feel the need to bang on about feminism.

Bev Ceccanti
5 years 7 months ago

Your life lifts us up.

James Riley
5 years 7 months ago

All good points in a well written essay. But the piece fails to touch one of the “third rails” of Church matters and governance and for that reason the impact or import of the article is weakened to a significant degree; In short women should be ordained as priests and the sooner the better for all.

Gino Dalpiaz
5 years 7 months ago


The feminine “primacy of love” is far superior to the masculine “primacy of jurisdiction.” In the words of Pope Francis, “the grasping for a priestly role is the very essence of clericalism.”

In her book, The Eternal Feminine: Mystical Women (2004), the French theologian, Janine Hourcade, aptly writes: “Woman has no need to be a priest or have hierarchical power to carry out an important role in the Church and in the world.”

When asked about women priests, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France, said the same thing: “The only thing that counts in the Church is not priests and bishops, but holiness. This is the real hierarchy” (Zenit March, 5, 2004).

James Riley
5 years 7 months ago

All good points in a well written essay. But the piece fails to touch one of the “third rails” of Church matters and governance and for that reason the impact or import of this article is weakened to a significant degree; In short women should be ordained as priests and the sooner the better for all.

Anne Chavez
5 years 7 months ago

Women and men were created to be equal and complementary, Neither should dominate the other. Both have crucial roles in the Church. Our society wrongly equates the ordained priesthood and hierarchy with power. Ordination bestows the duty of service, not dominance to the Church and to others. All the baptized are tasked with the duty of evangelization. We take the word of God to all corners of society: the home, the workplace, the schools, the playgrounds, any place where we encounter each other. We preach primarily through our way of life. Sometimes we're asked to verbally explain our faith. Woman's status doesn't need to be raised; it needs to be recognized.

Bev Ceccanti
5 years 7 months ago

Wonderful and sensitive reply.

Linda Cleary
5 years 7 months ago

This article brought tears to my eyes. It is the first time I have 'heard' my voice in an article in a Catholic religious magazine. I too, chose Mary Magdalene as a confirmation name and was told to change it to Marie. After the Confirmation liturgy, my parish priest asked why I wasn't smiling as it was supposed to be a happy occasion. (Smile all the time is another expectation of women.) I told him I wasn't sure I was going to be able to be able to be a Christian my whole life even though I just committed to it. I wasn't sure I was going to 'make it.' Even then I didn't feel I fit in. I am 60 years old and this is the first time I have heard my experience acknowledged in a public forum in the church. Yet I know there are thousands of thinking Catholic women like me who have lived a life filled with put downs and dismissivness because we are honest about our faith. We do not 'pretend' to be like anyone other than our true selves just to be accepted. We are still here.

5 years 7 months ago

Thank you for this. And, there is a group called Feminists for Life. It exists. And, in paragraph 99 of Evangelium Vitae - Pope Saint John Paul II wrote: "99. In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote a "new feminism" which rejects the temptation of imitating models of "male domination", in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society, and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation. "

Randal Agostini
5 years 7 months ago

Based upon this article I would have to agree with Ms. Oakes - a good and enlightening article.

Timothy Kunz
5 years 7 months ago

Neither feminism nor its opposite (I might just call it the status quo) should have any purchase among Christians.
Walter Ong, of St. Louis University, recognized that the potential of the woman's movement to restore Christianity to itself. Human beings are the utterly and essentially relational animals for whom the relationship between men and women are paradigmatic. It can only be a paradigm when the inherent equality and interdependence is celebrated and lived. This does not devalue the present alternatives to heterosexual marriage, but places each alternative in relationship to what should be a paradigm.
The Roman Catholic Church is the primary offender in celebrating this human reality from Anthony of Egypt through Augustine to, sadly to say, Pope Francis.
Paradigms are very hard to transscend!

Michael Cardinale
5 years 7 months ago

Nowhere in here do I see what “Catholic feminism” is. What does the author want the Church to embrace? The article implies that there are modern notions about the equality of women that update the old notions of their inferiority. The reader is left to guess what they are. The author says they are told to be quiet or quit the Church, but we have no idea what she is writing about. Gossiping during Mass? Asking for ministries to be better wives and mothers? Asking for Church supported abortion? Providing child care during liturgical services? Giving Communion to divorced and secularly “remarried” couples? Forming a dicastery for feminist doctrine? The list goes on; we don’ know.
There is a hint for one thing, however, in her wanting the Church to embrace the #MeToo movement. I am not sure why #MeToo is “crucial” to Catholic feminism, or why the Church should embrace it, since the Church’s “old notion” of chastity already warns women to avoid these occasions. But here is a short history from my personal observations. I can say I saw its early development in the late 60s/early 70s, and while it included jobs, it was predominantly about sexual freedom and "free love". Given today’s “hookup” environment, I would say it’s still partially successful. Women feminists do not like the outcome of their early movement; so, they blame men (who, I admit, are not innocent, but are also not solely guilty) and won’t admit that that aspect of feminism is a disaster. Today’s new feminist movement, #MeToo, owes its existence to that earlier movement.
So back to the beginning. What does Catholic feminism want to say or do? I have some suggestions, but if it is being told to shut up, I suspect it would not be interested in them.

Bev Ceccanti
5 years 7 months ago

Thank you. Words count. And when they become a brand, they take on specific meaning. The link highlighted in a comment herein to substantiate the existence of 'pro-life feminists' provided the following caveat "Often, these women ignore or even abjure the "feminist" label because it is automatically associated with the primacy accorded to legal abortion by groups like Planned Parenthood.."

Carol Crossed
5 years 7 months ago

I have come to believe that there are inherent inconsistencies in the word ‘pro-choice’ feminist. It is kind of like picking and choosing with whom one is equal to. I love the definition the author of this article believes in.
My (archaic?) definition embodies non-violence. But contemporary feminism celebrate being combatants in war. Celebrates destruction of the child in the womb. Celebrates individualism of autonomy over community. Abortion and war celebrates patriarchal qualities of domination and power.

The latest from america

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States, talks with a U.S. bishop during the bishops' meeting in Baltimore in this Nov. 13, 2012, file photo (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec).
Archbishop Viganò said he “does not recognize” the authority of the Dicastery of the Doctrine for the Faith or of Pope Francis.
Gerard O’ConnellJune 24, 2024
The ultimate goal is to prepare the men to be able to build strong and healthy relationships with their parishioners.
Colleen DulleJune 24, 2024
The head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication has defended his department's use of expelled Jesuit priest Marko Rupnik’s artwork in its official materials.
Colleen DulleJune 21, 2024
A conversation with Rachel L. Swarns, the author of "The 272: The Families Who were Enslaved and Sold to Build The American Catholic Church"
JesuiticalJune 21, 2024