In “Feminism at Fifty” (12/2), Sidney Callahan takes stock of the legacy of Betty Freidan and her groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique. Callahan was part of a group of Catholic feminists that emerged alongside Freidan, who found both common cause and areas of disagreement with their secular counterparts in the second wave feminist movement. Here, editors of America put questions to Callahan about how her Catholic faith informs her work in the feminist movement(s) and how the next generation of women and men can carry it forward.
Olga Segura, Assistant Editor:
You write in your article that “more radicalized feminists immediately attacked [Friedan] for not going far enough in furthering women’s liberation.” One such criticism was that Friedan's movement failed to include the experiences of minority women in the United States. In the 50 years since ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ do you believe the movement has become more inclusive of minority women?
Yes—Betty Friedan did not give enough attention to minority women in her feminist analysis. I think that in the last 50 years the feminist movement has become more aware of the problem of poverty as the major obstacle for women’s advancement. The retreat from providing subsistence, childcare, healthcare and opportunities for women to get an education is the greatest social handicap women face. Other developed countries have solved these problems and the U.S. can too.
You describe Friedan as “unaware of the Christian inspiration of earlier feminist movements.” You then describe how religion has contributed to your own feminism. Are there ways in which your feminist evolution has been hindered by your Christian faith?
I do not think my personal feminist evolution has been hindered by my Catholic faith since without my Christian conversion I would have simply accepted the biased southern views of my family and never questioned or become committed to changing the world. Maybe I was a bit too influenced by an exaggerated ideal of maternal self-sacrifice and so did not return to academic study sooner. My Ph.D was completed 25 years after my BA, but in the end it worked out well since in that time I expanded and redirected my intellectual interests.
What would you describe as the main difference between the feminist movement(s) of the 21st century and the second-wave movement of the 1960s?
I think the present feminist movements are more diverse, since religious and ethnic women have taken more of a self-conscious part. There is also more awareness of the economic dimension of women’s need for work. Among educated women there is also a revaluing of marriage and family as important to their fulfillment. Many men are more feminist and cooperative. However, the sexual revolution and so-called hook up culture are bad news for men and women. Yet it is hard to tell the media hype from the real situation. I also think that the feminist pro-life movement has made some progress in the culture in changing women’s ideas about abortion.
Ashley McKinless, Assistant Editor:
I found myself surprised by your unease about calls for "a theology of womanhood." It seems to follow that if there is no need for a 'theology of womanhood' in religious discourse, then there may not be a need for feminism in political/social discourse, but simply de-gendered humanism. Could a deeper theology of womanhood serve the same corrective purpose in the church that feminism did in society at large?
I believe we are embodied spirits created in the image of God, and a theology of discipleship is a help to us in choosing of our human roles, relationships, families and work. A theology of women, standing alone would have the danger of isolating women once again. The assertion that men and women are complementary in nature does not seem scientifically or morally valid to me. When Pope John Paul II speaks of a “Petrine ministry” complemented by “a Marian ministry” my theological alarm bells go off. All baptized Christians are called to holiness with different vocations to serve the kingdom and it seems doubtful that gender determines ministry, with the exception of childbirth, and that is not a universal call. I doubt that a male-led clerical move to determine a theology of women would counter male-centric assumptions. Clerical romantics are a danger.
How would you respond young women today—who feel they have had every opportunity open to them, have never been disadvantaged by their sex, maybe even feel being female gives them a leg up—that say feminism is not a relevant concept in their life, in this age?
Young women who feel that they have everything that feminists could want, should remember that other women in their world still suffer from poverty, discrimination, exploitation and violence. Those who are privileged can work for their sisters in need. They can also be grateful for all the women (and men) who struggled for equality and justice before they were born.
Kerry Weber, Managing Editor:
If you could offer women today one piece of advice about how to build up the cause of Catholic feminism, what would that be?
Women can build up the cause of Catholic feminism by living the Gospel as fully as they can in their unique circumstances. The social gospel and the life of worship and prayer should be equally important to American Catholics. Women can keep emphasizing the Gospel’s demand for equality while preparing themselves to lead, educating themselves as theologians and continuing to stay in the church and loyally raise their voices.
The idea of "Catholic feminism" can takes on a very different meaning among different groups of Catholic women. Do differences of opinion among Catholic women around feminist ideas in the church simply represent a healthy diversity of ideas or do they represent divisions that prevent the kind of unity needed by any movement that wants to be a force for change?
I think there is a growing consensus among all American Catholic women, which is slowly uniting them in calls for equality in the church. Divisions between conservatives and others will remain but that too can be the mark of a big, large-hearted and confident church intent on loving God and neighbor.