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 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

March 17, 2004
   Vol. 1, No. 48

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

Is feminism a mob or a movement?

By Joan Chittister,OSB

There is one question that divides women from women, perhaps even more than it divides women from men. The question is a simple but impassioned one: Is feminism anti-motherhood?

Many people predicted that the women's movement was simply the passing fad of leisured white Western women with so little to do in life that they could afford to sit around discussing the downfall of family life and the rise of female narcissism. But like fire in high grass, the blazing desire of women for fullness of life swept around the globe, changing laws, razing educational barriers, granting women entry to the public arena everywhere. The whole social system changed.

Feminism freed women, in Val Plumwood's words, to take on the ideal of "uncritical acceptance" of the masculine model of humanity. But she also says that when women discovered that the male model simply gave them two jobs instead of just one -- responsibility in the workplace as well as in the home -- that phase in turn led some women to espouse a period of "uncritical reversal" of feminist ideals.

Women themselves began to question what feminism had done for motherhood.

The downside of both situations became plain. Younger women began to regret being out of the home during their children's most vulnerable years, while those with the economic luxury to choose to stay home resented being out of the workplace during their own most professional years.

Now, with the need for two salaries for most families becoming the new norm, the tension between being "good mothers" and "fully developed women" is becoming stronger than ever. Women know they have equally desirable options and begrudge being forced to choose between them. If they don't work, they fear their own intellectual isolation. If they do work, they fear for their children's development and their own overextension.

Earlier this month in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at the conference Religion, Gender Equity and Economics I could feel the ghost of the motherhood question hanging about the edges of the room. Every discussion grappled with the problem of women's theoretical options and women's domestic conditions. So, has feminism failed motherhood? And if not, has it really succeeded for all women, or only for some? In fact, has it succeeded for any women at all?

Editor's Note
Chittister also wrote about the conference in Chaing Mai in her column last week, Religions have some repenting to do.
One way to determine if public ferment constitutes a new social force or is simply a passing fad is to examine its internal agendas. Runaway mobs rushing down a narrow street breaking shop windows and making off with everything they can carry do not signal a new kind of political philosophy in the making. In fact, a mob, however much furor it manages to create at any given moment, has no real internal agenda at all -- no questions about what kind of structure is best for it, what worldview it seeks, what implications derive from its success.

Mobs simply satisfy the impulses of the moment and fade away into the night, leaving behind a certain amount of destruction, a measurable amount of debris to deal with before business can resume again as usual, a momentary hiatus in the standard social pattern.

Is feminism only a mob that, having rushed through the world, benefited just a few women? Or is it really a new moment in time that benefits all -- both women and men? It depends.

The statement in the first draft of the Chiang Mai Declaration, "Religion and Women: An Agenda for Change," set off the traditional firestorm. That document, at the insistence of women who felt that feminism demeaned or at least ignored the essence of motherhood, called for the role of motherhood to be protected "socially, politically and economically."

On the floor of the plenary assembly, the statement was challenged: "Why just motherhood?" a young woman protested. "What about me? I want all women to be protected, not just mothers."

There lay the two poles of the problem, bare naked and exposed for all to see. Mothers feel left out of the feminist ideal. Single women see motherhood as one of a woman's roles, but not her only or even her primary role.

The whole question of whether "motherhood" is more of the essence of womanhood than "fatherhood" is of the essence of manhood -- with all the values and responsibilities that implies -- remains the unfinished business of the feminist agenda. To leave the question unanswered means that women will forever be "permitted" to function outside the home, as long as they are willing to bear double the responsibility inside the home that men do. Then feminism is only the right to be doubly burdened, instead of wholly part of the human enterprise.

In the end, the statement was amended to say what all women want and what few mothers can be sure of: "The right to choose any role, including motherhood, should be protected socially, economically and politically." It was a feminist statement of major import by a group of moderate women who know the difference between a mob and a movement.

The discussion reveals the underlying tension implied for women as they attempt to be both mothers and participants in the public arena. But the resolution of the tension actually lies outside themselves. Feminism, the edited statement implies, is a social obligation, not simply a personal choice.

From where I stand, until work within the home, whether done by women or men, carries economic value with pension rights, social security guarantees and public financial support; until fathering becomes as much a human identity and domestic role as mothering; until businesses see daycare facilities and flex time as much a corporate obligation as parking lots and typing pools, as portable computers and fitness facilities -- feminism will be far from accomplished. Until it is, neither women nor men will ever be really, fully human.

Feminism is not about turning women into men or men into women. It is about turning both women and men into full human beings. Then, every institution in the world will change, and both men and women will be whole.

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