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March 17, 2005 Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
Vol. 2, No. 42

  In case you think it's over
"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.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

I know you think I slipped.

You were sure that last week I'd be writing about International Woman's Day. But I didn't. You thought the sky was falling in. You didn't know if you should be relieved or disappointed, shocked or dismayed. Had I lost my bearings or finally regained them? Should you be happy that you didn't hear about the subject again or feel betrayed because you didn't hear about it again?

Good questions. I wasn't sure myself.

Ah, let it go, I said to myself. After all, everybody knows the situation. There's nothing more to say. And, worse, there's no use saying it. The groups that should really be committed to the issue -- the church and women themselves -- aren't. The church in its latest document on "The Collaboration of Women and Men in the Church and in the World" says that the real problem is that feminism is to blame for homosexuality, same-sex marriages and the criticism, rather than the "development," of sacred scripture. So much for Jesus and his women disciples.

Women, they tell me, at least many young Western women -- who, given all their resources and privileges, should be railing against the condition of women around the world who have neither the platforms nor the resources they have -- say feminism is over, won, achieved, passé. Yawn. They have what they want; what more is there?

So I decided to let it all pass. (I get tired, too, you know.)

Then one day, out of the blue, the woman up the tiny Irish boreen (a narrow lane) above me here, a farm woman from Kilkenny, an Irishwoman of no nonsense who has lived on this mountain, fields away from a nearest neighbor for years, walked down the rocky road, past the cows, around the sheep, to invite me to attend a meeting of the South Kerry Woman's Association. The session was scheduled for Sunday in Waterville, a small village about 6 miles away. It was in honor of International Woman's Day, she told me. I felt the thunderclap on the back of my head. I felt my energy rise again. I mean, International Woman's Day? Here? In the West of Ireland?

Going would take time away from desk work. It would take effort. Whatever the new economic status of Ireland, thanks to their membership in the European Union, no one can go quickly here from one village to another. But I knew on the spot that I wanted to be there.

I don't remember now what I expected a woman's group in the West of Ireland to be doing to celebrate International Woman's Day but what I found when I got there was definitely not it, however much I should have realized it. This group was not celebrating its achievements or its liberation or the by-gone days of the woman's movement. On the contrary.

Instead, this day was devoted to an explanation of the need for Mental Health Services for women to enable them to cope with the depression that comes from overload and isolation and powerlessness. They talked about depression and its indicators, about home-based services for country people, about the inadequacy of their own program.

They passed out materials on depression and stress and tension and violence against women. "Violence Against Women Is A Global Human Rights Crisis" the Amnesty Ireland brochure blared. "The major human rights scandal of our times," it said. The details were chilling:

Violence in the family, the brochure read, is the reason for more death and ill-health than cancer or traffic accidents for European women between 16 and 44 years of age.

In Russia, nearly 40 women die each day at the hands of their partners. Yet, the country still has no law addressing violence in the family.

In Ireland, a study conducted by the Rotunda Maternity Hospital found that in a sample of 400 pregnant women, 12.5 percent had experienced abuse while they were pregnant.

In the United Kingdom, emergency services receive an average of one call per minute -- repeat: one-call-per-minute -- about violence in the family.

"It is the violence most often ignored and most often tolerated," Amnesty declared.

It was a somber, serious group in front of me.

Then, at the end of the day, facing a group of strong, tight-lipped, middle-aged country women who had been working the land in this area all their lives, a woman got up and read to this rapt, uninitiated audience, Jenny Joseph's poem "Warning," which begins, "When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple." Ripples of understanding went through the crowd that brought all the meaning of all the day home. Here were sturdy women who had never been able to do anything but endure: not decide, not determine, not dispose of their lives. But inside them all, there was a warning waiting to be heard.

The poem's last line, especially -- after the listing of all the things forbidden to "nice ladies" that the speaker intends to forego when she gets old enough to ignore all the social rules -- seemed to ring true. "But maybe I ought to practice a little now, so people who know me are not too shocked and surprised, when suddenly, I grow old and start to wear purple."

I can still hear the applause trailing me back up the mountain.

Here in the West of Ireland, the women do not think feminism is over. They may well be thinking, it seems, that it has hardly begun.

I came back to the little stone cottage on the side of a mountain in Kerry, to the Sunday papers and a headline that read "Wife's Lib makes Indian divorce soar." This article detailed the changing marriage patterns in India where most women still do not eat before first serving their husbands and still live with their in-laws. But says Indian writer Shobhaa Dé, author of Spouse: The Truth About Marriage, in a country where 95 percent of all marriages are still arranged, "[men] have to realize that women no longer need marriage as a security blanket or as a meal ticket. Women can pay their own way, pay their own bills. What they want now from marriage is respect and equality."

From where I stand, it's clear: Feminism isn't over at all and you and I, for the sake of all the women of the world, have no right to be part of what ignores the moral imperative of it. So, I'm late for International Woman's Day, true. But here, still here. As usual.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator at the address below.

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