ON A WOMAN'S RIGHT TO BE A WOMAN
Why I Am a Feminist
By Cormac Burke
Msgr. Cormac Burke, a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature, is a former civil lawyer who served as a judge in the Roman Rota, the high court of the Church, from 1986 to 1999. Upon retirement he returned to Africa to teach at Strathmore University in Nairobi, Kenya. A prolific author, he has published more than one hundred articles in the fields of marriage, Church law, and theology. His best-known books include Covenanted Happiness, The Lawless People of God?, and Man and Values. His latest book, Marriage: Theological Perspectives, is scheduled for release later this year by The Catholic University of America Press. His website, www.cormacburke.or.ke, lists practically all his publications. This article is adapted from a presentation he gave at a conference co-sponsored by the Ethics & Public Policy Center and the Witherspoon Institute on March 8 in Washington, D.C. The following article, "Why I Am a Feminist," was published in the New Oxford Review (October, 2013), pp. 30-34, and is reproduce here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.
Lest the title of this article cause confusion, let me begin by emphasizing that I am a feminist. My life as a feminist started at about the age of five, when I first began to admire my mother. And my feminism increased as I came to appreciate my sisters. At the time, I could not define the elements of that appreciation; but I did realize that there was something different about women and girls, and somehow I admired that something.
Then I entered into my teens, and girls entered into my life in a new way, a way that changed, and to some extent disturbed, my incipient feminism. I heard part of my reaction expressed not long ago in a mentoring session with a 14-year-old boy. He was from a good family background with the distinctive note that his five siblings were all boys. As we were ending our chat, I sensed there was still something on his mind, so I asked him, “What is it?”
He looked at me, and solemnly enunciated, “Girls!”
Slightly amused, I asked him, “What about girls?”
He looked at me again and answered quite slowly, “They puzzle me.”
I gave him a few possible clues to the puzzle but didn’t really try or want to solve it. I had had the same experience myself and thought it a good start to a healthy sexual outlook.
When I was a teenager I lived in a residential area on the outskirts of my hometown in Ireland. Three or four large families, with six, seven, or eight children, lived close by. As a result, my social life was spent in the company of fifteen or twenty boys and girls all in the 15-18 age range. I admired the girls I knew, and now and then imagined I might eventually marry this one or that. I admired them — and I respected them. They made themselves respected. “Bad” thoughts were directed elsewhere. One would feel ashamed to allow a bad thought toward a girl who inspires respect. Modesty, which was then not an unbecoming term, especially on the part of these girls, made purity easier — though never easy. It drew out a noble impulse which helped so much. In another recent mentoring session with a 16-year-old boy, I described, a little more at length, the atmosphere of my teenage social life. When I had finished, he observed, “I wish I had grown up in your times.”
Feminism vs. Femininity
Today, women in general are desired but are neither admired nor respected. Why? Because so many have forgotten — perhaps have never learned, have never been taught — the difference between wanting to be attractive and letting oneself be, or making oneself, provocative. They emphasize the animal fact of being female but ignore the human quality of being attractive. They know the power the female has over the male — consisting simply in a physical desire that looks for satisfaction — but they do not understand the power that the truly feminine woman has over a man, a power that inspires him, as only such a woman can inspire a man, to overcome his sensuality, learning to admire her and therefore to respect her.
If men have changed since I was young, it is because women have changed. Women themselves seem no longer to prize two fundamental features of femininity that are precisely those most capable of inspiring admiration and reverence in men: virginity and motherhood. And the consequences have been disastrous for both men and women.
Neither virgin nor mother! This seems to be the motto or battle-cry of radical feminism — or, should we say, its pathetic cynicism. Ask any radical feminist what she understands by the word feminine, and she will typically have no answer. Radical feminists don’t want women to be feminine, just as they don’t want men to be masculine. And that is why radical feminism, as opposed to the healthy feminism I learned as a child, is such a threat not only to women’s identity but to social relations as a whole.
It helps to understand virginity by first enunciating that primary anthropological truth: More important than what one has is what one is. To give what one has is something; to give what one is is something much more. But to be humanly fulfilling, it must consist in the giving of what one is to something or someone who merits such a gift. No one matures into a person from within himself. Growth and maturity come from a loyal response, a giving of self, to family, to friends, to country; giving to them aspects or parts of oneself such as time, sympathy, presence.
One can give aspects of oneself to many people in diverse ways. But true fulfillment only comes from the gift of the whole of oneself. It could be directly to God; normally, it is to a spouse in marriage. Marriage, as the normal fulfilling commitment, involves a mutual self-gift. Properly speaking, each should come to marriage with the whole of one’s self to give, with an intact and integral self to give.
Virginity is not mainly a physical condition. It is the integrity that the marital self-gift logically calls for, what the person who understands marriage looks for in the woman he wants to marry — or, it should be equally so, in the man whom she wants to marry. Marriage, if it is to have any unique human sense and dignity, is the union of a man and a woman in an exclusive, open-to-life, and permanent mutual self-giving. It is not a giving in part; that is not yet a gift. It is not a temporary gift; that is just a loan. If one has already given oneself sexually, then any subsequent sexual self-gift is impaired: Part has already been given away; one has less of oneself to give. The gift is then so much the poorer, and the one prompted to accept it feels it is a used-up self the other is offering.
Girls today give themselves so easily. As a result, they cheapen themselves in the eyes of boys and men. Modesty in behavior, modesty in dress, modesty in not letting a guy get “fresh” with her, used to be the style of most girls. They were the girls whom the vast majority of men admired and sought — precisely because it was understood that they were not easily won. “This girl values herself. She makes herself respected. I admire that. She has ideals. I want to measure up to the self-worth that she attributes to herself.” That is a first condition if a woman is to inspire a man.
Tragically, though, modesty is out of fashion today.
Modesty is connected with the sense of self. It relates to personal intimacy. Animals have no modesty because they have no personality to reveal or to protect. As indicated above, modesty does not relate just to forms of dress. A genuine and attractive modesty marks the person who feels repugnance at speaking too much about his achievements, or those of his family members. It is only gradually that one shares one’s intimate things with others — in the measure precisely of friendship. A readiness to share the whole of one’s intimacy with anyone and everyone shows a superficial self-esteem, the subjectivized measure of self-worth that is so dominant today. It implies regarding one’s intimacy as public property, containing nothing in it that merits to be reserved for some persons, and not to be revealed or exhibited indiscriminately to all. So many young women today seem unable to distinguish between what could ground genuine self-esteem and what simply makes for radical self-cheapening.
Going back to my university days, it wasn’t uncommon among male students to hear the remark about some girl, “You know, So-and-So is a really nice girl.” It didn’t sound sexy in the modern sense, although it was in fact full of genuine sexual appreciation. The girl in question might not even be very pretty or have a good figure. But there was something very attractive about her.
The body is part of one’s self, the most visible part, but certainly not the whole of one’s self. Excessive emphasis deliberately drawn to bodily attraction often reveals an impoverished inner self, a shallow personality. If a girl knows how to develop her interior feminine self, she will be attractive to men, to the most worthwhile of men, however limited her physical assets might be.
Dress should be revealing. It should reveal the person, one’s sense of values, of interior worth. Dress that over-reveals the body hinders the discovery of the person, of one’s real self — if there is any real self left worth showing. Or is it that over-revealing dress is an offer of one’s self to anyone ready to pay its worth? Maybe I should excuse myself for saying it, but it nevertheless needs to be said, and said clearly: So many women today are lowering their proclaimed self-worth to that of a prostitute.
Romance, a romantic view of the opposite sex, is not cool today. It is outdated. No one lives it. Oh, but they dream of it — especially girls, but boys too. It’s just not a cool dream, so they keep it to themselves. Besides, they’ve been told too often that romance only ends in disillusionment. But it does not have to end that way, if only women and men could be an inspiration to each other.
The knight of the old tales of chivalry put his maiden on a pedestal and worshiped her. How is it that there seem to be too few maidens today, too few to inspire boys and men to be chivalrous?
Radical feminists despise that ancient idea of a woman on a pedestal. They rejected the pedestal, and chose to step down from it. But in stepping down, they fell. And what a fall it was! And how many they have brought down with them.
What a man feels for a maiden, a truly feminine girl, and what he feels for a mother, a truly feminine mother, are two very different things. He worships the maiden; he admires and venerates the mother, all the more so if that truly feminine mother is his own mother. The maiden is full of romantic promise — though in his heart he should realize that she will never fully live up to all those idealized expectations. But the mother is an achiever. She has done it! Her credentials are there — he is one of them. She is the real heroine.
But who today really considers motherhood admirable? I think most men do — even if they so often seem content to be poor fathers. The tragedy is that many women, and I would go so far as to suggest that it is a sizable majority, do not.
The radical feminism that has expropriated so noble a cause has turned women away from motherhood, has convinced them that it is no more than a burden — an unjust burden of nature. For them, it is not only a woman’s right to put professional achievement first in her priorities of fulfillment, it is even her duty. She owes it to herself. In fact, she owes it to the rest of women, to the whole of society. So — marriage? Perhaps — after having had time to “enjoy” oneself. And children? Well, maybe one or two — because they so limit one’s freedom. Besides, the woman is still expected to be their main caretaker. A woman is always under such a handicap.
By its very structure, the body of a woman shows that it is made to open, to be visited, to be made fruitful, and that only in this way can it achieve its natural fulfillment as a feminine human body: To receive and give love and life. Does this mean, then, that, as is often said, biology is destiny? It is certainly a pointer to personal identity, which includes sexual identity. If we reject nature, we have no clue left to our human identity. We are drifters, unidentified and unidentifiedly lost, ready to be swept away in the debris of a disintegrating humanity.
How is it that young girls are not taught to wonder at their unique life-giving potential, and so want proudly to keep themselves, so as one day to fulfill that potential? Probably, almost certainly, they will not re-learn that wonder until we return to the situation in which the normal wife and mother once more proudly rejoices in her role as the privileged bearer and nurturer of life.
Fear of pregnancy? That’s understandable. No one chooses pain for its own sake. But we do choose a painful operation to save our own lives. A soldier can give his life to save his country. Soldiers used to be regarded as heroes. Now we don’t believe too much in military heroism. Even just causes are greeted with skepticism. There seems to be nothing worth giving oneself to. The ultimate surrender of values is when suppressing new life is regarded as a proper right, and giving new life as an unfair burden.
It seems well here to quote two prominent twentieth-century figures in the study of sex who can hardly be accused of retrograde religious bias. The first, the British physician and psychologist Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), stressed that “the mother is the child’s supreme parent,” adding, “In the great ages of humanity [this] has indeed been accepted as a central and sacred fact.” He goes on, “In England, by a curiously perverted form of sexual attraction, women were so fascinated by the glamour that surrounded men that they desired to suppress or forget all the facts of organic constitution which made them unlike men, counting their glory as their shame, and sought the same education as men, the same occupations as men” (Studies in the Psychology of Sex).
The anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) has been criticized for the cultural determinism in her observation of primitive societies. But the following words of hers could well be taken to reflect the modern societal determinism to which girls are more and more subject. “The simple logic of ‘breasts that do not give suck’ can only be escaped by the most elaborate forms of cultural learning. Girls can be placed in learning contexts where every one of them will wish to be a boy and resent being a girl; girls can be placed in learning contexts in which being a woman and bearing a child is a synonym of having one’s body invaded, distorted, and destroyed. Girls can certainly learn not to want children, but such learning seems always to be socially imposed…. Societies may be differently successful in teaching each sex its reproductive rôle, and when both sexes set their hearts against reproduction, then such societies die out — even without benefit of contraceptives” (Male and Female).
On the one hand, we have disdain for virginity, disregard for modesty, and provocative fashion. On the other, we have rejection of the ideal of being a homebuilder, loss of appreciation and reverence for the mystery of motherhood. Who is to blame for this wretched state of womankind, which is pervasive in the West and is being unrelentingly imposed by the West on emerging countries? Who is to blame for this denaturalized situation, which inevitably results in women being robbed of their deepest human dignity, isolating them from men and from each other, leaving them more and more immersed in grievances, frustration, self-pity, and loneliness?
Who is to blame? Some men, no doubt, who seek money or power in pushing this degraded agenda. But the main blame for all of this lies with the generality of women themselves, who have allowed themselves to be led by a group of women who originated the agenda: the radical feminists of the 1960s and later — highly intelligent women, for the most part, who were also highly frustrated. Their writings, their words, their interviews confirm this impression: frustration in their own upbringing; in their marriage, if they married; in their love affairs; in their professional ambitions. They pushed for women’s “freedom” from sexual restraint, from family ties, from motherhood, from the respect of men. And, with few exceptions, the rest of women followed them.
Unless women themselves realize what they have rejected and act to reclaim it, their situation, and the situation of all of us, will degenerate more and more, until we are overtaken by total dehumanization.
A hundred years ago, in the turbulence of early feminist claims, G.K. Chesterton made a quip about how ten thousand women rose as one man, crying out, “We will not be dictated to,” and promptly became stenographers! Today his quip could be given a much more serious turn. Millions of women all over the Western world need to rise up and cry out, each in her own voice, “We will not be dictated to, or exploited, or turned into merchandise or into men. We reclaim our right to be women!”
“Equality of dignity does not mean ‘sameness with men.’ This would only impoverish women and all of society, by deforming or losing the unique richness and the inherent value of femininity. In the Church’s outlook, women and men have been called by the Creator to live in profound communion with one another, with reciprocal knowledge and giving of self, acting together for the common good with the complementary characteristics of that which is feminine and masculine.” — Pope John Paul II