Talking About Radical Feminism
I want to open a conversation about “radical feminism” so that scholars and activists can have some new, useful things to say when the phrase is bandied about in the media. Until now, I have heard a lot of people distance themselves from it, try to explain it away as someone else’s brand, or ignore it entirely. I respectfully submit that we can do better.
“Radical feminism” is rapidly becoming a household phrase. I thought it had died out long before Mary Daly expired. I keep hearing it in the press with reference to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) against whom the Congregation or the Doctrine of the Faith issued the damning Mandate Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, April 18, 2012 (http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/politics/5908/we_are_all_nuns/).
Vatican officials in all their officialdom wrote: “Radical Feminism. The Cardinal noted a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith in some of the programs and presentations sponsored by the LCWR, including theological interpretations that risk distorting faith in Jesus and his loving Father who sent his Son for the salvation of the world. Moreover, some commentaries on “patriarchy” distort the way in which Jesus has structured sacramental life in the Church; others even undermine the revealed doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the inspiration of Sacred Scripture” (http://www.doctrinafidei.va/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20120418_assessment-lcwr_en.html). Apparently these functionaries have not read any feminist theology in the past fifty years.
I am not clear as to why “patriarchy” is in quotes, but I was happy to see it referenced. Maybe the writer modestly did not want to refer to himself! Nor was I sure what “programs and presentations” were intended since I am not aware that many of the most progressive feminist theologians have ever been invited to address an LCWR meeting or write for their publications. Still, the charge of “radical feminism”— none of these Vatican people think of it as a compliment—merited its own category and condemnation. It must be powerful.
Even more telling have been the several ways that the accused nuns and their supporters and detractors have responded. Basic to the charge of radical feminism is that the nuns, laywomen in a heretofore clerically led church, think for themselves and most do. Some people have agreed that the radical sort is a problem while feminism itself is okay. The Vatican tried this trick in its sleight of hand when John Paul II wrote about “Christian feminism” as opposed to that other kind, namely, what the rest of the world means by a term that has a long history, strong content, and clear intent. He wrote that a woman cannot be thought of in “criteria of understanding and judgment that do not pertain to her nature.” Translate—women are by nature subordinate so do not question it.
Other people put on the spot about radical feminism have dismissed the term as a weapon in the culture wars and/or have chosen to ignore it. Still others have danced around it, trying to figure out what aspects of feminism they want to embrace and what they wish to leave aside. Lesbians and support for women’s reproductive justice are the most complicated issues though most decent people don’t point it out. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister, took the tact that at issue was not so much radical feminism as what she called “radical patriarchy.” That’s one approach.
I want to open a larger conversation, one in which the word “radical” is interrogated and mined for its richness. The “roots” of feminism are in the oppression of women around the world, but the sprouts, leaves, branches, and the shade that the whole tree provides are in the many forms of oppression that include racism, colonialism, ecocide, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and the myriad ways in which people are made poor by the greed and entitlement of others. It is this larger conversation that is passed over when radical feminism is swept under the rug.
I’m for spelling out the many implications of the term, not simply the bumper sticker variety but the historical, philosophical, and yes, even theological aspects of radical feminism that still make it one of our best tools for creating a more just world. I hope some people will join in the conversation lest we lose this opportunity to define it according to our lights and respect the work that has brought us this far.