“However carefully a woman may have organized her life, a husband and children are necessary to make her complete. It’s like going about with one arm or something, you see, you’re missing something.”
This is a line from a 1939 Madeleine Carroll and Fred MacMurray film, Honeymoon in Bali. At the beginning of the film, Carroll’s character seems content as a career woman. Then, she meets and falls in love with MacMurray’s character and realizes she wants marriage and motherhood, not a career.
The plot of Honeymoon in Bali reads like the perfect anti-feminist storyline: “Let this be a lesson to all you New Women with your radical ideas about love and sex, men and women,” it says to the audience of the 1930s. In the 30s Hollywood films often featured a “New Woman” character whose modern lifestyle of free love and personal autonomy becomes her foil. This was also the time before the idea of women “having it all” became the norm, when it was expected that a woman would stop working when she got married.
From a purely anti-feminist view, the scene where Carroll speaks this line is a triumphant moment. It speaks of the nature of womanhood that feminism cannot change, try as it might.
But there’s a problem—her statement is not true. Not for the reason Betty Friedan sold en masse to the West, however. Friedan’s idea was roughly the opposite: a husband and children are not enough to make a woman complete. She needs a career outside of the home to be fully human.
Long before Betty Friedan’s time and the second wave of feminism, the “woman’s rights” movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on woman suffrage in particular, as well as women’s education and divorce law. The goal was woman’s independence—the common and main thread of feminism in any era. At that time feminists were not encouraging women, as they did in the second wave, to abandon their homes and children (to nannies or daycare) to pursue careers. Yet, the message of independence and autonomy—to be “her own woman”— didn’t change from one wave of feminism to the next. The impulse of feminism has always been the same as I’ve discussed in several previous essays on this site.
The leaders of the first wave of feminism came from an upper middle class Protestant milieu. Some of the earliest woman’s rights advocates, such as Susan B. Anthony, were Quakers, or, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, rejected organized Christianity altogether because it does not recognize equality of the sexes. (In protest, Stanton wrote The Woman’s Bible, a rewriting of Scripture from a feminist perspective.) That these women were often members of sects that were in rebellion against Protestantism, itself a rebellious sect against Catholicism, is a key to understanding the bee that was in these women’s bonnets, that is, why they rebelled against the social order they were a part of to advocate “woman’s rights.”
One of the much-cherished myths of modern thought is that the Catholic Church is oppressive to women. Medieval times, the so-called “Dark Ages,” when the culture of Europe became thoroughly Catholic, is popularly thought to be a dark age for women. This myth is part of the overall revision of history that occurred as a result of the anti-Catholic Protestant Revolution, the anti-Catholic Enlightenment of the 18th century, and the ascendancy of Liberalism in the West that followed and remains today.
As it turns out, when you peel away the thick layers of lies that have been laid down upon us since the Protestant Revolution, Christianity—Catholicism, to be specific—raised woman out of her degraded state within pagan cultures and gave woman her true dignity. In other words, in a Catholic social order women thrive, as women.
An English bishop writing about “Christian Womanhood” in a 1914 pamphlet put it thusly: “The emancipation of Woman dates from the Birth of Christ. It came about, not by violent revolution or clamorous agitation, but by the preaching of the Gospel and the creation of a new social sense.”[i]
That social sense came to fruition in the “Golden Age of Christianity,” in the 12th and 13th centuries, when, as Fr. Edward Cahill states, “the influence of the Church in Europe was at its zenith. Christian principles then dominated social relations more fully than at any other period before or since; and the Christian State then approached most nearly its full development.”[ii]
What did this mean for women? Fr. Cahill explains:
The influence upon the mind of Christendom of the prerogatives of the Virgin Mother—the ideal of Christian womanhood, and worshipped by all Christians as the Queen of Angels and of men—the position secured in society as well as in the home to the Christian wife by the sanctity, the unity and the perpetuity of Christian marriage; the freedom allowed to every Christian maiden by the Church’s teaching and practice to dedicate her life to God in the state of perpetual virginity; and last, but not least, the superior character of the typical Christian woman as compared with her non-Christian sisters, all contributed to raise the woman’s prestige, and secure for her a position of influence and dignity in the family and in society immeasurably beyond anything she knew before the advent of Christianity.[iii]
The women who instigated the “woman’s rights” movement would not have known this. Had they heard it or read it, it is likely they would not have believed it, such is the strength of anti-Catholicism embedded within Protestantism and the culture to which it gave birth. However, lacking this knowledge meant misunderstanding their own problems, misdiagnosing the cause, and prescribing a mistaken cure.
The milieu the early feminist leaders lived in was saturated with ideas of the Enlightenment and the mentality of “Revolution.” The first woman suffrage convention in the U.S. took place in 1848, the year of revolutions in Europe. The newspaper Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony edited was called simply, The Revolution, where they advocated for woman suffrage, loosening of divorce law, and where they set forth the idea that woman’s “emancipation” was a cure-all for society’s ills.
These women were ignorant of the Truth. They did not see how the Protestant Revolution had, in destroying the Catholic social order of medieval Europe, harmed woman’s position in society. Fr. Cahill describes it thusly:
As a result of the Protestant Revolt of the 16th century, and especially under the influence of Calvinism, the tendency towards the oppression and degradation of women quickly reappeared in European society. The prestige of the woman suffered an incalculable disaster by the abolition under Protestantism of the veneration and cult of the Mother of God. With the disappearance of conventual life women were again shut out from a recognised status in social life outside the married state which the religious life had previously afforded them. Again, while lay institutions, such as the English Grammar schools, took the place of the Catholic monasteries and other ecclesiastical institutions for the education of boys, practically nothing was done up to the 19th century to replace the Convent schools for the literary training of girls. Furthermore, the attitude of the husband towards the wife naturally tended, once the Church’s authority was removed and Christian principles obscured, to return to the pagan ideal of a master and an owner, rather than a loving friend, companion and protector.[iv]
Fr. Augustin Rössler, the author of the entry on “Woman” in the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia, also describes the situation well:
Luther’s attack upon religious celibacy and against the sacramental character and indissolubility of marriage, worked permanent injury. The chief result was that woman was again brought into absolute dependence upon man, and the way was made ready for divorce, the results of which press far more heavily upon woman than upon man. After this the natural basis of society and the natural position of woman and the family were shaken to such extent by the French Revolution that the germ of the modern woman’s suffrage movement is to be sought there. The anti-Christian ideas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to a complete break with the medieval Christian conception of society and the state. It was no longer the family or the social principle that was regarded as the basis of the state, but the individual or the ego.[v]
In 1928, in response to the rising tide of the woman’s “emancipation” movement, Pope Pius XI said the following in a speech on the occasion of the introduction of the cause of beatification of the Venerable Paola Frassinetti:
What does the modern woman, the feminist, want? Would she be sufficient for herself, open her own path, and not be dependent on the egoism and domination of men, would she find a field for her own proper activity? Very well, the Church has already done that by encouraging the religious profession and consecration of so many generous lives to works of piety, education, assistance, evangelization, in fact the apostolate of good in every imaginable form.
Behold a true and holy feminism, from the very first beginnings of religious life down to this latest example which we see before us in these last days of Paola Frassinetti, a glorious example, a meritorious feminism indeed.
What are the religious of all times and places, if they are not women who are sufficient of themselves, and willed to labour in those fields which they had willed and chosen? Truly here we see the true emancipation, the elevation, the consecration of woman, and all this the Church has ever venerated, and required to be held in honour by the Christian world.[vi]
What is forgotten today even by most Catholics—due to the “Protestantization” of the Catholic Church—is that the Church traditionally teaches that the priesthood or religious life is “a better and higher state even than marriage, and a state to which many are called.”[vii]
Fr. Rössler discusses this teaching and how it relates to women in particular:
According to Paul (1 Corinthians 7:25-40) the virgins and widows do well if they persist in the intention not to marry in order to serve God with undivided mind; they indeed do better than those who must divide their attention between care for the husband and the service of God. By this doctrine the female sex in particular was placed in an independence of man unthought of before. It granted the unmarried woman value and importance without man; and what is more the virgin who renounces marriage from religious motives, acquires precedence above the married woman and enlarges the circle of her motherly influence upon society.[viii]
In Fr. Rössler’s excellent treatment of the subject of woman in the Catholic Encyclopedia, he reminds us that Protestantism is “a mutilated kind of Christianity, in which woman is especially injured by the abrogation of the dedication of virginity to God.”[ix]
As Pius XI points out, in a Catholic culture, for the woman who does not want to marry there is the exalted life of a religious. In a Protestant culture on the other hand, which shuns the religious life, a woman who does not marry is a “spinster,” which has only negative connotations. In the Protestant culture that gave birth to feminism a woman had only one path before her—marriage and motherhood. As Fr. Rössler suggests, the shuttling of religious life contributed to the rise of feminism.
In the centuries before the Protestant Revolution religious life flourished in Europe. In early medieval times monasteries were at the heart of the social order in Western Europe:
In every district, on mountain and valley, near the sea-shore, and in inland regions their monasteries were to be seen. These formed the centres of the organised religion of the neighbourhood. It was the monasteries and convents of nuns that relieved the poor, reared the orphans, cared for the sick, afforded shelter to the traveller, and were havens of refuge for all who were weighed down by spiritual or corporal suffering.[x]
The Protestant Revolution, however, brought the dissolution of the monasteries, and religious life has never had the primacy of place in the social order that it had in medieval Catholic Europe.
After the Protestant Revolution, the right ordering of society that had existed in Europe slowly devolved. This “disorder” affected women’s lives and social position. Instead of having the choice between marriage, raised to a sacrament by the Catholic Church and signifying the relationship between Christ and His Church, and the religious life, much exalted by the Church as a more worthy state than marriage, women were now hemmed in to the one path of marriage and motherhood. As Madeleine Carroll’s character announces in Honeymoon in Bali, to be complete a woman must marry and bear children.
This is the belief that permeated the Protestant milieu of the early feminists. They were ignorant of the Catholic Church’s tradition and teaching about the glories of Our Lady, and of the wonderful and exalted path a woman could take in choosing the religious life.
In Pius XI’s criticism of feminism he reminds us that the Church has “already” created the proper sphere for the “independent” woman: the religious life. He states that the Church has “ever venerated” the consecrated woman. It is an emancipation of “old,” wrote Catholic political economist Charles Stanton Devas in his 1886 Studies of Family Life. [xi]
The early feminists, with their clouded Protestant and Revolutionary mindset, were incapable of discovering and acknowledging that the true solution to their unhappiness had already been provided—by the Catholic Church—and very successfully demonstrated in medieval Catholic Europe in particular, but also in modern times. No new ideology or system needed to be implemented; what was needed was a conversion of Protestant individuals and nations to the Catholic Church.
I wrote in a previous essay that “feminism amounts to a mistaken solution to a problem that didn’t even exist.” This is true, women were not oppressed as feminists claimed they were—they actually had an embarrassment of riches, both materially and in terms of personal freedom. However, Protestantism, a “mutilated kind of Christianity,” was not good for women or men. All of Europe was harmed by it, and all of America’s problems, its revolutions and wars and its decadence and decay, can be traced to it being founded on a Protestant ethos.
Women and men are “oppressed” when they do not profess the one, true Faith, the Catholic religion. All nations, when they do not profess this Faith, are eventually lost. But Man in his weakness continues to circle the Truth with his man-made ideologies and systems.
Our pride is a voracious feeder. The Protestant Revolt is based on pride. Feminism is based on pride. The succession of anti-Catholic ideologies and revolutions that came after Protestantism was violently introduced into the world all flow in this channel of pride.
However, the Truth is always waiting to be discovered.
As Devas states, woman’s “true dignity is secured by her marriage being made holy, single, and indissoluble; and also by her liberty to choose a life of celibacy or of marriage.”[xii] And, as Fr. Rössler writes, “The respect for woman rises and falls with the veneration of the Virgin Mother of God.”[xiii]
For women to realize their true dignity and role a Catholic social order is required. The greatness of Christendom was not based on the majority of its inhabitants being devout Catholics. Christendom was great because the social order was thoroughly Catholic. In other words, the State professed the Catholic Faith and only tolerated the private practice of other religions. This is to say that Church and State were not separated and religious liberty was not allowed.
Pope Pius XI wrote in his 1925 encyclical on Christ’s Kingship, Quas Primas:
When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony… If princes and magistrates duly elected are filled with the persuasion that they rule, not by their own right, but by the mandate and in the place of the Divine King, they will exercise their authority piously and wisely, and they will make laws and administer them, having in view the common good and also the human dignity of their subjects. The result will be a stable peace and tranquility, for there will be no longer any cause of discontent.[xiv]
What feminists yearn for is completeness, as do all people. The inescapable fact for us all is that our completeness can be found only in the true Church of Christ, which is the Church of Rome, the Catholic Church.
For Catholics feminism is absolutely unnecessary. For Protestants, feminism may seem necessary, but it is not. What is necessary for Protestants is Catholicism.
[i] Frederick William Keating, “Christian Womanhood: Women and the Church,” Catholic Social Guild Pamphlets, Third Series (Catholic Truth Society: London, 1914) 2
[ii] Edward Cahill, S.J., The Framework of a Christian State (Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1932) 24
[iii] Cahill 431
[iv] Cahill 432
[v] Augustin Rössler, “Woman,” Catholic Encyclopedia. 1912 ed. (www.newadvent.org)
[vi] ”The Holy Father on the Modern World,” The Tablet, August 25, 1928 (www.thetablet.co.uk)
[vii] Cahill 345
[x] Cahill 19
[xi] Charles Stanton Devas, Studies of Family Life (Burns and Oates: New York, 1886) 156
[xii] Devas 153
[xiv] Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Letter, Quas Primas, 1925