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Is the “New Feminism” Just the Same Old Selfishness?



Rachel Lu - published on 11/26/14

A response to Catherine Ruth Pakaluk

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk is skeptical about the so-called “new feminism.” She doesn’t think Catholics should need their own brand of feminism, or if they do, she insists that its aims should be highly limited. In what follows, I will argue that she has underappreciated the value of the new feminism. A genuinely Catholic exploration of authentic femininity is worth doing, and likely to yield good fruit.

First I should clarify: what is meant by the term “new feminism”? Inspired by John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem, this intellectual movement attempts to explore authentic femininity in a way that is consistent with Catholic teaching and the natural law. Rooted largely in the Christian Personalist tradition, it examines the differences between the sexes, and considers how women can best contribute to society. New feminists also take up questions concerning the happiness and thriving of modern women. What kind of lives enable women to be happy and fulfilled? How can they best realize their potential?

Pakaluk’s critique, published recently in these pages, asks us to consider whether  the new feminism may be reinforcing the errors of mainstream feminists, by urging women to pursue their self-interest at the expense of duty and love. She seems to think that this sort of selfishness is intrinsic to feminism as such, and that any self-conscious attempt to understand femininity is likely to fall prey to these sorts of defects.

Based on my own dealings with new feminists, I think Pakaluk’s concerns are mostly ill-founded. I appreciate everything she says about the evils of nihilistic atheism, and about the unique contributions that women can make to society in light of their particular sensitivity to “personhood.” All of this, however, seems entirely consonant with the work of the new feminists. Thus, I can’t quite agree when she answers her own question (“Does the Church need a new feminism?”) as follows:

“If by feminism we mean the patient correction of errors about the nature and vocation of woman, such as what is done in Mulieris, then the answer is emphatically yes. But if by feminism we mean an unhealthy and perverse obsession with our own identity and meaning as women, then the answer must be no.”

It’s hard to speak in favor of an “unhealthy and perverse obsession.” Still, I’m not sure Pakaluk’s distinction is the right one. She seems to think that a “new feminism” is acceptable only if it carefully limits its objectives to explicitly anti-feminist arguments. We may debunk, but we should make no attempt to construct truer or better philosophy of women. The latter “obsession,” she fears, is liable to become selfish and navel-gazing. We’ll end up urging women to focus on their “identities,” their careers, and their dreams of personal fulfillment, and this will draw them away from more important concerns (such as faith, and the welfare of others).

Pakaluk has her sights on a real danger, which I will address in a moment. In my experience, though, it’s unwise to be so deliberately reactionary in our efforts to promulgate the truth. Mainstream feminists spread falsehoods; by all means, let’s expose them. But along the way, may we not take an interest in the subject itself (in this case, femininity)? Must we always allow our agenda to be set exclusively by others? That doesn’t strike me as the appropriate posture for an intellectually curious Catholic.

In calling the new feminists “selfish,” Pakaluk is giving what I would interpret as a rarified form of a criticism that is commonly leveled against eudaemonist theories of ethics more generally. When a moral philosophy is heavily focused on virtue and human excellence, critics are often inclined to ask:
Isn’t that fundamentally self-centered? A bit navel-gazing, perhaps? Likely to degenerate into mere egoism?

Egoism can be a real temptation for those who are intensely concerned with human excellence. We are especially likely to notice this among the Greeks, who did not share the Judeo-Christian preoccupation with equality, and the intrinsic dignity of all human life. But, of course, Christians can be selfish too, sometimes in the name of excellence or personal fulfillment.

It’s a problem that presents itself with particular force in a society like ours, that offers great prestige and material benefit to those who can cultivate (marketable) rarified excellences with particular success. Self-absorption can be richly rewarding in our society. Modern feminists have fused that realization together with a kind of Marxist presumption of class warfare, and the result is a philosophy that frequently does lionize appallingly selfish and callous behavior (abortion, for example) in the name of “female empowerment.” Catholics certainly should not wish to follow mainstream feminists down this road.

At the same time, there is a reason why great Christian thinkers (like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas) felt such an affinity with the virtue-interested Greeks. Christianity is interested in human excellence. We believe in a God who wants us to fulfill our personal potential. The eudaimonist’s concern with human thriving dovetails quite harmoniously with the Christian belief that our Creator has destined us, not for slavish submission to his tyrannical whims, but rather for exaltation, joy, and moral greatness. That is why so many of the giants of Christian thought have drawn on Greek theories of virtue in explaining the human good.

Within academic philosophy, a number of thinkers have developed disciplined arguments explaining how eudaimonism can avoid degenerating into mere egoism. The short answer is that we must look beyond mere concern with personal fulfillment, embracing a broader view of the ends for which human beings were made. Love and fidelity occupy a central place in the life of the genuinely fulfilled person, and a true Christian ethics must acknowledge this. If it does, it should be possible to promote human excellence without endorsing selfishness.

Returning to Pakaluk’s critique of the new feminism, we can now see that it is important to distinguish. Is the new feminism (like mainstream feminism) recommending that women find fulfillment in a basically self-centered way? Or does it follow a more authentically Catholic tradition by advising women to find fulfillment through a more holistic pursuit of virtue, love and self-giving? A detailed examination of new feminist texts would be beyond the scope of this particular article, but my experience suggests the latter. New feminists are deeply interested in women’s capacity to love and nurture, and they care greatly about developing those gifts for the benefit both of society, and of women themselves. I can’t see that the new feminists are any more vulnerable to the charge of egoism than would be, say, the Scholastics or the new-Thomists.

The new feminism stirs up a fair amount of controversy just in virtue of its name. Some people are so repelled by the very word “feminism” that it’s difficult to persuade them to consider the matter further. Others are pleased by the implication that a new feminism could represent a more genuinely pro-woman philosophy. I won’t weigh in on this terminological debate, except to say that I think we should judge the movement on its substantive merits, without getting too distracted by the name. In a world that is struggling to understand how to deal with distinctions of sex and gender, it is imperative that Catholics articulate the truth about authentic femininity in a way that the world can understand. From that perspective, I think the new feminism is a welcome development, and that these Catholic scholars should be encouraged in their work.

Rachel Luteaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.

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