The hardest part for me as a budding feminist was reconciling my lifelong religious beliefs–tenants that were given to me at birth and reinforced throughout my youth–with my new understanding of feminism. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale allowed me to experience the dangers of a society in which women are reduced to their reproductive organs, over which they have no control. The Catholic Church where I was a confirmed member continued to hold fast to pro-life teachings not only on a religious level, but on a political level as well so that members who advocate against laws regulating women’s bodies are considered to be in a state of mortal sin. I remember feeling rather torn in 2012 when the media reported that Nancy Pelosi was denied Catholic communion due to her public pro-choice stance as a politician.
This contradiction of what my church was telling me and what I was beginning to discover–that women must have rights to their bodies in a society that truly values women as independent persons–began to pull me in two directions, and over the next few years I began to question further how I can reconcile my religious beliefs with feminism. For example, the Catholic Church does not allow women to perform ministerial roles in the church, citing Jesus as an example since he only chose men for his twelve disciples. How could I tell my two daughters that they could be anything, that they could do anything men could do–except this?
The memory of all these thoughts caused me to relate heavily to Christine de Pizan, an early French feminist who wrote “The Book of the City of Ladies” in 1405. Pizan’s lamentations of the lack of respect given to women over men–especially in the eyes of the church which attributed the curse on all humanity to a woman eating an apple–matched my own desperate wonderings as I desperately tried to reconcile my religion with my feminism.
And I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every vice. As I was thinking this, a great unhappiness and sadness welled up in my heart, for I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as they were were monstrosities in nature. And in my lament I spoke these words:
‘Oh God, how can this be? For unless I stray from my faith, I must never doubt that Your infinite wisdom and most perfect goodness ever created anything which was not good.’
Pizan wonders if the honor and dignity of women cannot be found in her faith which claims woman to be not only unworthy or incapable of certain duties, but goes even further to suggest in one of the very first Biblical stories that women are the reason for all of the evil in the world. My thoughts were then the same: how can I follow a faith, raise my children in a religion, that thinks upon women in such a way?
There is of course another perspective to this, and Pizan realizes this when her prayer is answered by a lady described as Reason. It’s unclear whether this is truly a spiritual apparition or her own inner voice, although I lean toward the ladder. The answers Lady Reason gave were not unlike the answers I have received by religious people in response to my disputes with the treatment of women in the Catholic Church: women are created for a unique purpose that is unlike anything a man will ever be able to do. A woman cannot be a priest in the same way that a man cannot become pregnant. Of course, this good intentioned explanation doesn’t account for the fact that a man does not have a uterus and women do not lack the body parts needed to perform priestly duties (although the Catholic Church would say she lacks the spiritual parts that are only embedded in the soul of a man). However, none of this takes into account transgender males and females, as a transgender male will indeed have a uterus, and will a transgender female thence have the “spiritual parts” necessary to be a priest? The answer of course would then be the denial that being transgender is even legitimate.
All of this to say that I am now at an impasse in my faith, identifying as an agnostic theist rather than a Christian, and this can largely be attributed to the lack of feminist ideals in the church (as well as respect for the LGBT community, but that’s another topic).
I want to end on a positive note, however. For all the negative views and rules about women in the Catholic Church, they do succeed far better than any other Christian faith tradition in honoring one of the strongest women of religious literature: Mary, the Mother of Jesus, depicted as a woman with a snake crushed under her heel.
As Lady Reason told Christine de Pizan:
Oh, how could any man be so heartless to forget that the door of Paradise was opened to him by a woman? As I told you before, it was opened by the Virgin Mary, and is there anything greater one could ask for than God was made man?
At the risk of being heretical: Mary, Mother of God, Our Lady of Feminism, pray for the equality of all women.