Feminism Old and New

Fulton Sheen said, "To a great extent the level of any civilization is the level of its womanhood. When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women."

I’m not sure exactly what such a history would look like, but I think it would probably be insightful, and not inaccurate in perspective. Look at the United States. During some of the proudest moments of our history, it has been women playing pivotal roles in shaping that story. The early feminist movement, for example, contained many strong characters that sought dignity and respect for themselves and others.

However, there is something important that needs to be said about my praise for these women. The modern concept of feminism is wrought with assumptions, and these assumptions might cause readers to severely misunderstand both the praise I am offering here, and the victory that the early feminists won for women.

To say it another way, early feminism is not modern feminism, and in some ways, the two are directly opposed; Susan B. Anthony and those who fought with her against slavery and for women’s suffrage would actually find themselves horrified at what is currently offered as “feminism” or “Women’s Rights.”

The simplest way to illustrate why they would be horrified is by looking at their opinions and arguments. After looking at these opinions, the difference between their feminism and the modern version will be blatantly obvious.

It is usually good to focus on one subject in order to achieve a clear illustration, and so our subject here will be “abortion.”

Susan B. Anthony wrote that such an act would burden the conscience of those committing it, both in this life and the next. Those are very strong words. Both she and Elizabeth Stanton referred to it as “the murder of children.” Mattie Brinkerhoff described the existence of abortion in a society as, in itself, evidence that women in that society had been “greatly wronged.”

Victoria Woodhull, who ran for president even though she could not vote, said that no free woman could ever carry an “unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth.”

Sarah Norton called it “ante-natal child murder” and dreamed of a day when “the right of the unborn to be born will not be denied or interfered with.”

The common thread here is not hard to see. In their idea of womanhood, they could not comprehend women desiring to procure abortions. The whole concept was so foreign to their notion of womanhood that they viewed male oppression as the only possibly reason for such a procedure. Indeed, Alice Paul called it the “ultimate exploitation” of women. They never wanted the freedom to procure such procedures; they sought freedom from oppression in order build a society that would never seek such procedures; a society that reflected their high respect for femininity, which implies motherhood.

In summary, they blamed men. As Matilda Gage said, the responsibility for this crime lies “at the door of the male sex.” I would largely agree with her. The greatest freedom won by legalized abortion was the freedom of men to become less responsible.

Something subtle has happened since the time of the “Women’s Temperance Movement” and the battle for women’s suffrage; the goals of feminism have been transformed. Today, to speak against abortion—which is to speak with all of the feminist voices already mentioned—is considered a “War on Women.” I would very much love to hear Susan B. Anthony’s response to that accusation.

The famous psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, was onto something when he identified many modern problems as the “depreciation of femininity.” Femininity denotes the unique characteristics of women, the most profound of which is motherhood. The old feminists knew that femininity and motherhood were inseparable. In protecting motherhood, they elevated femininity. In elevating femininity, they elevated the level to which men would have to rise to become worthy of them. In thus elevating men and women together, they elevated the whole of their civilization.

They were excellent examples of the women mentioned by Fulton Sheen. History was indeed written in terms of their womanhood.

Modern feminism fights for an unqualified and aimless “personal freedom”, as if freedom were an end all by itself. Those in favor of this new freedom may be achieving victories for modern feminism, but they are losses for femininity.

Daniel Schwindt