Feminine game changers


BBC Woman’s Hour have launched the 2014 Power List, to identify the top ten women who are changing the way that power operates in today’s society.

No doubt the list will be replete with high achieving professional women and the feminist twitter crusaders, such as Caroline Criado-Perez who successfully campaigned to have the face of Jane Austen put on a banknote and then faced an online backlash of hatred. I’m yet to be convinced that having a woman on a banknote or banishing pink lego is anything more than superficial tinkering, it does nothing to change sexual exploitation of women, for example.

Alice Feinsten, the programme’s editor has said that she is really  looking forward to hearing whether our judges think the high-profile whistleblowers and Twitter crusaders that have made the headlines over the past year are forging new rules of engagement in the circles of power.

Emma Barnett, chair of the judging panel has noted that the age of social media means that women no longer need to be successful purely in the boardroom or their professional sphere, basically making enough noise on the internet means that one can become a major game-changer regardless of whether you are a grandmother in your seventies or a politically interested teenager.

In many ways this is great news, it certainly contextualises and explains much of the unprecedented amount of online trolling, personal attack  and stalking that comes my way, especially from certain LGBT and pro-choice lobbies, who obviously do perceive me to be something of a threat or potential power-changer and therefore feel the need to neutralise or undermine the challenge with personal smears. Catholics on the internet are making their presence felt and being included in mainstream media as a result. Nonetheless awards such as these, leave me banging my head against the desk in frustration because they are everything that is wrong with modern feminism and far from recognising and celebrating authentic, genuine womanhood, are reinforcing the culture that seeks to undermine femininity.

One of the biggest mistakes that feminism has ever made in its desire to achieve women’s equality, is to judge female success by what women do, or achieve, particularly in the wider world of work, culture and politics, as opposed to who they are. In this quest for secular achievement, motherhood has been denigrated or cast aside as being oppressive as it seemingly prevents women from being in the public sphere where all the important decisions are made.

In terms of vital game-changers, no-one is more important in a young baby and child’s life than their mother and this is one of the reasons why media feminism is arguing itself into irrelevancy because it seeks to sideline the lives and concerns of ordinary women up and down the country, whether or not they are staying at home with the children or juggling a fairly-low grade job with childcare and instead engages in naval-gazing academic discussions of ‘intersectionality’ and labelling other women  who haven’t got to grips with the politically-correct terminology or media-speak as ‘transphobes’ or generally ignorant bigots. I asked my sister, a highly intelligent, forty-something, successful director of her own AIM-floated company and mother of four children whether or not she knew what the term ‘cis’ meant or what ‘intersectionality’ was all about. She looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, and noted that most people haven’t got the time to be dealing with such pretentious nonsense. While no-one is suggesting that the needs of the transgender community should be ignored, neither are the specific  concerns of a woman who was  born a man, top of the list of priorties of your average woman, whether she is a housewife, working woman, someone surviving on benefits or a combination of all the above.

That is not to say that a woman can not be a true woman unless she embraces physical motherhood, the emergence into Catholic consciousness of the phrase ‘feminine genius’ the term first coined by Blessed John Paul II in his groundbreaking apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem about the dignity and vocation of women, 25 years ago, has led to a tendency by some to idealise motherhood as being the principle way of fulfilling Catholic femininity.

If we are wishing to call women to fulfil their potential as created beings of God, then just as not every man is called to marriage or the cloister, neither is every women. Working women are every bit as able to fulfil their vocation to authentic femininity as their housewife sisters or those who by choice or necessity straddle the dual worlds of work and home. The key is in whether or not they harness their  ‘feminine genius’ which is predominantly about giving, sharing and serving.

Nonetheless it is a huge mistake for Catholic women to buy into mainstream feminist thinking about smashing the glass ceiling, or being power-changers in the wider world, as promoted by the likes of Woman’s Hour, because this inherently undermines the achievements of women on an individual level. Raising children and changing nappies may not win any accolades or been seen as a worthy achievement, but it is still vital because the world needs healthy and emotionally well-adjusted adults who thanks to a stable upbringing will be able to take their place in the world and contribute to the common good.

Most women cannot identify with the movers and shakers, because while they may present aspiration and ambition, for most, a high-powered career is unachievable, together with the demands of children. Moreover it is not what many of us want – middle class mothers are deserting the workplace in droves. I was privileged to be selected as one of the BBC’s 100 women, nonetheless throughout the day of networking and discussion, I could not stop thinking how far removed, sitting in a break-out session with Helen Clark, former prime-minister of New Zealand and Cherie Blair, was from the lives of millions of ordinary women, whose main concerns would be how to put food on the table, keep safe from the elements or protect themselves and their families from either militia or a totalitarian state.

It’s difficult to distill the essence of feminine genius into one distinct quality, it isn’t purely about raising children, nor achieving career and worldly success, it isn’t an agenda, a career plan or ‘to do list’. It should not be obsessed with accomplishments or  eliminating feminine characteristics in order to make us more like men. It’s a rather more ethereal and elusive prospect, being a woman is really about ‘essence’; a set of traits unique to womankind,  wholly distinct from men.  Whether or not they achieve physical motherhood, the general ability of women to procreate means that we have the power and potential to inject love into the world. Essence is being, not doing. If we understand who we are then we are able to transmit that whole truth the world before we have even opened our mouths. This is why faith should not be considered irrelevant or supplementary to the feminist cause which should address deeper philosophical questions such as ‘who am I’, ‘what is woman’ and consider those things which are vital to female flourishing.

Feminine gifts are counter-cultural and intangible and involve the ability to go beyond appearance, to understand and intuit things on a visceral level and pick up underlying and unspoken issues. The potential to become mothers imbues us with the gift of nurture, to nourish human love and then give that back to the whole world in whatever sphere we choose. If women seem more concerned with human relationships than men, it’s because motherhood equips us with the ability to accept, nurture and heal. It’s no coincidence that most young babies come to know and love their mother first,  because women are equipped to foster the intimate bond first formed in utero.

‘Feminine genius’ then, requires women to be a sanctuary for the human person. It is the ability of a woman to be at peace with herself and radiate the gift of love, of fostering and nurturing relationships to the world at large. To use the vernacular, it requires women to be a ‘true girlfriend’, not competitive, not obsessed with material accomplishments and secular achievements, but to put our talents at the service of others, to couch it in Christian terms, to become an icon of the Church, in order to find true fulfilment.

Being included on female power-lists, smashing glass ceilings and setting out to become lone women secular pioneers, places limitations on the scope of feminine genius. I always know when I am in the presence of a successful gracious, dignified, noble and powerful woman, not because of what she wears, or what I have read about her in the press, or what I know about her personal circumstances but because of how she makes me feel in our relationship, whether that be one of familial bonds,  friendship, or professional association.

This is what women are best at, the feminine genius lies in creating and nurturing relationships based in love. As far as feminism is concerned, if you eschew material and professional success in favour of a more spiritual approach, attempting to attain the things that matter and respond to the desires of the heart and soul, then you are not doing everything you can to become a fully-fledged modern woman and do not deserve to be a part of the club.

Women can only be game changers when they give love for no other reason than it is no less than every single soul deserves. We are called to build a civilisation of love, brick by brick, and restore the culture of life. Authentic feminine beauty lies in abandoning self-focus, rising up and bringing an elegance to virtue, socially selfless and sensual, bringing out the true beauty of other souls.

If we use this criteria then there are far more worthy women I can name, than those who have ruthlessly pursued goals of self-fulfilment and secular success or who have managed some superficial achievement by earnestly bashing out diatribes on their keyboards. The irony is that their goals transcend the temporal heights of BBC plaudits and they would therefore be wholly uninterested.

7 thoughts on “Feminine game changers

  1. You write about the tendency to judge women by ‘what they do’, rather than ‘who they are’. One of the dangers that I see in the sort of culture that is encouraged on such places as Twitter is that women will increasingly be judged by what they say and their prominence in a conversation, in abstraction both from what they do and who they are. Twitter tends to focus our attention on ideologues, campaigners, and lobbyists, on outrage and protest, rather than on people who produce something new in the world.

    The sort of feminism that results is more likely to spend its time protesting patriarchy’s power, lobbying for empowerment (which can be problematic, as seeking for ’empowerment’ makes you dependent upon another’s agency), and squabbling about the fine points of ideology. Such feminism seems to relate to action at a degree of remove: it talks about and calls for action, but typically expects another party to take it.

    As you rightly observe, in all of this sight is lost of the peculiar power that women possess and of the possibilities that could be opened if it were truly explored on its own terms. An active exploration of women’s unique potential may not register powerfully on Twitter, but it has a great deal to commend it.

    1. That’s acutely observed Alistair and perhaps why there is so much dissatisfaction with online feminism as it seems to be all about jostling for position and featuring prominently in the conversation as opposed the underlying issues. As you say, it’s ironic that women are actually giving up their own agency by demanding that someone else does something, whether that be removing page 3, putting a certain face on a banknote or prosecuting an online troll. It’s in sharp contrast to the early feminist pioneers who trod unchartered waters, not just demanding that something be done, but actually going out and doing it, whether that be from producing their own art and literature or entering male dominated institutions and professions, often at great personal cost.

      In some ways this focus upon the conversation and the drive for inclusivity and diversity has benefited me greatly, it’s telling that my male counterparts do not have access to the same media platform, despite sharing my point of view, so I cannot legitimately claim that I am marginalised or oppressed by virtue of my sex, rather I can propose an alternative point of view. But this is what I believe a lot of the infighting is about (both within feminism and elements of online Catholicism) – namely jealously because there tends to be a small selection of prominent voices. Women with my point of view are in the minority, but I cannot genuinely claim to be in possession of more merit than my other Catholic peers. I’m just fortunate to be the selected representative Catholic woman!

      If women stopped attempting to make it all about themselves and their individual goals and concentrated more upon the bigger picture and women’s role within society, i.e. the wider goals, then perhaps feminism could have a constructive discussion and shed some of its negative connotations. Yep, it’s that old notion of self-sacrifice again…

  2. A thoughtful essay as ever, Caroline, with some seriously good points. I’ll probably have more to say when I have had time to mull it over.

    Should your last sentence have read “The irony is that their goals transcend the temporal heights of BBC plaudits and THEY would therefore be wholly UNinterested”?

  3. That enthusiastic stuff about ‘forging new rules of engagement in the circles of power’ does seem very echo chamber-ish to me, but I have some sympathy for feminists like Criado-Perez, I imagine her actual concerns to be a lot more substantive than the rather fluffy stuff that gets quoted. The banknote campaign is a good example, it was supposed to be a challenge to the government to apply its own equalities auditing, but in the extensive media coverage it received it just became a branding campaign.

    There are many committed people combatting the basic issues of food and fuel poverty, social isolation, mental health and lack of decent accommodation that are having such a disproportionately devastating effect on women with caring responsibilities. I’d include organisations like GCN in that, but also journalists like Kate Belgrave, whose coverage of the E15 project led to her being banned from entering a council meeting in Newham. It would be wonderful if there could be more collaboration between from both sides.

      1. I know you’ve mentioned her before, and to be fair, I think the problem is more on the secular feminist side. I have never heard a single acknowledgement that financial and emotional support from GCN is the only thing between total destitution for many women and their children. (Often isolated women with uncertain immigration status, no recourse to public funds and experience of sexual violence, which is what intersectionality is about actually)

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