Feminism Has Not Lost Its Soul

July 4, 2016 | Published first in American Magazine

In the 1970s, when feminism got loud and national and had something approaching traction in the United States, it claimed that it would “do politics” and “do business” with a new focus. The focus would be people, not processes or power. It would be the vulnerable, not the usual recipients of government or corporate largesse.

Today, confusion reigns where feminism is concerned. There are living witnesses to its earlier promises, but these are to be found, ironically, among grass-roots women who go about their business while ignoring or eschewing the feminist label. Among feminism’s self-proclaimed leaders, there is not much talk of serving the vulnerable. There is even a fair amount of the opposite.

There is additional confusion about whether there even exists anything specifically “feminine” to be feminist about. The most celebrated feminist theorist, Judith Butler, has even gone beyond Simone de Beauvoir’s famous social construction theory—“one is not born a woman but becomes one”—to the notion that sex, biological and otherwise, is strictly a matter of performance. Furthermore, at the same time that the avant-garde denies that the categories of masculine and feminine have any content, they affirm that Bruce Jenner is definitely a woman on the grounds of his subjective certainty about a basket of female traits and his stereotypically feminine clothes and makeup. And the nation’s first-ever female presidential candidate on a major party ticket, immediately after her crowning, ran to pay her dues to the left’s version of the right’s National Rifle Association: the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Both require homage before a candidate of a major party may proceed to the general election. At Planned Parenthood, in a speech highlighting abortion 16 times, women’s freedom was essentially defined as the right to sex without children, by any means necessary—no more fitting locus for such a speech, given that Planned Parenthood last year destroyed over 300,000 unborn human lives.

Enough. I officially miss the 70s .

Still, I never despair because feminism’s promise to empower the vulnerable is alive and well among grass-roots women who are serving women and men and children across the United States, reminding everyone that the best of feminism is still alive and has not lost its soul. Its truest purveyors, however, are neither elite nor even much noticed.

They are the women who welcome immigrants into the United States despite increasingly fierce opposition, who found and staff the thousands of centers that care for impoverished pregnant women and single mothers, including the Sisters of Life. They are the women who head the largest Catholic charitable associations in the United States and in the world [8]. One woman, Sister Helen Prejean, has nearly single-handedly put the question of abolishing capital punishment back on the national agenda. And women, including me and tens of thousands of other women at the grass-roots level,are working to ameliorate the disadvantages that especially poor and working class women face in a relationship and marriage market in which casual sex and cohabitation are the price of entry. Women dislike both far more than men do .  But men still set the terms, especially in a world where men still “do the asking” for marriage; and sex is at least “plastic,” or even nearly meaningless, thanks to its divorce from even the idea of children.

It is rare but not impossible that movements for justice attract elite money and spokespersons while staying true to their best impulses. Grass-roots efforts are proceeding apace here and there, but something bigger and more powerful is required to move the ball. Political party dynamics today hurt, not help. They are too blunt, and too much about “sending signals” to donors and interest groups, thanks to our mess of a campaign finance system. (Love him or hate him, Bernie Sanders got that issue right.) There is nothing substantial whatsoever in any political or corporate pipeline I can see today, poised to ameliorate the suffering of American women, minorities or the poor. I don’t much care who leads the charge, but I would love to see a retooled women’s movement retake this mantle and run with it.

Helen Alvaré is a professor of law at George Mason University, where she teaches law and religion and family law. She is also a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Laity.