I suppose I first became a feminist as a rebellious young woman at an Irish Catholic convent school—this would be back in the 1950s, just edging into the early 1960s. This was a period in Irish life which was traditional and conservative. Since the foundation of the Irish state (political independence started in 1922-23), the country was stewarded by a careful, prudent, and sometimes culturally isolated governance, and in many respects ordinary life hadn’t changed very much over the decades.
But change was already in the air with the election of Pope John XXIII to the papacy in 1958, and then the announcement of the Second Vatican Council. One thing led to another, and within a couple of years I was in Paris aligning myself with revolting students protesting about war and peace.
That’s all a long time ago, but access to the retrospective glance is one of the blessings of the senior years: You can see how things develop from the vantage of history. As adolescents we thought those nuns were very old-fashioned, and to be sure, their order did need a little updating (religious magazines in Ireland in that era would publish glowing reports about how much more modern and outgoing American nuns were). And yet, in their own way, it could be said that these sisters practiced a form of feminism by example.
Nuns had chosen their “vocation”—that is, their “calling”—after deliberate reflection. They hadn’t been railroaded into a pattern of living expected by society. Some had chosen the convent for reasons of spirituality, but quite a few also brought an element of artistic or intellectual endeavour. Women religious were free to study and to research in a way that wasn’t often available to lay women. The recently deceased Irish historian Margaret MacCurtain remained, all her life, a Dominican nun. Back in the 1950s, when many of her female contemporaries were living conventional lives, Margaret was researching 16thand 17th-century manuscripts in Louvain, Belgium, and Salamanca, Spain.
And nuns were often confident women accustomed to authority: A convent is an institution entirely organized by women. In fact, their reputation for organization was sometimes considered daunting.
I have read many memoirs of women of my generation who felt that “society offered no other role to women except marriage and children.” But I never recall the Loreto nuns exalting marriage as a future career. Occasionally they would say, “Girls, you are the mothers of tomorrow.” But they were much keener for their teenage pupils to focus on examination success and obtaining a good job than to entertain thoughts of marriage. They were also very critical of women “stuffing their heads with silliness,” in line with the more inane aspects of popular culture.
I had my differences with nuns at the time, yet they were following in a tradition of what we would now call women’s empowerment.
The fight for education is always seen as the first staging post in women’s emancipation. And women’s education was pioneered by women who founded teaching orders of nuns. Angela de Merici, who died in Italy in 1540, founded the Ursulines, the first order of sisters to be specifically committed to teaching girls. She was a remarkable person who had a great educational vision. Other foundresses followed: Mary Ward, who died in 1645, founded the Loreto order. St. Jane Frances de Chantal, who died in 1767, was a widow when she started the Order of the Visitation: In her lifetime, her order expanded to 80 convents, and she was said to display administrative genius in her handling of them. (She was also the grandmother of the French writer Madame de Sévigné.) Then there was Nano Nagle, who died in 1784, and is regarded as the founder of education in Ireland. She launched the Presentation Sisters, with a particular view to giving poor children the same opportunities as richer ones. And through her so many more energetic women religious thus spread to the new world in the Americas and Australia.
Many, if not most, Irishwomen of my generation who became feminists were educated by nuns: Our ex-President Mary Robinson actually wanted to become a nun. (She was turned down by the convent where she applied, so she became a law professor, senator, and head of state instead!) Significantly, several of her clever and ambitious aunts were nuns.
We know that many of the early modern feminists were Christians—we think of the legacy of Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Cady Stanton, and their involvement in the abolitionist movement, which was driven by Christian activists. In Britain, women like Josephine Butler—a devout Christian—campaigned against the slave trade and against the sexual exploitation and abuse of girls. She had a considerable influence on Millicent Fawcett, whose statue in London is emblematic of women’s emancipation.
That element of serious Christian commitment and feminism remained a motif throughout the early to middle years of the 20th century. Not all feminists were Christian, or women of faith. (Some were secular or unassociated with faith issues.) But many were motivated by faith.
So what changed between then and now? I believe a key intellectual shift came about, first, with Simone de Beauvoir’s publication of The Second Sex. This was originally published in French in 1949, but it didn’t gain a universal reach until paperback British and American editions emerged in the 1960s. De Beauvoir was a considerable intellectual, and her classic text has many facets, but certain themes stand out: One was that women aren’t born into the stereotype of womanhood, but are “conditioned” by society into becoming what we identify as womanly. (This is the basis of so much confusion today about “gender”: The radical American feminist Judith Butler is the chief purveyor of the notion that all gender is “socially constructed.”)
The second theme in de Beauvoir’s work was hostility to motherhood. She had contempt for mothers, for marriage, and for women who defined themselves as homemakers. This attitude derived from her own background: Her mother was a compliant woman, religious, and a homemaker. Her father was clever, feckless, and lived freely. Simone wanted her father’s life, not her mother’s.
Crucially, she anathemized pregnancy. It turned a woman into “the plaything of nature” and removed “autonomy.” Repeatedly, she speaks of “the bondage of reproduction,” the “servitude” of fertility, woman’s “enslavement to the species,” and the “parasite” within a pregnant woman. Women could never be as free as men until this “slavery” to Nature was overcome, she ordained.
And so, feminism in the 1960s, though initially drawing on the traditions of education, suffrage, and emancipation, moved towards a focus on the body. The contraceptive Pill, launched at the beginning of the 1960s, had a huge impact— reproduction became medicalized. The birth control movement—which had started at the beginning of the 20th century with sexual radicals like Havelock Ellis and eugenicists like Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger—now became part of feminism. The Women’s Liberation movement of the mid-1960s also drew on several other influences—student radicals, the civil rights movement, hippies, flower children, peaceniks, and the music revolution. But by the 1970s, de Beauvoir’s disdain for pregnancy and motherhood fed into abortion politics, steering feminism in the directions that we have come to recognize in modern times.
Yet there were feminist traditions, and traditions of women’s emancipation, that were quite genuinely diverse. The Prohibition movements, both in Scandinavia and in the United States, were driven by women who were strong (sometimes extreme) anti-liquor crusaders; they united as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. One of its leading figures, Carrie A. Nation, was rather a virago, whose practice was to take an axe to the taverns where the men were boozing. But the purpose of their campaigns was to put a halt to what we would now call domestic abuse: Excessive drinking was implicated (still is) in threequarters of cases of “wife-beating,” as it was then called, and in child cruelty.
Feminism, like other “isms,” is always in the process of changing, but what is in the deposit of history will always remain, and its seeds will periodically regerminate. The tradition of Christian (perhaps that should be Judeo-Christian) feminism reaches back, not just to Angela de Merici, but to earlier holy women, such as Hildegard of Bingen, or Hilda of Whitby, the abbess of a double monastery commanding men and women. Christian women missionaries, by the way, were trying to halt Female Genital Mutilation in the 1920s and 30s—and were condemned by Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya as “colonialists” for their efforts.
It’s been heartening to see the surge of pro-life women elected to the U.S. House and Senate in the November 2020 election, and more than heartening to witness the visibility of Amy Coney Barrett in the Supreme Court. Here’s a woman who has had a brilliant education, is a highly accomplished lawyer, is married, and is a mother to seven children—two adopted, one with special needs. Back in the 1960s, feminists talked about the need for “role-models”: Well, here is a superb examplar, as well as a living disproof of the de Beauvoir notion that motherhood is incompatible with the development of reason.
There have been many strands of feminism, some with roots in surprisingly traditional Christian and Catholic soil, and we should reclaim the good traditions of such humane and pro-life feminism where we find them.
Mary Kenny is a well-known Irish journalist, broadcaster, and playwright, and one of the founding members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. She is the longtime European editor of the Human Life Review and a Great Defender of Life recipient in 2006. Author of many books, including Abortion: The Whole Story (1986) and Goodbye to Catholic Ireland (1997), her most recent release is Am I a Feminist? Are You? (2017, New Island Books).