Toward a New Feminism

Interview With Author Michele Schumacher

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FRIBOURG, Switzerland, MARCH 8, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Although women's "genius" is as old as woman herself, the work of articulating the theoretical basis of this reality through a new feminism is a relatively new development, says author Michele Schumacher.



Schumacher, a wife and mother of four, is the editor of and contributing author to "Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism," published by Eerdmans.

In this interview with ZENIT, Schumacher, who is a professor of theological anthropology at the European Institute of Anthropological Studies, Philanthropos, and external research collaborator in theology at the University of Fribourg, comments on the importance of articulating this theoretical basis, and the challenges in doing so.

Q: In his 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" Pope John Paul II put forth a challenge to found and articulate a new feminism based on the "genius of woman," a challenge you said three years ago had "barely been taken up." Has the situation changed?

Schumacher: I meant by that statement the challenge to articulate the anthropological -- that is, metaphysical -- foundations of a new feminism.

The precision is important, because although the theoretical articulation of a new feminism is recent, the lived reality -- the practical counterpart of the so-called theory -- is as old as woman herself.

From the practical perspective of acting in accord with our female genius -- which is in fact the basis of the theoretical formulation -- it is almost impossible to measure the scope of a new feminism and its influence. There is, however, no doubt that many women are effectively heeding Pope John Paul II's call and challenge to put their female genius "to work" in the promotion of a culture of life.

From the more theoretical perspective, the theme of a new feminism has "gone public": I am aware of a growing number of university classes dedicated to the subject, of conferences, articles and even books. Beyond this, and perhaps more significant, a lot of work is being done under the broader guise of Christian anthropology: from both philosophical and theological perspectives. I need only cite the recent and growing number of international institutes and journals dedicated to this important subject.

I esteem all of this more theoretical interest in a new feminism to be a good thing, for although the priority must be awarded to action -- by which I mean also contemplative "action" -- theory does influence practice. I have read enough mainstream feminist thought, for example, to realize how much these theories have infiltrated our culture -- both for the good and the bad.

Q: Why is that anthropological foundation of a new feminism so important?

Schumacher: It is important for many reasons, one of which is the intrinsic connection between nature -- who we are -- and operation -- what we do.

The very metaphysical anthropology that the Catholic tradition has espoused, and that I emphatically hold as true, presents nature as being both given and achieved.

Nature is the principle of operation; hence we become who we are by the exercise of our freedom and thus by our own -- including shared -- actions. This allows for real self-realization and thus also for vocation.

Another important reason for insisting upon anthropological foundations is the challenge posed by mainstream feminism in its reaction to two significant attacks upon a traditional metaphysics: biological reductionism and the social construction of nature.

The first attack would reduce women to their bodies and their vocation to motherhood, understood in the most diminutive sense of having babies and giving birth.

The second would allow society to dictate what is and what is not "natural' and to educate girls to this end. Hence, women are "maternal," for example, because girls are raised to be mothers and not because of some innate quality.

It is in this context that was born -- with due regard for the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre -- the very influential slogan of Simone de Beauvoir: "One is not born but becomes a woman."

Beauvoir's philosophy is a good example of feminism adopting the "divide and rule" mentality that it would ascribe to "patriarchal" thinking: the setting at odds of nature and nurture -- and thus also of the individual and the community -- of body and soul, of nature and grace, of man and woman.

With regard to that last dualism, allow me to interject that I do not regard male and female "natures" as absolutes: There is, as I have argued in my book, one -- human -- nature which exists in two modes or expressions: the expression of a man and the expression of a woman.

Q: Isn't the process of articulating the philosophical and anthropological nature of woman one that could continue endlessly? Shouldn't a new feminism begin to work simultaneously in other areas -- education, politics and culture -- instead of waiting for the anthropological foundations to be laid first?

Schumacher: I have in part already answered this question above by insisting that we cannot separate -- no more in the epistemological realm than in the practical realm -- the intrinsic connection between nature and its operation, which is to say that our articulations of human nature follow upon our observations of human action.

Similarly, the question of what might constitute our female genius -- and thus what is most proper to a new feminism -- will require that women take seriously John Paul II's call to exercise that genius -- our "unique and decisive" thought and action, as he puts it -- in the promotion of a culture of life.

I am not proposing a paradox. We are capable of living our genius without necessarily articulating it, but the task of articulating it is as important as the connection between the practical and the theoretical spheres.

In other words, the theoretical articulation of that genius should, in turn, incite a wise and well-reflected praxis. Genuine culture requires both, and it is precisely the promotion of a healthy and faith-filled culture of life that is the goal of this endeavor.

Q: You've spoken a lot about the woman's genius. Could you explain what that is?

Schumacher: Pope John Paul II has some wonderful insights into this theme. He addresses, for example -- in "Mulieris Dignitatem," No. 30 -- a certain feminine "sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance," which he attributes to women in view of God's special entrustment to us of the human person.

By this, he certainly has a regard for our maternal vocation, by which we not only receive another human being, but also give of ourselves.

Our unique and privileged contact with the children God has entrusted to us -- already from the moment of their conceptions -- fosters our attentiveness for all human persons, he explains.

Beyond this, or still more fundamental, our experience of menstruation might lead us -- as Sister Prudence Allen has aptly argued in "Women in Christ," page 93 and following -- to a more or less conscious awareness of our natural, bodily orientation to another human being -- our suitability for motherhood.

This is a potential origin of the so-called maternal instinct: an "instinct" which can, however, be cut off by technical or psychological means.

Besides the notion -- disputed by some mainstream feminists -- of a maternal instinct, I tend to agree with many feminist epistemologists who argue -- in a manner altogether compatible with this notion of women's genius -- that we tend to have more relational manners of thinking than do men.

This is to say that we tend to view ourselves within a complex, or tissue, of relations and not as isolated monads: a view which is more likely -- these feminists argue -- to be had by male thinkers.

This is an area where contemporary feminist philosophers and so-called new feminists, who often refer to the works of the 20th-century philosopher Edith Stein, find common ground.

According to Stein's phenomenological analysis, women are much more relational in our self-conceptions and more sympathetic of others than are our male counterparts who tend to be more individualistic and isolated in their thinking.

Q: Given recent trends such as women "donating" their eggs for embryo research and the increasing promiscuity of young girls and women, what is the idea of the nature of woman promoted by mainstream feminism?

Schumacher: These phenomena are excellent examples of the negative outgrowth of the dualistic understanding of nature espoused by mainstream feminism.

The donation of eggs is consistent with a philosophical anthropology that would set a woman at odds with her body -- "my body is a thing that I can do with as I like"; the person with the community -- an embryo is also "a thing" in no need of a mother; nature and grace -- "what does God have to do with it?"; woman and man -- "what need is there for the sexual union if babies can be produced in test tubes?"

Similarly in the case of sexual promiscuity, an artificial wedge is drawn between the person and the body. The "giving" of the body does not imply the gift of the person. From this originates a series of other dualisms: that of the person and community -- "the right to choose" is the name we give to taking another's life; man and woman -- hence the phenomena of contraception and mono-parent families; nature and grace -- "what sense is there in a sacramental marriage anyway?" Or, "what does faith have to do with sexuality?"

Q: In his audience address of Feb. 14, Benedict XVI spoke of the important role women played in the early Church. What contribution can women make to the Church in these modern times?

Schumacher: To answer that question, I suggest we look to the woman who has definitively changed history and continues to incite all Christians -- women and men -- to live faithfully their respective vocations: Mary, who is praised by Benedict XVI, in the words of Elizabeth, as "blessed because she believed," Luke 1:45.

It is Mary's faith -- already at the Annunciation -- that inaugurated the new covenant. Beyond this, the deposit of faith -- all that the Church presents to us as true and worthy of faith -- is born of the "mysteries of faith" that Mary lived, first of all, in obedience to God's word and with hope in his promise. Hence Mary's personal act of faith -- her "yes, I believe" -- to even the most difficult of Christ's mysteries, has effectively become our faith: the "we believe" of the Church and the "I believe" of each one of her members.

Like Mary, we too -- women and men of the Church today -- are called not only to proclaim and live the Gospel message, but also to realize and live heroic acts of faith and most especially to help "bring to birth" the personal faith -- the "yes, I believe" -- of others, especially that of the children entrusted to our care.

This, I believe, is the most important contribution that we have to make to the Church: One that is timeless and one that can be realized in as many vocations as there are persons.