Last spring at the University of Notre Dame a heated debate about campus performances of the controversial play The Vagina Monologues made national news, provoking widespread debate not only about academic freedom at Catholic universities but also about the compatibility of Catholicism and feminism. While the debate surrounding Monologues took center stage, inciting lively debates in the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, another forum on campus quietly attracted more than 300 people. A weekend conference organized by three Notre Dame undergraduates, "The Edith Stein Project: Redefining Feminism, attempted to respond to the late Pope John Paul II's call for a "new feminism" in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae ("The Gospel of Life"), tackling such issues as abortion, pornography, contraception, eating disorders, and rape.
Gatherings like these on college campuses point to a small but growing number of Catholic women attempting to define a "new feminism," largely shaped by negating what they perceive as the failings and shortcomings of "old" feminism. While new feminism's proponents claim it celebrates women's "true genius," affirms motherhood, and liberates women from imitating models of "male domination," its critics say defining women's "unique gifts" unnecessarily limits and even harms women, curbing their career ambitions and their contributions to church and society.
New feminists say the body of thought promulgated by John Paul II in Evangelium vitae and the apostolic letter Mulieris dignitatem ("On the Dignity and Vocation of Women") allows women to look at themselves in a more holistic way.
"For a long time, feminism has been about doing: Can I build a skyscraper the way a man can? Can a man do half the housework? Can a woman break through the glass ceiling?" says Pia de Solenni, a Washington, D.C.-based moral theologian. "It hasn't been about who I am."
Laura Garcia, who teaches philosophy at Boston College, describes new feminism as "feminism the way it always should have been."
"It's a new way for women to understand ourselves, to value ourselves, a new way to invite others to value us as women, not to be apologetic, not to see it as a handicap or drawback," she says.
Garcia, who has four children, says that many new feminists want to reclaim the term feminism in such a way that is not hostile to marriage and childbearing.
"Many of them perceived old-style or secular feminism or radical feminism as anti-children, anti-marriage, and [new feminists] value their marriages," Garcia says. "They felt they were pressured in secular feminism to be working full time and have a more and more prestigious job, doing whatever it took to find somebody else to take care of your kids--they didn't identify with those values."
Some younger women, like Madeleine Ryland, a senior at Notre Dame and one of the co-organizers of the Edith Stein Project, say their generation faces injustices that differ from previous generations of women. Ryland embraces the term feminist only with reservations.
"For my generation the word feminism has more of a negative connotation now," says Ryland, 22. "Feminism was important then, but do we really still need to be talking about this stuff? Women have equal voting rights--isn't that all we needed from that? It's kind of a dead horse people are still beating."
She and her peers care about feminism to the extent that they don't want to go into job interviews and be discriminated against.
While older generations of women were more optimistic in thinking they could "have it all" in terms of a balance between career and family, younger women face a different reality.
"People are probably not as naive as in past generations," Ryland says. "My generation realizes it works in some cases, and in other cases it's really tough on the family …