By Kaya Oakes in ‘America, The Jesuit Review’
For over a decade, I have taught a writing class on the intersection between music and social movements at the University of California, Berkeley, where the Free Speech Movement was born. On the first day of class, we talk about the history of protest music, and I give the students the etymological definition of the word “protest”: from the Latin pro testari, to protest means to witness and then go forth and testify.
Two years before the #MeToo movement sprung up, I added Rebecca Solnit’s book Men Explain Things to Me to the syllabus so my students could explore the connections between music and a resurgent feminist movement. Ms. Solnit, a highly prolific historian, activist and social critic, did not coin the term “mansplaining,” but in the title essay from her book, she talks about a time when a man she met at a party refused to believe she was the author of one of her own books. Mansplaining is just one example of the ways in which women’s expertise and experiences are devalued, doubted and silenced. It is also unfortunately rife in the Catholic Church.
One of the questions I am asked most often as a writer is how I can be a Catholic and a feminist. My usual response is to ask how I could be Catholic and not be a feminist. I was raised in the church and nurtured in catechesis by women, educated in Catholic schools by women, and my writing is inspired by the work of towering Catholic theologians Elizabeth Johnson, M. Shawn Copeland and Sandra Schneiders, activist Catholic laywomen like Dorothy Day, and contemporary Catholic writers like Natalie Diaz, Toni Morrison and Rebecca Brown.
Yet the most frequent responses to my work in Catholic publications often ring of bias against my gender. A male reader once told me it was not my job to question the church; it was my job to “get down on my knees” and be thankful to belong to it. That is one of the printable comments I have received. We will skip the unprintable ones. The irony is that weekly, I do get down on my knees in church and give thanks. But that does not mean I shouldn’t occasionally stand up, too.
I write this a few days before the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, who is referred to as the “apostle to the apostles.” But Mary Magdalene is more than that: Chosen by Christ to be the first witness to the resurrection, Mary Magdalene goes forth and testifies about the good news. And the reaction of the male apostles is telling. They do not believe her. They doubt her testimony. She is my patron saint, chosen when I went through confirmation, but she is also the patron saint of the mansplained.
Feminism is not about women being better than men. It is about women being recognized as equals, about men and women working alongside one another. That means recognizing our accomplishments as well as the struggles we face. Believing the testimony of women is what makes the #MeToo movement so crucial. For Catholic feminists who are regularly told we should just quit the church or that we should quiet down, it also means bearing witness to the beauty and grace of being Catholic women and to the challenges as well.
The Catholic “both/and” is useful here: Feminism is both necessary for being a Catholic woman and one of the reasons you will be tested as a Catholic feminist. Platform is privilege, and those of us with a public role to play in conversations about women in the church are called to use it to challenge outdated notions about the inferiority of women. We are both Catholic and women. God created us to be our full, authentic selves, and God sees us as our full, authentic selves. And sometimes we have to stand up and say this: We hope the church can do the same.