If women want to succeed in business, politics, or entertainment, they have to put out. The sexual revolution didn’t create this state of affairs; it only gave plausible deniability to predators who’ve been doing their thing since long before the 60’s.
It’s only now, in 2017, that society is listening to women’s age-old complaints of institutional sexism, and it’s only now that corporations are cracking down on the male predators they employ. Whether this response is a passing mood or a lasting change, it’s too soon to say.
Is the Catholic working world different?
I don’t know if I can bear to dig too deeply into this question. Certainly, countless Catholic men have discovered that a combination of authority and spirituality makes a fine snare for the vulnerable. The priest sex abuse scandal, especially the ongoing Legion of Christ debacle, illustrates that horror all too well. And, just as in the secular world, many Catholics will excuse and forgive predators and discredit their accusers, and will blame women and young people for tempting and seducing those who prey on them.
But what about in the Catholic working world that extends beyond the actual Church? Are women constrained more than men? If women want to succeed, are they expected to behave in a certain way? Or are Catholics better than the secular world?
It’s becoming more rare, in mainstream Catholicism, for women to be shamed and castigated for simply working outside the home, but sexist attitudes are still pervasive in more conservative circles. Even in online groups specifically dedicated to supporting Catholic working moms, the very members of that group will sometimes suggest that, if a working woman is struggling in any way, maybe the Holy Spirit is telling her to quit work (or to trade in her actual career for an MLM scam).
In some professional Catholic circles, if you do your work, meet your deadlines, and don’t cause scandal, your work is respected, whether you’re male or female. But in other circles, you’ll still hear that it’s actually wrong for women to go to college. I reject the tired notion that the Catholic male priesthood is evidence of systemic sexism, but it’s undeniable that Catholics use the male priesthood to justify that sexism.
You’ll hear that it’s just to pay women less than men, because men are supposed to be the breadwinners, and women who work are robbing men of opportunities (and their manhood). You’ll hear the word “feminine” used as a synonym for “shoddy, inferior, and trite.” You’ll hear that women are, as a species, too emotional and flighty to contribute much of intellectual value.
My personal experience is limited. I only know what I’ve seen and what I’ve read in Crisis and from the Catholic authors at The Federalist. But one thing I’ve actually lived is Catholic publishing, and here’s what I learned:
You can say whatever you want in your Catholic lady book, as long as it’s 90% uplifting, joyful, and encouraging, amen.
Did you ever wonder why I initially self-published my book about NFP? It’s because I approached several Catholic publishers (with the NFP book and with previous book pitches in the same vein), and they told me my book was too dark, too negative, too discouraging, too snarky, too problematic. It frankly acknowledged the struggles of living the faith, and that was unacceptable. It might possibly lead people astray. No one claimed it was was heterodox. It simply wasn’t joyful enough.
I thought they were wrong. So I published it myself, as an ebook. It was exceedingly popular, and then Catholic publishers — including more than one that had rejected my proposal for the very same manuscript — approached me, looking for printing rights. It seemed there was a market for my problematic negativity after all. (And yes, I cackled like Yosemite Sam as the offers poured in.)
Now, once upon a time, Catholic readers tolerated something less than joy-joy-joy from women writers. Dorothy Day, Maisie Ward, Caryll Housleander, and even the humorists Jean Kerr and Erma Bombeck spring to mind as non-saints who acknowledged that Catholic woman could find Christ in other places besides kitchen sinks, nurseries, and fields of daisies. (Note that Kerr, Day, and Bombeck were published by secular presses, and Ward started her own company to publish her work, Houselander’s, and others’.)
Today, Heather King, Eve Tushnet, Leah Libresco, Emily Stimpson, Jennifer Fulwiler, Amy Wellborn, Sherry Weddell, Leah Perrault, and Elizabeth Scalia come to mind as Catholic female authors who don’t shy away from troubling questions. I’d be interested to know whether they felt constrained to uphold a certain image of Catholic womanhood, or if they felt free to speak their minds.
Whatever their answer, my own experience is undeniable, and it left a mark. Catholic women writers aren’t required to put out. Instead, they’re all too often required to stuff down. Stuff down anything ugly, anything problematic, anything risky, anything that doesn’t end up with an edifying bow on top.
I’m not naive. Catholic publishers bear a responsibility under which secular publishers do not labor. Catholic publishers must, like everyone else, know and please their audience; but there’s more. What if they publish something by an author who’s so gritty, authentic, and honest that, two weeks after the book debuts, it’s revealed that the author has slid past authenticity and straight into debauchery? A secular publisher doesn’t want to get caught out promoting an author who turns out to be a liar or a pervert, and a Catholic publisher doesn’t want to get stuck with six thousand copies of a Catholic book by someone who doesn’t act remotely like a Catholic. What Catholic publisher in its right mind would take that risk?
Well, they might, if the author is a man.
In our conversation of several weeks ago, Jessica Mesman Griffith told me that several years ago, she pitched a memoir to Loyola Press. The name inspired by her daughter’s pretend game which involved the seasick pilgrims on the Mayflower. Together, they drew stick figure pilgrims with X’s for eyes, suffering through their strange journey.
Griffith told me:
I always wanted to do something with that title. It was so resonant with what my own spiritual life was like. I’d had this private dream to start a publishing house. I was really inspired by Sheed and Ward, loved reading about their philosophy of publishing and their approach.I wanted something for Catholic writers where you didn’t have orthodoxy policing. I wanted a space where people would be Catholic, or cultural Catholics, or lapsed Catholics, where we could talk about beautiful things that inspired us.
That’s when Loyola came back and said to pitch the book again, but with Jonathan as co-author. Even though it was the exact same book and same title. They said the male voice brings something special.
I recoiled. But, you’re a writer, you’re broke, someone offers you money . . . you do it. It was essays I had already written, about my spiritual life, my background, how I came back to the Church as an adult. I saw how [the blog and group] Sick Pilgrim was affecting people in a good way. I felt like it was its own kind of ministry for people who feel excluded. I saw people coming back to the Church, just from having another voice out there saying, “Whatever, I messed up, and I still go [to Mass].” The good outweighed the bad, even though I was reluctant.
After a while, you have to wonder how many isolated examples there can be, before they form a pattern spelling out “Catholic publishing is still sexist.”
EDIT and clarification, 12/7/17: After some justifiable criticism, I have taken out a few sentences that referenced an essay by Jody Bottum. The essay wasn’t actually a good example of what I’m talking about, and bringing it up distracted from the point of this essay. I don’t blame Bottum for being annoyed to be dragged into it.
I did frame my essay as a question, and I wish I had made it more clear it was a sincere one, not a rhetorical one. Several people have answered by suggesting that the more prevalent problem is Catholic publishers being unwilling to publish anything that’s too risky (by way of being honest, not-altogether-tidy, etc.), whether it’s written by a man or a woman.
It happens that women are probably more likely than men to accommodate their editors by toning things down, trimming away the darker stuff, and adding a tidy bow. The result is that women authors get published plenty, but what they publish tends to be more facile and shallow than what men publish. But there can be reasonable argument as to whether that’s due to sexism or more complicated issues.