The following essay is about the menstrual cycle, and what I have to say is just as much for men as it is for women.
I recently had the most frustrating visit with my OB/GYN. It’s probably not what you think. She listened to me carefully, treated me with respect, explained things thoroughly, and was interested and responsive when I told her how Marquette NFP works, even when I touched on the principle of double effect in medical care. She didn’t even poke me too hard; and my insurance covered everything.
The frustration came in when she had to repeatedly clarify that when I said “my cycle,” I didn’t mean “my menstrual period.” They are two different things. My menstrual period — the days when I am bleeding — are part of my cycle. But a cycle is, by definition, “a series of events that are regularly repeated in the same order.” In female biology, a cycle means the repeating pattern of four phases: menstrual bleeding, the follicular phase leading up to ovulation, ovulation, and luteal phase, ramping down from ovulation.
But this doctor regularly treats women who use “menstrual bleeding” and “cycle” interchangeably. This led to a frustrating conversation that went something like this:
Me: So, my period started on this day. That cycle was 22 days long. . .
OB/GYN: Wow, that is so long!
Me: No, I only bled for four days, but my cycle was 22 days. Then the next cycle was only 17 days . . .
OB/GYN: But you weren’t bleeding for 17 days?
Me: No, the cycle was 17 days, but my period lasted five days. Then the cycle after that was 26 days . . .
OB: Okay, just to clarify . . .
Part of the reason this situation exists is just linguistic sloppiness. Most of the time, women only have reason to refer to their cycles when they are bleeding, so the shorthand is close enough.
The other reason is cultural squeamishness, or even shame, around women’s biology. “Menstrual bleeding” or even “my period” sounds too graphic and bloody, and it’s more socially acceptable to say “my cycle.” It makes it more abstract, like part of a machine, or something on a pie chart.
I hate that this feels necessary to so many women — that they feel the need to make their bodies seem abstract or mechanical. Men aren’t ashamed to talk about their involuntary bodily functions. Many men even seem proud of them, for reasons that remain obscure to me. But women, who suffer through a huge amount of tumult and pain that allows them to keep the human race in existence still feel shame about their menstrual cycles.
This is a larger problem than a linguistic one. I don’t think it’s necessary to run around free bleeding, but I grow more and more disgusted with the idea that women should be at pains to shield the world from knowing anything about menses.
Because that really is what happens: women and girls are taught that it’s their problem to bear, and part of the burden is the obligation to make sure no one finds out what they’re dealing with. In very conservative circles, girls are often taught to think of their bodily processes as a humiliating, degrading stain on their personhood, evidence of their constitutional, inherent weakness inherited from Eve. In liberal circles, girls are often taught to think of their bodily processes as a hassle, or possibly a sign of oppression, something that, with modern technology, we will quash if we have any self resect or ambition.
A young woman I know went to see her doctor because she has very irregular cycles. She says sometimes she goes many months without a period. The doctor’s response?
“Is this really a problem? Lots of girls would be thrilled to go so long without dealing with bleeding! Can’t you just learn to enjoy getting a break?”
Not even a speck of curiosity as to why the young woman’s body wasn’t doing what her body is supposed to do. And this doctor was a young woman herself.
If mainstream doctors are so flippantly ignorant about what is and isn’t normal, it’s no wonder women, young and otherwise, have only a vague understanding of what it means to have a cycle. Because of this willful systemic ignorance, serious health problems will go undiagnosed, causing women to routinely endure overmedication, undermedication, and a whole host of physical and psychological problems that may be unnecessary. The fact that women are discouraged from even talking about it in plain language? This is telling, and it is intolerable.
I don’t assume that every woman who carelessly says “my cycle” when she really means “my period” is ignorant or oppressed or suffering from internalized shame of some kind. People have all different reasons for using imprecise language.
But I do think women would do the world (not just each other) a service by making a point of being more precise in this one area. When I realized, “There is no reason to use vague language when talking about my menses,” I was astonished at how many little knots in my perception of myself started to come undone. Almost as if the thing that goes on literally in the middle of my body affects my psyche.
Strangely enough, it was my husband who led me to be less squirrelly about how I talk and think about menstrual issues. He made it clear to me, over and over again, that he’s not going to throw up or lose his mind if I talk about my period. He’s not a “It’s our nausea” kind of guy, but he doesn’t feel like he has some kind of masculine right to be protected from knowing about something that affects my life (and our relationship) so intensely and so often. He loves me, and doesn’t want me to be ashamed about something that’s not shameful.
I’m not big on vulgar jokes about menstrual issues, and there are situations where it’s just courteous to be discreet. But if you do have a habit of always using euphemisms or imprecise language around your menstrual cycle, it’s not a bad idea to ask yourself why. What would happen if you got more specific? Are you protecting someone? Who, and why? Are you afraid something bad will happen if your speech is forthright?
And if something bad will happen, whose fault is that, and why shouldn’t they be pressed to be better?
I recently interviewed the developer of Exodus90, a spiritual exercise aimed at Catholic men who want to find spiritual freedom through prayer, ascesis, and fraternity. One thing lots of people wanted to know: Why is this only for men? Why was there no companion program for women?
Although I have mixed feelings about the program in general, I was impressed by his answer to this question. He said that, while “there’s nothing exclusive about prayer or asceticism or community,” the program had been written with men and fatherhood in mind, so he didn’t want to just — boop! — shift it over to women. But people kept pressing him to write up and market a version for women. He said:
“We’re a bunch of men. You don’t want us writing a program for women. So we got a religious order we respected. Their whole mission revolves around feminine identity. We asked them, ‘Would you study Exodus, and if you think this is a model of healing for women, would you write a program, if you feel called to?’
“Six months later, they said they didn’t believe this structure is a model of healing for women.”
I have my own theories for why this may be. Warning: I’ll be painting with a broad brush here, so please keep in mind that my words won’t apply to every last individual human. (I know you’re going to complain anyway, but at least you can’t say I didn’t warn you!)
In general, women are introduced at an early age to the inescapability of suffering, and to the ultimate helplessness of humans in the face of nature and before the will of God.
Imagine you are a millennial Catholic woman. You are at Mass, kneeling at the altar rail, waiting to receive Christ in the Eucharist. As you peer at the high altar through your lace mantilla, your heart burns with love.
And into your back burns the searing hot gaze of that weird dude in the pew behind you—the one who once cornered you after confession to let you know your modesty is smoking hot.
I am not making this up. That really did happen to a friend of mine. And, based on a recent meme posted to the Facebook group Traditional Catholic Millennials, her experience may not be unique. The group, which has over 20,000 members, posted a photo of three young women kneeling at an altar rail, veiled and apparently in prayer. The emoji-littered meme exclaimed:
Looking for a good husband? [shrugging emoji] Want to be irresistible to Catholic men?? Simple!
[heart eye heart eye] VEIL! It’s a SMOKING HOT
Trad magnet! [fire fire] #Truth
And the photo description read:
#BringOnTheTrollArmies TRIGGER WARNING:
It’s so true!!!! Holy men LOVE virtue and reverence for the Eucharist! Inner beauty is SMOKING HOT! [heart eye, panting emoji panting emoji heart laughing/crying fire] Externals show it. Buy one Here: https://www.veilsbylily.com/
Because God forbid there be one hour per week when a woman is not forced to deal with the consequences of whether or not men find her hot.
The cognitive dissonance was jarring if you are not familiar with the bizarre netherworld of outré ultra traditionalists, where pants are verboten because their pockets form a visual arrow pointing to the crotch; where working outside the home is stealing time from your family, but incessantly tweeting about collarbones and hemlines is doing God’s work; and where feminine modesty is a great way to advertise your…modesty.
If this makes any sense to you, I am telling it wrong.
The good news is, it does not make sense to a good many traditionalists, either, millennial or otherwise, and they found the “smoking hot veil” meme revolting and ridiculous. Lily Wilson herself, the founder of Veils by Lily, the website that was promoted in the post, told the group to take the meme down, which they eventually did.
Ms. Wilson thinks the contingent of traditionalist Catholics who objectify women and fetishize veils are in the minority.
The other day I heard about a man who beat the hell out of his pregnant girlfriend. When she escaped out into the street, he chased her with his car, slammed into a light pole, found a piece of bent metal, and started beating her with that. She somehow survived, but the child in her belly died from the trauma.
They did arrest the man. Later, in court, she gave her testimony. She hadn’t yet birthed her dead baby. Then it was time for her boyfriend’s lawyer to make his case. He asked for leniency, for his client to be released on personal recognizance rather than held in jail. “Your honor,” he argued, “My client is a young man with a bright future ahead of him. He has a fiancee, and the young lady is expecting their first child. . . ”
Happily, the judge wasn’t buying it. But imagine that lawyer’s thought process as he prepared his argument: Hey, maybe that bitch can come in handy one last time.
My husband calls our society “Titanic in reverse.” Women and children are sacrificed first, tossed into the waves as men scramble to warmth and safety. He has been a reporter for decade and a half, and he’s been at crime scenes, seen evidence, interviewed victims and victims’ families, heard court testimony, and seen the sentencing process, and this is what he knows: Women and children are expendable. Their suffering, their torture, their rape, their murder is acceptable to society.
I asked him if he thought it had ever been any other way, and he said no.
We’ll convulse with horror when a man throws a dog out of a window. Precious little pupper! People who hurt animals should be executed in public! But if in that same night he also throws his wife down a flight of stairs, guess which victim makes the headlines?
Well, domestic disturbances are private things. Two sides to every story.
Sometimes it’s not a matter of turning our heads when women are abused. Sometimes we’re right behind her, shoving her toward danger. Remember last time the country was so very tired of hearing about priests molesting kids? The thinking public came up with an easy solution to the problem: Just throw women at it. Just let priests marry, and never again will we deal with widespread clerical abuse.
It sounded so simple and obvious: Single men are doing pervy things, so let’s make them not be single anymore. Of course the mechanism of it was a little uglier. It meant that we know there are countless men willing to subjugate, humiliate, and abuse people who are weaker then they are. We hate it when they do this to children. So instead, let’s let them do it to women. Because that’s what women are for.
Don’t let yourself believe that this is a Catholic problem, that only Catholics see women as the universal solution to male complaint. Last time an incel shot up a crowd, the progressive edgelords of social media instantly put up a cry for publicly-funded prostitutes. That’s all these dudes need! When they don’t get enough sexytime, they get mad and they kill people! So let’s make sure they can do it to women; and then real people won’t get hurt.
Women are the corks for every leak, the excess ballast to be chucked off every sinking ship, the red meat to distract every wild dog, the kindling to brighten up every smoldering fire, the universal salve to spread on any festering wound. You have a problem, any problem at all? Try using women. You can always use women. That’s what women are for.
We see this sense of entitlement everywhere, and not only in obvious examples like abduction and rape, murder and abuse. It’s more pervasive and more accepted than you may realize. Most men would never say, “Women only exist for my consumption.” They would never even think it in so many words. And yet when they walk down the street and see an unattractive women, their response is not simply a lack of interest, but irritation, even anger. Anger, as if the woman who doesn’t appeal to him has personally wounded him, or refused to give him something he deserves.
Why should this be? Why should they feel, in any part of themselves, that they can expect to be pleased by women?
I don’t know why. I do know the one recorded statement we have from Adam is Adam using Eve as an excuse to get out of trouble with God. And ever since then, many, many men have assumed that, since a woman is there, she’s there for him to use.
Most men don’t act out when they feel this way. Only a noisy minority of men would allow themselves to shout something nasty at a passing fat jogger, or take the trouble tell some random lesbian he doesn’t approve of her haircut. Only a noisy minority sends hate mail to an actress who goes out in public with a dreaded “fupa” after giving birth.
But when you’re a lone women being jeered at by a handful of strange men, or even by one man, it doesn’t feel like minority. It feels heavy and scary and big. It feels dangerous, and it is dangerous. It’s easier, in many ways, to simply agree: Yes, I am here for men to use. I must try as hard as I can to be pleasing to as many of them as possible, so I will be valued and safe. This is what many women do, without even realizing it. Mousy trad women do it by submitting and obeying and never making their own needs known, and raunchy progressive feminists do it by thrusting themselves headlong into porn culture.
And women in the middle of these two extremes do it by constantly accusing themselves, gently or harshly, of being unworthy. We tell ourselves we are unworthy to take up space, to put on weight, to get old, to slow down, to be tired, to be ugly, to be unavailable, to be loud, to be unproductive, to be charmless, to be sick, to be alone. To be angry. We feel that we are endlessly on trial, that our lives are one long audition, and we’re constantly in danger of being rejected and replaced by someone who knows how to do her job better. So many women have spent their whole lives floundering in a bottomless pool of fear that, if we aren’t pleasing men, we’re nothing.
I used to think that all that feminist talk about “the male gaze” was liberal garbage, and women simply didn’t understand how pleasant it could be to be desired by men. But now I am older and I can see that all my life, I have lived with this terrible fear of not being pleasing enough. Even women who know better know this fear. And that’s why there’s so much anger out there: Because it’s not right that we should live that way.
I said as much on Facebook yesterday.
Yes, I was angry. I have eight daughters, and I see them growing up in this world that still hasn’t changed. And so I cursed at men who feel entitled to an aesthetically pleasing experience from every woman they meet. I felt the weight of that entitlement, and I was angry.
And what do you think happened? My post was reported and removed. Men told me I was being strident and offensive, and that maybe they would listen if I watched my language and spoke more gently. Maybe if I changed myself just a little bit, so I was more to their liking, then they would listen to what I had to say.
And there it is. Maybe I just need to be more pleasing to men, and then I’ll be allowed to talk.
I don’t want to be angry all the time. I certainly don’t want to respond in kind, and become permanently enraged at a whole populace just because of the sins of some. But every once in a while, I feel the whole weight of that crushing, grinding, everlasting entitlement to be pleased, and I feel it even more heavily when I realize how I’ve been complicit in it.
I am asking men to be better. I am asking women not to be complicit. And I am asking men to hold each other accountable when they behave as if they are entitled to be pleased by women. I am tired of feeling inadequate, so instead I am angry. I have a right to be angry.
Image: Bathsheba with King David’s Letter, by Rembrandt. Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)
The rule against women preaching doesn’t stem from misogyny, but from the obligation to make the sermon something specific: an extension of the proclamation of the liturgy of the word. It’s not supposed to be a lecture or a chat; it’s supposed to be part of the liturgy celebrated by an ordained priest or deacon in persona Christi. And that’s why laypeople aren’t supposed to do it.
But the flap over who gives sermons exposed another, possibly deeper misunderstanding about how, exactly, we’re supposed to learn about and live our faith.
“Why do pro-life activists only seem to care about unborn lives?” asked a Slate writer in 2017, echoing a question asked by scores of people who want to discredit pro-lifers for focusing only on the fetus.
Well, some of them do only care about the unborn. But many of them, including the folks at Mary’s Shelter in Virginia, have a much wider and humane vision, offering not only physical shelter and goods to pregnant mothers in time of crisis, but also classes and mentorship, so women who want a better life get get themselves and their children on a track toward independence.
Mary’s Shelter volunteers warmly supply a broad range of encouraging and educational supports, from cooking and knitting classes to book clubs, mentoring, doula services and roundtables, transportation, a private thrift store, academic tutoring, guest speakers, and baby showers. Residents get help earning their GEDs or degrees and finding jobs, finding counseling, and building new lives. The homes are cozy and friendly, and many women go there and find hope when everyone, including other shelters, have abandoned them.
Mary’s Shelter provides an expectant mother, and any additional children she may have, with housing for up to three years in order to further her education and/or secure employment. She must receive counseling, attend in-house parenting and life-skill classes and adhere to the program covenants which offer structure, self-discipline and guidance.
Each resident is blessed with a mentor who provides hands-on support, compassion and encouragement. This foundation ensures that our mothers have the necessary time and tools to work toward their goals and provide for their children, making the possibility of independent living a reality.
They rely very heavily on donations and volunteers, and since their founding in 2006 have helped more than two hundred pregnant women work toward a goal of independent living. They started out with a basement apartment and now have four houses, capable of sheltering and mentoring as many as fifty women and their children.
Here’s a video from Mary’s Shelter that features some of the women telling their stories and explaining how their needs were met:
In 2014, I did a short interview with Kathleen Wilson, the director of Mary’s Shelter. Here’s an excerpt that gives more detail about what kind of support and community they offer:
Kathleen Wilson: If the woman is abortion-minded, we’ll give her a place to live, if that’s what’s holding her back. If a woman walks in and she’s in a domestic violence situation, we get her counseling. We don’t even kick them out if they’re drinking or doing drugs; we give them an opportunity to do a program and stay with us.
We give women up to two years with us; and women who are “rock stars” – the ones who are really looking to move on and get a nursing degree or something like that — she can stay up to three years while she does school and work and gets everything together. That’s all about the woman. That’s for her.
SF: I was amazed at the long list the services you offer: cooking and knitting classes, book clubs, mentoring, doula services and roundtables, a private thrift store for residents, academic tutoring, guest speakers, baby showers, and on and on. How many people do you have on staff?
KW: We have so, so many volunteers. The main group is me and two people that get small paychecks – a total of only $24,000 a year, and that’s for crazy hours. Then there are two or three volunteers I consider staff. Then there’s a whole slew of people doing other things.
For instance, we hook up every resident up with a mentor or two. And there’s a woman who comes every other week with a van, to take them shopping. A local church sends over volunteers to do service projects, paint room, put in a swing set, redo a bathroom – big projects like that.
SF:It sounds complicated. How do you coordinate everything?
KW: We started out in a basement apartment – didn’t even have a file cabinet! But it’s evolved. Everything we need comes along. Someone says, “Oh, I can do that.” We say we want a book club, book club leader comes along. These volunteers just fall out of the sky. We even have a volunteer coordinator who is a volunteer herself.
SF:I know you sometimes fit in more residents than you comfortably can. What’s the ideal number of women you’re set up to shelter?
KW: Yes, we will roll beds into our office, or put women in hotels in an emergency. We have four houses now, and we’ll be opening our fifth on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15th . When we open the new house, it could be seventeen or eighteen families in the homes all together.
We’re one of the few shelters that take in women with additional children. That really is rare. We’ve got a lot of kids floating around the houses. We don’t offer daycare, but we do have babysitters available during for classes, guest speakers, and baby celebrations.
SF:Do you feel like the residents form a community?
KW: Some of them do. At one of our houses, the women have family dinners together once a week. There’s independent living, but they get together once a week, and their kids play together.
They have babies, and they have to lean on each other a bit. They have to ask for babysitters, or just had a C-section, and they have to step up to the plate. A majority of them haven’t had family relationships. This starts opening that door.
SF: Are you a Catholic organization?
KW: Most of our staff is Catholic, but non-Catholic Christian churches have been getting involved. We’ve had a Muslim resident; there’s no religious criteria for getting involved. We believe life begins at conception, and we ask that if you work for this ministry, you respect that.
It would be lovely to convert everybody, but that’s not our mission. It’s to show them God through our witness, and we hope they will sees God’s hand in everything.
The other day, Taylor Marshall tweeted, um, a bunch of things. But stay with me! This post isn’t really about him. I just don’t know how else to talk about what I want to talk about, except by starting with what he tweeted.
First, apparently understandably distraught over an interview with McCarrick’s first victim, he tweeted some foul garbage about how gay it is that seminarians had a gingerbread house-building contest. Seriously, he did the f*ggy lisp and all, and included a name and photos of the men engaging in this “effeminate and puerile” activity, because that’s how you act when you’re a serious Catholic theologian and scholar.
It was wildly gross and offensive (and since he asked, can you imagine Basil and Gregory tweeting at each other?), and insanely insulting to gay people in direct contradiction of the catechism.
But it also threw into high relief how poorly so many people understand what it means to be masculine. Many of his followers apparently believe that any time you’re not studying Latin or logic, building fires, chopping something, or shooting something, you’re a whisker away from of sliding into that dreaded horror, effeminacy. In order to save the Church, we must stop having . . . gingerbread.
His tweet was thoroughly trounced by many others, so I left it alone. But then he followed up with something that really nagged at me:
“The womb belonged to Joseph and he set it aside for Christ. The tomb belonged to another Joseph and he set it aside for Christ.”
I guess what happened is he read Fr. Longenecker’s tweet about wrapping Jesus’s body, and thought, “Whoa. Joseph-Joseph . . . womb-tomb!” and, despite not being Dylan Thomas, he went with it, rather than doing a quick heresy self-check. When readers responded to that phrase “The womb belonged to Joseph” with revulsion and dismay, he dug in with this:
He clarifies that Mary ruled over Joseph’s body, as well as vice versa: that there is mutual self-gift in marriage. He meant, apparently, that Joseph gave over his reasonable expectations that he’d be able to have sex with Mary, because he was willing to make a sacrifice to God of that privilege. And this is true enough.
But the trouble is first in the way he phrased it. Saying Mary’s womb “belongs” to Joseph is just . . . gross. Things belong to us; people (including their organs) do not belong to us, not even if we’re married. If you want to hear how absurd and unseemly it is to phrase his idea as he did, say instead: “The penis belonged to Mary, so she went outside and peed with it.”
I’m sincerely not trying to be crude. I’m trying to point out that a womb is an almost indescribably personal, intimate thing for a woman, and it’s bizarrely wrong to say it belongs to her husband. It doesn’t. It is hers. A woman rightly gives herself to her husband, over and over and over again, but he never owns her, no matter how much it may feel that way, no matter how many times she gives herself to him.
And there we have the second, much more serious problem with Marshall’s thought. Joseph did not, in fact, consent to give Mary’s womb over to the Lord. How could he? It was hers to give, and she gave it at the Annunciation. Joseph only found out about her decision after the fact. He didn’t give anything, because there was nothing for him to give. The consent had already been given by the time he found out she was pregnant.
Joseph’s choice wasn’t to give or not to give; his choice was either to get rid of her quietly, to get rid of her noisily, or to accept the situation with love, trust, and awe, because God told him not to be afraid to accept it.
And that is what he did. There was no transfer, no consent, no free will offering originating from Joseph. Mary was never going to be “his,” because she had already given herself to God in a real, radical way.
If Joseph gave Mary to God, then what did Mary’s “fiat” mean? Not a hell of a lot. More like when a child is allowed to sign a document that needs an adult’s signature to be official. No, it was Mary’s choice to make, and what she said to the Lord changed the course of . . . everything.
But Joseph’s whole deal reminds me of the concept that “we are all feminine in relation to God.” I’ve been wrestling with this idea my whole adult life, and most days, the best I can do is set it aside and do whatever job’s in front of me.
But so much of being a woman is being asked to accept things after they have already been decided, rather than being asked if you want them to happen or not. Yes, of course we decide many things, and make many choices. But women also very early confront the idea that things happen to them which they are not truly free to change or avoid. Ten times I have labored to give birth, and ten times, when the true agony set in, I have changed my mind. I decided I didn’t want to do it after all. Didn’t change a damn thing, thank God.
It’s not that women are passive. It’s that humanity in general is far more helpless than it realizes. It’s mankind in general that’s the damsel in distress; mankind in general that sits weeping in a tower, waiting for the savior to come. Women’s lives show this reality in high relief, largely because of our biology, and so women tend to realize much sooner than men that none of us is really in control of their lives. On a good day, we’re in charge of slightly changing the trajectory of little chunks of life as they fly past us. Freedom very often consists not in choosing what will happen to us, but in choosing how to respond to what happens to us.
And that sounds very much like what Joseph knew. He listened, a lot. He decided, out of love, not to fight things that had already come to pass. He worked with the system as long as he could, and when it wasn’t working, he gathered his family and ran away. He was willing to play a supporting role. He decided not to insist on taking what he could reasonably argue was rightfully his. And he was silent. In other words, Joseph’s behavior in the Gospels is like what we today normally think of as feminine — trusting, waiting, nurturing, self-sacrificial, chaste, modest, and quiet. This may account for how weirdly effeminate he looks in so much religious art, and it probably accounts in part for Marshall’s weird attempt to put Mary’s fiat in Joseph’s hands: Because he doesn’t behave in a way that checks off boxes in our modern understanding of masculinity.
We get St. Joseph wrong because we grasp that he is not what we commonly think of as masculine; but correct our mistake by assigning to him what we wrongly think of as feminine, or by refusing to face how wrong we are about what it means to be feminine. Mary’s behavior is what we should think of as feminine; but it’s so hard to grasp that we saddle her with a simpering passivity, turning her into a virgin too fragile to deal with men, rather than a virgin strong enough to deal with God.
[S] ex and gender have to be understood first as cosmic paradigms. So, “feminine” doesn’t mean “like a woman.” It’s the other way around. A woman is someone who embodies the eternal archetype of femininity. But she won’t do it completely, because she’s an instantiation [a representative of an actual example], not the archetype itself. She’s a particular, not a universal. Also, her instantiation of the feminine will filter itself through her personality, through tradition, through society, etc. For these two reasons, you can’t pin down any one characteristic that every woman has. Any time you try to say what characteristics women have, you’ll find exceptions (often me).
However, if you start from the archetype, and say (for example) that the feminine archetype involves the taking of the other into the self, then you can conclude that every woman is cosmically called to do this as well as and in whatever way she can. So the point is not to say what women are like, but what their vocation is.
Taylor Marshall and his ilk are rightly angry that McCarrick and others have so smeared and ravaged human sexuality with their crimes and perversions. But Marshall’s brutal, puerile urge to squash all men and all women into small and clearly defined boxes of masculinity or femininity is, in its way, just as disastrous. More than one abused woman has told me that, early on in her marriage, before the beatings began, her pious Catholic husband railed at her for not being sufficiently archetypically feminine, as if any one woman could or should be. As if he had married womankind, rather than an actual person. This is the trap Marshall et al fall into: They want individual human beings to be the embodiment of all of their sex (“all seminarians must be masculine”); but since no one can or should achieve that, they reduce an archetypal reality to a few small, individualistic traits, and then rage at anyone who doesn’t reduce himself to those traits, as if they’ve failed at being human.
It’s a way of making sense of the world, and it’s intensely depersonalizing. We do not love by making what is large small, and we do not love by railing at what is small for not being as large as the whole universe. But people who behave this way don’t think they’re being cruel to individual people; they think they’re being noble by upholding ontological truths. But first they have to squash those ontological truths into bite-sized pieces.
Dressed up as respect for God’s creation, this way of thinking turns men and women away from our vocation, which is, in our particular ways, to be open to God: To be feminine in relation to God.
Yes, that looks different for men and for women, and it looks different for for one particular women compared to another, and one particular man compared to another; but in some very broad way, this is the true feminine, what both Joseph and Mary did.
I saw it myself yesterday, dozens of times, at Mass, at the Eucharist, men and women. They walked up to the front with all the burdens and glories of their particularities, and then opened up to receive God. How? Because He alone can take ontological truths and make them, as it were, bite-sized. He has made small what is larger than then universe, larger than masculine and feminine. Love makes itself small. Never to make others small.
Our vocation is to be open like Mary and open like Joseph, and neither one of the two of them look like anything I’ve ever seen before on this earth, except in brief flashes like at the altar rail. Hell if I know what it means. My kids were asking me about the Second Coming today, and all I could say was everyone who thinks they know what they are talking about is in for a surprise.
Right? These damn men can’t keep their hands to themselves, whether they’re straight or gay or pedophiles or ephebophiles or married or allegedly celibate, so the hell with them. Let’s just let women have some power for once, and put a screeching halt to all the abuse, all the lies, all the cover-ups.
I keep hearing this argument, and now I’m going to respond.
First, one more time, with feeling: female Catholic priests are an ontological impossibility, and the Church could not ordain women even if it wanted to, any more than it could ordain butterfly as dragonflies. We like butterflies. But they are not dragonflies, and dragonflies are not butterflies. So it’s not going to happen. The Church is not going to start ordaining women priests.
But if somehow it were possible to do — or if, say, the pope decided to appoint women cardinals, which is theoretically possible — would the presence and influence and oversight of women be the clean sweep we’re looking for? Just clean out all that nasty male sexual aggression, perversion, and abuse and replace it with clean, honest, feminine integrity?
I’ve asked myself this sincerely, and I keep coming back to two words: Dottie Sandusky.
Dottie Sandusky has been married to her husband Jerry for over 50 years, and she still stands by her man. She had no idea what was going on in the basement of her own home, in the shower, in the bedroom, in the locker room, in that marriage, in that man’s heart, for decade after decade after decade, as she shared a life with him. She could have blown the whistle any time, but she didn’t. She says she didn’t know.
But if she didn’t know, it’s because she dedicated her life to not knowing. And so have countless other women who’ve come into contact with countless Jerry Sanduskys, in sports, in education, in medicine, and in the Church. He couldn’t have done what he did if she wasn’t willing to do what she did, which was nothing.
We need to stop indulging in the kind of magical thinking that says, “Women just being women will fix everything.” Let’s look at a few non-magical facts:
Women are just as capable of cruelty and abuse as men. They are perhaps less inclined to use sex, specifically, as a weapon, but they do wield what weapons they have. If women were priests and bishops and cardinals and seminary rectors and had the respect, authority, and invulnerability that goes along with those roles, the kind of abuse might look different, but there’s no evidence to suggest there would be less abuse. If women had the power that bishops have, women would abuse that power, because women are human.
Rape and sexual abuse of children have nothing to do with sexual orientation or sexual gratification. The goal is not sex, the goal is power, control and to destroy another human being.
Hunger for power and control, and the desire to destroy. Those are not male desires; those are human desires.
But the second part of the answer is: Whoever the perpetrator is, abuse doesn’t flourish in a vacuum. The decades or centuries of abuse that we’re continuing to uncover today could never have happened without the silence and complicity of women.
There were women everywhere — everywhere –who knew what Larry Nasser was doing to all those girls. He could not have gotten away with his abuse for all those years without the complicity and silence of dozens or maybe hundreds of women who chose not to say anything, who put pressure on girls to doubt themselves and blame themselves for what happened to them.
You might say that women do report abuse, and are less likely to be believed, because they are women. Maybe? But there were also a good number of men blowing the whistle on abusive priests, and they went just as unheard. Meanwhile, the savagery with which women turn on other female whistleblowers is breathtaking. I have seen it myself.
Why do women allow abuse to happen? Same reasons as men do:
They can’t think beyond the false dichotomy of “likable person who does a lot of good” and “ravening monster.” Sometimes an abuser is both. Sometimes a man runs charities, helps people, is kind, and is a true friend and support to many . . . and also rapes people. This phenomenon is magnified a hundredfold if the abuser is a priest, and his accomplishments have some spiritual weight. The congregation can point to how he’s invigorated the parish, how well he understands scripture, how reverent his liturgy is, how stirring his sermons, how well the school is doing, how many babies he baptizes every year, and tell themselves, “If he were truly a bad man, would he be doing all these good and holy things?” We aren’t comfortable with acknowledging that the same person can do some very good things and also some very bad things. It disrupts our understanding of how well we know people and how well we can know ourselves, so we reject the possibility of contradictions, and instead opt for blind loyalty.
They know about it, but they blame the victim. For a variety of reasons, they don’t want to acknowledge that the abuser is an abuser, so they shift the blame to the victim. We saw this with Fr. Groschel; we saw this with . . . lord, you know where we saw it. Everywhere. My friend who was raped at gunpoint heard two women wondering what she had been wearing at the time. It makes us feel less vulnerable if we can figure out some way the victims brought it on themselves.
They know about it, but they keep quiet because they love the Church. They think it would hurt the Church if it went public even more than it hurts the victim to be abused. You know what I think about that.
And sometimes, they just don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to put their own jobs at stake. They don’t want to disrupt the familiar. They don’t want to interrupt the flow of goodies that come their way, so they learn to live with the status quo. They don’t want to threaten their own security, and so they tell themselves whatever they need to tell themselves. They slowly and steadily put more and more of their conscience to death, until they simply don’t care about other people.
When I first started to realize the depth of corruption in the Church, I told myself that I needed to be willing to follow the story wherever it goes. As a faithful Catholic female advocate for victims of sexual aggression, I cannot be content to give the easy answers. I want to say, “It’s the traddies’ fault!” or “It’s the fault of the sexual revolution!” or, most enticingly, “It’s men’s fault!” Those frigging men. Right?
But that doesn’t answer it. It’s just another red herring. It’s not the evil of maleness that is the problem. It’s the evilness of humanity. It’s the weakness and corruptibility of human nature. We don’t need more women on the inside. We need more clear-thinking, courageous women and men on the outside, willing and able to see clearly and speak loudly, and, most importantly, capable of bringing the guilty to justice.
Thrusting more women into existing power structures won’t disrupt anything. It’ll just give more women the opportunity to become complicit.
When she went looking for help from the church, she was still susceptible to the idea that everything was her fault. One priest said it was a shame she was suffering, but all she could do was offer it up. Another told her she had a demon in her.
A youngish mom with a bunch of kids goes to her doctor with a medical problem. Doesn’t even matter what the problem is: problems with excessive bleeding, problems with postpartum depression, problems with heartburn, problems with sleep. Problems with her knee, her skin, or the way her hair just won’t curl the way it used to.
Any problem, doesn’t matter. If she has more than a few kids, she already knows what comes next: A glance at the chart, the eyebrows go shooting up, and here it comes: “Ohh, I see you have [any number greater than two] kids.”
And that’s all they want to talk about from then on.
They certainly don’t want to listen to you when you tell them, “This isn’t about family size.” They tuck your multipara status into your buttonhole like a red poppy so you can never forget, never forget that you brought this on yourself in some way with allllll those kids, so let’s talk about that, then, eh?
You’ll think I’m exaggerating if it hasn’t happened to you; but ask around among women who have five, six, or seven, or even three or four kids, and you’ll see nods and eyerolls, or even tears. Because it hurts. Women with lots of kids have to prepare themselves mentally every time they step into a doctor’s office. Not only do they have to deal with whatever problem they’re actually there for, they have to defend themselves against insinuations, disapproval, patronizing jokes, and sometimes open scorn.
Now, sometimes, a woman’s maternal history is relevant. If a woman is trying desperately to stop having children, then it makes sense for her doctor to talk about how she can accomplish that (while being respectful of her religious concerns). If pregnancy and childbearing are damaging her health, it makes sense for her doctor to talk about her plans for the future. That is the doctor’s job, and a good doctor thinks more wholistically, beyond the immediate problem at hand.
But that’s not what I’m talking about.I’m talking about women with many children being treated as if their wombs are a pandora’s box from which all ills and troubles flow. I’m talking about doctors behaving as if we’re nothing but a walking, whimpering uterus, and there is no sense in even discussing any other medical issue until we figure out how to put a cork in it.
Here’s what happened to me in the last week of my last pregnancy:
I had already given birth nine times. I knew what it was going to be like. There was no maternal amnesia strong enough, and there was no new technique I was going to learn for pain control or emotional calm. I knew what was coming, and that it was going to be rough, because that’s what childbirth is like. I was weeks or days away from giving birth, and I couldn’t sleep, night after night, because I was nervous about the delivery. Naturally, my exhaustion only fed into the anxiety.
So I went to the doctor and asked if she could prescribe something safe to soothe my anxiety and help me sleep, just to tide me over.
She refused. Their policy said I had to visit their staff psychiatrist first. Okay, could I make an appointment? Oh, sure — there was an opening in three days.
Three days may not sound like a lot to you, but I was within five days of my due date. I hadn’t slept in maybe four days. Everything hurt, all the time. And I knew with all my heart that I wasn’t going to magically enjoy peace of mind just because, thanks to my doctors, I could look forward to talking to a complete stranger about my emotional state at 39 weeks. Could I maybe get a three-day prescription to get me through until then, just to take the edge off? No, that wasn’t their policy.
I WAS SO ANGRY. There was no reason for this. No reason at all. But they wouldn’t budge.
So I cooled my heels at home (actually, my heels, like the rest of me, were puffy, inflamed, and in constant pain) and turned up for the stupid appointment. The first thing she wanted to know, after introducing herself, was how I felt about having so many children.
Imagine there’s a building on fire, so you called the fire department — only to discover that, before they would even unroll a hose, they wanted to file a request for documents proving that the contractors who built it had been unionized.
Would that be reasonable? Maybe they were unionized and maybe they weren’t, and maybe the answer to that question would shed light on the current situation and maybe it wouldn’t. But right now, maybe let’s PUT OUT THE FIRE.
So I knew already knew I was being treated badly. But I also knew that, the more I protested, the more likely I was to be flagged as a drug-seeking patient, so I tried to speak calmly. I had already plotted out what I was going to say.
I told the doctor, “I am happy with my family size, and I do not need advice about family planning. That is not why I am here. My anxiety is not related to anything but childbirth. It is purely situational anxiety. When I give birth, I will no longer feel anxiety about giving birth. What I need is something to help me through the next few days, because I can’t sleep. That is the problem I need help with.”
And you know what she did? She kept me in that room for another fifteen minutes, probing and questioning me about my history, my long-term psychological state, my experience in past deliveries, and anything else she could think of, based on nothing but the number of times I had given birth. There were no other red flags in my history, nothing that would signal to any medical professional that I was being abused, that I was unhappy beyond normal pregnancy ills, or even that I was overwhelmed with my life in general. But she kept asking. And I just kept repeating: “That is not relevant. This is situational anxiety. I just need to get some sleep.”
Finally, with deep and obvious disapproval, she wrote out a prescription for a mild antihistamine, which didn’t work at all. I burned through the next week in a sleepless rage, angrily gave birth, and spent the next week remembering how to sleep, and calming the hell down.
Now, you tell me.
If I were, say, a topless dancer, and I told my doctor I was nervous about upcoming foot surgery, and I wanted a prescription to help me sleep for a few days until the big day, would I have gotten a slew of lifestyle questions, probing and digging for signs that I harbored some secret regret about how I spend my days?
If I were a trans man with AIDS, and was feeling tons of anxiety about an imminent job interview, would my doctor have given me a referral for next week with a psychiatrist who wanted to sit me down and have a chat about my past and future choices about my body, my family, my life goals?
If I were anyone at all, and I turned up in a doctor’s office with an obvious and solvable problem, wouldn’t the doctor just . . . help me solve that problem?
But I had lots of kids. Lots of kids, and I was in a long-term, stable marriage, and I was fully employed, a long-term patient with no criminal record, no history of drug or alcohol abuse, no smoking, no psych issues, no weird bruises, no nothing. I got regular exercise and took my vitamins. I had turned up at every appointment well-nourished and well-informed, with no panic, no hysteria, no delusions, no complaints about anything other than, “I am pregnant and my feet really hurt.” It was very easy to explain why I was feeling anxiety and dealing with insomnia. It was very easy to predict when I could conquer those issues.
But she didn’t want to hear that. She didn’t want to believe me, because I had a lot of kids.
Guess what? That experience of not being listened to was so frustrating and painful and infuriating, it made it ten times harder for me to make another appointment later, when I really did need help with larger psychological issues (also unrelated to childbearing!). I thought, “They’re just going to say, ‘Well, this is what you get when you have so many kids; sorry, we can’t help.'” Because that is what they have always said.
So I didn’t go, and I didn’t go, and I didn’t go.
That’s what happens when you treat women like they can’t be trusted: You lose their trust. And that means you’re not doing your job.
Doctors, this has to stop. When you see a patient with lots of children, she should be treated like any other patient. Keep eyes and ears open for signs of abuse and signs of distress, just as you would with any other patient, but do not behave as if the large family itself is a red flag. It’s offensive and disrespectful beyond belief, and it puts women constantly on guard. It’s okay to ask if she’s happy with her current family planning; but if she says yes, then you simply must let it go. Even if you don’t get it. Even if you don’t approve.
Believe her when she tells you what the problem is. Believe her, even if she has a lot of kids.