Richard D North

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Over recent weeks, Melvyn Bragg has had a couple of bruising encounters with feminists. He was quietly robust with Shere Hite, and then with Marilyn French. The basis of his complaint is that each in her Amnesty lecture in Oxford had lumped too many different sorts of women's experience into one. Most obviously, they conflated Western and "Third World" experiences so as to seem to make women everywhere the victims of equivalent patriarchies.

Having read the two speeches, it's pretty clear that Melvyn Bragg had the right end of the stick. I don't mean the speeches are all silliness. Hite makes a powerful point when she defends secularism, and the separation of Church and State. She overdoes it, but the Enlightenment and its polity need all the friends they can get. Equally, I'm struck by French's sense that women are stymied when they fight because they are bound by love to the gender which oppresses them.

But to the attack. Both women have rather a down on the poor Pope. Presumably this stems from his dislike of abortion and contraception, which allows them to characterise him as like those religious fundamentalists, especially the fundamentalist Muslims and American protestants they so dislike.

More to the point is whether the Pope is neanderthal. Take his Papal Letter to Women, released last July before the Beijing World Conference on Women. I saw it while surfing the Internet's Catholic Resource Network.

The Pope thanks God for His "mysterious plan regarding the vocation and mission of women in the world". He thanks women for "the richness of your sensitivity, your intuitiveness, your generosity and fidelity". He apologises for any historical tendencies in the Church which have impoverished women, and curtailed them in fulfilling their special mission. He insists this regret must take the form of the Church's reminding itself of the liberal thinking of Jesus on women.

But the Pope's letter does not pander to a male liking for the passivity of women. He celebrates women's intellectual achievements, and praises women who have fought for women's rights. He praises women who go out to work.

The Pope goes on to say that "hedonistic permissiveness" has exploited women, in effect making them sex objects. In fact, much of what he says is unfashionable in the style of one powerful brand of feminism.

Oddly, since the Pope is devoted to the Virgin Mary, he is obviously at least some sort of feminist. And here is the rub. There is no such thing as feminism. At least, beyond the proposition that women have too little power there seems little that unites feminists. Wanting a merging of the genders in a new androgyny is surely different to wanting a forceful celebration of the difference between the sexes.

The Pope is clearly in the latter camp. It's asking too much for everyone to enjoy all his views, and very few liberals believe he's right on "reproductive rights". Still, it seems a shade dunderheaded not to see that his ideas are rich and complicated. Indeed, since the Pope's teaching on women, where it is "illiberal", is widely ignored by his flock, one can be inspired by his love and celebration of the feminine. Catholics are extremely adept at this sort of legerdemain, and could teach secular feminists a thing or two in that department.

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