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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Wanting it All: Women and the State of Feminism in America

Event Recap

How are women doing today? The Obama administration recently released a major report on the status of American women, filled with demographic data and sociological analysis. Seeking to place the report in a broader context, the Boisi Center invited three scholars with wide-ranging expertise in history, religion and culture to discuss the state of women—and feminism—in the United States today. The overflow crowd in Devlin Hall on April 26 attested to the wide interest in the topic as well as the esteem in which they held our speakers, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Lisa Sowle Cahill and Cynthia Young.

Ulrich, a feminist writer and historian who holds a prestigious university professorship at Harvard, framed her remarks around a comparison of the Obama report and its only predecessor, released by the Kennedy administration in 1963. Though most of the statistics had improved for women, some dramatically, Ulrich noted the continuity in the kind of work women do outside the home. Women continue to be concentrated in a small number of traditionally female occupations: secretaries, registered nurses, elementary school teachers, cashiers, and nursing aides. Not coincidentally, these are also some of the lowest-paying jobs in our economy. “Feminism isn’t about inspiring more female doctors,” she said. “It’s about fostering a society in which nurses are truly respected for the work they do.”

Lisa Cahill, Monan Professor of Theology at Boston College, spoke about the resources available to Catholic feminists—and, more broadly, Christian feminists—as they face the apparent disjunction between their desire for gender equality and their faith tradition’s teaching on gender inequality. She pointed to recent developments in feminist theology and Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), to statements by Church leaders about gender complementarity, and most of all, to the growing awareness of the incredibly diverse experiences of women around the world. Women’s reflections on their own experience help to make Catholicism truly a “living tradition” that can remain vibrant and meaningful for women in all circumstances.

The final panelist was Cynthia Young, associate professor of English at Boston College and former director of BC’s program in African and African Diaspora Studies. Young began with an analysis of two iconic black women who, in many people’s eyes, have come to define the aspirations of African American women: Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Our culture’s focus on “the two O’s,” known for their fashion sensibility as much as their business prowess and philanthropic tendencies, is notable in part for what it obscures: the much more common plight of black women who face higher rates of domestic abuse, poverty and incarceration.

In the lively Q&A period that followed, panelists reflected on the media’s portrayal of women, the challenges of motherhood and the sometimes imposing generational gap that complicates any agreement about the priorities and concerns of American feminism. All agreed that while some women are indeed doing much better than ever before, many others are not; American women’s status varies enormously by race, class and religion, as it always has.