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Winter Books

Feminists rethinking church and military

FAITHFUL AND FEARLESS: Moving Feminist Protest Inside the Church and Military
By Mary Fainsod Katzenstein
Princeton University Press, $24.95, cloth


When President Jimmy Carter was in office, about 30 of us attending a National Council of Churches women’s meeting were invited to the White House to meet with some women on the president’s staff. They explained that because Carter was reinstituting the draft, he was pondering the question: Should women be drafted? Since we were feminist religious leaders, the White House wanted our input. One by one we went around the room giving our opinions, which were quite mixed.

I was a colonel’s daughter and a colonel’s wife. My brother commanded the USS Ariadne, the first Coast Guard ship to have female crew members. But my life had been turned around by the death in Vietnam of my brother-in-law and by scripture studies at Georgetown University.

With the reinstitution of the draft, I became a draft counselor. I educated and demonstrated against the draft. With Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and others from Pax Christi, I met with the head of Selective Service. Explaining my background to the roomful of women at the White House meeting, I said that I did not believe anyone -- male or female -- should be drafted; that war was harmful to men women, children and other living things. No one concurred. As we continued around the circle, Sr. Maureen Fiedler broke up the meeting with: “When I was in college during Vietnam, I really felt discriminated against because I did not have a draft card to burn like my male friends had!”

I think if the author of Faithful and Fearless had been in the Map Room right outside the Oval Office with us that night, perhaps she would have had a different opinion. However, since she does not disclose where she stands or through what kind of lens she peers at the military, I am not sure. Nevertheless, Mary Fainsod Katzenstein does an excellent historical analysis of feminist protest inside both the temple and the empire, where discrimination is not subtle.

Katzenstein, a professor of government and member of the faculty of the Women’s Studies Program at Cornell University, has done a great service to those working for equality inside the sacred and secular fortresses. By researching the actions of the Women’s Ordination Conference and the Women-Church movement, reading our newspapers, attending our conferences, interviewing some key people, she has a solid grasp on our history and most of our endeavors.

Equality in combat

Even more fully, she has researched and recounted numerous military courts-martial (Kelley Flynn’s trial, for example) and many struggles for equality by military women’s interest groups. The author’s studies focus on the struggle for women priests in the Catholic church and for women to be in military combat in all situations. Although policy changes now permit women to fly combat missions and serve on surface warships, there are still combat roles from which women are explicitly excluded.

She points out the institutional de-radicalization of feminists in the military. She observes accurately that: “For most feminists in the military a gender-equal society is one in which qualified women have the same opportunities as qualified men. What this reformist vision requires, many military women would say, are better laws, politics and education. For many activists in the Catholic church, by contrast, feminism is inseparable from the all-encompassing goal of antimilitarism, class equality, race and gender equity, a homophobia-free society and social justice on a comprehensive scale. This is a radical vision that demands, many Catholic feminists believe, nothing less than a reconstructed world achieved through an entire restructuring of societal institutions.”

Differing strategies

Katzenstein notes that until 25 years ago what was noticeable about the attitudes and actions of both women in the church and women in the military was their similarities instead of their differences. All that changed in the mid-1970s when those inside each of the two fortresses sought different political objectives and used different strategies.

She rightly concludes that civil laws were on the side of women in the military while church laws opposed women’s aspirations for ordination. The two groups took different forms: interest groups for the military women and discursive politics for the women in the church. She notes: “On the whole, interest groups are seen as politics as usual, while discursive politics means the effort to reinterpret, reformulate, rethink and rewrite the norms and practices of society and the state ... discursive politics relies heavily but not exclusively on language. It is about cognition. Its premise is that conceptual changes directly bear on material ones. Its vehicle is both speech and print -- conversations, debate, conferences, essays, stories, newsletters, books.”

No, not debate. Dialogue is the tool feminists use in our quest for mutuality. Debate always has winners and losers.

The book has an index, a list of interviewees and a bibliography of books and periodicals the author consulted. Clearly written, it is easy to read. I recommend that before the next pope takes office, all women in the church should have this book thoroughly digested as a cure for naiveté.

As for women in the military, I suggest they go see the first 30 minutes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” to learn what war is like. Combat pilots push a button and never see the results of their bombs on ground troops as well as noncombatant women and children. On a more personal note, women in the military would benefit from reading Mary Edwards Wertsch’s Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress. Pat Conroy, author of The Great Santini, writes the introduction.

Feminists in the church are no longer knocking on the hierarchy’s doors asking merely to be let in. We are inviting the hierarchy to come out of the patriarchal system, which kills souls as well as bodies. The Vatican is squeezing feminist men and women, putting on pressure not unlike that torture tool of the Inquisition, the iron maiden.

Read this book and reflect upon the strategies and backlash against women’s struggles in the church and the armed forces. One source of difference between the two struggles is that the women in the church listened to Dominican Sr. Marjorie Tuite when she prophetically warned us to keep making the connections between racism, sexism, classism, militarism and homophobia.

Before bombs start falling on the Balkans, I hope military women will come to make those connections, too. After all, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling in “The Ladies,” whether we are the Colonel’s Lady or Judy O’Grady, we are sisters under the skin.

Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer living in Fairfax, Va.

National Catholic Reporter, November 6, 1998