A few months ago, a YouTube channel named Mrs. Midwest popped up in my recommendations. It’s run by a Protestant homemaker in Michigan who makes videos about subjects like baking homemade bread, how to make cleaning your house less painful, and developing a low-cost beauty routine. As someone who loves to bake, has a perpetually messy room, and battles chronic split ends, I enjoyed her insights.
Then, I witnessed the backlash.
Popular atheist and Christian YouTubers, as well as their subscribers, began posting cruel takedowns of this channel, calling this blogger “naive,” “programmed,” “anti-feminist,” and even “toxic.” While I disagree with some of her views, I found that much of the criticism Mrs. Midwest received was because she had chosen to be a stay-at-home wife instead of a socially-acceptable #girlboss, and because her style and beauty videos catered more to stereotypically feminine standards of dressing than to popular androgynous, casual looks. She doesn’t live up to pop culture’s idea of a strong role model for young girls, even if her videos share lessons of self-discipline, healthy boundaries, emotional and spiritual well-being, and embracing individuality. Her critics held her up as the pinnacle of all that the feminist movement worked to tear down over the past century but which stubbornly refused to go away.
She’s stereotypically feminine, so she can’t possibly be a feminist, right?
Feminism Versus Femininity?
Although I was raised in the Church, I called myself a proud feminist long before I called myself a proud Catholic. As I watched this recent YouTube drama unfold, I began to question what my secular feminist upbringing taught me about my own femininity and wondered how I could embrace authentic Catholic femininity to become the woman God created me to be.
Throughout middle school and high school, I took many advanced classes, and most of my friends were intelligent, book-loving teacher’s pets like myself. However, I noticed a stark difference between me and the girls who earned the highest grades in the class. They tended to wear the same thing every day: jeans, a dark-colored t-shirt, sneakers, no makeup, and their hair in a ponytail. They were less talkative before class, and when they raised their hands during class, their responses were always eloquent and usually correct. They were considered mature, wise beyond their years, and destined for careers that would value their brain power over everything else.
I, on the other hand, was a bubbly extrovert who wore pastels and sparkly earrings, and I always raised my hand in class whether I knew the right answer or not. I was a whiz at organizing group projects, whereas my higher-achieving female friends loathed group work. Though I consistently earned good grades, I also wanted so badly to be the best and wondered why I fell short of the top-performing girls. I was deeply hurt when my smiling, cheerful greetings to my classmates were met with raised eyebrows. I began suppressing my taste for stereotypically feminine clothing, because I thought it would make other people take me seriously. I gave up on makeup until well into adulthood, because a girl in my chorus class berated me for my clumpy mascara and blotchy concealer. I was taught to look down on girls who openly conformed to feminine stereotypes, even if I secretly admired them for it.
I was taught to look down on girls who openly conformed to feminine stereotypes, even if I secretly admired them for it.
I grew up in the era of pop culture heroines like Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger, badasses who eschewed feminine stereotypes and used their physical and mental prowess to overthrow corrupt power structures and beat the boys at their own game. They didn’t bother with things like makeup and fashion when there was a world that needed saving. They weren’t “like other girls.”
Like the Other Girls
I didn’t realize it at the time, but a host of lies sunk deep into my heart: You’ll never be successful, because you’re too much “like other girls.” Girls who like pink can’t be smart, brave, or powerful. You have to be more masculine if you’re going to get anywhere. Your femininity makes you a bad feminist.
As I explored Catholic feminism in my early 20s, Edith Stein came up often. Her Essays on Woman seemed to resonate with so many people, including Pope St. John Paul II, who was influenced by Stein’s writings in his work on Theology of the Body. However, most of the women who spoke about Stein commented how refreshing it was to learn that authentic femininity didn’t involve loving dolls and dresses, because they never liked those things. When I heard that, my first thought was, “But I made up elaborate storylines for all my Barbies when I was little, and I still love wearing dresses. Does that mean Stein’s words don’t apply to me?”
Unfortunately, it seems that the “not like other girls” mentality has seeped into some corners of the Catholic feminist movement. I can understand where this attitude comes from. For too long, women who displayed stereotypically masculine traits, such as athleticism, boldness, and strong leadership, were called “tomboyish,” “pushy,” or “bossy” — or much more derogatory versions of those words. I am grateful that, over the past few decades, women with these characteristics have been better represented and even praised in the secular world and in the Church. However, breaking with feminine stereotypes is not what makes someone a “real” feminist, just as aligning with these stereotypes is not what makes someone a “real” woman.
Breaking with feminine stereotypes is not what makes someone a “real” feminist, just as aligning with these stereotypes is not what makes someone a “real” woman.
“The Soul of a Woman”
When I read Essays on Woman, Stein’s list of qualities of the feminine soul blew me away:
“The soul of a woman must therefore be expansive and open to all human beings; it must be quiet [i.e. peaceful] so that no small weak flame will be extinguished by stormy winds; warm so as not to benumb fragile buds; clear, so that no vermin will settle in dark corners and recesses; self-contained, so that no invasions from without can imperil the inner life; empty of itself, in order that extraneous life may have room in it; finally, mistress of itself and also of its body, so that the entire person is readily at the disposal of every call” (132).
I finally understood the freedom and empowerment that other women found in Stein’s writings. There was no mention of needing to prefer pantsuits over dresses. According to Stein, the essence of womanhood is based on interior qualities that are applicable to women at any stage, in any vocation, and with any personality type. My talent for bringing groups of people together wasn’t a sign that I was a vapid social butterfly; it was my feminine soul being expansive. Even if I spoke up loudly and constantly in class, my soul could still be quiet and peaceful, resting in God’s love and mercy. My friendly demeanor wasn’t fake; it was warm, encouraging others to be their authentic selves. Although I don’t have a husband or children, I can still empty myself out for the sake of my family, friends, and co-workers. And when it comes to having a clear head and heart, being self-contained (i.e., independent), and being mistress of oneself? Sounds like a strong, empowered woman to me — though I’m still working on getting there.
The essence of womanhood is based on interior qualities that are applicable to women at any stage, in any vocation, and with any personality type.
To the girls and women in my own life whom I looked down upon or ridiculed for expressing their femininity in ways that conformed more to gender stereotypes: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I let my jealousy and insecurity get in the way because the world told me that masculinity was the only path to success.
Yes, I love baking and homemaking, but I also have big career goals for myself. I love red lipstick, but I don’t feel the need to wear it every day. I will always like dresses and skirts more than pants, but I will also never stop fighting for the fundamental truth that women and men have equal dignity in the eyes of God.
Indulging or ignoring the parts of your personality that align more with feminine stereotypes has no bearing on your identity as a woman or as a feminist. You don’t have to force yourself to live up to others’ ideals in order to be the best feminist and woman you can be. You have to be authentically you, as God created you to be — and that is true liberation.
You don’t have to force yourself to live up to others’ ideals in order to be the best feminist and woman you can be. You have to be authentically you, as God created you to be — and that is true liberation.