For the first time, the headline read, more women than men earned PhDs in the U.S., the culmination of decades of change in the status of women on campuses nationwide.
I was there, during some of those years. The article brought me back to my own brief stint in graduate school, back in the late seventies. Memories were still fresh of the famous bank burning protest in Isla Vista. It was an era of radical feminism, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and “take back the night” demonstrations.
I was one of three female grad students in a male-dominated field (philosophy) and, as perhaps the least eccentric, I was invited to sit on the Chancellor's Advisory Committee on the Status of Women. (One of my colleagues was having a wild affair with a political philosophy professor, while the other smoked cigars in the style of the brilliant G.E.M. Anscombe.)
We discussed female representation in graduate studies, on the faculty, and in tenured positions, along with sexual harassment and violence against women.
Today, however, men still hold the majority of faculty and tenured positions --my former department has only one female professor currently on the faculty-- and women earn less than men in academia. As I peruse the website of the current department of philosophy, I note that all five of the new graduate students are male. Not much progress there.
My thesis advisor once told me that I was probably only in grad school to find a husband. He had reason to believe this, since he had married one of his grad students. As a grad student trained to argue every point that ever was uttered, I should have had a smart response, but his comment simply took the stuffing out of me.
Though I completed my thesis, I did not pursue the doctorate, but left with a master’s degree and a huge sigh of relief.
A decade later John Paul II wrote Mulieris Dignitatem, on the dignity and vocation of women, directly addressing both the problems faced by women, and the mistaken conclusions drawn by radical feminists.
“The woman cannot become the ‘object’ of male ‘domination’ and ‘possession,’” he wrote. Nonetheless, “In the name of liberation from male ‘domination,’ women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine ‘originality.’” He argues that the true dignity of a woman does not rest on the acquisition of male attributes or of power, but rather in becoming a child of God, created in his image and likeness.
The fundamental equality (both “a gift and a right”) between the sexes, lost through Original Sin, is overcome in Christ. “[T]here is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28).
We are meant to do something in this world, to develop our unique talents and capabilities, Pope Benedict XVI tells us in God and the World. Yet this is more than simply acquiring skills, competing in a traditionally male arena, or breaking the glass ceiling. And it certainly doesn’t mean seeking power or jockeying for position at the altar as "priestesses."
Our development as women should always occur not as a matter of vindictive competition, but within the context of love. As Pope Benedict said: “I am only fulfilling my mission to love, so to speak, when I become the person I am capable of being. When I am giving what I am able to give.”
The Church has always affirmed the equality of dignity between men and women. In fact, there are three female saints who have been named “Doctor of the Church” because of their outstanding holiness and depth of understanding and insight shown by their writings and teachings: Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Saint Therese of Lisieux.
Only in Christ will we realize our true dignity as women, our role as active personal "subjects" --not objects-- who are free to develop our talents and skills and to grow in holiness.
John Paul II would have applauded the rise in academic doctorates, as long as it doesn’t come at the price of our fundamental vocation, the most fundamental and innate vocation of every human being, male or female: the vocation to love.
Photograph by Natasha C. Dunn - (CC)