I spoke at a Catholic university today and there was a bit of a kerfuffle so I wrote this piece in the car this afternoon and then I was on stage at my event and I was fucking terrified to read this but I looked out at the audience and all those students who were choosing to see me speak and so I said what I needed to say and then after people said I was courageous but really, I was just saying what I felt.
I was raised Catholic and as the daughter of Haitian immigrants, it often felt like we were extra Catholic. Mass on Sundays, CCD during the week. It felt like God was everywhere, both literally and figuratively.
Growing up, I understood faith even if I didn’t always have faith, even if as I stand here now, I continue to struggle with faith. I understood that sometimes, you have to place your trust in something you cannot see or hear or taste or touch. You have to take that risk, without any guarantee that something will rise from your faith. You have to accept that taking the risk is a reward unto itself. Faith, when you think about it, is a lot like love. When I love, I love you regardless of the risk. I place my trust in something beyond the tangible and it is terrifying but I wouldn’t choose otherwise. I do not choose otherwise.
In 2014 I published a book of essays, Bad Feminist, and as such, I am often asked several of the same questions—why am I a feminist, how did I come to feminism, what is feminism, can men be feminists? I can rattle off stock answers about gender, equality and intersectionality and these answers are true but sometimes, they feel hollow, or perhaps, incomplete because my feminism is more than a sound byte. It is part of who I am. I believe feminism should be a part of all of us, a default setting for humanity.
I wrote this book and I am a feminist, but I am also a girl from Nebraska who is awkward and shy and who loves movies and Channing Tatum and playing Scrabble. It may seem strange given much of my writing, but I don’t think of myself as political or controversial. I am opinionated. I am passionate. I don’t feel, though, that this is remarkable. Most people nurture these qualities to one degree or another.
This morning, as I was finishing up packing my suitcase, I received an email from my speaking agent, saying he had gotten a “reminder,” from the student representative of the Free to Be organization that invited me to the St. Louis University campus.
Even earlier in the morning, the university’s assistant vice president called that student representative to remind them to remind ME that “SLU is a Catholic, Jesuit institution, and this talk should not violate that, aka not speaking to the pro-choice agenda.”
My temper flared immediately. I don’t like vague threats of censorship. I hate the word agenda when it is used as a blunt instrument, when it is used to imply that one with a so-called agenda is up to no good. I am a deeply flawed person but I pride myself on being concerned with the greater good, and seeking out goodness in myself and others. I thought about cancelling my appearance but then I reconsidered because really, what would that accomplish?
I was raised Catholic and ours was a deeply faithful household. Though I am rather lapsed, I am the better for it. In our home, God was a God of love. We were allowed and encouraged to question our faith and our relationship to God. We were never threatened with hell and damnation. Instead, we were taught the Ten Commandments and we read the Bible and we were asked to be good and to do what we could to foster goodness in the choices we made.
I must confess that Jesuits have always fascinated me. When I was young, I learned that Jesuits were the warriors of the faith, even more so than regular priests. I learned that they were dedicated to teaching and rigorous education. My brothers have often told me that they have never been more challenged than by the Jesuit priests who taught them in high school and college. They have shared their admiration of their Jesuit teachers with no small amount of pride. I also admire Jesuits because throughout history, they have been fierce advocates of social justice. In 1975, at the 32nnd General Congregation, the Jesuit Order stated, empathically, “The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.”
I am, despite the ways I have suffered, a very lucky woman. I was raised by loving parents in a loving home. I have always been sheltered, clothed, fed. I have known material comfort. I have been afforded the best possible education. I have been broke, especially during my twenties, my lost years, but I have never wanted for employment. Today, I am reasonably successful and want for little. As the beneficiary of so many blessings, I am obligated, I think, to spend some of my time considering those who have not been so lucky. I am called to promote justice and this is an absolute requirement.
As meager as my contributions often feel, because I am just a writer, I tend to write about race, gender, sexuality and class. I write about what it means to be underrepresented and what it means to face systemic disadvantage and discrimination, the lifelong consequences of which can be staggering. I write because I hope that increasing awareness is a step toward progress and justice for us all.
I am a feminist, albeit a bad one at times, so I particularly give a damn about women, from all walks of life. I am constantly reminded of work that needs to be done to ensure that all women can move through the world with the same freedom as men. I want to ensure that women receive equal pay. I want to ensure that we can live our lives with some semblance of peace instead of worrying about the pervasive threat of sexual violence as a Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. I want women to be as encouraged to be ambitious and bold as men are. I want us to benefit from equal opportunities to succeed, professionally and personally. I want men, women and transgender men and women to be freed from the rigidity of gender roles.
And because I am a feminist, I am deeply concerned with reproductive freedom and how unfettered access to affordable birth control is somehow, on the legislative table in many states and that even though abortion is legal, legislators in just as many states are working to curtail women’s access to a medical procedure that is their federally granted right.
Until women’s bodies and women’s choices are no longer subject to legislative whim, we are neither equal nor free. This is not an agenda. This is not a political or a controversial stance. This is a matter of justice. This is, for me, a matter of faith.
I was raised Catholic and as such, I was raised learning that as a woman, I should not engage in pre-marital sex, and, once married, I should not avail myself of birth control, and should I find myself pregnant, I should not have an abortion. I learned that to make such choices would be to sin, to commit grave evils. The older I got, the more difficult it was to find my place in a religion with such strictures. It was difficult for me to understand why I should place my faith in an institution that saw me primarily as a vessel for bringing children into the world when I knew myself, my mother, all the women in my life, to be so much more than that. I am a bad feminist and, I guess, I am a bad Catholic.
In Bad Feminist, I write about how as a feminist, inclusion is important and how even when women make choices I would not make for myself, I support them and advocate for them. I say this because the older I get, the more I understand empathy and nuance and that life is complex. The more I understand that we don’t all have to agree to create change or make progress. We do, however, need to be mindful. We need to be open. We need to respect the beliefs and choices of others.
I value life and its sanctity. I understand why Catholicism and so many other religions condemn abortion even if I cannot abide that condemnation. I understand but I place more value on the sanctity of women having the right to choose what happens to their bodies. I recognize the economic and sociopolitical consequences of motherhood and how women, more often than not, bear the responsibility of child rearing, so as such, choice becomes even more crucial. Such autonomy is sacrosanct. If you want to call that an agenda, I can live with that. If you disagree with my stance, I can respect that.
This morning I received an email that was, essentially a gesture of censorship. It was a message predicated on the assumption that I came here to corrupt young minds with an agenda. As I mulled it over I wondered how desperately fragile a faith must be if it cannot withstand critical engagement or diverse points of view.
Generally at events like this, I read a few essays and the audience and I have a fun, engaging conversation about social justice and popular culture. I do not consider it my responsibility to convert you to my way of thinking or to malign your way of thinking should we hold different points of view. Instead, it is my responsibility to encourage you to question, to think, critically about your beliefs and what they mean for this world we share and the people with whom we share this world. I offer, I hope, a small act of faith.