Confessions of a former feminist

Marcia Segelstein - OneNewsNow Columnist - 1/26/2010 8:35:00 AM Feminism, women's liberation, and the idea that men and women are no different from each other have led many of us down dead-end roads -- often away from faith.

Lorraine Murray, in her book, Confessions of an Ex-Feminist (Ignatius Press, 2008), tells the story of her own walk down that road and back, with many illuminating lessons on everything from abortion to the anti-religious bias on college campuses.

Murray grew up in a Christian home, eagerly attending Mass at church, and absorbing what she was taught in the Catholic schools she attended. Against the advice of one of her teachers, she decided to study at a secular college, and it was there that her faith and her values began to unravel. As she describes it, up until then, she'd rarely run into people who didn't believe in God. In college, it seemed as though no one did. She writes that she began to equate becoming an adult with turning her back on God.

She lapped up feminist ideology and rejected the morality and values she'd been taught, including those about abortion. Like most of her peers, she began having relationships with men. But as an avowed feminist, she couldn't understand the emotional pain she suffered when the relationships ended. By her own admission, she was searching for Prince Charming, even though she knew she was supposed to be unconcerned with commitment.

After her mother's death while in graduate school, Murray, in her own words, "launched a vendetta against God," doing her best to convince her students that God didn't exist.

She offers interesting insight into how being a college professor allowed her to do that. "As my philosophy students tackled topics like the meaning of life and the existence of God, I knew that, ideally, instructors are supposed to remain neutral. But I also recalled, from my own college days, how skillfully some professors had dodged this expectation." She writes that there are innumerable ways professors let their students know what they want to hear: "a chuckle, a grimace, or a wink and a nod."

Her attitude about politics was much the same. Having become a staunch liberal, she writes that like many professors, she "assumed college was the place to challenge and dismantle traditions. Conservative thought, almost by definition, was the dragon to slay in the classroom, and few students had the courage to disagree with a strongly opinionated professor."

Nonetheless, she writes that she believes the "Hound of Heaven" was pursuing her, in ways large and small. She got married, and recounts about a memorable experience she had while spending time with her husband in Cedar Key, Florida. Anchored out in the gulf on a small boat, they suddenly heard a loud splash and saw the heads of two manatees pop out of the water. The manatees peered at them before disappearing underwater again. "The atheist in the boat," Murray writes, "stunned by their eyes, which seemed so deeply innocent and mysterious, now uttered a rather strange statement: 'It was like looking into the face of God!'" Later she would write in her journal that she believed she'd gotten a glimpse of God's face here on earth.

After dinner one night, the image of a nearby church flashed into her mind. She asked her husband to take a walk there with her to see it, and he did. Once home again, they talked about their childhood beliefs about God and religion. And she confided in him about her "perplexing feeling that 'someone' was calling me.'"

Both of them decided they wanted to explore further, and they met with a local Catholic priest. Kneeling in the church, Murray remembered the story of the Good Shepherd going after the one lost sheep. That night, for the first time in 20 years, she prayed: "Help me to believe."

Murray then movingly tells readers the story of the abortion she'd had years before. "No one," she writes, "had prepared me for the flashbacks, which began about a year after the 'procedure'....I would relive the experience....I started having upsetting reactions to babies....A question started plaguing me: How old would my baby have been now?"

One night, her husband, Jef, encouraged her to attend an Advent penance service, where confessions would be heard. It had been years since she'd been to confession, but reluctantly, she went. With tears streaming down her face, this former feminist and long-time defender of abortion told the priest what she'd done. He explained that just as Jesus had said on the cross, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34), Jesus would forgive her, too.

Months later, however, Murray was still filled with self-recrimination about her abortion. She believed that God had forgiven her, but couldn't forgive herself. She started meeting regularly with a woman from a group called PATH (Post-Abortion Treatment and Healing), and after many months, began to heal. Years later she came across a quote in The Privilege of Being a Woman which reminded her of how this woman had helped her: "Those who devote their loving attention to [women who have had abortions] know that the wound created in their souls is so deep that only God's grace can heal it."

She and Jef began working with four nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, who had been sent to the U.S. to open a home for women with AIDS. "The nuns were the furthest thing from self-centered and the last people in the world to defend their rights or to assert themselves. In my days as an ardent feminist, I would have scoffed at how meek and unselfassuming they were. They weren't concerned about goals, accomplishments, or applause."

Another former radical feminist turned Christian, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, helped Murray to understand the incompatibility of the two belief systems. "In a book review, [Fox-Genovese] suggested that radical feminists balked at the possibility that one could be both pro-woman and Catholic. She believed this was due to an inherent disconnect in feminism concerning the notion of service, which is the core of Christianity for both men and women."

The selflessness she'd seen in the nuns was antithetical to everything she'd believed as a feminist. They were about putting others first, not themselves. They were about service, not success.

Like so many of us, Murray took the tempting bait the world has to offer. But, as she puts it, the "Hound of Heaven" kept tugging at the line until finally she came home again.