This story continues a periodic Denver Catholic Register series on the theology of women.
During a visit to Denver last week, Helen Alvaré, law professor at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia and longtime pro-life and pro-family advocate, spoke with the Register about Women Speak for Themselves.
WSFT is a grassroots initiative Alvaré co-founded in February 2012 as a response to the Health and Human Services mandate forcing religious institutions to provide contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs to employees through health insurance. In an open letter to President Barack Obama, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and members of Congress—drafted with friend and fellow attorney Kim Daniels, spokeswoman for the president of the U.S. bishops—Alvaré indicated that “no one speaks for all women on these issues” and she put a spotlight on religious liberty issues.
The letter quickly spread, signed by thousands of Catholics, some non-Catholics; Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
“The fact that it caught fire shows that there was an untapped market for this set of messages,” Alvaré explained. “It is a set of messages.”
What provoked the letter wasn’t only the HHS mandate, she said, but the associated claim that women’s freedom is encapsulated in sexual expression.
“(It was about being) free from the potential for relationship and I don’t just mean a child,” said Alvaré who has served as a consultant for the Pontifical Council of the Laity at the Vatican and an advisor to the U.S. bishops. “The way the administration was promoting it, it meant sexual expression free of the potential of a relationship with a man.”
It was telling by people who “came out of the woodwork” supporting it, including Planned Parenthood leadership, the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., activist Sandra Fluke and actress Lena Dunham—each indicating it was “about time” somebody paid for “really good, expensive birth control.”
“The emphasis was never just on not having a child,” Alvaré said. “It was on being a person who sexually expresses yourself because it’s about you, it’s your identity, it’s your freedom; maybe it’s your equality with men, who also have sex without bearing children.”
The message was clear, she said, and insulting.
“Equating women’s freedom with expressing oneself sexually was so ridiculous, so insulting, for many, many reasons,” said the wife and mother of three. “Where have they been while the rest of the intelligent world has been assessing the fallout of the sexual revolution?”
Laws of economics, psychology and sociology have shown the number one losers in that scenario are women, she said.
“It’s since the introduction, not only of the pill, but of wide-scale programs to push it, you have more unintended pregnancies, more out-of-wedlock births, more single motherhood” she said, “and, therefore, more poverty.”
If that was the best the federal government could do for women, she’d had enough. It was then that she drafted the letter with Daniels.
“We sent it out to about 30 of our friends and it went to 42,000 without even trying,” she explained. “We just want (the administration) to stop lying about what a women’s agenda would look like.”
If you ask women what they really want, she continued, they want to make contributions to the public square, equal pay, equal opportunity in education and to “make all the vocational contributions the Creator has made them capable of.”
“But it turns out 50 years after the pill, they actually want to get married and have children in most cases too,” she added.
Alvaré, who participated in an international gathering of women in Rome Oct. 10-12 hosted by the women’s section of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, is encouraged by Pope Francis’ call for a deeper theology of women.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “You’ll notice when he says that, his next statement is usually that we need to think about bringing women into positions in the Church. One thing he seems to intend is to see what it’s like when men and women are working side by side, in a complementary fashion, inside the Church.
“That’s clear from his remarks,” she said and she intends to be part of what she hopes will be the Church’s complementary model to the world. “I think that’s coming and I’m very excited.”