I didn’t celebrate International Women’s Day. Its history is cruel: it was imposed in the old USSR immediately after the 1917 Revolution and for the next decades there were slogans every year on March 8th about the glories of being a woman under socialism, while women died in their millions in the Soviet-imposed famines of the 1930s, were sent to forced labour in the gulag, or endured grim misery in ill-paid factory jobs while their children went to State nurseries.
March 8th holds no significant anniversary for women. The date was chosen to avoid any link with a Christian past and to force a secular calendar with no real history. For centuries, the real celebratory day for women has been March 25th, feast of the Annunciation, when the woman who changed the course of all human history conceived her divine son, and earth and Heaven rejoiced. When it comes to the dignity of women, it is the Christian heritage which soars above all other.
God became incarnate in the womb of a woman, and Mary’s Magnificat is the song of the Church, strong, celebratory, grateful, courageous, praising God whose mighty blessings flow from one generation to the next. Ours is the Church of Mary, Mother of God and Ark of the Covenant, of Mary Magdalene, first witness of the Resurrection who ran to tell the Apostles the great news, of Felicity and Perpetua facing martyrdom in pagan Rome, of Teresa of Calcutta serving the poorest of the poor in the hot slums of Calcutta.
Mother Church honours and cherishes her daughters and Catholic women know it. There are more churches named after women than men, there were more women than men at the foot of the Cross, and most Catholics learn their first prayers from a woman and hear about the works of God from a woman’s voice. If asked to name a saint, most people will come up with a female rather than a male one: St Bernadette or St Therese of Lisieux rather than St Peter, St Thomas More, or St Edmund Campion. In popular culture and in the history of the Church, women are at the heart of Catholic life. The first known missionary was a woman – setting down her bucket by the well and running to tell everyone that she had met the Lord.
It is to a woman, Mary, that Catholics traditionally pray when in real need: “…I fly to thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother…”. The Church cries to Mary for help when things are tough: “And the tempest-tossed Church, all her eyes are on thee”. The most popular of all prayers, the Rosary, is a meditation on the great events of the incarnation and our salvation, prayed through Mary’s intercession.
Women saints have been missionaries, martyrs, mystics, founders of great religious orders, stateswomen, writers, campaigners, educators. They have been mothers of families, queens, visionaries, teachers. For centuries in our country, convents were centres of scholarship, culture, and spiritual leadership and formation: Hilda of Whitby taught the first English poet, Caedmon, how to develop his gifts, and it was at her Abbey that the great Synod was held to resolve the differences between the British and the English church traditions. In modern times, long before there were any state schools for girls in Britain, Catholic sisters were running schools for girls of all social classes. Catholic sisters were the first, and for some while the only, women who rallied when Florence Nightingale called for women to nurse British soldiers in the Crimean war.
Mother Church honours motherhood: for Christians, this is not some mere biological event bringing no status, but gives a central and authoritative role centred on the fact that God incarnate had a mother and it was she who taught her little boy the ancient Psalms and prayers of Israel, the religious traditions and duties, the pattern of family life and neighbourly service. The most powerful and best-known image in Christianity, other than the Cross itself, is that of the Mother and Child – painted by countless artists and producing some of the most glorious pictures, statues, icons and mosaics of the centuries.
Mary the Maid of Israel, the daughter of Zion, binds together the Old and New Covenants. Mary the dignified woman of the Royal house of David is the model for all monarchs and women in public life. Mary whose heart was pierced by a sword is the woman to whom every grieving mother of a slaughtered soldier or lost newborn can take her sorrow.
Pagan cultures – today and yesterday – offer a message of female inferiority: baby girls slaughtered as being of less value than boys, adolescent girls seen as sexually available, virginity held in contempt, old women regarded as a tiresome burden. Christianity celebrates the complementarity of the sexes, cherishes authentic feminine values, teaches chastity and chivalry, honours marriage as a lifelong and life-giving covenant. And that men must honour women, that bullying or abusing a woman is evil.
And there’s more. Ever alert to the real needs of the times, Mother Church recognises that if there is a despised sex in today’s Western culture, it is men. We need to teach both boys and girls that manhood is to be honoured, that manly heroism is something fine and glorious, that men as husbands and fathers providing for their families, priests serving the Church, men tackling tough tasks in industry or soldiering or public service, can be noble and admirable.
We probably don’t need a gimmick like an International Men’s Day. But, as Catholic women, some of us are certainly taking the lead in saying: let’s honour men as men and woman as women, and listen to the voice of Mother Church when she celebrates the truth that we are created in God’s image, male and female and that this expresses a greater reality that existed before time began: Christ and Church, the heavenly nuptials that we echo at every Mass and in every Christian marriage.
2018 is the 30th anniversary of St John Paul’s magnificent Mulieris Dignitatem, honouring the dignity and vocation of women. As the ghastly backwash of misery caused by the Soviet system trails its sludge through Russia, and as women across the world tackle the new challenges of the 21st century, let’s ditch the bogus International Women’s Day and look forward to the brighter future offered by the glorious truth of the Incarnation, celebrated annually on March 25th.