What are women? Despite my daily presence to my daughters’ lives, their sisterhood remains an enigma. A complex emotional bond exists among the seven of them, a self-enclosed feminine world that I can see and understand, but never truly enter. “Little Women” reminded me of that.

What are women, anyway? I’m confused. Recent events, not to mention what I’m reading in my Humanities class, have me wondering more than usual. Several weeks ago in Lander, there was a “Women’s March,” and the word women in that case (though there were apparently more men in the march) signified human biological females (one has to be careful with descriptors these days) who considered it vitally important to be able to abort their babies, should they conceive any. Why? Because they wanted the freedom to liberate themselves from the bondage of the biological fact that sex—well, understood in old-fashioned ways—sometimes leads to unwanted conception.

On the other hand, identifying as a woman, say, or having an operation in order to qualify as a “woman” and compete athletically against biological females, would not enable such a “woman” to conceive a child, but “she” would probably still want to be able to abort a child if “she” could conceive one. At least “she” should have no objections, since “she” has left biology behind in the first place. I apologize for putting “she” in quotations marks, since it seems so, you know, distancing and judgmental, but I’m trying to distinguish such a person from a woman of the kind who wants the right to abort the baby she has conceived naturally.

So women in “Women’s March” means—what exactly? That women per se either are or should be pro-abortion. It’s very puzzling. In my experience over the past 42 years since I entered the Catholic Church, almost all of the women I have known consider it an extraordinary privilege to be able to conceive and bear children. Some of them have not been able to, despite their utter willingness, and others have done so, it is true, outside of marriage, but all of them have affirmed and loved, often problematically, the possibility of another person growing within them instead of asserting a right to kill the child as an invasive, alien growth. Both God and “great creating nature,” as Shakespeare puts it, have a claim on their hearts. But then, are they women in the sense of the “Women’s March”? I guess not.

These problems weigh on me. What are women? One afternoon a weekend or so ago, I took my wife and our daughter Julia to see Little Women at the movie theater in Lander. They had both seen it before when we were visiting another daughter and her family in Arkansas over Christmas, but they wanted to see it again. This is not the kind of film that pulls in big crowds in the small-town cowboy West, but my wife was surprised to see that there were only seven or eight other people in the theater. I am pretty sure that I was the only male who had ventured within half a mile of this movie. But with seven daughters (and a son), I have had considerable experience with little women of my own, and I wanted to see why my daughters liked this film so much. Besides, there might be clues about what women are.

The director, Greta Gerwig, worked to make a 19th-century period piece feel vitally contemporary, and she succeeded. The dialogue (most of it taken from the book) is crisp and lively, the whole film is beautiful to watch, and it’s very well-acted, especially by the two leads, Saoirse (pronounced Sur-sha) Ronan as Jo March and Florence Pugh as her youngest sister, Amy March. Most of our daughters have seen the movie by now; the ones who commented on it loved the reality of the dynamics between these intelligent, strong-willed, young women. They remembered writing and acting in their own plays when they were little, just like the March sisters, and they identified with the tensions, jealousies, moments of warmth, acts of meanness, dramas of forgiveness, all the rest.

In an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal last week, Charlotte Allen criticized Ms. Gerwig’s film for leaving out the novel’s parallels to John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. This version, she wrote, “undermines the writer’s framing of the story as a tale of moral growth in a world at odds with living a Christian life.” Maybe she’s right. I confess, at the risk of slings and arrows, that I have never read Little Women. But I’m back to the question of what women are. I felt the same bemused detachment watching the movie that I felt watching my daughters in the years when they were growing up. Despite my daily presence to my daughters’ lives for all those years, their sisterhood was then and remains now an enigma.

I don’t mean that I have ever found them enigmatic as individuals in their interactions with me, but rather that a complex emotional bond exists among the seven of them, a self-enclosed feminine world that I can see and understand, but never truly enter. Little Women reminded me of that. I watched it, I enjoyed it, I understood the emotional complexities of the fraught relations between Jo and Amy. Still, my reaction was not tears, even at Beth’s death, whereas several of my daughters report weeping through the whole thing. But I am not sure that the word women, as in “Women’s March,” applies to my daughters.

And then there was the Super Bowl half-time show. Were Shakira and Jennifer Lopez women or merely objects of titillationIt’s confusing. Was this a liberating spectacle, as some undoubtedly definitional women claimed? Without question, the show scorned the starchy canons of good taste, not to mention archaic distinctions between things that children might safely watch and things more appropriate for a clientele accustomed to strip clubs and pornography. Was it liberating for women of Hispanic descent who would otherwise, say, revere Our Lady of Guadalupe? For middle-aged women (43 in Shakira’s case and 50 in Lopez’s) now convinced that, by recovering the self-obsessed vanity of teenagers and applying enough fanatical determination in the gym, they can still stir male pheromones? Puzzling stuff.

Thank God for Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, whose patronal Mass we celebrated last week at Wyoming Catholic College. Thank God even for the old Puritan John Milton and his controversial (because not feminist) depiction of Eve in Paradise Lost, which we’ve just finished in my junior Humanities class. When the angel Raphael criticizes Adam for loving Eve too much, Adam says that not even her splendid beauty so much delights him “as those graceful acts, / Those thousand decencies that daily flow / From all her words and actions mixed with love / And sweet compliance, which declare unfeigned / Union of mind or in us both one soul.”

Sweet compliance? What a patriarchal fantasy! We’re woke now. And I’m confused.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.

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The featured image is a still from Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019). Photograph: By Source, Fair use, https://www.littlewomen.movie.

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