Chic Spotlight: National Organization for Women’s Elizabeth Farians
Cincy Chic: What motivated you in becoming one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW)?
Elizabeth Farians: When I heard of other women who felt the same way I did about who women are and the oppression and discrimination against us, I was delighted to have the opportunity to work for change.
Cincy Chic: For the past 40 years, you’ve been engaged in a tireless fight against discrimination in religion. Why is this cause so important to you?
Farians: The more I studied religion, the more I realized that religion is used as one of the major legitimizations for the oppression of women. As a pioneer woman theologian, I felt that I should correct this mistaken view. NOW started 42 years age, in 1966.
Cincy Chic: In 1966, you made history by integrating the then all-male Catholic Theological Society (CTSA), but they threatened to have you arrested if you tried to attend the annual meeting. Why was it so important for you to attend and did you ever end up being able to attend their meeting?
Farians: The CTSA was my proper professional society. After I got my Ph.D. in theology, I wrote to the CTSA asking for membership. Several years later, they announced they had changed their rules and would admit any qualified theologian. Until that time, only clerics with the proper degree were admitted to membership. To understand this, one needs to know that at this time in history women had no opportunity to study theology; it was a male-only preserve. Women were no allowed to “touch the Sacred,” so to speak.
Sister Madeleva Wolff, president of the prestigious women’s college of Saint Mary’s-Notre Dame, somehow was able to get permission to get the Graduate School of Sacred Theology approved. When I heard about it, I rushed there to study.
Changing the rules in the CTSA was probably very controversial among its members, so when I was the first woman to attend, it was more than some men could tolerate. The priest at the door, the secretary of the society, Fr. Vincent J. Nugent of the Vincentian fathers, would not allow me to enter and threatened to call the police and have me arrested if I did not leave immediately despite the fact that I tried to show him my membership card. Somehow, I managed to say that I would call the press if he called the police. He tried to force me onto the elevator, away from the meeting door he was monitoring, but more priests were at the door so he rushed back to let them in and slammed the door closed. As I stood alone and frightened, outside the door a young priest, Fr. Charles Curran, came along and asked what the problem was. He called the President of the Society telling him that there was going to be a “fist fight” over the matter. The president told to get me in there somehow without further trouble. So Father Curran got some of his friends to circle around me into get me past the guard at the door. Things quieted down after that and as word got around there wasn’t any more trouble. The secretary resigned.
Cincy Chic: You’ve testified in both the House and Senate in order to get religious groups to support the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). How did they receive you on the Hill and what was the impact of that legal battle?
Farians: Alice Paul, suffragette and author of the Equal Rights Amendment, was very anxious to have me lobby and testify for the Amendment because the bishops of the Catholic Church were a main opposition to equal rights for women. I could say that true religion is not oppressive to women or any group. This was in contradiction to the Catholic Bishop’s statements about religion which they tried to use to bolster their misogynistic position. Of course the various committees were very courteous and respectful. They tried to understand the statements being made. The Amendment passed but it has only been ratified by 35 of the required 38 states. It is very important to get three more states to ratify to ensure all women’s rights will be guaranteed by constitutional law.
Cincy Chic: What was your motivation for co-founding “Catholics for Choice?”
Farians: It is important to note that St. Thomas Aquinas, who was the most important theologian of the Catholic Church, did not hold that the rational soul was infused by God at the moment of conception. Rather, he held that the form follows the matter so that there is a series of forms or souls according to the development of the matter of the developing fetus. First there is a vegetable when the matter has vegetable functions, then animal functions require an animal soul and finally, when the fetus is sufficiently formed, God infuses the immortal soul. Until that time abortion is permitted. So, the position of the Church has changed. It is not “de fide” teaching. I think women have a right to know this.
Cincy Chic: You are a staunch animal-rights activist and founded Animals, People and the Earth (APE). Why are animal rights so important to you and how does it relate to being a Christian?
Farians: Animals are sentient and intelligent beings. We are learning more and more about how intelligent they are. They are beings very much like us. They are here for their own reasons and not for our use. We have no right to treat them cruelly. When we do treat them cruelly, we become less than human by being desensitized. It is especially important to me because I care about the animals. I do not want them or any sentient being to suffer. If you want to speak religiously, God created the animals for God’s reasons; the animals belong to God as all creation does. We were given dominion over the animals to care for them, not domination over them for our use.
Since “there ain’t no nice way to kill” eating animals, something that we often do three times a day, is the cause of much of the other ills of our society.
Cincy Chic: In 2006, you were honored by the CTSA for your pioneering membership back in 1966. What does that honor mean for you and future generations of women?
Farians: In 1966, I was honored by the CTSA for what I did 40 years earlier, i.e. get women recognized as theologians by that prestigious Society. In 1966, the Society gave me a standing ovation when I was escorted by the Rev. Charles Curran into the Banquet and the Women’s caucus of the Society, at a special dinner held in my honor, gave me a beautifully worded plaque, calling me a prophet and a friend of God. It was a very humbling experience. There are now many women theologians.
Cincy Chic: Always aiming to empower women, you were instrumental in designing a religion-related award for girls in Girl Scouting similar to the Boy Scout program. Why was that so important for you?
Farians: Most religions are patriarchal. Their so called “sacred writings” have been done by men and claim that women are inferior to men by God’s will. This cuts deep into the psyche of women. At least in a small way, a religious award, like the one I helped begin, can help girls and women have more self-confidence.
Cincy Chic: Some refer to you as the “Mother of Ohio Feminism.” How does that make you feel and why do you think it’s important for women to be politically and socially active in issues important to them?
Farians: That’s because I brought NOW to Ohio when I called the first Ohio NOW meeting in 1969, at Our Lady of Cincinnati College. I also was instrumental in setting the first meeting of the National Women’s political caucus in Columbus around the same time. I helped get the ERA ratified in Ohio and met with Governor Gilligan and other members-at-large of NOW to get a Commission on Women in Ohio. If women do not stand up for themselves, no one else will.
Cincy Chic: What is the new field of theology that you are starting?
Farians: Because animals are suffering so much at the hands of humans, I am trying to get theologians interested in this problem. For the most part theologian have ignored this animal abuse just like to rest of the population. But imagine what it would be like for the animals if the theologian began ot write and teach aabout the problem, showing how wrong it is for us to abuse the animals.
I am giving birth, so to speak, to a new branch of theology in Catholics circles, Animal Theology, and have designed and teach a course on it at Xavier University. Until now, it has been going very well. But now, for a reason seemingly unreasonable, the chair of theology, Dr. Marie Giblin, suddenly has cancelled by contract. Many people are upset.
Cincy Chic:What’s your favorite thing about Cincinnati?
Farians: My roots are in Cincinnati. I am a native and I feel as though I belong here.
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Photo: Coutesy of Catholic Theological Society (CTSA)