The term was originally used in Britain in the 1920s to distinguish New feminists from traditional mainstream suffragist feminism. These women, also referred to as welfare feminists were particularly concerned with motherhood, like their opposite numbers in Germany at the time, Helene Stöcker and her Bund für Mutterschutz. New feminists campaigned strongly in favour of such measures as family allowances paid directly to mothers. They were also largely supportive of protective legislation in industry. A major proponent of this was Eleanor Rathbone of the suffragist-successor society, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship.
New feminists were opposed mainly by young women, especially those in the Six Point Group, particularly Winifred Holtby, Vera Brittain and Dorothy Evans, who saw this as a retrograde step towards the separate spheres ideology of the 19th century. They were particularly opposed to protective legislation, which they saw as being in practice restrictive legislation, which kept women out of better-paid jobs on the pretext of health and welfare considerations.
In recent years, the term has been revived by Catholic feminists responding to the Vatican's call for a "'new feminism' which rejects the temptation of imitating models of 'male domination' in order to acknowledge and affirm the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society and overcome all discrimination, violence and exploitation".
John Paul II had begun his theologically-based affirmation of integral gender complementarity in his Wednesday audiences between 1979 and 1984, in what is now compiled as the Theology of the Body. In this work, he describes his belief that men and women are formed as complementary human beings, whose purpose, strengths and weaknesses are reflected in the physical make-up of their bodies. In 1988, John Paul II sent out an apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, or, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women. In this letter, John Paul II called on women to value their "feminine genius" as mothers and caregivers as well as their participation in politics and economics. He describes the 'feminine genius' as including empathy, interpersonal relations, emotive capacity, subjectivity, communication, intuition and personalization.
John Paul II continued this call in his Apostolic Letter to Women prior to the 1995 Beijing Women's conference.
While the Greeks acknowledged the possibility of sex complementarity, systematic developments into this philosophy of the person did not begin until Augustine of Hippo, who recognized the implications of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection. The first western philosopher to articulate a complete theory of sex complementarity was Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century Benedictine nun. Her advances were soon buried by the 13th century Aristotelian Revolution, and the lack of higher education for women in the following centuries.
Philosophical developments in the concept of integral gender complementarity were popularized in the early 20th century by two students of Edmund Husserl: Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein. Von Hildebrand argued against the "terrible anti-personalism" of his age, stating that it is the "general dissimilarity in the nature of both which enables... a real complementary relationship". Stein revived the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas to argue that a difference in bodies constitutes a difference in spirit, that the soul is not unisex. New Feminist theories were also influenced by the Personalist and Phenomenology movements of the early 20th century.
Integral complementarity differs from fractional complementarity, in that that it argues that men and women are each whole persons in and of themselves, and, together, equal more than the sum of their parts. The concept of fractional complementarity argues that a man and woman each make up a part of a person. By this theory, when they are joined together, they then comprise one, composite being.
New feminists promote an understanding of the human person as one who is made in the image and likeness of God (imago Dei) for the purpose of union and communion. They see distinct differences in the ways in which men and women make a sincere gift of themselves through the 'nuptial meaning of the body', and see these gifts as shedding light on the mysteries of God and their own vocation, mission and dignity.
Other ideas promoted by new feminists include:
The phrase "the feminine genius" refers to the idea that all of the ways in which women give of themselves are ways that reflect their capacity for physical or spiritual motherhood. For New Feminists, these include:
Receptivity. Only women are created with a physical empty space inside of themselves that's designed to receive another. Every time they conceive, they give a gift of self - their own bodies - so that others, their children, can receive the gift of life. "A womans entire being is oriented toward receiving and nurturing new life."
Emphasis on the Person. Because they can receive and develop life within their wombs, women have a special openness to the new person - their child. This includes the capacity to unify all of humankind because people were all once united with their mothers in their wombs. "[W]Oman tends naturally to wholeness and self-containment.
Empathy. Because of the physical need to care for their developing children, within their wombs and as infants, women have "a profound need to share [their lives] with another and, consequently, a capacity for unselfish love, for commitment, a capacity to transcend the self.... This also includes the gift of subjectivity.
Obedience and Dependency. In order for life to be physically conceived, a woman must allow a man to come inside of her. Independence, isolation and autonomy do not cause life, but the very opposite - a woman's willingness to be receptive to the man and yield to him. For New Feminists, this does not mean inequality. Two leaders are constantly competing and fighting for the top. Women show men how to take a step back, allow others inside of them, and allow God to work within them. This is also called the fiat mentality. As Dr. Alice von Hildebrand explains, "Authority is...not the same thing as moral superiority." Guidance of Man. Women seek to draw out the best of man in the sexual act through all levels of his being. While he shares in parenthood, man always remains outside the process of pregnancy and birth. In many ways, a man has to learn his own 'fatherhood' from the mother. Women thus lead men to become all they can be as fathers, imaging the fatherhood of God.
Despite the term's historical origins, there is no indication that any modern New Feminists oppose women's suffrage. Rather, they encourage women to participate actively in modern political life. For example, Edith Stein wrote in 1932, "[L]egislative and administrative functions also require direct feminine collaboration. Women are needed to deliberate, resolve, and initiate laws
Protection of Life. Because of the life or potential life within their wombs, women have a special vocation to care for all those who cannot care for themselves - the weak, the poor, the outcast - all those whose life is not valued. New Feminists believe that women are structured to protect their children, and they believe it to be a particular injustice when women support abortion, infanticide, embryonic stem cell research, or in-vitro fertilization.
Sanctity and Modesty. Because the creation of life takes place within a woman, they have a sense of modesty to guard against the exploitation or objectification of that holy mystery. Only total love - unconditional commitment and mutual self-giving in marriage - "has the capacity to absorb the shame of human nature." For this reason, they are typically against what Russell D. Moore termed "the Concubine Culture" of couples living together and having sex outside of marriage.
For New Femininsts, being a man means being a father. In order to become a physical father, a man must give away his semen, in order to create new life.
In Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, spiritual fatherhood means spiritual priesthood - the offering of a man's body and blood for the sanctification of the world. It was because Jesus gave his body and blood away both as a sacrifice for his Church and as a gift to the Church in the form of the Eucharist that new spiritual life could be conceived. "A man is 'head' of his wife not to stroke his own ego, but in order to give up his body for her" and thus create new life. As keepers of the Eucharist, men are entrusted with the body and blood of Christ. All men, whether single or married, are entrusted with woman - the body of the Church. "She is their Eucharist.
All spiritual fathers, according to New Feminists, also have a responsibility to protect the mutual self-giving of man and woman. This sense of protection of their wives and families is also built into a man's physical capacities - in the greater physical strength of men, generally speaking, as well as their psychological need to feel competent and capable.
Distinction, not Discrimination. "Discrimination is an evil, but distinction is God's design. New Feminists claim that men and women are different and that this difference affects the way they live their lives, what they care about, and their strengths and weaknesses. Women can fulfill their vocational calling by acting as spiritual mothers in whatever their occupation: as wife, mother, consecrated woman, working professional, or single woman. Differences between the sexes should never be used to unilaterally discriminate except in cases when a task is subjectively contingent upon a person being of a certain sex. For Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, this includes the priesthood.
Marriage as Communion. New Feminists consider marriage to be a reciprocal self-giving of persons in free, total, faithful and fruitful communion. This means that marriage is more than a "partnership" and requires mutual service towards one another. A communion can only take place between persons who are united in their difference, male and female, not between those of the same sex (whose joining can never be fruitful). On the grand scale, however, all of humanity is part of an interpersonal communion.
Celebration of the Family and the Home. New Feminists argue that a true feminism is not just about women, it is about the Family - both individually and collectively in the Church and Humanity. While the family as the foundational unit of society, many women do not have the choice to stay at home with their children because of social, economic or political pressures. Women's work as mothers and in the home must be valued as complete and good in and of itself - not needing a career or outside job to extravalidate women's self-worth and accomplishments.
Love and Service, not Power, Domination or Bitterness. New Feminists claim that other feminisms are preoccupied with "power", domination and positions of visible "authority" and claim that those are as masculine and faulty. Dismayed by what they see as the bitterness, hatred, or retribution of many feminists against men or other women for current or past injustices, they argue that men and women should cooperate with one another in interpersonal communion. This means giving of themselves in mutual service and love. They typically avoid using the tactic of consciousness raising because they believe that method promotes venting and bitterness instead of mutual commitment.
True Freedom Remembers Purpose, including Oughts as well as Rights. In order for men and women to be truly free, New feminists assert that they must act in accordance with the way they are psychologically and emotionally structured to be as sexed human persons. Philosophy and Religion, then, are essential components in the search for how men and women should and ought to act for "a higher truth or good", not just how they want or can act. New Feminists assert that people must remember God and purpose to recognize that life, in some way, is a gift and not a mere thing which a person can claim as his or her exclusive property.
Fruitfulness, not just Productivity. While productivity is valuable, helpful and necessary, New Feminists claim that it is a very masculine way of looking at actions. New Feminists assert that we must also be fruitful - a process that takes longer, requires patience and the cooperation of others, and is appreciated not measured. Every act of service is a witness to the worth of the human person and thus promotes the progress of the whole human race.
Fertility, not Sterility. Many New Feminists assert that fertility is a natural, healthy biological process, not a disease that women need to take the Pill to be cured from. If women respect their fertility - their potential for physical and spiritual motherhood - fruit will have a place to grow. When a woman contracepts, she takes the essential factor of her womanhood - her ability be a mother - and rejects it, turning it into an unwanted intrusion. The body is separated from spirit and purpose and is objectified for the pursuit of pleasure alone. The man, in contracepting, rejects her fertility as well. Their communion is now a culture of sterility, where fruit - physical and spiritual - is prohibited from growing. Thus, the vast majority of New Feminists discuss the spiritual, emotional, and physical benefits for men and women by following natural family planning instead of utilizing contraception.
Contemporary proponents include Pia de Solenni, a moral theologian in Washington, DC, Janet E. Smith, Katrina Zeno, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Colleen Carroll Campbell of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Mary Beth Bonacci, Sister Prudence Allen, Alice von Hildebrand, Kimberly Hahn and Mary Ellen Bork. The work of earlier Catholic theologians on masculinity and femininity, such as Hildegard of Bingen, Edith Stein and G. E. M. Anscombe, has also become recently influential in the development of New Feminism. Though primarily Catholic in origin, the movement also includes prominent non-Catholics, like Jewish author Wendy Shalit and Protestant activist Enola Aird. It is also considered by some as the fourth-wave of feminism.
Critics of the movement argue that it was created by a patriarchal structure for its own maintenance. “It will always mean that men are defining women and telling women what it is like to be a woman,” according to Sister of Mercy Mary Aquin O’Neill, director of the Mount Agnes Theological Center for Women in Baltimore. Until women are members of this higher authority, it can never make authoritative decisions about their perspectives because they are excluded from the vote.
Other critics maintain that no movement that opposes abortion and birth control in the form of contraception can be positive for women. New Feminism may also be a form of gender or biological determinism, which some see as old prejudices in a new guise.