The Laughter That Binds Us All

Deal W. Hudson
November 23, 2009

Marjorie Campbell’s new book, On the Way to the Kingdom, has its origins in the radical feminism of her youth and her discovery of the late humorist and newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck.

A mother of three children (ages 13 to 20), a wife, and an attorney, Campbell turned away from radical feminism when a friend of hers decided not to have an abortion after getting pregnant from a one-night fling. Campbell and her friend were both single and practicing attorneys in Miami at the time.

“It was my ‘ah ha’ moment,” she told me, “when nine months later she had a daughter, who is now my goddaughter. I watched her reject what was supposed to be an easy decision, especially for a woman pursuing a career in a law firm.”

Campbell began to reconnect with her Faith as well, reading Pope John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women) and the groundbreaking work in the “new feminism” by Catholic convert Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Campbell sees Fox-Genovese, author of Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life, as the first leading academic who broke with radical feminism, showing that the abortion issue had been wrapped in an “illusory package.”

But what does Fox-Genovese have to do with Erma Bombeck? Campbell first told me Bombeck was a convert to Catholicism, and while her humor was pretty secular, it is the “humor of women raising children and being wives as something fun and not miserable.” Radical feminism had painted the opposite picture of being a woman, one that makes children, a husband, and the capacity for nurturing “an optional accessory, one really shameful to exercise.”

Reading Bombeck gave Campbell the urge to write in the same genre of domestic humor, a form of women’s writing that had been directly attacked by early feminists like Betty Friedan. “Women connect and bond with each other through storytelling,” Campbell explained. The stories she tells in On the Way to the Kingdom are both humorous and personal. “If it isn’t personal, it doesn’t work, because it doesn’t connect with other women’s lives.” And without humor, Campbell believes, the stories will lack what “binds us all together and creates support and sympathy for each other, particularly for women.”

The humor of the 18 stories in her book is made possible by the “amazing grace that comes from living every single little detail of the day in the perspective of the Kingdom of Christ.” Campbell contrasts the “angry, frustrated housewife,” as portrayed by the radical feminists, with the “woman who tackles those challenges while being loved by Jesus.” This is the essential difference between the two feminisms, according to Campbell: One encourages “bonding through intense anger,” while the new feminism is a “feminism of life that does everything in support of life from the perspective of love.”

She hopes her book, as well as her columns at InsideCatholic and Phases of Womanhood, are making the new feminism and its connection with the Catholic Faith better known to women in the Church. “When you start talking to Catholic women in the pews, the mere word divides people. They don’t see how I can call myself a feminist.”

Campbell thinks it is particularly unfortunate that women have been afraid to move in the direction suggested by John Paul II when he talked about the “genius of women.” She believes the challenge is to overcome the radical feminism that so many young women, in particular, have imbibed with the culture. “They are practicing a sexuality that was the direct intention of radical feminism, which creates a misery for them they don’t understand.” (Campbell strongly recommends reading Miriam Grossman’s book, Unprotected, on this subject.)

Campbell views John Paul II as having set up a paradigm for authentic feminism because he recognized “that nurturing, chief among a woman’s gifts, leads us to nurture each other.” Affirming this capacity is what makes the difference between angry women and those who refuse to be angry at the gift that has been given to them – they “turn the task into love.”

Campbell is not only an eloquent spokeswoman for new feminism but for the “humored perspective” she tries to bring to her writings. “When we live with an eye to the Kingdom, we know suffering is a part of life, and you insist on seeing it and interpreting it as a good thing, a thing to be understood and appreciated – you find a way to bear the burden.”

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