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This makes me think… all women are called to promote a new feminism, even those who have had abortions

In transforming culture so that it supports life, women occupy a place, in thought and action, which is unique and decisive. It depends on them to promote 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.

Making my own the words of the concluding message of the Second Vatican Council, I address to women this urgent appeal: “Reconcile people with life”. You are called to bear witness to the meaning of genuine love, of that gift of self and of that acceptance of others which are present in a special way in the relationship of husband and wife, but which ought also to be at the heart of every other interpersonal relationship. The experience of motherhood makes you acutely aware of the other person and, at the same time, confers on you a particular task: “Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman’s womb … This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings not only towards her own child, but every human being, which profoundly marks the woman’s personality”. A mother welcomes and carries in herself another human being, enabling it to grow inside her, giving it room, respecting it in its otherness. Women first learn and then teach others that human relations are authentic if they are open to accepting the other person: a person who is recognized and loved because of the dignity which comes from being a person and not from other considerations, such as usefulness, strength, intelligence, beauty or health. This is the fundamental contribution which the Church and humanity expect from women. And it is the indispensable prerequisite for an authentic cultural change.

I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.

-Pope Saint John Paul II-
The Gospel of Life, 1995, par. 99. [Emphasis mine.]

Among Women 165: A Theology of Women and New Feminism beneath a Guiding Star

Among Women 165: A Theology of Women and New Feminism beneath a Guiding Star

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This week Among Women looks at the recent news of Pope Francis’ comments about a” theology of women in the church.” I share my reactions, and my recent writing on the subject. I’m also grateful to introduce Leah Jacobson in our “Among Women” segment. Her faith and vision helped to found The Guiding Star Project.

In the “Blessed Are They” segment, I read from St Therese’s Story of a Soul where she describes herself as the “the little flower” and how we find our identity within God’s “garden”.

Among Women also takes the 33 Day Challenge to Pray the Rosary, sponsored by Real Men Pray the Rosary!

Listen to the podcast at the Among Women website or on iTunes. 

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Discussions of a “theology of women in the church” continues in the press… my thoughts

Two pieces that have come out in the press this past week that continue to express interest in what Pope Francis alluded to when he talked about “a deeper theology of women in the church.” One very much reflecting an important Marian perspective found in magisterial teachings, and the other offering a wide ranging sampling of opinions from Catholic women from around the country — yours truly was even quoted among them.

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My photo of a pilgrim image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas

The first is from theologian Pia di Solenni, PhD, in the National Catholic Register, who very much echoes my own view that the church already has a theology of women, and what we need is a deeper integration of that message world-wide. Further, in my previous post, and in my book, Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious, I made the point that Blessed John Paul II’s writings are calling women to a new feminism that fully integrates our Christian values. And in so doing, the Church must look to Mary, the Mother of God, as shedding light on a woman’s dignity. Long before John Paul took up the subject, we have had centuries of Marian meditation and Mariology, such that Mary ought to be the cornerstone of that new feminism, just as Jesus is the cornerstone of Christianity.

At the Register, Di Solenni describes her doctoral studies that explored John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignatatem as well as other works. She describes John Paul’s thoughts on womanhood through the lens of Mary… and how an adequate theology must look deeply into the woman as she truly is, not just what she does.

[John Paul II] focused on Mary, the woman, whom, in Mulieris, he had set up as a paradigm for all humanity, including himself and every other priest, by virtue of her response to God’s call.

The shift to Mary emphasizes the change in emphasis from doing to being. We actually know very little about what Mary did. But we know who she is: the Mother of God. Her ability to become a mother fundamentally enabled her to be open to God in a relationship that only a woman could have. Her response, uniquely feminine, paradoxically, became the model for all humanity.

Toward the end of John Paul’s life, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a letter to the bishops, On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, which emphasized that women “have a role in every aspect of society.”

If we follow the example of Mary, that means working from within, wherever we happen to be, whether as chancellor of a major archdiocese, a mother home with small children, in business, politics or countless other places. It means recognizing that women bring something to the table by virtue of who they are rather than simply by what they do.

If Mary’s role as homemaker had been so vital, Jesus would have left the preparation of the Passover meal to her and not to the apostles. (I’m willing to bet she would’ve put on a better spread.) She was defined by who she was, by her relation with Jesus, not by what she did. Similarly, we know that the apostles weren’t the smartest or the holiest bunch of men. But Jesus didn’t pick them for their accomplishments.

[Read the rest.]

I think there are two areas that we should address when we want to discuss a theology of women… the first is the role of women in the church alluded to in the Pope’s comments. Specifically, that is, roles within the Church that equal leadership, that is the doing of things. Yet, this doing must flow from the primacy of one’s being. And the context of being is the larger context, embracing the doing. DiSolenni’s point is the profound starting place… women bring something to the table by virtue of who they are rather than simply by what they do.

In yesterday’s Washington Post’s “On Faith” article by Elizabeth Tenety, a wide-ranging discussion continues under the headline, “What Catholic Women Want.”

It is largely a discussion of the doings of women, and within it, and one aspect the article describes is the seeming inequity of women not being allowed to be priests. The Catholic Church has an ordained hierarchy. Francis makes the point that the subject of woman’s ordination is closed. And frankly, I don’t have a beef with that, and never have. I believe that decision flows from the being question. The “doing” of things is not requisite for the dignity of being. Yes, the human dignity questions go very deep, all the way to a person’s ontology — their very being. The dignity of a man, flows from his personhood, but in a man’s personhood we also see and regard his masculinity and his paternal gift, that of fatherhood. A woman’s dignity flows from her personhood, including her femininity and maternal gift  –motherhood. We share one human nature with complimentary and distinctive genders, male and female. There are ontological, biological, spiritual, and anthropologically differences between men and women, and respect for these aspects of our humanity need to be acknowledged.

Meanwhile over the last several years I increasingly see more women emerging in local Northeast church leadership and administration of dioceses and parishes. This trend, in time, may eventually lead to more qualified women serving in the Roman Curia or as leaders within Pontifical societies without having to be ordained. There is room for the complimentary gifts of lay women and lay men, as well as members of religious orders, to work in collaboration with the ordained hierarchy, as mentioned in DiSolenni’s article above.

I discussed the emergence of women leaders, both current and historical, with Ms. Tenety in our conversation leading up to her article, and I was very pleased to see her express similar ideas in her piece.

No one denies that women have played a crucial role in the spiritual life of the church, from the often-thankless work of raising children and ministering to the needy in parishes, to the theological contributions of the four female “doctors of the church” (all named since the 1970’s) like Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. The church, as Francis referenced, already has a theology of women, centered in documents like ‘On the Dignity of Women’ and John Paul II’s work on what is called the “theology of the body,” the teaching that differences in gender point to differences in men and women’s nature. But even the pope says more must be done.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the first female director of communications at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that “women don’t feel heard. So just being heard is a major move forward.”

Catholic writer, activist and new mother Ashley McGuire recommends the Vatican start by convening a council of women theologians, activists, educators and leaders at all levels to help the hierarchy address “the issues women are struggling with and then helping the church then to present church teaching back to women in a way that reaches women.”

Permission to lead

One issue Catholic women struggle with? The question of authority and leadership in the church. This is 2013, they say, and Catholic women want to lead, they want to be allowed to lead, and they want to be encouraged to lead.

“The feminine presence in the church has not been emphasized much, because the temptation of chauvinism has not allowed for the place that belongs to the women of the community to be made very visible.” The source of that quote? Jorge Bergoglio, the man now known as Pope Francis, in a 2010 book.

The exclusion of women from the priesthood is one highly-cited practice that is often seen, even within the church, as plainly discriminatory, and a 2010 poll by The New York Times/ CBS showed that 59 percent of American Catholics favor the ordination of women. But the church does not operate by popular opinion and the longstanding teaching on the all-male priesthood is one of the oldest traditions of one of the oldest religions in the world. Pope John Paul II said the question of female ordination was not open for debate and said the church “has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”; Pope Francis, in his news conference, affirmed that teaching. For some Catholics, anything short of ordination means that women will never achieve equal status or influence as men.

From my vantage point, according to the dignity of the human person, women already possess an equal status with men as persons, and women’s ordination will not change that, or strengthen it. This is a confusion of the being and doing. Not everyone is clamoring for women’s ordination and I was glad to see Tenety’s piece identify that.

Others see nothing unfair about men and women having different roles, and identify huge potential for female leadership in the church, from the parish level all the way to the Vatican.

“The first step is to encourage what is already permissible,” says [Sr Mary Ann] Walsh. In other words, deepening a theology of women would encourage the church to find ways to get women in positions of greater authority and influence. Catholic women have already proven their ability to lead major organizations like schools and hospitals. Can that authority extend to the Roman Curia?

Pope Francis says he wants to move beyond the image of the church as chauvinistic. Catholic women have some ideas on how to get there: Bring more women into key positions in the Vatican, as consultants and theologians and heads of offices that don’t require holy orders. Map an affirmative action plan for qualified females to infiltrate Curia positions, such as members of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith, where few women today serve. Encourage women to work as chancellors of dioceses around the world. Help them to prepare for careers as pastoral associates, who fill many of the roles of the traditional parish priest, a task needed more than ever due to the priest shortage in the West. Some even say that a theological argument can be made for women to serve as deacons, with a spate of articles in the Catholic world exploring the issue. Catholic women across the ideological spectrum, many of whom point to female leaders already working in the church like Harvard legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon, now serving as adviser to Pope Francis on Vatican finances, nonetheless agree that these are positions that women not only can fill, but should.

So that’s part of the doing questions that should be discussed, and I’d welcome Francis’ thoughts on this in the future — how women can best serve within the church’s leadership, besides the many roles they are already doing within catechesis, in schools, or as diocesan or parish staff members.

What remains is the larger framework — the being questions — that side of “what women want” that is more universal. Simply, women would like to know the church is for them, not against them. The Church does have a positive message about women — with aspects that we call the feminine genius, or the gospel of life, or the dignity of the human person, or theology of the body —  but much of it is still not widespread and known. The media’s contrary spin about the church’s negative attitude toward women has affected our cultural mindset. We need a renewal of our consciences on these matters, and I take up the idea of renewing our conscience in chapter one of my book.

This message to women — the beauty of the feminine genius and the call to a new feminism — is clearly suffering from a marketing problem among Catholic women themselves. One of the reasons I wrote my book was to begin conversations to familiarize women with what the church has already proclaimed about women, and share the resources on the subject.

I see advancing the dignity and vocations of women as an important part of the new evangelization that cannot be overlooked. It is easy to see that from a human dignity standpoint, anti-women biases, especially in the third world are still prevalent and need correction. And in the West, where women have the most advantages, there are mounting anti-life losses that affect the maternal core of femininity — contraception, abortion, sexual abuse, and more.

A new feminism, a deeper or more profound theology of women, universally preached and taught will have life-giving and healing results for women and men. As more people embrace this message, it will transform the landscape, not just locally, but globally. I said as much in Tenety’s article:

Pat Gohn, a Catholic author of a recent book on the church and women, sees the potential for a renewed theology of women to “have a ripple effect in civil society.” Says Gohn, “I think this idea of the dignity of women has not been made universal yet. Women are still suffering on multiple levels from all types of injustice like abuse and sexual slavery.” Because the Catholic Church has global reach, she says, the result of a deepening theology of women could “touch all of those problem areas where women are in trouble and in need.”

The impact could not only touch those in desperate poverty, but also women in the developed world who still struggle in other ways.

For example, Alvaré says, “corporate culture, law and policy would have to do a whole lot more taking account of motherhood than it does now.” Paid maternity leave for all mothers is on the table. So is an invigorated cultural effort to support women who want to work part-time in order to spend more time with their families. Also just as relevant, says Janet Smith, would be a greater respect for women who choose to stay at home and raise children.

“Feminism didn’t fight the diminution of a woman who chose to spend her time dedicating herself to being a wife and mother,” Smith says. Enter: a theology of women, which she says “to some extent is meant to show that women don’t have to live life by the rules of men.” [Read the rest.]

To be clear, an enriched theology of women, like any good theology, is never about what any of us might want, as Tenety’s catchy headline might read, as if we could concoct a recipe for it…  a theology must examine how the church might apply Sacred scripture and tradition to the problems of our time, and in this case, to the problems that face women. A theology is the study of God, and if we are talking about a theology of women in the church, we must look critically at God’s creation in light of God’s revelation. And God’s Incarnation has revealed himself quite profoundly in and through The Woman, Mary — God’s masterpiece of creation.

A deeper or more profound theology of womanhood would speak to women universally, and at the same time, it would not invalidate what has been already accepted doctrinally within the church. It would build on them, enhance them. Divine revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. We already possess the fullness of truth, thanks to the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Yet, we can grow deeper in our awareness and understanding of our faith traditions, such as the dignity of the human person, and of Mariology, already mentioned. These  social and Marian doctrines are in keeping with Scripture and Tradition.

One final thought for the moment in distinguishing between doctrine and disciplines. (And thanks to Fr Dwight Longenecker’s eloquence in an interview recently when he said, “Doctrines develop and grow, but they can’t be changed. A discipline of the church can be changed, however.”) We must remember that doctrine is different from the disciplines of the church, or even, say, the local or national hiring practices within dioceses and parishes. It is here where a deeper theology and universal acceptance of the dignity and vocation of women would assist increasing the number of women within leadership roles in the church, for that is within the disciplines of church governance, in collaboration with the hierarchy.

From a doctrinal standpoint, we already have the social doctrine of the dignity of the human person, and the dignity and vocation of women falls well within that. Plus, particularly in the last fifty years, the church through her popes have given us documents pointing out the beauty and strength of the feminine genius. And, finally, I’ll end where I began this post: we have Mary, whose power and influence cannot be overlooked in terms of the action of the Spirit of God through her.

We need a deeper, better, and more profound reception of these things now, and in the years ahead.

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This makes me think… how ‘a new feminism’ called for by Bl. John Paul II is a forerunner to Francis’ call for ‘deeper theology of women’

Almost by definition, the overarching goal of any feminism is to realize — in action, in the world — the dignity of the human person who is female. In Evangelium Vitae, the Pope [John Paul  II] refers to this when he says that feminism acknowledges and affirms “the true genius of women in every aspect of the life of society.” The marks of a new feminism, a Christian feminism in service to life, are distinctive, however. Women’s well-being is not pursued in isolation; rather, our well-being, dignity, and freedom are always related to the well-being, dignity, and freedom of others.

As the members of the human race who bear the next generation, who have a special relationship with new life, we must never forget that all freedom is relational. As the Pope states: “You are called to bear witness to the meaning of genuine love, of that gift of self and of that acceptance of others which are present in a special way in the relationship of husband and wife, but which ought also to be at the heart of every other interpersonal relationship. The experience of motherhood makes you acutely aware of the other person.”

Thus, we must bring to every struggle undertaken in the name of a new feminism an acute sense not only of women’s rightful place but of the well-being of others. While wholeheartedly supporting true equality for women in all arenas, we must also attend to the needs of those who are affected by our actions — most especially the needs of children. As relatively powerless people, children merit our special care and concern to ensure that their needs are not trampled upon. New feminism, for example, must honestly confront the moral dilemmas faced by the working mother, something old feminism never adequately addressed. Caught up in a fight to allow children to be “disappeared” by abortion, old feminism could never quite bring itself to grapple with what mothers owe their children.

New feminism must also remember that men are profoundly affected by the path of women’s lives. It never adopts an “in-your-face” attitude but remembers that true freedom for women respects the dignity of males as well. Think of the progress that could be made in respect for women if men were seen always as partners, not adversaries! And every woman with a supportive husband or a father who is sure his daughter can do anything understands what I’m talking about.

A new feminism also remembers that it is a waste of time to rail against objective truths. Trying to be free of our bodies’ reproductive abilities or of the emotional consequences of promiscuity is as futile as trying to be free of gravity.

We need to jump off a building only once to know that we cannot escape the reality of gravity. True freedom with respect to our sexual selves respects our God-given nature to give ourselves sexually only within the lifetime commitment of marriage. Giving ourselves in any other context gives too much away that is never retrieved.

Finally, and most importantly, a new feminism, a Christian feminism, remembers God. How can we fail to understand the dignity with which we’ve been endowed if we remember the One who created us and why. The beauty of the story of women’s creation and the dignity and holiness of Mary and of the other women in Scripture — in the Old and New Testaments — speak volumes about who women were created to be. Throughout the New Testament in particular, Jesus’ respectful encounters with women were as noteworthy in that day as they ought to be in our own. A new feminism must remember that God will never underestimate women’s potential or the gifts we can bring to private and public life. At the same time, it remembers that, like Jesus — the model for humanity — and like all human beings, we are created to serve others. Such a feminism will leave no victims in its wake. When we embrace a feminism that remembers God, we will reject abortion, we will not taunt men, we will not abandon our families.

-Helen Alvare-

A 1997 piece. “A New Feminism” from Liquori, found online elsewhere.

Powerful wisdom from Emily Stimpson & Angela Franks – both recent guests on Among Women

While I’m busy in my own corner of the world launching a book to make the gift of womanhood and the feminine genius better known, I have to just stop and offer some praise for the genius of some of the bodacious –most excellent– writers and teachers I know who are doing the same. I learn so much from them!

First of all, there’s Angela Franks, my most recent guest on Among Women. We talk about a lot of issues on that show including how Catholic “new feminism” understands contraception, Margaret Sanger, and eugenics. For those of us who may not know our 20th century history very well, many of Margaret Sanger’s ideas have become part of the foundation that supports a culture that tries to “fix” society by weeding out undesirables, and has no true respect for the dignity of all human persons. Much of this thinking plays a role in our society’s contraceptive and abortive mentalities. But we have the power to change that both from a faith and a common-sense perspective.

In a recent blog post about working women, Angela Franks states:

According to Dr. [Jennifer Roback] Morse, fertility is not seen as the norm for women but is rather viewed as a problem.

This is exactly the problem facing women struggling with “work-life” issues today: their fertility is not a gift to be embraced but a problem to be solved.

What do we need? We need to recognize that fertility has certain biological coordinates that won’t change, no matter how much we want them to: namely, peak fertility in the twenties and decreasing fertility after that. Artificial reproductive technologies [ART] have less and less effect the older a woman is, not to mention the horrific side effects of hyperstimulating the ovaries plus multiple “left-over” frozen embryos. Check out Katie Elrod’s chapter on ART in Women, Sex, and the Church: A Case for Catholic Teaching.

What is changeable? Not really fertility, but rather social attitudes and structures. Let’s not attack biology. Let’s attack the real problems, and create better structures that allow women to bear and raise children…

Read the rest, it’s informative.

Then, there’s the amazing Emily Stimpson — also a previous guest on Among Women, (and whose book I recommend in the resources listed in my own book) — whose recent piece just further adds fuel to the fire that our societal standards are dangerous for women, especially our upcoming girls.

Here’s an excerpt from her post, “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Daughters Grow Up to be Disney Stars” over at CatholicVote.org:

Squeaky clean, wholesome goodness. For almost a century, that’s been Disney’s brand. But the young girls working for the Mouse have the most terrible habit of not getting the memo.

Case in point? Miley Cyrus (aka “Hannah Montana”), who went from teenage cutie to dominatrix sex kitten in little more than a calendar year.

There’s also Demi Lovato, who backed out of her hit Disney show after provocative photos surfaced online of her kissing another girl.

And now Selena Gomez has gotten in the game, with her newest flick, Spring Breakers, featuring The Wizards of Waverly star doing both drugs and engaging in threesomes with her female co-stars.

It’s not just Disney starlets that are the problem, though. The annals of Hollywood are filled with similarly cautionary tales. Not coincidentally, so too are homes across America, where girls from 5 to 15 and beyond are imitating the starlets they idolize, dressing, talking, and acting in ways that, in the not too distant past, would have made a sailor blush.

Setting aside the soul-destroying consequences of living life as a sexual object, from even the most secular vantage point the sexualization of young girls—Disney stars or otherwise—is bad news. Defining your worth by your sexual desirability causes grades to drop and athletic performance to suffer. It induces depression and triggers eating disorders. It leads to high-risk behaviors, sexually transmitted diseases, and situations where no amount of saying “no” can help.

On Sunday, two young football players in the town where I live, Steubenville, Ohio, were found guilty of raping an underage girl. That ruling has generated all sorts of chatter in the media about the lessons parents need to teach their boys.

And boys in this culture do need to learn some serious lessons. Parents need to teach their sons how to love, honor, and respect women, to see them as human beings to value, not bodies to use.

But as a cursory glance at either the Disney bullpen or the local junior high will tell you, our girls need to learn a few lessons too, lessons that are foundational to protecting their bodies, their souls, and their futures.

Then Emily gives some good lesson points for families, so go read the rest. You’ll be happy you did.

If the idea of living a kind of feminine freedom that is free of the shackles of a feminism that denies the gift of who we are as women — in the fullness of our biology  — and the fullness of our intellect, will, and emotions that are baptized by grace, you might just want to read my book  for an executive summary of the dignity, gifts, and mission of women. You might also wish keep on your radar the next books that both Emily Stimpson and Angela Franks will be publishing later this year. Emily Stimpson’s future title is: Everyday Theology of the Body: Meditations on the Mysteries and Manners of the Sacramental Worldview. Angela Franks, a theology PhD, will be writing about how we can better live out our lives with faith and knowledge of a sexuality and life that is loving, faithful, and fruitful —  and free of the entanglements of contraception and, oh, and so much more! So stay tuned!

There’s a lot of bodacious women out there. I hope you’ll count yourself among them.

Among Women 158: Greeting the New Pope, Plus Meet “Theologian Mom”

Among Women 158: Greeting the New Pope, Plus Meet “Theologian Mom”

In this new episode of Among Women, I talk about this history-making week with the election of our new pope, Francis, formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio from Argentina. Plus in our first segment I discuss the significance of the Pope’s early morning visit on day one to pray before Our Blessed Mother at her basilica in Rome, St Mary Major. I also give some of the history of Mary and that basilica as I discuss some of its interior treasures.

Salus Populi Romani – a much venerated icon of Our Lady with the Child Jesus (found in St Mary Major)

In our second segment, I’m happy to welcome Angela Franks, PhD, wife, mother, author, professor and moral theologian at the Theological Institute of the New Evangelization (TINE in Boston) — whose twitter handle is “@theologianmom”. Together we talk about some of Angela’s professional interests regarding the eugenic legacy of Margaret Sanger and its harmful longterm impact on our culture, as well as our attitudes toward our bodies, sexuality, contraception, and good health. We explore the Catholic Church’s position of the beauty of the human person, and of women in particular. We cover why the Church continues to oppose contraception and upholds NFP (methods for natural family planning), and why our personal trust in God is key to fuller Christian life. If a new feminism incorporating the beauty of the gospel appeals to you, you’ll want to listen to this episode of Among Women.