By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published August 21, 2008
I met Elizabeth Fox-Genovese—or “Betsey” as she was called—for lunch at Panera Bread a few years before her death. We had much in common, according to our mutual friend, Father Richard Lopez. We both had been devoted to the feminist movement, we were both academics and writers, and we were both working at Emory University.
We chatted about so much that day: our perspectives on the failures of feminism, our feelings about Catholicism and our great fondness for Father Lopez. But frankly, I felt a bit overwhelmed by this wonderful lady whose accomplishments so far outshone my own. Little did I know that I would, in a few years, be writing her obituary for a Catholic magazine, and then having the honor of reviewing her last book for The Georgia Bulletin.
It was only when I began researching her life for the obituary that I realized what a truly remarkable, even saintly woman I had met that day. An acclaimed feminist scholar and historian, Betsey had started out strongly supporting women’s “right” to abortion, but over the years, her perspective had changed. Eventually, she became an outspoken defender of life, breaking ties with the feminists who insisted on connecting pro-woman ideals with abortion. This was one conversion, while the other was from what she herself had called a “non-believing Christian” to a devoted Catholic.
Her resume is impressive indeed: She was the Eléonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities and professor of history at Emory University, as well as the founding director of the Institute for Women’s Studies. An acclaimed author and scholar, she was very happily married to another renowned historian and writer, Dr. Eugene D. Genovese, with whom she co-authored “The Mind of the Master Class.”
After writing the highly touted “Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism,” Betsey became increasingly troubled by the moral relativism that typified the feminist stance on abortion.
“It seemed difficult to imagine a world in which each followed his or her personal moral compass,” she later wrote, “if only because the morality of some was bound, sooner or later, to clash with the morality of others.”
As she struggled with the moral issue of life, she also grappled with the personal question of faith. She had grown up in a nominally Christian home but had not practiced any religion for many years. Finding herself drawn to Catholicism, she decided one day to attend Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King, where she was stunned by the figure of the crucified Christ. Writing about her conversion for “First Things” a few years later, she said, “There, directly in front of me, was … a Lord whom as yet I barely knew and who nonetheless seemed to hold me fast.”
After receiving instruction in the faith from Father Lopez, she was received into the Catholic Church in December 1995. She described experiencing a deep joy that “consecrated a decision that now seemed to derive as much from the heart as the mind.” When her husband, Gene, also had a change of heart and returned to the Catholic faith of his childhood, the two became active in parish life at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, where he is still a parishioner.
In 1996, she wrote the groundbreaking book “‘Feminism Is Not the Story of My Life’: How Today’s Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch With the Real Concerns of Women.” The book recorded the voices of ordinary women as they struggled with the conflict between raising children and holding down jobs. It revealed that many women felt excluded by feminism due to its dismissal of marriage and motherhood.
Betsey asserted a truth that cannot be repeated too often: “The rearing of a child might well be the most important and rewarding thing that most women—or men—do in their lives.”
She eventually resigned as director of the women’s studies institute at Emory, but she remained a history professor and an outspoken defender of the sanctity of life. She became active in Feminists for Life, a group that is pro-woman and pro-child, and recognizes abortion as a terrible crime against women as well as children.
I will never forget Betsey and our lunch together. In her last few years, she suffered terribly from a lingering illness, but she bore the hardship with graciousness and little complaint. Her faith truly sustained her as she embraced the Cross of Christ, which she carried with the help of her beloved husband and other family members. She died on January 2, 2007, and I believe the Lord is still “holding her fast.”
Lorraine V. Murray’s most recent book is “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist.” She writes a regular column for The Georgia Bulletin and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Readers may e-mail her at email@example.com.