07 Mar The Healing of A Toxic Feminist
by Michelle Kuhr
In our September 2020 issue, we published an article, “I Was a Toxic Feminist” by this author. Recently Michelle wrote this part 2.
Three months into my long-term visit at Madonna House, I was assigned to work at their farm as assistant to the cook, Trina Stitak. I was super-excited as this is a position often coveted by female guests for many reasons.
One particular attraction for me was the break from the busyness of everyday living at the training center (main house). The farm is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) down the road, and working there would mean a quieter atmosphere that would help me process my thoughts.
I had lots of thoughts, after all. Especially about feminism, which was one of the reasons I had come to Madonna House in the first place. To find out what Marian feminism would look like. But as excited as I was to go to St. Ben’s farm, I wasn’t sure I was going to find what I was looking for there.
One thing to note about St. Ben’s is that only men live there. The men do the farming, most of the gardening and the animal care. Only male guests are assigned to live there in order to help out.
In the summer, women staff and guests come daily to work in food processing and the gardens, but it was still winter. I was about to enter a male dominated world, and though I knew these were good men, something still didn’t quite sit right with me that I would only be allowed to participate in their life by making them meals.
As exciting as being farm kitchen assistant was, what I really dreamed of doing was the actual farm work itself. I have always loved and preferred more physical work such as gardening or chopping wood, much more than cooking and cleaning.
Because Madonna House work departments are often separated by gender, however, I knew there wasn’t a possibility of me getting assigned to work at the farm in that physical capacity.
This knowledge did not in any way keep me from voicing my opinion, which in a nut shell was this: Not allowing women to work in manual jobs supported female suppression and was harmful to society.
It was 2020 after all. Why weren’t men and women allowed to work in any department that needed help? Wasn’t this just blatant sexism?
The people at Madonna House graciously listened to me, but I was quite aware that they weren’t planning to change.
I also knew that I was the guest, freely choosing to stay. I could leave if I wanted to. So, instead of keeping a closed mind, I piled into the van that would take me to the farm for my first day as kitchen assistant.
I must admit, even as I arrived, I already felt my soul singing with joy. My first day unfolded like a story book. There were special foods and guests and I even watched a cow give birth!
Nothing however was as wondrous as when the 11:10 a.m. bell rung. I watched as all the men came in from wherever they had been working—in the tool shed or fields or the cheese house. They washed their hands, wiped the dirt off their faces and climbed the stairs to the small chapel that sits right above the kitchen.
I began to work very quietly as I was told that in the chapel, you can hear everything that happens in the kitchen. That meant Trina, the cook, and I could hear everything happening in the chapel… and what a sound!
I heard the song of humble men singing praise to the Lord in harmony. It was a simple hymn, but it was a balm to my soul.
Here was a group of men who were drawn to Madonna House from all over the map simply because they, of their own volition, were listening to God and had responded to his love for them.
They weren’t priests or monks or in some fraternal brotherhood, but poor farmers gathered together, part of a bigger family. Seeing them living apart at the farm as they were, though, I witnessed something else. Something honorable, loving, gentle, and deeply masculine.
Up until that point I had heard rumors that men like this existed. It was a kind of miracle to experience it in reality, however; these laymen loved.
Not only did they love God; they loved each other. They loved me! I see now that that was true from the start, but it was proven to me during my time there very gradually.
I noticed it at first in the gratitude they had for every meal, in the cup of coffee they made me every day, and in the respect they showed Trina. Then I realized they had that same respect for me.
When I directed the washing of dishes, they always obliged and never grumbled. When one farmer was late for lunch, another made sure to save a plate of food for him. When I had a terrible reaction to black fly bites, the farmers were genuinely concerned offering me all sorts of remedies and advice.
Once one of the farmers became irrationally angry and I thought, “Ah, see, they are no different from all those other men I’ve known.”
For one horrible moment I was pleased that I was right, but more than that, I felt heartbroken that my growing hope in masculine goodness had been diminished. That was until that farmer came back in and in the sincerest way asked forgiveness.
In fact, I witnessed many instances of them humbly revisiting exchanges they thought they hadn’t handled well, striving not for perfection but growth.
When one staff said something mean to me, one of the farmers defended me, later apologizing to me on the other’s behalf.
On another occasion, Trina and I got into a heated debate and one of the farmers who overheard came to each of us separately to check that we were both okay. (We were).
If I was visibly upset or sad for any reason, a farmer would sit close to me, not saying anything, just being a supportive presence. They were not bystanders to other people’s problems; they were involved.
Every day a farmer would carry the laundry into the farmhouse from the van for me. Not because I couldn’t. It was because they cared, and I felt that. It freed me up to do other things.
They laughed with me, sat in the sun with me, fed baby lambs with me, let me name a new calf, and teased me in a brotherly fashion as I fell in love with the new ram, Gary, who I affectionately dubbed Scary Gary.
Oh, and the way they talked to and about Trina! They often expressed to me how grateful they were to have her presence. I heard from more than one of them on several occasions how having her (a woman) among them called them higher.
In many ways, the farm was the first place I met in person masculine loving kindness. A place where no one objectified me, no one wanted to have sex with me, no one wanted to use me, no one thought I was less than them because I was doing the “easy” kitchen work while they labored intensely outdoors.
No one thought I owed them a meal on the table. To the contrary, everyone was extremely grateful for the food and the labor of love that got it there.
They honored my work and in the most beautiful way, restored its value in my own mind. I saw that it was me who thought less of domestic work than manual labor, but that in fact, I was serving Christ when I served my brothers.
This all came to a head one particularly busy day. Many additional staff and guests had been sent to the farm to help with food processing and when it was time for spiritual reading, seats were sparse.
I had tucked myself into a corner—there were no other options—and two of the farmers came to sit next to me. One sat in front of me and one sat to my side, blocking me into my little nook.
It dawned on me suddenly, in the pit of my stomach, that I had been in situations like this before, surrounded by people, surrounded by men, and I had always been scared—at least on edge, unable to relax.
Here, however, for the first time, I realized that I was no longer prey but a person. I had never felt so safe in my life. If the hounds of hell came bounding through the door, I knew that even they wouldn’t get to me.
I realized this was how it was supposed to be. This was the beauty of the masculine: strength that sacrifices for the other. Something deep in my soul, something that had been so thirsty for so long, finally took a drink.
Not long after that, on another ordinary kind of day, I climbed out of the van as we arrived at St. Ben’s. I watched as one farmer carried in the laundry, and another was talking to Trina, making her laugh.
The sun was shining, and a gentle breeze was blowing my hair. Scary Gary was in his pen bleating for food.
A passing thought ran through my head: It wasn’t totally true that only men lived here. Our Lady lived at St. Bens, and it was she who led me (her doubting daughter) here to reveal Marian feminism to me. Simple, forgiving, loving, healing.