A Lady of Grace and Faith
Lorraine V. Murray
I first met Betsey 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 once been disciples of the secular feminist movement, we both had published books, and we were 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, who had instructed both of us in the faith. But frankly, I felt a bit overwhelmed by this wonderful lady, whose accomplishments so far outshone my own. Although we both had our doctorates, she had gone on to become the founding director of the Institute of Women’s Studies at Emory, while I had left college teaching to become a free-lance writer and a part-time librarian.
For the next few years, Father Lopez kept me updated about Betsey, who was suffering terribly from a long and lingering illness. Each time he told me about visiting the home she shared with her husband, Gene, he would tell me of the deep love they had for one another. He also said that, despite her suffering, she never complained. As someone who was a survivor of breast cancer myself, I remember thinking of how long and hard I had fretted over my own problems, when, in fact, I had suffered very little.
Then came the bleak day in early January, 2007, when I learned of her death. I regretted terribly that we only had that one lunch together, but my husband and I did attend her funeral, where we prayed for the repose of her soul and the comfort of her beloved husband. Shortly after, I was asked to write Betsey’s obituary for The Saint Austin Review.It was only then, when I began researching her life, that I fully realized what a truly remarkable, even saintly, woman I had lunched with 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 had become an outspoken defender of life, breaking ties with the feminists who insisted on connecting pro-woman ideals with abortion. This had been one of her conversions, while the other was from what she herself had called a “non-believing Christian” to a devoted Catholic.
After writing the highly touted Feminism without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism, Betsey had become 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 the sanctity 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 in Atlanta. There, she was deeply moved 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 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, where he still is 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. Betsey’s research revealed that many women felt excluded by feminism due to its dismissal of marriage and motherhood. She 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.”
Betsey 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 doesn’t get enough attention in the secular press, perhaps because it is pro-woman and pro-child, recognizing abortion as a terrible crime against women, as well as children.
In her last few years, she bore the hardships of illness with graciousness and courage. 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. Betsey was truly a lady of great faith and grace, and I will never forget her. Now that her sojourn on earth is over, I pray that the dear Lord is still “holding her fast” in heaven.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Georgia Bulletin.