A four-day Vatican conference titled "Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference" kicked off Wednesday in Rome’s Teatro Argentina. A nun, a female plastic surgeon and a theologian spoke -- but there were still notable absences, according to Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, who attended the launch.
“Overall, this exercise shows us how clumsy the Vatican can be with anything to do with women,” McElwee wrote in a blog post Wednesday after the event. “Nevertheless, fighting the forces of Italian, Vatican and patriarchal norms, a public forum where women were discussed, with women in the room, it’s not nothing.”
The conference organizers had collected crowdsourced testimony from women worldwide using the hashtag #LifeofWomen via minute-long videos that answered the question “What is it like to be a woman?”-- but the submission period ran only from Dec. 23 to Jan. 4. A select few of the video responses were shared during the opening event, McElwee said.
“I know many of you are rolling your eyes, but this is a crumb instead of the usual absence of said crumb,” McElwee wrote. She added that one of the videos shared was made by Marinella Perroni, who was president of the Italian Women’s Theologian collective and is considered a strong advocate for women in the church. A female plastic surgeon and Sister Eugenia Bonetti, an Italian nun who fights sex trafficking, were among the other speakers at the event.
Still, McElwee said the event had its fair share of low points. She indicated the crowdsourced videos represented a “very selective sampling.” Supporters of her organization -- an advocate for the ordination of women as priests, deacons and bishops -- submitted videos with the hashtag, but they were not shown.
At one point, a young married couple appeared on the conference stage, but only the husband spoke, McElwee said. At another point, male speakers read quotations by other men, including Joseph Conrad, John Dunne, and Italian journalist Vittorio Zucconi, she said.
In addition, she said stock images of women, including women of color and those in conflict regions, as well as children praying and crying were displayed on the stage’s screen, but “without context, without a voice, without their stories.” It led her to ask, “Who are these women?”
Before the Vatican conference began, organizers had already felt backlash for decisions made leading up to the event. An English promotional video for the conference had North American viewers reeling for its use of outdated, inappropriate and sexist references. The 60-second video, featuring Italian actress Nancy Brilli, was later pulled.
The council also faced criticism for using an image of Man Ray’s “Venus Restored,” a sculpture of a headless, armless, legless Venus in bondage. This image was used on the council’s Web page alongside a link to a preliminary report that covered topics the conference would discuss. The report itself has been criticized, most notably for calling plastic surgery “a burqa made of flesh.”