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Vol 39 No 4


Francis Mansour LCM

Charles Hill

Terry Lyons

Vincent Battaglia

Sophie McGrath RSM

Peter Malone MSC

Kevin Mark



Voices of the women


THE DIOCESE OF Palmerston North (NZ) celebrated its silver jubilee recently including in its celebrations a four-day colloquium entitled 'Creed and Credibility in a Critical Age'. The first Encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, was suggested as a guide for the conversation. This encyclical is strongly linked with Paul VI's seminal first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, which called for authentic conversation within the Church and with the wider community.

The participants in the colloquium were challenged: How can we make our teaching on social and economic issues, on sexual morality and bioethics, and on everything else, more obviously about making the world ever more human, ever more profoundly human? Do we have here a new starting point for dialogue with those who share the same concerns, but don't share our faith?

I was invited to present a paper at the colloquium session called 'The Voices of Women'. For this I drew principally upon my postdoctoral research project which I had called 'feminists and popes in conversation'. When I admitted to inquirers that I intended bringing together the feminist and papal traditions, the usual response had been one of incredulous amusement. The assumption seemed to be that feminists and popes are poles apart. I used to point out that one thing feminists and popes have in common is a very poor press. I use the term 'feminist' as referring to one who is particularly concerned for the welfare of women, especially in advocating for rights and opportunities for them to use their God-given gifts to contribute to the social and political life of humanity including of course the Church. I recognize that the term feminism did not enter the official English language until the late nineteenth century, but the concept had been there long before and aptly describes the attitude and conduct of many women (and some men) across the ages (Kendall 1985, 442).

Usually feminists throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been perceived as bent upon destroying the family and society generally. The popes have been criticised frequently for being autocratic, isolated from the realities of life and generally inept and unaware of the real needs of humankind. In fact it would seem that feminists and popes belong to the marginalised.

In reality, feminism and the teaching Church, epitomized by the papacy, are two significant strands in western culture. The historian Eamon Duffy asserts: '… the papacy is the oldest as well as arguably the most influential of all human institutions' (Duffy 1997, 1). Richard Tarnas in his monumental work The Passion of the Western Mind, after tracing the history of Western philosophical thought, finally arrives at the conclusion that it is imperative that the feminine, in all its various dimensions, be listened to and incorporated into the Western mind, which is essentially male (Tarnas 1991, 442). Indeed John Paul II lamented: 'Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women' (John Paul II, 1995, 6). Of course, if it is an obstacle to women it is, in the last analysis, an obstacle to humankind generally.

My basic premise in bringing feminists and popes into conversation was that most feminists and popes were people of good will dedicated to promoting the common good according to their own lights and that it would be most interesting to see how they agreed or disagreed in areas of interest common to them. I paired each pope of the 19th and 20th centuries with a high-profile feminist of his period. Except for the convert Edith Stein I chose non-Catholic feminists since it was often assumed that they had nothing constructive to say to us.
It emerged that consistently in the 19th and 20th centuries the chief topics of mutual interest to my selected feminists and the popes were: philosophy, religion and the Church; relations between men and women; sexuality, chastity and celibacy; marriage, motherhood and the family; contraception and abortion; women's engagement in the wider community; relationship between private and public morality; education.

A glance through the official colloquium programme indicated that my feminist friends were concerned with many of the issues on our agenda. Since I was responsible for initiating the session 'The Voices of Women' I focused in my presentation on the women rather than the popes and, owing to time constraints, I could only address three areas of common interest. Because of space constraints in this essay the women's voices in each of the following sections are necessarily restricted to some typical examples.

Philosophy, Religion, and the Church
As is well known, Mary Wollstonecraft was the author of the famous treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Vin.) which was published in 1792 when the Church was being severely challenged by the French Revolution. Mary was deeply religious and saw a strong connection between religion and reason. She stated: 'I thank the Being who impressed my ideals upon my soul and gave me sufficient strength of mind to dare to exert my reason. Becoming only dependent on Him for the support of my virtue, I view with indignation the mistaken notions that enslave my sex …' (Vin. 121,144). Although Mary sympathized with the aspirations of the French Revolutionaries she confessed that while the ideas of 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity' appealed to her she could not yield to the 'barrenness of atheism' (Sun. 322).
She strongly believed that 'high intellect was connected to religion', asserting: 'An allwise and good Being created nothing in vain. Why have we implanted in us an irresistible desire to think if thinking is not in some measure necessary to make us wise unto salvation? Indeed intellectual and moral improvement seem to me to be connected – I cannot even in thought separate them' (Sun. 140).

This strong intellectual religious stance was shared by Margaret Fuller, an early 19th century feminist from New England in the United States. She is an example of a woman whose father, loving though stern, considered women the intellectual equal of men and gave his daughter a rigorous classical education. As a young woman she was to converse on at least equal terms with the intellectual elite of New England, including such distinguished transcendentalist philosophers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Margaret Fuller had a youthful mystical experience and was drawn to a liberal Christianity; her faith was tentative and eclectic. One of her devoted followers had called her 'almost Christian' (Chev 146). Margaret confided: 'I pray 'Give me truth, cheat me by no illusion'…Man is still a stranger to his inheritance, still a pleader, still a pilgrim. Yet his happiness is secure in the end…Whatever the soul knows how to seek, it cannot fail to obtain. This is the law and the prophets. 'Knock and it shall be opened; seek and ye shall find.' It is demonstrated; it is a maxim' (Chev. 166).

This deeply religious stance was also evident in the life of the English woman, Josephine Butler, who in the 1860s led the campaign for the abolition of the British Contagious Diseases Laws, which were demeaning of suspected prostitutes in particular and of women in general. As a child Josephine had a mystical experience and she reflected: 'It seems to me that the end must have been defeat had not the Saviour imparted to the child wrestler something of the virtue of His midnight agony, when in Gethsemane His sweat fell like drops of blood to the ground' (But. 12).

In connection with the Church Josephine observed: 'I am very much aware of the handicaps that the Church carries by virtue of the organizational aspect of its nature. From my observation of society and my experience of the organizations, which I helped to establish, I have learnt the limitations and dangers of organizations' (But. 204).

She declared firmly: 'I have no faith whatever in organizations except insofar as they are useful means for making known a truth or dispensing help to those who need it and when they are completely subordinated to those ends. They are apt to become a snare to those who invent them and work in them, unless great care is taken to revive continually within them the life by which alone they can usefully exist' (But. 204.)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman from the USA was an internationally known feminist, though she preferred to be called a humanist. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, certainly in Australia, and no doubt in New Zealand, feminists had copies of such of her books as The Home, Women and Economics and His and Her Religion. According to Charlotte Perkins Gilman 'religion is the strongest cultural influence affecting humanity. It is not a private affair. Believing a religious faith is of no consequence whatever, unless it is applied. Religion is not a skylight; it is the front door' (His 188, 283).

Charlotte, an original thinker, pointed out: 'We insist upon worshipping 'the God of our fathers'. Why not the God of our children? Does eternity only stretch one way?' (Home 51) She asserted: 'This orientation towards the after-life in religion is evidence of the dominance of masculinity in the evolution of society. Had the religions of the world developed through the minds of women they would have focused on birth and this world' (His 46).

She explained: 'Birth-based religion is necessarily and essentially altruistic—a forgetting of oneself for the good of the child, and tends to develop naturally into, and labour for the widening range of family, state and the world' (His 47). But she conceded: 'The religion that urges most for real race-improvement is that of Jesus. He taught unmistakably of God in man, of heaven here, of worship expressed in the love and service of humanity, but our strange death-complex was too strong even for his teachings' (His 35).

Harriet Martineau was an English feminist whose life spanned the 19th century. She earned her living by writing functioning as a travel writer, a correspondent and political commentator for significant newspapers, and as a public interpreter of a multitude of intellectual trends. She stated: 'In my opinion Christianity has improved the situation of women. Mark the zeal, directed by knowledge, of the female converts, of so many of whom St Paul makes honourable mention as his friends, on account of their exertions in the great cause' (Yates, 90).

However, in the light of the development of the Women's Movement in the wider community, as we know it now, it is relevant to note that Harriet, although raised as a devout Unitarian, moved towards an agnostic position mainly as a result of the influence of Auguste Comte, one of the fathers of positivist philosophy and of the new discipline of sociology. Indeed Harriet translated Comte's Cours de Philosophie Positive into English and abridged it. Comte was so delighted with Harriet's work that he had it retranslated into French for his disciples. Comte had developed an evolutionary view of the hierarchy of fundamental ideological positions in the history of Christian humankind: the theological, which was founded on revealed religion, which was superseded by the metaphysical, which was based on speculative reasoning, which was in turn to be superseded, according to Comte, by the positive sciences, founded on experiment and observation ( Yates, 15).

This movement from a Christian world view to a one based on the pre-eminence of science led, if not to atheism at least to agnosticism as was the case in the life of Harriet Martineau which, as mentioned previously, spanned the 19th century and this progression in her life personifies the secular women's movement in the wider community. During the 19th century religion strongly powered the women's movement but by the 1960s, when the second wave women's movement was heralded by Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique, religion was considered either irrelevant to the movement or its arch-enemy and such disciplines as sociology, modern philosophy and literary theories replaced religion in most of the public feminist discourse.
The feminist Simone de Beauvoir is famous for her treatise The Second Sex (TSS) published in English in 1953. She had imbibed much of her father's anticlericalism and skepticism, and asserted: 'In modern civilisations religion seems much less an instrument of constraint than an instrument of deception - woman is deceived into accepting an inferior position to man.' (TSS 589)

Then, with considerable ambiguity, Simone is on record as confessing: 'I must admit that due to my religious education I was never conscious of the inferiority of my status as a woman. I knew that God loved me just as much as he would if I'd been a man. As a result of this moral equality I developed the conviction that the difference between the condition of men and women was purely the result of cultural development.' (F & G 309)

Simone de Beavoir, also, had a genuine appreciation of what she called 'a quite masculine firmness' in many of the great female saints, especially Teresa of Avila (TSS 126, 590). She explained: 'There is hardly any woman other than St Teresa who in total abandonment has herself lived out the situation of humanity…' (TSS 671).

Relationship between Men and Women
Mary Wollstonecraft prayed rhetorically: 'Gracious Creator of the whole human race, have you created such a being as woman, who can trace Your wisdom in Your works, and feel that You alone are by Your nature above her, for no better purpose than to be subject to man? Can she consent to be occupied merely to please man—merely to adorn the earth, when her soul is capable of rising to God, and can she depend upon man for reason when she ought to mount with him the arduous steps of knowledge' (Vin. 160).

Margaret Fuller, on the other hand, extolled both differences and likenesses between men and women: 'Harmony exists in differences, no less than in likeness, if only the same keynote govern both parts. Women the poem, man the poet! Woman the heart, man the head!' But she opposed taking a rigid view of such difference (Full. 79). Indeed Margaret was clearly aware that though male and female represent 'the two sides of the great radical dualism', they are perpetually 'passing into one another. Fluid hardens to solid, solid rushes to fluid.' She summed it up: 'There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.' She was very clear too that 'the development of the one cannot be effected without that of the other' (Full. 115, 116).

Josephine Butler pointed out, as has been done consistently by Catholic feminists in the latter part of the 20th century: 'The new dispensation of Liberty, Life, Impartiality, Equality and Justice are inherent in Christianity for there should be 'neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Gentile' (But. 178, 179).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman declared: 'The more society advances, the less the woman can endure her ancient restrictions. Within a lifetime women have covered steps of advancement that took thousands of years to build. It is sickening to see so many of the newly freed use their freedom in mere imitation of masculine vices. Yet that is just to be expected from a subject class, suddenly released, and the release of women is the swiftest movement in history' (His 54).

She added: 'This is why we so sorely need the lifting force of religion to carry us over this discordant period. It is hard for men; they are losing forever the woman servant of the past. It tears at the very roots of their world, which is built on subject women. It is hard for women too. They have become accustomed to dependence and have developed more strength to endure evil conditions than to change them' (His. 54-5).

Virginia Woolf, the well known early twentieth century British novelist asserted: 'I see a relationship between the causes of war and the fear and anger that exists between the sexes … First because such fear and anger prevent real freedom in a private house; second, because such fear and anger may prevent real freedom in the public world: they may have a positive cause in causing war' (Woolf 252).

She advised: 'Women should learn to laugh, without bitterness, at the vanities—say rather the peculiarities, for it is a less offensive word—of the other sex. For there is a spot the size of a shilling at the back of the head which one can never see for oneself.' (Woolf 84) She elaborated: 'It is one of the good offices that one sex can discharge for the other sex – to describe that spot the size of a shilling at the back of the head. Think with what humanity and brilliancy men from the earliest ages have pointed out to women that dark spot at the back of the head!' (Woolf 84).

Virginia Woolf seemed to be arguing for virtually separate spheres for men and women based on their inherent masculine and feminine differences, but she was aware of the intrinsic dangers to both parties in this situation. She resented the freedom to study, and progress in their profession, that the domestic service of wives gave their husbands. She observed: 'There can be no doubt that we owe to this segregation of the sexes the immense elaboration of modern instruments and methods of war; the astonishing complexities of theology; the vast deposit of notes at the bottom of Greek, Latin and English texts … and all those meaningless but highly ingenious turnings and twistings into which the intellect ties itself when rid of the cares of household and the family' (Woolf 304).

However, she admitted finally: 'I have come to the conclusion that it is natural for the sexes to cooperate…One has a profound if irrational instinct in favour of the theory that the union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness' (Woolf 91, 92).

The first of my feminists to have had a university education was Edith Stein. She was a philosopher, Jew, convert to Catholicism, Carmelite nun and mystic. She was also a feminist. In her biography she describes how she had espoused the feminist cause early in life. Part of the programme at the graduation party at the end of her high school days had been terse epigrams about each member of the class. She confessed that the one concerning her read:

Let woman equal be with man, So loud this suffragette avers, In days to come we surely can See that a Cab'net Post is hers. (Auto.178.)

Edith Stein is particularly interesting concerning that relationship between women and men. She commented on her early University period: 'My deep conviction of social responsibility … made me decidedly favour women's suffrage. At that time this was still far from being an integral part of the women's rights movement' (Auto. 191).

Edith, among other things made a significant point, which was true of the women's movement in the USA, Britain, NZ and Australia: 'The radical feminists in their concern to achieve equal rights for women minimized the differences between the sexes and concentrated on their shared nature. On the other hand, the early German feminist Helene Lange, whom I admire enormously, throughout her life insisted that 'the dissimilarity of the sexes must be emphasized in order that the feminine nature be freely developed and properly formed” (Stein, 155).
Edith Stein had well thought out ideas on the relationship between men and women. As a result of reflecting upon 'But no helpmate corresponding to him was found for Adam' in the second account of the biblical creation myth, Edith commented that the translation of the Hebrew as 'helpmate corresponding to him' is akin to a mirror in which man is able to look at his own nature. But she said it may also be thought of as 'a counterpart' so that, indeed, men and women do resemble each other, yet not entirely, but rather, that they complement each other as one hand does the other (Stein 59).

Edith voiced the belief that, although man and woman were both affected by original sin, man had the more perverted 'drive for perfection' emanating from his original sin. She elaborated: 'This has far-reaching consequences for mankind especially in marriage and the workplace. This relentless seeking for 'perfection' by man produces a one-sidedness in his development and consequently the deterioration of other qualities, producing such aberrations as brutal authority, as in domestic violence and sexual promiscuity' (Stein 70-1). She added: 'Men tend to have very narrow interests compared with the usual broadness of interest and sympathy of women' (Stein 71).

Edith also connected the one-sided development of man, the male, with the devastation of the earth, and she elaborated: 'Instead of reverential joy in the created world, instead of a desire to preserve and develop it, man seeks to exploit it greedily to the point of destruction or to senseless acquisition without understanding how to profit from it or how to enjoy it' (Stein 70). Edith went on to point out: 'Woman, as a result of her special emotional gifts, is better protected by nature than man against a one-sided development of faculties' (Stein 96).

Even-handedly she observed: 'On the other hand woman is less qualified for outstanding achievements in an objective field, achievements which are always purchased by a one-sided concentration of all spiritual faculties; and this characteristic struggle for development also exposes her more intensely to the danger of fragmentation' (Stein 96). But, in the process of discussing the type of work that generally suited women, Edith declared: 'Women can make a positive contribution to the so-called masculine vocations provided that they suit their own particular gifts and do not do violation to themselves as persons.' She added : 'One can say that the development of the feminine nature in the work place can become a blessed counter-balance, especially where everyone is in danger of becoming mechanised and losing his humanity' (Stein 48, 49, 82, 112, 113).

Edith explained that the one-sidedness to which by nature woman is inclined is particularly dangerous: 'unilateral emotional development'. She also underlined the important difference between the soul-body relationship of man and woman : 'Woman's soul is present and lives more intensely in all parts of the body and it is inwardly affected by that which happens to the body; whereas, with man, the body has more pronouncedly the character of an instrument which serves in his world and which is accompanied by a certain detachment' (Stein 95).

Simone de Beauvoir largely supported this perception and after rigorously objecting to the spiritualizing of the figure of woman, she pointed out: 'The role of pity and tenderness is one of the most important of all those which have been assigned to woman. Even when fully integrated in a society, woman subtly extends its frontiers because she has the insidious generosity of life' (TSS 196).

Very significantly Simone de Beauvoir also observed: 'What irks me is that man is considered the norm for humanity and that woman is defined in relation to him as 'the Other'. While man is challenged to transcendence, woman is condemned through the circumstances of her life to immanence' (TSS 27). She was of the opinion that 'the reality is that Woman is simply what man decrees; thus she is called 'the sex,' by which she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex—absolute sex, no less' (TSS 15, 16).

Sexuality and Sex Education and Chastity
According to Mary Wollstonecraft, too much emphasis was placed on the relationship between the sexes, without cultivating the virtues from which true chastity would naturally develop. She reminded us that : 'Fallacious and unstable is the conduct that is not founded upon truth' (Vin. 239).

She believed in telling the truth to children at the appropriate level and observed with disdain: 'The ridiculous falsities which are told to children from mistaken notions of modesty tend very early to inflame their imagination and set their little minds to work respecting subjects which nature never intended they should think of till the body arrived at some degree of maturity; then the passions naturally begin to take the place of the senses, as instruments to unfold the understanding and form the moral character' (Vin.234).

Mary Wollstonecraft deplored the contemporary situation in which the only virtue expected of women was chastity and, at that, a technical chastity rather than real chastity of the heart. On the other hand, chastity was not expected of men and she saw this essential contempt of chastity as being at the root of many of the problems of women and of society in general (Vin.247-52). She declared: 'Chastity will never be respected in the male world till the person of a woman is not, as it were, idolised' (Vin. 87).

Harriet Martineau expressed strongly the opinion that: 'The prevalent persuasion that there are virtues which are peculiarly masculine and others which are peculiarly feminine effectively crushes the morals of both men and women' (GY 59).

Charlotte Perkins Gilman commented: 'During his period of supremacy man has so lavishly over-indulged his sex impulse that he has completely lost sight of its purpose, and now with careful provision for birth-control, he presents to the astonished mother of the world an urgent demand for a relationship wholly divorced from its reason for being yet which he calls 'natural'' (His 63-4). She continued: 'A process more amusingly unnatural could hardly be imagined. Perhaps our nearest approach to it is the custom among gluttonous old Romans of eating several dinners at once, interspersed with digestion control in the shape of emetics' (His 64).

Charlotte warned: 'Nature is no prude. She knows not Victorian from Messalina, nor bourgeois from birth-controller. She allows every form of sex union which produces the best results in a given species and discourages by a death sentence those which do not. It is not civil law nor social law that develops monogamy; it is biological law, which no informed mind repudiates, which can never be broken with impunity' (His 87-8).

Simone de Beauvoir deplored the double moral standard but she perceived chastity as simply a social constraint, rather than a virtue intrinsic to the good of the human person and she commented: 'Chastity is enforced upon woman for economic and religious reasons, since each citizen ought to be authenticated as the son of his proper father' (TSS 204). As is well known this is the position often expressed by those who consider chastity irrelevant to modern society. Simone acknowledged that sexual freedom did not always come easily for women: 'The young woman must overcome a certain repugnance before she can treat her body as a thing: she does not readily accept the idea of being pierced by a man, and she resigns herself no more cheerfully to being 'stoppered' for his pleasure' (TSS 380).

This selection of comments from some of our significant feminist foremothers is necessarily limited and by no means does them justice, though of course each had her inadequacies and was historically conditioned to a greater or less degree. But what have we learnt from this very brief encounter with the ideas, attitudes and values expressed by some noteworthy women feminists from the past, mostly non-Catholics, in the three areas of philosophy, religion and the Church; relations between men and women; and sexuality, sex education and chastity?

I would suggest that we have been encouraged:
• To pursue respectful dialogue within and without the Church confident of the existence of common ground between people of good will concerned for the welfare of humanity.
• To give priority to recovering women's history and integrating it into mainstream history. If we do not do this it is a tragic loss to women in particular and society in general.
• To educate people by all means possible, within the Church and the wider community, to an awareness of the imperative need of restoring chastity as a virtue basic to the welfare of humanity.

Although it is common for people to lie and cheat and often disregard honesty in their lives, it is generally agreed that it is in the best interests of society if we tell the truth and behave honestly and keep making the effort to uphold truthfulness and honesty as an ideal. Chastity, however, is usually perceived as an outdated, kill-joy, man-made construct, whereas in fact it refers to the truthful, honest disposition of the heart in human relationships especially in relation to the gift of sexuality.

It is imperative that chastity be understood and upheld as an ideal in society. I know that this sounds ridiculously ambitious and it is well known that you cannot legislate for virtue since it is essentially a matter of conversion of the heart. But I suggest that, using the John Courtney Murray method in public argument, it would be possible to argue convincingly for chastity as a life-giving public virtue. It would be possible to translate chastity into terms of public policy, public peace, public order, public morality and social justice so that its intrinsic value to the fabric of society and the individual is better understood. The modern feminist's insistence that 'the personal is political' would be highly relevant to dialogue in this area.
• To be alert to the danger of perceiving man as the Norm and women the Other.
This danger is evident in the Church when, for example, Pope John Paul II saw it necessary to write a special encyclical Mulieris Dignitatum for women but he saw no need to write a special encyclical for men though it is abundantly clear that they do need it. It is clearly necessary that there needs to be formulated a positive theology and spirituality of male sexuality, highlighting the virtue of chastity. Such a document could no doubt draw fruitfully upon the natural sciences and such disciplines as anthropology, psychology and sociology.
• To nurture the scholarship of women so that they:
—have a deep, intelligent understanding of their Catholic heritage;
—are well equipped to take leadership in the Church;
—have a strong background to be able to dialogue with the leaders in the Church;
—have a strong background to be able to dialogue with feminists and others from different backgrounds in the wider community.

It is important to note that, while acknowledging the positive benefits of the secular women's movement to Catholics, Edith Stein warned: '… it should never be forgotten that the non-Catholic Women's Movement developed on a foundation foreign to us—that of German idealism, of philosophical and political liberalism. The Catholic Women's movement must rest on its own foundation, the foundation of faith and a Catholic world view, which is well thought out in all its consequences. We must be aware, too, of those elements in the wider culture which influence us' (Stein 159, 160).

Edith Stein had sufficient depth of scholarship to be able to recognize and articulate these differences. We need to put in place structures in the tertiary institutes of the Church which will promote the ongoing scholarly development of women especially encouraging women's research so that men's scholarship will be broadened and deepened—be more authentic, be more in touch with reality so that women's tertiary studies are not based entirely on the scholarship of men, which is restricted in scope. This will not be accomplished quickly but it is important that it be begun and structured so that it will be ongoing from generation to generation of women. Then we could have ongoing generations of leaders who would help us 'make our teaching on social and economic issues, on sexual morality and bioethics, and on everything else, more obviously about 'making the world ever more human, ever more profoundly human” and thus more credible.

Sophie McGrath rsm is a co-founder of the Golding Centre for Research in Women's History, Theology and Spirituality at the Australian Catholic University. Sophie is based on the Strathfield Campus.


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