The Genius of Women
By: Emma Brown
We were sitting across from each other with coffee and red velvet muffins between us. Discussing feminism and Catholicism. Were the two completely at odds? Was there common ground?
I think we found some common ground in that Tim Hortons. A mutual horror at the justice system’s treatment of rape, a concern for the lack of support for pregnant women in crisis, a disbelief that women still don’t earn an equal wage in Canada. Above all we recognized, and mourned, the many ways that the dignity of women is trampled on. St. John Paul II wrote beautifully on this topic of female dignity in his encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women).
He spends most of the document not on the affronts to the dignity of women (though he does acknowledge those) but on the nature of feminine dignity. Here is where I think feminists and Catholics differ. In general, feminists base the equality of men and women on the belief that they are essentially the same. The Church, on the other hand, maintains that men and women are equal but not the same. Rather, men and women each possess unique natures with particular gifts. “The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different. Hence a woman, as well as a man, must understand her ‘fulfilment’ as a person, her dignity and vocation, on the basis of these resources, according to the richness of the femininity which she received on the day of creation,” John Paul II writes.
So what is this “richness” of being a woman? What does it mean and how do we live it? There’s so much that could be said! I can’t even begin to do it justice in a short blog post. So I will only focus on one aspect of what John Paul II calls “the feminine genius;” namely, the ability of women to make room for “the other.”I remember when my mom was pregnant with my brother Matthew. I was nine years old and eager to welcome my first younger sibling into the world. Every week we would check a booklet we had on prenatal development. He had feet now. Eyelids. Fingernails.
Incredible. John Paul II sees this unique ability of women—to house another human being in their body—as key to the feminine genius. Our bodies tell us something of our souls. They make visible invisible realities. The visible reality of a woman’s body, particularly her womb, tells us something of the invisible reality of her heart. A woman’s heart is made to receive “the other.” Women have this unique ability to make room for other people.
While not every woman will welcome another human being into her womb, we all have the capacity to welcome another human being into our hearts. And, much like in pregnancy, the one who is received by us is able to become fully themselves through our love. They are able to develop in the safety of our care. John Paul II emphasizes that the world is in great need of women’s “sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance: because they are human.”
I think of Allison from The Breakfast Club. One of the characters sees that she is troubled and asks her, “What do your parents do to you?” She responds, “They ignore me.” Many are ignored today. Many are hurting. They are in need of spiritual mothers who do not measure their worth but love them unconditionally. People need to be loved simply because they exist.
This spiritual motherhood manifests itself differently in each person. And it should! We are all unique and unrepeatable creations of God. He wants us to live out our calling as no one else can. There’s always a temptation to compare ourselves to other women. She’s so patient…she’s so hospitable…she’s so much better at baking…. But it’s not about what she’s good at. It’s also not about measuring up to those old stereotypes of womanhood. Receiving another into your heart has very little to do with aprons and knitting needles. It’s much deeper than that.
I think of my sister letting me sleep on her futon when I was scared of my neighbourhood. I think about my drama teacher celebrating when I finally hit the high note. I think about my room mates rescuing me from a late night on campus with snacks and company. I think about my sister belting out One Direction songs with me after a tough shift at work. I think about my mom, listening. I think about sleepovers and car rides and Skype dates. I think about kind eyes and laughter and tears. I think about all the women I've walked beside for even a short time, and all those who have walked beside me. Each one has loved me in a beautifully unique way.
“A woman's vocation is always the vocation of a person - of a unique, individual person. Therefore the spiritual motherhood which makes itself felt in this vocation is also profoundly personal,” writes John Paul II.
The world needs you. It needs your particular brand of spiritual motherhood. Yes, there are fears and feelings of inadequacy. We all have those. But don’t let them have the final say.
As we parted ways outside the Tim Hortons, I felt grateful for time spent listening to my friend and having her listen to me. Then it dawned on me. We had been talking so much about the dignity of women that we didn’t even stop to realize: we were living it.