Previously I talked about how men and women are different. In later articles I want to talk about how we’re different, and how our essential natures as men and women are twisted and warped by a society that doesn’t “get” the importance of those differences. At first I was planning to start by discussing men, because in general I find men much more interesting than women. But then I thought maybe I’d be better off analyzing my own gender first.
John Paul II had a lot to say about women and feminine nature. (Honestly, I wish he’d had a little more to say about masculine nature, but I guess we take what we’re given.) He wrote an entire apostolic letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, about us. He wrote about how women have been given very unique and specific gifts. As he put it, “woman is endowed with a particular capacity for accepting the human being in his concrete form” (cf. N. 18). We are intuitive. We are relationship-oriented. Tenderness and empathy often come more naturally to women than to men.
Science has affirmed much of what JPII observed. Studies show that women are better able to determine a person’s feelings simply by seeing facial expressions. The corpus callosum — the “connector” between the two halves of the brain — is larger in women than in men, making us better able to access our feelings and perform tasks that require the simultaneous use of both sides of the brain. (Men, meanwhile, are more adept at tasks that require the concentrated use of one side of the brain. I figure that’s because their feelings can’t squeeze through their smaller corpus callosum to bother them while they’re working.)
Please understand that these are not “stereotypes.” These are tendencies, many of which are due to the different physiologies of the male and female persons. Of course you may find one particular man who is more “in touch with his feelings” than one particular woman, just as you may find one particular woman who is physically stronger than one particular man. But just as men, overall, have a higher percentage of muscle than women do, so women’s emotional and cerebral make-up gives us different emotional tendencies.
JPII said that this is a good thing. He, in fact, called out particular gifts the “feminine genius.” He also said that there is a reason for these differences. Many of women’s gifts are about relationships, about nurturing. Just as our female bodies are oriented to the creation and nurturing of new human life, so our emotional make-up is oriented toward the continuing nurturance of that life.
Hold the phone! Is JPII saying that women are really just made for baby-making?
Heavens, no. The Holy Father was clear that women’s specific and unique gifts are important in the family. He was equally clear that those same gifts are needed in the larger world. As he said in a 1995 Angelus message, “In fact, woman has a genius all her own, which is vitally essential to both society and the Church.” Society needs women’s gifts. It is good that we are present in business, in government, in life. We bring a balance, a perspective that is needed in every facet of life.
What is important, however, is that whatever we do, we do is as women — bringing those specific and unique feminine gifts. If those gifts become distorted, or if we abandon them altogether in favor of attempting to cultivate masculine gifts in ourselves, we lose the whole point.
This is not about baking cookies for the board meeting. This goes a whole lot deeper.
Society has never been particularly good at appreciating women’s gifts. We seem to fall to one extreme or the other. In one era we were weak and fawning, unable to think for ourselves or take care of ourselves. We couldn’t vote, couldn’t own property.
All of that changed with the advent of the women’s rights movement. A lot of those changes needed to happen. But the “women’s lib” movement of the 1960’s bought into one of the essential fallacies of the old discrimination — that the male gifts are somehow “better” than female gifts. Women were assumed to be “liberated” to the extent that they behaved like men. A career was presumed to be “better” than staying at home with children. Women in the workplace were expected to behave like stereotypical “men” — tough, aggressive, unfeeling. They were expected to become promiscuous, again like the worst male stereotype. And, because men’s bodies don’t get pregnant, women suddenly “needed” birth control — and abortion as a back-up — in order to achieve “equality.”
As JPII said in Mulieris Dignitatem, “In the name of liberation from male ‘domination’ women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine ‘originality.’ There is a well-founded fear that if they take this path, women will not ‘reach fulfillment’ but instead will deform and lost what constitutes their essential richness.”
I have definitely concluded that we women — all of us — have been poisoned by these “deforming” attitudes so prevalent in the social air that we breathe.
I spoke at a conference a few years ago where I did a question and answer session with single adults. One guy raised his hand and talked about the difficulty of finding the right woman as he got older. He said that all of the women he met had been in careers for a long time. They were hard, they were tough, and they were already able to give themselves everything they needed. Why would they need him?
It was a good question, one that has me thinking to this day. I answered him by saying, first of all that, in our defense, a lot of us single women have had to support ourselves for a long time. We have thus become very accomplished in an environment that rewards more “masculine” behavior. We can’t exactly break down crying in the boardroom. And so, we can sometimes lose touch with our more vulnerable sides. It’s not gone forever — we just may need a little help and patience to find it again.
I also told him that our “needs” aren’t necessarily material, but that we still definitely want and need men in our lives. Some of our less-healthy sisters may have lost touch with that need (Gloria Steinem famously said that a woman needs a man “like a fish needs a bicycle”) but it’s still there.
Since that day, it has struck me how many women I see — especially women approaching middle-age — who really are bitter and hard. I think some of it stems from this anger with men that we have inherited from our radical feminist sisters. Some of it is the result of real disrespect or harm at the hands of men. Much of it comes from the abuse our feminine sexuality that runs so rampant in our culture. But all of it represents a departure from our true feminine nature.
And it doesn’t make us happy.
Real feminine nature isn’t weak or fawning. It isn’t about wearing frilly dresses or reading romance novels. Real femininity is strong, confident, vibrant. But it is strong, confident and vibrant in a uniquely feminine way.
Women – pray to find, live and strengthen your authentic feminine nature. Men, encourage that in the women in your lives.
Mary Beth Bonacci, in addition to being a Catholic Match columnist, is an internationally known speaker. She holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. Contact Mary Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her web site is www.RealLove.net.
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