Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
There has been a lot of discussion in the online world of “Catholic Twitter,” podcasts, and in the blogosphere about men and women — their complementarity, whether or not they are equal, and how they are different. Podcaster Timothy Gordon stated on The Matt Fradd Show that the Church has taught against married women working, and he said that the New Testament and natural law point to the idea that “men and women are utterly unequal,” though equal in dignity. He did not, however, go on to explain how they are “utterly unequal,” except to state that men are “bigger, stronger” and have a “different forebrain.” He holds that natural law proves, and Christian tradition supports, that a husband is the boss of his wife. Yet, the only argument he gave for this is that in all of human history this has been the case, and only since the feminist movements has the trend of men having authority over women and of men being seen as higher than women been questioned.
The problem with these statements about the inequality of men and women is that they overlook that, since they are human beings, members of the same species, men and women have all of the same powers. Thus, one cannot say that they are “utterly unequal.”
Women and men are first of all rational animals, human beings, made in the image of God. All humans have an intellectual power to reason, learn, understand and know God. Both men and women have wills where they can freely choose good or evil. They have passions and appetites that influence these choices and must be ruled over by reason. These abilities to do things are called their powers. Men and women have the power to love God, love others, see, speak, eat, walk, have conversations, make plans, teach others, use and create tools, and so many other things. They are the same in all of these things.
While men have dominated the workforce, the trades and the arts, the fact that an occasional woman succeeded in these before the feminist movements shows that there is an equality there. When all of her society was against her success because she was a woman, Jane Austen wrote beautiful novels, Elizabetta Sirani painted classical paintings, Marie Curie won a Nobel Prize in physics. I mention famous women and not men, because there are so many famous talented men that I do not need to list them. Women are in the workforce now because the world has finally acknowledged that women are able to work as well as men.
Women and men, besides all of these other shared human abilities, also share the same power to reproduce. In scholastic philosophy, powers are distinguished only when they aim at different objects. Since male and female reproductive powers aim at the same object—a child—they are the same power. Women and men merely possess different aspects of this same power to co-create new human beings, with the man having the power to beget human life in another while the woman has the power to beget this human life within herself. This does not make one superior to or higher than the other but places them on a footing where they become partners in bringing new human beings into the world. Male and female we were created in God’s image. Not superior and inferior, but all in God’s image.
When a human person comes into existence, the person’s soul actualizes a male or female body and therefore everything about the person is affected by the characteristic of maleness or femaleness. Maleness and femaleness are drawn up into the spiritual level—the soul we receive is made for the body we receive from our parents. One’s sex is a part of who one is; it is received from the body one is gifted from the beginning of one’s existence. Maleness for men is then expressed in the masculine roles of being a father, husband, son and brother, and femaleness for women is expressed in the feminine roles of being a mother, wife, daughter and sister. These roles look different in each man and woman but are essential to who the person is.
Furthermore, while the physical differences and the roles men and women experience are easy to point out, it is unhelpful to make a list of male qualities or female qualities beyond those having to do with the reproductive power. There are too many exceptions to these general lists.
For example, many have claimed that there are specific characteristics of all men and all women, such as that men are more oriented to things while women are more oriented to people or that men think more abstractly and women think more concretely. Yet, we all know exceptions to generalizations such as these. There are some very masculine men who are very good at attending to people and perhaps not very practical with things while there are some good women who do not have a natural inclination to attend to people but have great special awareness. While there is some scientific evidence that men and women actually do think differently in general, these are merely averages and not true for every man and woman. There are too many differences within the sexes to generalize about specific traits, and further, men and women who do not fit into these generalizations are often alienated from their sex because of them.
The differences between men and women should be grounds for unity between the sexes—not for one lording it over the other. Men and women make up the one human race; both are essential for its continuation and both have equal human dignity and inherent value. In light of this need to work together, social and cultural norms have developed based on each of the sex’s particular aspect of the reproductive power.
Until recent history there has been the expectation that a mother and wife will stay at home and tend to the children and the father and husband acting as the provider. This is based on the reality that the mother bears the child within her body and feeds her babies from her breasts. The father cannot do these things, and as it is a duty of both parents to provide for their children, the father has usually done this by earning an income. However, these social expectations do not prove a rule of how things should look in every family, but rather show a well-reasoned way of dividing the responsibilities of parenthood.
Despite a lack of real superiority, it has often played out in society that the man rules over the woman, which we can point to as a result of humanity’s fallen nature. The history of men having more power than women and controlling the political sphere is not a proof that it is in natural law that men are superior to women. Rather, it is evidence that the curses of Original Sin are real.
“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” God spoke to the woman in the Garden of Eden when explaining the punishment for her disobedience (Genesis 3:16). Our human experience of men ruling over women is a result of the Fall. Dr. Benjamin Wiker explained in his recent blog post on Ephesians 5 that there was no subordination before the Fall but the man and woman worked together in the task of tilling and watching over the garden.
It is fallen human societies have made women subordinate to men, not natural law.
Wiker explains that St. Paul in his letter to Ephesians offers husbands and wives a path to redemptive suffering through embracing the curses of the Fall, the man giving up his life for his wife and the wife being subordinate to her husband. While this way is surely better than suffering unwillingly under the curse of the Fall, and so St. Paul was certainly right to tell married couples to act this way, there is reason to believe that Christians are called to something higher than this.
St. Paul also teaches, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh… Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away and the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)” The old has passed away; we are made new through our baptisms.
We are called to start living the redeemed life now, a redeemed life where the subordination of women to men is no longer the rule or even something to be suffered through. We can embrace the grace of the sacraments, and husbands and wives can tap into the sacrament of their marriage, to overcome these curses. Jesus died and rose and bore the curse so that we could have life.
Jesus, himself, saying, “from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8), gives us an example of a man treating women as rational human beings with intellectual ability equal to that of men in his friendships with women. Look at how he treated with respect Mary and Martha, accepted the financial support of women (Luke 8:3), and appeared to women after his Resurrection before men. Most of the men ran away, while the women had courage to stay near him in his suffering. The Angel Gabriel showed the Blessed Mother in giving her the option to give her assent to become the Mother of God rather than forcing it upon her. It is clear that the Church, living in grace, should strive against the fallen tendency to see women as less than men.
In the right place and time, with persons in a marriage open to the help of grace, our lives can be better than the life of Eden, if we would only see that a husband and a wife (while different in one aspect) have all of the same powers allotted to humans and were meant to work side by side as one flesh.
Finally, the most important thing that both men and women share, as rational animals, is the power to know and love God. They are called to this same end. They are equal in this end to which they are called.