Men and Women are Called to All the Same Virtues

All the moral virtues are connected — and while we can have different virtues imperfectly, we can only have them perfectly if we have all of them perfectly.

Alessandro Allori, “The Holy Family,” 1602
Alessandro Allori, “The Holy Family,” 1602 (photo: Public Domain)

In Part One of this two-part series on the universal call to virtue, I talked about how men and women are both called to holiness through living virtuously. I explained that a man’s virtues are masculine because he is a man and a woman’s virtues are feminine because she is a woman. I will argue in Part Two that there are no distinct male or female virtues, but rather we are all called to live all the virtues according to our vocations. Further, these same virtues look different in each person and are effected by our particular sex.


Are There Masculine or Feminine Virtues?

As I stated in Part One, some make the claim that there are certain virtues that men are specifically called to live out, as well as virtues that are considered particularly feminine. For example, they would say that courage is a manly virtue—when a man exercises courage he is being specifically or more masculine. Therefore, when a woman exercises courage, it is argued that she acting in a masculine way, not a feminine way.

Robert McNamara, a professor of philosophy, spoke about virtue and gender in a talk he gave at the Hildebrand Project Summer Seminar, “The Care of the Soul: Rethinking Virtue in the Contemporary World,” in Steubenville, Ohio, this past July. He holds that while there are not particularly male or female virtues, the way that each virtue is lived out by men or women is characteristic of each sex. He speaks of one’s sex as “coloring” the life of virtue: “To take two typical examples: even while both sexes exhibit the virtues of temperance and fortitude, these virtues typically look and feel somewhat different in each of the sexes, thus marking a different conditioning or coloring of one and the same cardinal virtue.” The way this looks in men and women differs according to the society and culture we are raised in, and points to the natural roles of husband-father and wife-mother we are directed toward.

Taking the example of courage, it is clear that men and women are both called to be courageous, but that it looks different in a man than a woman. Aristotle talks about courage best exemplified by a soldier braving death on the battlefield. One could point to the brotherhood and strength of men fighting battles, for example, Aragorn and Eomer fighting with other men in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. These examples of courage, do not prove that woman are excluded from courage, nor that is it unwomanly to act courageously.

The shield maiden Eowyn, the sister of Eomer, is another example of courage from The Lord of the Rings. She was commanded to stay home and mind her place as niece of a king with no heir of watching over her people as while the men fought. Instead she felt called to disguise herself as a man and fight for her people in battle. One would not say that the courage that drove her was manly. It was womanly, because she was a woman. She was the only one on the battlefield that could destroy the King of the Nazgul precisely because she was a woman since it had been prophesied that he could not be killed by a man.

Stepping back from fiction, one can look at the courage of St. Joseph in becoming the foster father of Jesus, but also that of the Blessed Mother who also gave over her whole life and future to stepping into the intimidating role of Mother of God. St. Joseph’s courage was manly precisely because he was a man, while Our Lady acted with womanly courage because she was a woman. The lived out this courage in their roles of husband-father and wife-mother. It is the sex of the virtuous person that makes the virtue masculine or feminine, not the virtue itself.

One might also say that the virtue of tenderness is particularly feminine. It seems suited to a mother to be tender with her child—a mother who was not tender might be judged to be unmotherly, perhaps. Yet, she also has to balance her tenderness with the need for her child to be disciplined. Her kindness has to sometimes be firm. Being a firm, disciplining mother does not make her unfeminine, it makes her a good parent.

A father is also supposed to be tender and firm. Think of a father holding a newborn baby or bathing his infant or soothing a fussy child to sleep. These are tender acts, but they are not feminine. They are masculine precisely because he is doing them as a man and father. His acts of just discipline towards his children are only masculine because he is a man. A mother or father disciplining their child in an unjust and overly harsh way are both acting against virtue.

Tenderness, like all virtues, looks different on each person, man or woman. The way my husband expresses tenderness in his fatherhood is different from that of my own father and further different from the way my sister expresses tenderness in her motherhood. Tenderness is the same virtue—but has a different color in each person because we are all different unique individuals.

Our sex is an important part of who we are, but it does not determine the virtues we should have, rather, it “colors” the way the virtues look in us based on who we are as individuals and whether we are a man or woman.

The Call to All the Virtues

Jesus tells us in his Sermon on the Mount where he lays out for his followers how following him requires a deeper following of the Ten Commandments, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We are all called to be perfect — to become holy through living out the commandments perfectly.

Men and women are both called to strive toward this end by becoming holy through growing in the virtues. St. Thomas Aquinas explains in his Summa Theologiae that all the moral virtues are connected and while we can have different virtues imperfectly, we can only have them perfectly if we have all of them perfectly (I-II, Q. 65, Art. 1).

Whether a man or a woman, each of us is to strive to have all of the virtues. And while there are distinct definitions about what each virtue is, how they are lived out is not based on whether one is a man or a woman, but who one is as an individual with one’s unique strengths, weaknesses and vocation. The way they are lived are masculine or feminine because the person living them is a man or a woman respectively.