A Catholic Definition of Womanhood From Edith Stein, Defender of Women

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, in her philosophical essays, showed that women are endowed with wonderful, God-given natures.

L to R: Blessed Mother and Baby Jesus, St. Edith Stein/Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, St. Teresa of Calcutta
L to R: Blessed Mother and Baby Jesus, St. Edith Stein/Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, St. Teresa of Calcutta (photo: Detail, altar of holy women by Sieger Koder in St. Stephen Church in Wasseralfingen, Germany / Zvonimir Atletic/Shutterstock)

“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” is a famous lament expressed by professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Although the song brought laughter to audiences, the lingering question about the differences between men and women still is hotly debated today. 

Feminists weren’t much help in answering the question, since they didn’t want to acknowledge any innate traits distinguishing men from women. Feminists in the popular press were largely atheists, and by denying God as the Creator, they denied the reality of inborn masculine and feminine natures. As the atheistic philosopher Simone de Beauvoir so famously put it, “One is not born, but becomes a woman.”

In their attempt to level the playing field between men and women, feminists made some big blunders. One was assuming that whatever work women traditionally did was inferior to men’s undertakings. Since men left the home to make a living, feminists concluded women must do the same. As the decades roll on, many women find themselves trying to do everything: take care of the home and family, plus be successful in the workplace. The stress of trying to juggle home and professional life continues to stalk women. 

When it came to relationships, feminists made another blunder by pointing, once again, to men as the standard. Since men had multiple sexual relationships without apparent emotional harm, they asserted that women should follow suit. But when women try to be casual in their relationships, they soon discover the devastating emotional ramifications of “hooking up,” because women especially connect sex with love and commitment. 

Fortunately, there are Catholic writers who put God at the center of a woman’s life. One is Edith Stein, a remarkable woman who earned a doctorate in philosophy in the 1930s, when this field was largely composed of males. Born into a Jewish family, she converted to Catholicism and became a philosophy instructor before entering religious life, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. 

As a philosopher, Stein asserted that men and women are born with innate, God-given natures. The Bible reveals that God didn’t make unisex individuals, but, instead, as we read in Genesis: “Male and female he created them.” Both men and women are made in God’s image, Stein wrote, but they have distinctive, God-given roles. 

Stein asserted that a woman’s natural vocation was to become a wife and mother. As she pointed out, “The clear and irrevocable word of Scripture is what daily experience teaches from the beginning of the world: woman is destined to be wife and mother.” Adam named the first woman Eve “because she was the mother of all the living.” In addition, women are equipped physically and emotionally to bear children and nurture them. 

As an ideal model of wife and mother, Stein pointed to the Blessed Mother, who was the handmaid of the Lord in everything she did. Bowing to God’s will, Mary awaited the birth of her Son, presented him in the Temple, watched over his childhood and finally held his crucified body in her arms. As spouse, Mary exemplified limitless trust in Joseph, the husband God gave her as protector and guide. 

While feminists disparage motherhood, Stein praised it: “To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is [woman’s] natural, maternal yearning.” Stein saw motherhood as a beautiful calling and never denigrated the tasks associated with caring for children. She added that even women who didn’t have biological children could express their loving, maternal nature through spiritual motherhood. 

Stein never suggested, however, that every woman must devote herself entirely to motherhood. In addition to her inborn feminine nature, each woman has special God-given talents, which might lead her to different jobs. “There is no profession which cannot be practiced by a woman,” Stein wrote. Although women’s maternal nature might be especially suited to the roles of teacher, nurse and social worker, women could still make important differences in typically masculine professions. 

She envisioned a laboratory or factory, where workers face the danger of becoming mechanized and “losing their humanity.” A woman’s tendency to be nurturing and empathetic would be a blessing in these circumstances. As an example, she pointed to Mary at the Wedding Feast at Cana, who quietly observed what was lacking. In the workplace, women could follow Mary by discretely noticing where help is needed and quietly providing it, Stein noted. 

Stein was well aware of women’s struggles to balance motherhood with their professional life, but, unlike secularists, she offered a unique, Christ-centered solution. Many women, she noticed, are overwhelmed trying to serve as wife, mother and employee. Still, there are also heroic women who fulfill multiple roles while remaining peaceful and cheerful. “There are the mothers who, radiating all warmth and light in the house, raise as many as nine children … and these women are magnanimous as well towards all strangers in need.” Their secret, she said, lies in the power of grace to strengthen them. 

Stein emphasized forming a relationship with Jesus Christ through the sacrament of love, the Eucharist. “Only in a daily, confidential relationship with the Lord in the tabernacle can one forget self … and have a heart open to all the needs and wants of others.” Prayer is absolutely essential: “Whoever prays together with the Church in spirit and in truth knows that her whole life must be formed by this life of prayer.” 

To answer Henry Higgins’ question, women can’t be more like men, nor should they try to be, because women are endowed with a unique and beautiful, God-given nature. There may always be problems as women make their way in a world largely based on secular values, but Stein offered hope: “When we entrust all the troubles of our earthly existence confidently to the divine heart, we are relieved of them.” 

Tragically, after Edith Stein became Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, she was torn from the convent by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. There, she ministered to suffering mothers and their children before she was killed. She was canonized in 1998. She might not have realized it, but when she shaped a Catholic definition of womanhood, she was also relieving women’s suffering by showing them a Christ-centered solution to their problems. May St. Teresa Benedicta continue to pray for all the women trying to live Christ-centered lives as they travel on the road to heaven. 

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