I’m pretty passionate when it comes to certain issues. In my (online) travels I get to read all sorts of articles and posts, but it’s really the off-balance treatises on femininity that get my blood boiling. I can’t stand writers who think they know it all, think they’ve got this world all figured out and can tell you exactly how God will work in your life. At the same time, it’s in reading the crazy thoughts of other people that I’m able to refine my own ideals and sensibilities, because I have to focus on what it is that I find crazy and figure out why. So when I do calm down, I’ve got what I need to delve a little deeper into the true meaning of femininity.
Take the issue of whether women should work outside the home—a hot-button topic, isn’t it? I read something recently that was so totally ridiculous that it forced me to think through the issue, step by step, and come to a few conclusions.
The first thing I asked myself was: Are women even needed within the marketplace?
Of course they’re needed! In fact, their gifts are in high demand. Fulton J. Sheen, in his article “Does a Business Career Harden a Woman,” listed the ways in which women are essential to each facet of society. In the law, they can temper justice with mercy and soften administrative rigidity: they “breathe blood into red tape.” In medicine, women can restore reverence for life and make the practice of medicine more personal, treating persons instead of just diseases. In business and manufacturing, women can prevent men from “stiffening into automata” and be prudent and inspiring guides within the creative process. Within politics, women, because they are centered on people and relationships, can be most effective instruments for peace. We live in a culture that is not life-giving or life-affirming, so there is much work to be done to change it. The presence of women is necessary for that change to happen because by their very nature women give and affirm life.
John Paul II knew full well what our culture, often labeled the Culture of Death, was all about and the presence women bring to it. Katrina Zeno, in her book Discovering the Feminine Genius, says that in his writings, JPII often “implored women to live out the feminine genius in the home and in public life and in the Church. Why all three? Because ultimately it is culture—the context in which we live life—that must change. And that context includes the home, the Church and society.” While life at home constitutes a big part of society (working to raise morally and civilly responsible, Godly children contributes greatly to our culture) women cannot be limited to working ONLY within the home. Our dignity as persons prevents us from being so pigeonholed. In his encyclical Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II said, “the equal dignity and responsibility of men and women justifies women’s access to public functions” (public functions meaning workplaces outside of the home).
In addition, since men and women are complimentary beings—their bodies, souls, and spirits (as well as their gifts and talents) offset one another in the best possible ways—how can women NOT be needed in the workplace? How can men “do it all” and do it well without the aid or even the input of women? I don’t think it can be done, or done well, at least.
So if women are needed in the public sphere, it begs the question: Should every woman work at home AND in the Church AND in the marketplace?
Some would emphatically say yes, and others would emphatically say no. I’m somewhere in between. Every woman, insofar as she must eat and wear clean clothes, must work at home. I happen to think that every woman should contribute something to the Church and every woman should contribute something to the world. The question isn’t so much if every woman should contribute to home, church, and world, but how much should she should contribute and when. That, my friends, is up to her and the Lord.
Katrina Zeno says that every woman is “given the task of reflecting on her own feminine genius so as to unlock its spiritual dynamism for the Church, the family and the world. … The feminine genius is the distinctive way a woman expresses her gift of self in all her feminine fullness and originality, as God intended her to be from the beginning.” Every woman has something unique she is meant to give to the world—a handful of gifts and talents she can offer, and it’s only through offering those to the world that she can be happy and fulfilled. The problem is that we sometimes assume, when a woman is talented, that she “owes the world” her talents in a very specific way—as if offering our abilities to the world can only mean working in public positions. Not true. All women have some genius and not all women are called to use it in the exact same way, or at the exact same time as anyone else. Some may work outside the home before they have children or after the kids are grown. Some may never work outside the home. Some may use their gifts to start online businesses or become writers or poets or playwrights. Some may focus their time and talents solely on having a tidy home and educating their children. The only thing that matters is where, and to what, God is calling each woman right now. If I have “x” set of talents and gifts, how can I incorporate them into my vocation(s) at this moment?
Because at the same time as she’s asking herself where her talents are and where she can best apply them, all women must ask themselves where their priorities lie (and raising children—if applicable—should be very high on the list). John Paul II, in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) stated,
Experience confirms that there must be a social re-evaluation of the mother’s role, of the toil connected with it, of the need that children have for care, love, and affection in order that they may develop into responsible, morally, and religiously mature and psychologically stable persons. … Having to abandon these tasks in order to take up paid work outside the home is wrong from the point of view of the good of society and of the family when it hinders these primary goals of the family. (emphasis mine)
Abandoning, commuting the task daily to someone else, or delaying the vocation of raising children (due to career choices) should only be done after serious thought, prayer, and discernment. I remember one coworker, many years ago, telling her friends that she barely made money from working 9-5 every day, only because she lived so far from work and shopped so much that everything she made was gone every month. Her kids were in daycare all day for what? A few new shirts every month? It’s true, there are circumstances and situations that require a woman to work outside the home, but every woman must as least ask herself if it’s necessary and why.
Because what matters in the end is the children and their well-being. Fr. Blair Bernard, the editor of Nazareth Family Spirituality, quotes Catherine Doherty as saying that a young mother’s vocation is home and children, but he explains in the footnotes that these words were written for families in the mid-twentieth century when few mothers worked outside the home. We’re in the twenty-first century now and much has changed. He explains:
Both Catherine and Pope John Paul II [in Laborem Exercens] are bringing into bold relief that it is the needs of the children which have to be paramount. This is for purely natural reasons—their need for individualized care, love, and affection, something that can only be effectively done by someone with the vocation to love each of the children. … Parents are the “primary educators” of the children and it is their vocation to pass on a faith which can only effectively be “caught” by the children rather than cursorily “taught” to the children.
There is so much of a child’s education that must come from his parents—that can’t be taught by someone who doesn’t have the vocation to love that child—that the proper care and raising of children must be one of, if not THE primary goal, of every parent.
Now what that looks like, practically speaking, will never be exactly the same for everyone. I have friends whose father stayed home with them during their formative years, as their mother was able to make a better salary. Unconventional, yes, but it suited them and their kids are Catholic and happy and contributing to society. I have other friends who both must work for serious reasons, but they entrust their children mostly to family members, grandmas, and grandpas. Or there are friends who both work, but are able to tailor their schedules so that when mom is gone, dad is home and vice versa. Then there’s my sister-in-law, a highly educated woman homeschooling their 5 children. She describes herself as a “mom-with-a-masters” using her skills to educate the next generation of our family. And there are probably a million other individual stories and situations out there, every one of them having merit and virtue. As long as the needs of the children are carefully considered along with the needs of the family as a whole, who’s to say what each family is doing is wrong?
Saint Augustine is famously quoted as saying, “In the essentials, unity, in the non-essentials, liberty (freedom), in all things, charity.” The question of whether women should work outside the home is not (as many might like to think) a black and white issue. There’s no church dogma declaring that “all women must work only at home, no matter what” and there never will be, because one size can never fit all. Catherine of Sienna (a saint and doctor of the Church, mind you) didn’t say, “Be who you are meant to be, and you will set the world on fire. Except you women. You must only stay home. The end.” No, there is freedom within this issue to make decisions that work for your own family. That being said, each woman must be honest in seeking out and using her gifts, humble in admitting her limitations, and fiercely brave in protecting her choices and boundaries to the outside world. Because it’s been my experience that those women who are doing so, who are using their God-given talents while discerning their vocations carefully, are already contributing to the making of their homes and to the betterment of their parishes, Church, and to our society as a whole in the process. They are, in fact, setting the world on fire and perhaps don’t even know it.
Image: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin [Public domain], “The Hard-Working Mother,” via Wikimedia Commons.