Libraries & Spaces
The Real Woman Today
John Courtney Murray
They say that women love to be told of their beauty and worth and dearness, their uniqueness, their needfulness, their supreme importance. If this be so, they have at least one reason for reading the address of Pius XII to the women of Italy, given on October 21. They will find in it a wealth of compliments, paid to what the Pope twice calls "the real woman." (I have no doubt that every woman considers herself just that—a "real" woman.) They will also find out what (I am told) every woman desires to know—that she is beloved; our Holy Father fills his address with "all the affection of a paternal heart."
His affection does not spend itself only in compliments, but also in the effort—which, I hope, every real woman will consider highly complimentary—to make Catholic women think. The subject of their thought is to be "a topic outstanding in interest and primary in importance in our times: it is women's duties in social and political life."
Our Holy Father's statement of the problem itself is initially noteworthy. He goes straight to its heart, "disregarding the high-sounding and empty slogans with which some people would describe the movement for women's rights." The problem, he says, "in spite of its complexity hinges entirely on the question, how to maintain and strengthen the dignity of woman," "that dignity which she has only from God and in God." Moreover, he refuses to take hold of the question simply in the abstract; the question is terribly concrete—how to secure the dignity of woman "especially today, in the circumstances in which Providence has placed us." These circumstances qualify the answer; and Pius XII blinks no one of them.
He brings forward no new principles of solution; he finds all he needs in the traditional wisdom of the Church. Briefly, he uses three principles. The first is the dignity of woman as child of God, by reason of which she is man's equal. The second is the dignity of woman as woman, by reason of which she is man's complement. The third is the seeming paradox, that woman preserves her equality with man by developing her differences from him, her "characteristic qualities," that make up her womanliness.
A woman is a woman, not a man (a truism somewhat obscured in this day of dungarees and hanging shirt-tails). She is not man's substitute or competitor, but his coordinate ally, his coequal collaborator in the one total work of humanity—
its own perfection, to be begin here on earth and perfected in Heaven. Neither man nor woman can do this work alone. In it, woman has an equal share with man, but her own share, not his.
Woman may do her work in several states—as wife and mother, as Religious within cloister walls, or as single "perforce" (the Pope's word) in the world. These states are not equal in excellence, but all are equally "vocations," calls of God to do His will. And all are calls to the one essential womanly function, which makes the unity amid their difference:
In both states alike [married and single] woman's sphere is clearly outlined by qualities, temperament and gifts peculiar to her sex. She collaborates with man, but in a manner proper to herself, according to her natural bent. Now the sphere of woman, her manner of life, her native bent, is motherhood. Every woman is made to be a mother—a mother in the physical meaning of the word, or in the more spiritual and exalted, but no less real, sense. For this purpose the Creator organized the whole characteristic makeup of woman—her organic construction but even more her spirit, and above all her delicate sensitiveness.
Hence the woman's "angle":
Thus it is that a woman who is a real woman can see all the problems of human life only in the perspective of the family.
Up to this point, Pius XII has simply been uttering the traditional wisdom of the Church; now he becomes characteristically Pius XII. He brings traditional wisdom sharply to bear on the concrete world situation. He makes the truth a call to action: "Catholic women and girls, your day is here! Public life needs you. To each one of you it may be said: Your cause is at stake."
Why? Because "a political and social order threatens to prejudice woman's mission as mother, and the good of the family"; "it might even become still more precarious for the sanctity of the home and hence for woman's dignity." Two enemies are in the field: totalitarianism, which would make woman the slave of the State, in return for the State's promise to care for her home and children; and materialistic capitalism, which would make woman the slave of economic necessity or selfish pleasure, while nobody cares for her home and children. Each enemy destroys the family by taking woman out of it.
What, then, is the solution? Shall we simply shout the slogan: Back to the home? This would be sheer reaction—an ignoring of facts; and Pius XII will have none of it:
As a matter of fact, woman is kept out of the home not only by her so-called emancipation but often too by the necessities of life, the continuous anxiety about bread. It would be useless, then, to preach to her to return to the home while conditions prevail which constrain her to remain away from it.
Moreover, again as a matter of fact, women today are being called into social and political, as well as into economic, life. The real solution, therefore, is: let women move into public life—the needs of the time and their own opportunities make this a strict duty. But let them take up a woman's mission—the disabling of today's threat to woman's dignity, the creation of a social spirit and a social order in which home and family will be secure in their native holiness:
The fate of the family, the fate of human relations are at stake. They are in your hands. Every woman, then, has—mark it well—the obligation, the strict obligation in conscience, not to absent herself, but to go into action in a manner and way suitable to the condition of each, so as to hold back those currents which threaten the home, so as to oppose those doctrines which undermine its foundations, so as to prepare, organize and achieve its restoration.
Here is a high responsibility. And the severity with which it is imposed is a new note in papal documents. Still more new is what follows—Pius XII's allocation of a special responsibility to those
on whom unavoidable circumstances have bestowed a mysterious vocation, whom events have destined to solitude, which was not in their thoughts or desires, and which might seem to condemn them to a selfishlessly futile and aimless life.
Pius XII looks at the increasing number of women unmarried "perforce," and at the "new needs created by the entry of women into civil and political life"; then he asks: "Is it just a strange coincidence, or are we to see in it the disposition of Divine Providence?" In his own mind, it is clearly the latter.
With striking concreteness, the Pope develops the two ways in which these women are to fulfil their mysterious and glorious vocation. The first has an element of newness: woman today has an intellectual and doctrinal mission—to "study and expound the place and role of woman in society, her rights and duties." She is "to direct ideas." The second is a mission of "direct action," which is to be a true womanly collaboration with men because it will be carried out in spheres that are specifically woman's own, where a woman's heart and a woman's "angle" are needed.
In what follows, the Pope issues a challenge to our schools. He says: "Thus understood, woman's task cannot be improvised." Women must be formed for it, intellectually and spiritually. Here, indeed, is matter for serious thought and careful planning.
The Pope concludes by emphasizing a principle to guide women in the "fulfillment of her strict duty in conscience," to use the electoral ballot given to her: "A woman's vote is a vote for peace." Peace between social classes, peace between
nations—this is the intimate concern of woman; for she understands that war and social strife mean woman's tears over shattered homes.
A final word. Pius XII does not suppose that woman's role in society can be discharged simply by individual women in isolation from one another. They must be organized and united; only as a body will they be "the restorers of home, family and society." Here again is a matter for serious thought.