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What is the Essence of Woman?

July 6, 2009

The nature of woman is a controversial topic.  Many question whether there is such a thing as human nature and question further any attempt at defining the nature of woman or man. Part of the problem with addressing the nature of woman in modern feminisms seems to be the divorce between “sex” and “gender”.  Sex has been used to refer to a biological category, while gender is a social construct.  At the end of the twentieth century, “gender feminists” promoted the idea that “‘sex’ signified the physical aspect and ‘gender’ the existential or metaphysical aspect of human sexuality, or rather ‘the masculinity and femininity of individuals.’”[1] Thus all differences between the sexes are socially constructed, and “if gender identity is constructed, it is flexible and can always change.”[2] Therein lies the controversy with investigating the nature of woman; some modern feminisms deny that there is such a thing as an essentially unchanging – that is, a stable and identifiable – feminine nature.  And while this one extreme “claims that men and women are fundamentally and in all respects the same” rejecting “any ontological concept of essence and any given structure, thus denying differentiation beyond that which is strictly biological,” the opposite extreme exalts the differences between man and woman, delineating values such as motherhood, femininity, and womanliness as the greatest values – which make women superior to men.[3] Neither of these extremes is helpful in a quest to discover the nature of woman.  Instead, we will turn to philosophy – most notably that of Edith Stein – to investigate what woman is, essentially.

Following the work of Edith Stein, woman has a threefold, albeit unified, personal identity; she is a member of the human species, a member of the subspecies of woman, and an individual.[4] Woman is a human being, a feminine being, and a personal, individual being; this is a matter of distinction and not separation.[5] When Stein uses the term “species”, she is referring to beings that have an ontologically different essence or nature than other beings.  The fact that she applies this term in two ways is significant.  Applying the term to humans as a group is unremarkable; science recognizes this in categorizing all humans as Homo sapiens – human beings are different from other living beings but like to one another.  However, calling women and men “subspecies” within the species of Man may seem suspect.  Stein defines species in terms of a permanent category which does not change; “the inner form determines the structure of the being, its nature, which we seek to grasp in its essential features, actual and potential.”[6] A given woman may change over time – a change in type, i.e. a child, an adolescent, an adult – but to call woman a species implies that the nature of woman “cannot be modified by environmental, economic, cultural or professional factors.”[7] A change in type may be influenced by environment but is limited by the inner form; types can vary within the limits of inner form or species.[8]

Stein continues, “If we question the concept of species, if man and woman are to be considered as types as we have defined them, then the transformation of one type to another is possible under certain conditions.”[9] In other words, if we consider man and woman as types instead of species, we must concede that a person can change from one to the other; man and woman become fluid categories.  This is what some modern feminisms postulate and is seen in some forms of psychology today, in which sex is placed on a spectrum.  Masculine and feminine characteristics may legitimately be seen as on a spectrum, in a certain sense.  However, sex may not – barring genetic and developmental anomalies or defects.  “A human body can only and always be either male or female, so that embodiment necessarily implies sex.  Sexuality is necessarily an essential aspect of being human.”[10]

Thus, although she shares human nature with man, there is a nature peculiar to woman that may be studied also.  Stein writes that “the species human being is actualized as a double species of man and woman; the essences of human being, in which no essential feature can be lacking in either one, is stamped in a binate way, and the entire essence-structure displays the specific stamp.”[11] Another way to say this would be that man and woman are the two different and permanent ways of being human.  Stein is not speaking of physicality only: “There is a difference, not only in body structure and in particular physiological functions, but also in the entire corporeal life.  The relationship of soul and body is different in man and woman; the relationship of soul to body differs in their psychic life as well as that of the spiritual faculties to each other.”[12] In other words, there is not a difference of matter only between man and woman; this is nonsensical.  Man and woman differ in matter and form, “matter being the principle of individuation, the form accounting for substance”; human souls, “which transcend the physical world in which we exist, are the substantial forms of our bodies, which in turn account for our matter.”[13] If the soul is the form of the body, the very souls of man and woman are sexed.

Thus, woman is woman, through and through; she is not a female body inhabited by a neuter soul, as Descartes and some of the Gnostics would have it.  Every human being shares in a definite human nature, since every human being is a composite of soul and body – unlike any other being, for God is pure Being, angels are spiritual beings, and all other creatures are physical beings.  Only human beings are integrally spiritual and physical.  Moreover – and here is our point to be made at hand – woman must have a specific nature, for every woman is this specific composite of form and matter, of soul and body.  We can follow Stein’s logic, then, in designating woman a “species,” for she is a particular kind of human being – a feminine being.

Furthermore, woman is an individual, the final level of the entity of woman.  Thus far we have been speaking of woman in the sense of a universal substance, the essence of woman, “which has no real existence outside of the mind,” metaphysically speaking; any given woman is the individual substance, “in which case the individual matter and substantial form are unique and the composite being is real.”[14] In summary of Stein’s construct of the threefold entity of woman – to answer our question “What is the Essence of Woman?” – every woman participates in the general essence or essentiality of the human being, in the general or specific essence of femininity, and in a particular essence of being an individual person.[15] Woman is one composite being, yet she is complex. 


[1] Beatriz Vollmer Coles, “New Feminism: A Sex-Gender Reunion,” in Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism, ed. Michele M. Schumacher (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 56.

[2] Ibid., 57.

[3] Ibid., 59-60.

[4] Prudence Allen, “Can Feminism Be a Humanism?” in Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism, ed. Michele M. Schumacher (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 280.

[5] Sibylle von Streng, “Woman’s Threefold Vocation according to Edith Stein,” in Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism, ed. Michele M. Schumacher (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 136-137.

[6] Mary Catharine Baseheart, “Edith Stein’s Philosophy of Woman and of Women’s Education,” Hypatia 4, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 124.

[7] “Problems of Women’s Education,” in The Collected Works of Edith Stein, vol. 2, Essays on Woman, eds. L. Gelber and Romaeus Leuven, trans. Freda Mary Oben (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1987), 162.

[8] Ibid., 162.

[9] Ibid., 162.

[10] Beatriz Vollmer Coles, “New Feminism: A Sex-Gender Reunion,” in Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism, ed. Michele M. Schumacher (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 63.

[11] Baseheart, 125.  She cites Edith Stein. 1959.  Die Frau, Edith Stein’s Werke, L. Gelber and R. Leuven, eds. Louvain, Nauwelaerts, and Freiburg: Herder, 138.

[12] “Problems of Women’s Education,” 177.

[13] Vollmer Coles, 63.

[14] Ibid., 64.

[15] von Streng, 107-108, 110.

  1. G-Veg permalink
    July 6, 2009 11:23 am

    Would it be fair to characterize your post as a “fleshing out” of the nature vs. nurture debate – a narrower discussion of the larger topic?

    I am the father of three: an 8 year old girl, a 5 year old boy, and a 2 year old girl.

    All three are very different and I admit that I am unable to figure out which traits are natural to them and which are due to our reinforcement of them.

    People often say “that boy is all boy.” Indeed, there is some truth to this in that he is very physical and utterly unafraid of the physical world – a trait that concerns me greatly. For example, he broke his foot in June because he jumped from the deck of his great aunt’s house. It simply did not occur to him that he might get hurt.

    Our eldest is a dedicated artist. She is quiet and reserved but laughs easily and prefers the company of a few that she knows to a crowd. She likes to dance and wears the most outlandishly bright colored outfits that one can imagine.

    Our youngest is far more active than the other two and prefers a game of chase to virtually any other game. She loves to be read too and loves to cuddle. Seemingly unique to her is an insatiable curiosity – constantly taking things apart and putting them back together.

    What traits are “natural” to being male or female and which are natural to them specifically?

    Your post hints at the unified natures of female and I don’t take issue with the analysis. I just wonder how one applies that incite.

  2. G-Veg permalink
    July 6, 2009 11:24 am

    By “incite” of course, I meant “insight.” (Dear Lord computers have destroyed my spelling!)

  3. July 7, 2009 12:47 pm

    G-Veg: I think the problem begins when you try to identify characteristics as male or female. One should start with vocation, and then you won’t get caught up in stereotypes. If a man is called to be an icon of God the Father and if a woman gives flesh to the Church (virgin, bride and mother) then there is plenty of room for all sorts of individual characteristics and the freedom to pursue them within the greater paradigm.

    Great post, Ashley Marie!

  4. July 7, 2009 10:50 pm

    This post is mostly philosophical, but I hope it lays the groundwork for future posts that will move closer to the practical. I will look at the “genius” of woman (as JPII put it), her vocation, the complementarity of man and woman, and possible roles of woman – I say “possible” to avoid stereotypes, as gsk rightly said we should avoid. I hope you’ll continue reading!

  5. G-Veg permalink
    July 7, 2009 11:36 pm

    The subject has become nearer and dearer to me as my daughter becomes older and more aware.

    She attends an all girls Catholic school under the IHM. She interacts with sisters and novices almost daily.

    This means though that she is particularly tuned into the lack of the feminine in the mass.

    For example, we regularly ask the community to pray for vocations to the priesthood but never pray for women to enter the service of our Lord. We speak of God in the masculine throughout the mass but of the Church in the feminine.

    These are questions my 8-year old asked on Sunday and I admit my answers were lame because I hadn’t thought about the topic before. (I still haven’t come up with a “good” answer, despite ruminating over it since.)

    I want my children to be open to whatever God has in store for them. I try to speak of everything we do as being part of a grand and Divine plan but I feel utterly inept at expressing the concept of “vocation” in a way that makes sense even to me. Perhaps it is because, growing up in the 1970s and 80s, no one ever talked about “vocations.” Certainly there would not have been support for accepting a vocation in my parents’ house. (They are great people so I don’t want it to sound like they were bad parents or anything.)

    I wonder then if you could indulge me by keeping my daughters in mind as you formulate your posts. It would be nice to have a better grasp on what women think of vocations.

  6. July 8, 2009 8:41 am

    When you think about it, what vocations are women called to? Marriage or consecration of some sort. (Good folks argue whether the single life is an authentic vocation, and most well-catechised say it’s not. The numeraries of Opus dei are an interesting anomoly that also makes sense.) Likewise, men are called either to marriage, consecration or the priesthood. After that, there are jobs to consider — doctor, lawyer, teacher, etc. but they are only part of the lived expression of a vocation. The only one that I seriously think it closed to women is combat (the entire military, actually, but I’ll leave it at combat for now).

    Thus, your daughters pray to see if God is calling them to be His own through consecration, if not, they look for husbands. Beyond that, they follow their inclinations for education and secular jobs — instilling each setting with their feminine genius and fulness of joy.

    Sorry about a cheesy plug, but that was the essence of my book:
    I don’t know if a high schooler would read it, but her parents could. There are also excellent communities of sisters who run vocations retreats that know the process and are very helpful. I don’t know if the IHM’s do that, but I could give you some links.

  7. June 15, 2010 6:07 pm

    This is a profoundly difficult topic given how rabid are secular culture is and how it informs not only the content of such a post, but the willingness of others (especially men) to respond.
    I would like to keep my reply short, if only in the interest in your readers, but I am disappointed in the lack of catholicity in the range of sources your essay provides. Stein is a most sophisticated Women, if ever feminism provided a template by which to measure ideological success its most certainly her! But we really not need to be ashamed of acknowledging the twin social enormities that the left so often provides in its embrace of contemporary feminism: namely motherhood and the role of being a wife. The idea of subordination is misplaced in any conception of ‘women’.
    But I would add something misplaced in any essay regarding ‘women’: both the tax structure and a very weak dollar contribute to the demise of women and the future acclaim of feminism.

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