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On the “Genius of Woman”

August 13, 2009

John Paul II writes about woman’s personhood in terms of her openness to the other, her “genius”:

In our own time, the successes of science and technology make it possible to attain material well-being to a degree hitherto unknown.  While this favours some, it pushes others to the edges of society.  In this way, unilateral progress can also lead to a gradual loss of sensitivity for man, that is, for what is essentially human.  In this sense, our time in particular awaits the manifestation of that ‘genius’ which belongs to women, and which can ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance: because they are human! – and because ‘the greatest of these is love’ (cf.  1 Cor 13:13).[1]

There is something peculiar to woman that makes her more attuned to humanity.  And while the Western world continues to move beyond industrialization and toward a technocratic society, woman has a unique genius that can help the human species maintain its humanity in spite of all the forces working against it.  John Paul II speaks of a sensitivity for human persons that woman seems to possess more than man; obviously he does not mean that woman is better than man ontologically.  Nevertheless, he writes:

Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts.  They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them.  In this way the basic plan of the Creator takes flesh in the history of humanity and there is constantly revealed, in the variety of vocations, that beauty – not merely physical, but above all spiritual – which God bestowed from the very beginning on all, and in a particular way on women.[2]

Elsewhere, the genius of woman is simply referred to as the “capacity for the other”; “women preserve the deep intuition of the goodness in their lives of those actions which elicit life, and contribute to the growth and protection of the other.”[3] John Paul II says that society owes much to the genius of women for the undervalued but principle measure of progress, which is the social and ethical dimension dealing with relations and spiritual values.[4] Edith Stein also notes that while man is consumed by his own work and concerns, it is natural for woman to concern herself with others; “she has the faculty to interest herself empathetically in areas of knowledge far from her own concerns and to which she would not pay heed if it were not that a personal interest drew her in contact with them.”[5] She may not have an interest in a particular subject, but if it is interesting to another person, she is capable of finding the value in it for the sake of the person.  Furthermore, Stein notes that part of woman’s “natural feminine concern for the right development of the beings surrounding her involves the creation of an ambience, of order and beauty conducive to their development.”[6]

John Paul II writes, “Women and men are the illustration of a biological, individual, personal, and spiritual complementarity.”[7] Using these categories, let us follow Prudence Allen’s analysis, which will help us to understand the genius of woman.  First, the biological foundation for the feminine genius stems from woman’s experience of the “maternal instinct” which begins during puberty due to her cyclical biochemical changes; this naturally orients woman toward another human being through her potential to bear a child.  Even women who never actually bear children experience this; a woman’s very body disposes her consciousness – her psyche and her emotions – to foster life.  “This intuition [to foster life] is linked to women’s physical capacity to give life.  Whether lived out or remaining potential, this capacity is a reality that structures the female personality in a profound way.  It allows her to acquire maturity very quickly, and gives a sense of the seriousness of life and of its responsibilities.”[8] This should not be understood as a biological determinism but as one level of woman’s genius, remembering that every human person exists as a body and has a body.[9] John Paul II writes of woman’s interior access to the personalistic norm: “In this openness, in conceiving and giving birth to a child, the woman ‘discovers herself through a sincere gift of self’….  This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings – not only towards her own child, but every human being – which profoundly marks the woman’s personality.”[10]

Second, woman’s genius is rooted in her being an individual.  Wojtyla writes, “The first definition of self-determination in the experience of human action involves a sense of efficacy…: ‘I act’ means ‘I am the efficient cause’ of my action and of my self-actualization as a subject, which is not the case when something merely ‘happens in me.’”[11] A woman cannot control the fact that her biological functions lead her to have this maternal instinct and sensitivity toward other human beings.  As an individual, however, she decides how she will act, given her biology.  Edith Stein, as we have seen, discusses woman in terms of her threefold nature; she is a human being, a feminine being, and a personal, individual being.  “These are not separate goals just as the nature of a particular human individual is not divided into three parts but is one: it is human nature of a specifically feminine and individual character.  Only in abstract thought are we obliged to consider separately what is separable in concept.”[12] Furthermore, Stein writes, “The species humanity, as well as the species femininity, is revealed differently in different individuals….  If on the whole, marriage and motherhood are the primary vocations for the feminine sex, it is not necessarily true for each individual.”[13] The feminine genius – specifically, the maternal instinct – can therefore be manifested in various ways by individuals.  Nevertheless, while all women have this maternal instinct, as Wojtyla has argued, each woman can access it only if she chooses; she has a unique lived experience of her own body.[14] Women sometimes choose technological methods of birth control or even abortion, which suppress their maternal instinct.  Such usage of technology, Allen argues, when used to dominate the self, can cut off woman’s access to the feminine genius; she is no longer oriented toward the other person and loses her sensitivity, thereby running “the risk of losing the very foundation from which [she has] special access to the personalist norm.”[15]

Third, woman’s genius is rooted in her being a person.  John Paul II writes, “The human being – both male and female – is the only being in the world which God willed for its own sake.  The human being is a person, a subject who decides for himself.  At the same time, man ‘cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self.’”[16] Being a person entails relationality; woman is a person most fully when she makes a gift of herself.  This is seen most clearly in motherhood, which “in its personal-ethical sense expresses a very important creativity on the part of the woman, upon whom the very humanity of the new human being mainly depends.”[17] A woman must choose to give of herself in this manner; being a mother is a very personal act.  John Paul II writes, “Motherhood as a human fact and phenomenon, is fully explained on the basis of the truth about the person.  Motherhood is linked to the personal structure of the woman and to the personal dimension of the gift…[18] So while a woman must choose to be a mother – this is what makes it personal – motherhood and a personalistic attitude toward the child is inherent in the person of a woman.  Regarding this personal aspect of woman’s genius, John Paul II has addressed women, asking them to allow their genius to be “more fully expressed in the life of society as a whole, as well as in the life of the Church.”[19] He has also said:

[W]oman has a genius all her own, which is vitally essential to both society and the Church…[She] is endowed with a particular capacity for accepting the human being in his concrete form.  Even this singular feature which prepares her for motherhood, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually, is inherent in the plan of God who entrusted the human being to woman in an altogether special way.[20]

Fourth, there is a spiritual aspect of woman’s genius.  The spiritual aspect of woman’s identity orients her toward God, for she has an eternal soul.  Furthermore, at the end of time woman will experience the resurrection of her body, a body that is feminine.  Thus, the spiritual aspect “consists in the highest operations of intellect and will and the transformation and integration of the human person who develops the self through consciously willed acts.  This self-formation occurs in cooperation with grace.”[21] John Paul II writes, “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way….  A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting, strong because of the fact that God ‘entrusts the human being to her’, always and in every way, even in the situations of social discrimination in which she may find herself.”[22]


[1] Mulieris Dignitatem, 30.

[2] “Letter of John Paul II to Women,” 12.

[3] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” 13.

[4] “Letter to Women,” 9.

[5] “The Ethos of Women’s Professions,” 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), 44.

[6] “The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to Nature and Grace,” 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), 77.

[7] Prudence Allen, “Philosophy of Relation in John Paul II’s New Feminism” in Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism, ed. Michele M. Schumacher (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 94. She cites: John Paul II, Holy See’s Position Paper at the Beijing Conference on Women, in L’Osservatore Romano 36 (September 6, 1995): 1.1.

[8] “Letter to the Bishops,” 13.

[9] Allen, “Philosophy of Relation,” 95.

[10] Mulieris Dignitatem, 18.

[11] Allen, “Philosophy of Relation,” 96.  She cites: Karol Wojtyla, “The Personal Structure of Self-Determination,” in Person and Community, 189.

[12] “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), 182.

[13] “Problems of Women’s Education,” 178-179.

[14] See Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans. by H.T. Willetts (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 280.

[15] Allen, “Philosophy of Relation,” 98.

[16] Mulieris Dignitatem, 18.  He quotes Gaudium et Spes, 24.

[17] Mulieris Dignitatem, 19.

[18] Ibid., 18.

[19] “Letter to Women,” 10.

[20] John Paul II, Angelus reflection, “Society and Church Need Genius of Woman,” (23 July 1995).

[21] Allen, “Philosophy of Relation,” 100-101.

[22] Mulieris Dignitatem, 30.

One Comment
  1. Ronald King permalink
    August 14, 2009 10:59 am

    As a man who returned to our faith after 40 years and through no effort of my own I was given a new insight into the creation of woman. I have helped women with their psychological pain for 30 years and they have taught me more than I could have learned anywhere. Their teaching and new developments in the study of interpersonal neurobiology and the human genome and now since Easter of ’05 God’s Grace has integrated into my psyche the beginning of a new image of the woman as God’s Gift of Love to this world.
    To begin with I have found it extremely interesting that Adam gives the name Eve to the woman only after becoming aware of the knowledge of good and evil. Prior to that he only named her after himself, a sort of mini-me.
    I must keep this short since I have to leave for work. Mitochondria are very small objects that number in the hundreds in each individual cell in the body. They take in oxygen and nutrients from the blood and provide the cell with the energy needed to stay alive and also rid the cell of toxins. They have their own genome. It has been discovered that sperm cells have only enough mitochondria to journey to the egg. Consequently, virtually all of the mitochondria that every child inherits is from their mother. Because the father does not contribute any mitochondrial DNA to the child, the succession only comes through the woman.
    Now when I think about this I think when Adam pronounces Eve(to live) as mother of all the living is he also claiming that she is the life that God breathed into him?

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