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On the Vocation of Woman: Part I

August 23, 2009

Edith Stein begins her discussion of vocation by explaining what it means to be called.  “A call must have been sent from someone, to someone, for something in a distinct manner.”[1] Furthermore, a calling develops on the basis of one’s ability or gifts.  Finally, it is God who calls each human being to a personal calling, and he also calls “man and woman as such to something specific” which can be discerned from Scripture, the nature of man and woman, history, and the needs of the time.[2] Based on the creation accounts in Genesis, Stein then points out that, in the beginning, man and woman were assigned a common vocation: to be in God’s image, to be fruitful and multiply, and to be masters over the earth.  Only after the Fall is there a split in the duties assigned to man and to woman.[3] “Sin alters the unity within the couple: in addition to an uneasiness consecutive to sin, the relation between man and woman is transformed into a relation of submission and obedience and their respective vocations become specialized due to a lack of cooperation.”[4] Stein follows the tradition of her time in understanding the subjection of woman to man to be natural and one-sided; later, John Paul II will emphasize mutual subjection as the norm in the redemptive condition of humanity while one-sided subjection is a result of the fallen condition of humanity.[5] Stein begins her discussion of woman’s vocation by noting that woman, in soul and body, is formed for a particular purpose – “woman is destined to be wife and mother.”[6] Some of the things she writes of woman include that she “naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole” and that her natural, maternal yearning is to “cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth.” Lifeless facts for no sake than themselves generally do not hold woman’s interest; “abstraction in every sense is alien to the feminine nature.” That which falls under woman’s care is seen as a concrete whole, a totality, by her.  Theory and practicality correspond; “her natural line of thought is not so much conceptual and analytical as it is directed intuitively and emotionally to the concrete.”[7] Stein speaks of woman’s basic spiritual attitude in terms of her destiny to be wife and mother:

[H]er relation to her husband is one of obedience, trust, and participation in his life…; to the child she gives true care, encouragement, and formation of his God-given talents; she offers both selfless surrender and a quiet withdrawal when unneeded.  All is based on the concept of marriage and motherhood as a vocation from God; it is carried out for God’s sake and under his guidance.[8]

Stein speaks of woman in terms of her relations to others and how this relates to her vocation; woman is endowed with characteristics that lend to her calling to be spouse and mother.  Woman mirrors the divine perfections of knowing, enjoying, and creating in characteristic ways, which are particularly adapted to her role of being companion and mother.[9]

However, Stein does not limit the vocation of woman to that of wife and mother.  She suggests that there are two other states of life for women: consecrated celibacy in the religious life and celibacy “in the world.”[10] Yet these other states remain linked to the first.  Stein writes that, in place of the marriage bond and natural motherhood, in these other states are an intimate communion with Christ and spiritual motherhood. 

One should not interpret this differentiation of vocation as if in one case it were only the natural goal being considered, and, in the other case, only the supernatural one.  The woman who fulfills her natural destiny as wife and mother also has her duties for God’s kingdom….  On the other hand, even in the life which is wholly consecrated to God, there is also need for the development of natural forces…[11]

So these vocations go hand-in-hand and really are just variations on the themes of marriage and maternity.  John Paul II refers to “virginity and motherhood as two particular dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality.”[12] He writes, “Every vocation has a profoundly personal and prophetic meaning.  In ‘vocation’ understood in this way, what is personally feminine reaches a new dimension: the dimension of the ‘mighty works of God’, of which the woman becomes the living subject and an irreplaceable witness.”[13] Each woman has a personal vocation, her particular way of living out the call to virginity and motherhood.  Her vocation or calling is the means through which she will express God’s love to others.  John Paul II holds up Mary, the Mother of the Son of God, as the archetype for the feminine vocation: “These two dimensions of the female vocation were united in her in an exceptional manner, in such a way that one did not exclude the other but wonderfully complemented it.”[14] He says they are two dimensions of one feminine vocation, two paths that explain and complete each other.  Mary became a mother while yet preserving her virgin state.  “Virginity and motherhood co-exist in her: they do not mutually exclude each other or place limits on each other.”[15] John Paul II explains how this is so.

Christ teaches that motherhood is connected to virginity but is distinct from it.[16] Both involve a gift of self; both involve marriage.  “A woman is ‘married’ either through the sacrament of marriage or spiritually through marriage to Christ….  [T]he profile of marriage is found spiritually in virginity,” and physical motherhood also has to be a spiritual motherhood “in order to respond to the whole truth about the human being who is a unity of body and spirit.”[17]  Therefore, these vocations, or rather, the two dimensions of one feminine vocation, complement one another.  Let us look at the vocations of motherhood and virginity more closely.

As just shown, both dimensions of the feminine vocation involve woman as a spouse, which leads her to spiritual motherhood and possibly natural motherhood.  While this is not the place for Scriptural exegesis, let us look at a couple of biblical passages to understand woman’s vocation as spouse.  In the book of Genesis, we read that God creates Man as man and woman, a communion of persons, for “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him” (2:18).  John Paul II writes, “The creation of woman is thus marked from the outset by the principle of help: a help which is not one-sided but mutual….  When the Book of Genesis speaks of ‘help’, it is not referring merely to acting, but also to being.”[18]  This indicates the ontological nature of the complementarity of man and woman, that their mutual help is the full realization of humanity.  The Hebrew expression for helper in the passage is literally translated as “a helper as if vis-à-vis to him.”[19]  So woman is not subordinated to man in creation; she is a reflection of him, equally human, and her status as helper is akin to being a companion.  What we learn from Genesis is that the “most natural relationship” between man and woman, “which corresponds to the plan of God, is the ‘unity of the two’, a relational ‘uni-duality’, which enables each to experience their interpersonal and reciprocal relationship as a gift which enriches and which confers responsibility.”[20]  Woman as spouse, as bride, faces man as an equal in dignity and responsibility, as a gift of self. 

Edith Stein says that woman primarily fulfills her vocation as spouse, as “helper”, in making the concerns of her husband her own.  Woman can participate in the profession of her husband in various ways.  First, “it will be her duty to shape their home life so that it does not hinder, but rather furthers, his professional work”; also, she may participate in his profession by directly helping him with it, especially if they share interests or training.[21]  More than these things, however, woman is helpmate in the way she complements her husband, “counteracting the dangers of his specifically masculine nature”; this means keeping him from becoming completely absorbed in his work, thereby neglecting his duties as a father or letting his humanity to become stunted.[22]  The more mature she is as a person, the more capable she will be to do these things.  Stein never says that a husband does not have analogous duties toward his wife in terms of helper, but she speaks only of woman.

A second biblical passage we wish to consider briefly here is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  The fifth chapter provides an analogy of marriage and the mysterious love between Christ and the Church, and there is much to say about it, as it has been interpreted many ways throughout the history of the Church.  Here we wish only to address the vocation of woman as spouse.  Paul says that wives should be submissive or subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord (5:22).  The question is the meaning of the word submission or subordination.  “When it is used in the form of an exhortation, it denotes submission to a divinely willed order, such as… when Jesus submitted to Mary and Joseph.”[23]  Therefore, the use of the word in this passage denotes a voluntary submission; the wife is called to submit in a divinely willed order to the husband.  This says nothing of her dignity; she is equal in dignity to her husband.  This sort of submission is a giving up of one’s will for the sake of others in agape love.  “The submission takes on a new aspect when it is given under the control of the Lord and is related to… a humility that seeks others’ welfare before one’s own.”[24]  Furthermore, while the exhortation is addressed to wives, another exhortation is addressed to husbands in the same passage: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her” (5:25).  So while woman as spouse is called to “submit” or make a gift of herself in a particular way to her husband, man is also called to a particular gift of self that will require him to lay down his life if necessary; his life is not his own.  “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband” (5:33).  John Paul II writes, “Respect, because she loves and knows that she is loved in return.  It is because of this love that husband and wife become a mutual gift.”[25]  This is the crucial message of the passage for John Paul II: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21).  He says that the “I” of the wife becomes the husband’s own “I” – and the body is the expression of each “I” – through love; in this “reciprocal relationship” the husband is the one who loves and the wife is the one who is loved.  This is how he interprets “submission” in the Ephesians passage – it “signifies above all the ‘experiencing of love,’” which in turn affirms the dignity and sacredness of the body.[26]  Therefore, there is no contradiction in saying that husband and wife are to be mutually subordinate and that the wife is to be subordinate to the husband; both are called to love one another and give themselves to the other, and the husband is the one who initially loves while the wife is the one loved.  Hence, the vocation of woman as spouse is to be loved.  This is directly linked to both motherhood and virginity.


continued in Part II

[1] “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), 57.


[2] Ibid., 58.

[3] Ibid., 59-61.

[4] 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),115.

[5] Prudence Allen, “Sex and gender differentiation in Hildegard of Bingen and Edith Stein,” Communio 20 (Summer, 1993), 411.

[6] “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), 43.

[7] Ibid., 43.

[8] Ibid., 46.

[9] Mary Catharine Baseheart, “Edith Stein’s Philosophy of Woman and of Women’s Education,” Hypatia 4, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 126.

[10] von Streng, 121.

[11] “Spirituality of the Christian Woman,” 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), 101.

[12] Mulieris Dignitatem, 17.

[13] Ibid., 16.

[14] Ibid., 17.

[15] Ibid., 18.

[16] See Matthew 19.

[17] Mulieris Dignitatem, 21.

[18] “Letter of John Paul II to Women,” 7.

[19] “The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman,” 59.

[20] “Letter to Women,” 8.

[21] “Spirituality of the Christian Woman,” 109.

[22] Ibid., 110.

[23] Mary Shivanandan, “Feminism and Marriage: A Reflection on Ephesians 5:21-33.” available from

[24] Ibid.

[25] John Paul II, Letter to Families, Gratissimam Sane, 19.

[26] Shivanandan, “Feminism and Marriage.”

  1. August 24, 2009 4:10 am


    I just wanted to say, even if I do not comment on your posts, I am reading them and I am sure others are as well — I just do not think I am competent to respond (well, I’ve read St Edith Stein, and several works on gender — Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr really take on Stein’s dynamic, I would say — but I feel book learning is not enough here).

  2. Ronald King permalink
    August 24, 2009 8:41 am

    Ashley, One of the discoveries of Gottman’s 25 years of research at the U of WA observing married couples who have a successful relationship is the importance of the woman’s influence in teaching the man empathy. It is not always clear that she is attempting to teach him empathy because conflicts in relationships were noted as beginning 90% of the time with the woman expressing a complaint. This complaint would then result with the man’s response escalating the complaint into an argument through defensiveness.
    In essence the woman was attempting to teach the man the consequences of his actions or words in an effort to create better understanding of her or others in relationship to him.
    A question arises then, is the woman God’s gift of love to the man in the beginning and is it indicative that the man does not know this by his naming her woman? Is it then her desire to know who she is by her seeking to know herself outside the man’s knowledge of her in the garden?
    Does she continue to seek her identity in relationship to man’s response to her and in relationship to the social system that man has created and which she must adapt to?
    But for me the most important question as a man asking women about who they are is, do you think that the foundation of your identity might be that you are God’s Gift of Love to this world?

  3. August 24, 2009 9:39 pm

    Well-timed post matching with this week’s readings. Very nice.

    I keep thinking about Ronald King’s questions.
    Wouldn’t Christ be God’s Gift of Love to this world. The very essencse of the reading from Ephesians is that the marriage is the metaphor for Christ’s love. Christ is the example, upon which we are to model our own selfless love for our spouses.
    If spouses love the way that Christ loved, then that love is God’s gift to the world.

  4. Ronald King permalink
    August 25, 2009 11:23 am

    A thought during my morning Rosary Run formed around being made in the image and likeness of God. In Genesis the man names the gift from God as woman because he saw her in the physical form and his logic was that she came from man. However, she came from God and as such she would not be validated simply being named woman. Being made in the image of God would then seem to create an inherent desire to know oneself through the instinctive reaction of searching for identity if one’s description of oneself coming from another is incomplete. It is only this sense of feeling incomplete does the new human desire to know more. Being told that you shall be AS gods, not BE gods, is an important distinction in relationship to be made in the image of God. The image is more than what is described by the man and the image can only know herself in relationship to God and to know herself through God and not through the incomplete and ignorant physical observation of the man. Her innocence and her creation drive her to know her Creator through the knowledge that the Creator has made available.
    Just some thoughts that occurred this morning.
    I must leave for my work now. Thanks for this opportunity to explore the beautiful Mystery.

  5. November 4, 2009 8:44 am

    pls text me and encourage me that i may accept my vocation

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