A Catholic saint and feminist on women in the workplace

Today, feminists are concerned that women hold less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions, and that men still dominate fields like math, science, and engineering. One late Christian feminist lends insightful wisdom to these current issues of women and work.

Meet Edith Stein edith stein

Today is the feast day of Edith Stein (1891-1942), also known as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (she is also my confirmation saint!). Stein grew up in Germany in a Jewish home, but considered herself an atheist until she converted to Christianity at the age of 29. She held a successful career in academia as a philosopher before entering a Carmelite monastery in Cologne.

Stein was considered a feminist in her time. She joined the Prussian Society for Women’s Right to Vote and protested the absence of women from university faculties. However, she disagreed with more radical feminist groups who rejected the idea of feminine singularity.

Stein calls the singularity of a woman her natural call as companion and mother. To be a companion, she says, is to be a support to others. For this, a woman must be strong and stand firm. As a single woman who never had children, Stein defines a woman’s role as mother in broad terms as the duty to nourish and protect true humanity and bring it to development.

Stein’s Five Points on Women and Work

Stein gave many lectures on the place of women in society, the family, and in relation to men during her career in academia. In a lecture she gave on April 12, 1928 at Ludwigshafen on the Rhine to the 25th convention of the Bavarian Catholic Women Teachers Association, she makes five points that remain pertinent to women and work today.

1. Men and women have different inclinations in work.

According to Stein, men tend towards objectivity in their work and women tend towards the personal.

It is natural for him to dedicate his faculties to a discipline (be it mathematics or technology, a trade or business management) and thereby to subject himself to the precepts of this discipline. Woman’s attitude is personal…she is happily involved with her total being in what she does then, she has particular interest for the living, concrete person.

Men tend towards one-sided development in their work and women tend towards completeness.

She herself would like to become a complete human being, one who is fully developed in every way, and she would like to help others to become so, and by all means, she would like to do justice to the complete human being whenever she has to deal with persons.

2. Work balances a woman.

Because objective work, which we view as a remedy for the faults of feminine singularity, is something to which the average man is naturally inclined, it can thus be said as well that an allowance of masculine nature is the antidote for the hyper-feminine nature.

3. In more traditionally masculine positions, women maintain their feminine singularity.

We women have become aware once again of our singularity. Many a woman who formerly denied it has perhaps become aware of it, painfully aware of it, if she has entered one of the traditionally masculine professions and sees herself forced into conditions of life and work alien to her nature. If her nature is strong enough, she has perhaps succeeded in turning the masculine profession into a feminine one. And this self-awareness could also develop the conviction that an intrinsic feminine value resides in the singularity.

4. Women’s singularity can and should act as a strength in male-dominated fields.

Whoever chooses one of the abstract sciences—mathematics natural sciences, pure philosophy, etc.—find that as a rule, the masculine-intellectual type predominates in at least whatever is related to pure research. However, woman may perhaps assert her singularity anew in such areas of knowledge by the way she instructs; this is a helpful way which brings her into close relationship with people.

[…]

A high vocation is designated in feminine singularity—that is, to bring true humanity in oneself and in others to development…. If we fulfill our mission, we do what is best for ourselves, for our immediate environment, and together with it, what is best for the entire nation.

5. The intrinsic value of a woman is not in her work.

The intrinsic value of woman consists essentially in exceptional receptivity for God’s work in the soul, and this value comes to unalloyed development if we abandon ourselves confidently and unresistingly to this work.

As a woman called to singlehood and work in a male-dominated field, Stein was secure in her unique femininity. She saw her feminine singularity as a strength in her profession. Rather than trying to fit into a “masculine” role, she turned her role into a uniquely feminine one.

*Originally published on the IFWE blog.

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