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Who Has the Answer to What Women Need?

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 02/05/15

Go on, guess! No points deducted for the wrong answer

Many attribute to Sigmund Freud the question, “What do women want?” After writing four recent columns about men (#1, #2, #3, #4), my students asked me to write a bit about women. While I think that Freud’s question is a good one, a better question is, “What do women need?”

One common answer to that question is “Women need feminism.” There are many websites where users complete the sentence “I need feminism because …”, and the answers are so varied that one would be hard pressed to glean from these sites a consistent definition of feminism. At best, the respondents seem to think that they need feminism (whatever that may be) because that and that alone will secure them against whatever they find to be disagreeable about life in the world we live in—including violence, injustice, patriarchy, hierarchy and a vast array of objectionable “isms”.

On the other hand, there are websites where users complete the sentence, “I don’t need feminism because …” Users at these sites post a wide-ranging list of objections to whatever they think feminism is, rejecting feminism because they don’t, as some say “need to be rescued from being a woman” or because they reject the pervasive misandry they perceive in at least some schools of feminism. The most comprehensive of these memes rejecting feminism that I’ve seen recently was found in a photo that supposedly was taken in Washington, DC at this year’s March for Life. I’m a bit skeptical that the photo was taken there, as the women holding the poster seemed dressed for warmer weather than what one usually finds in Washington in late January. Their sign read,

Feminism is a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.

Neither of these sites (nor those like them) brings us very much closer to a ready answer to the questions, “What do women want?” and “What do women need?” Yet I think we can all agree upon the generalization that in our contemporary culture, many women do not seem to be happy, even as they disagree among themselves about why they are unhappy and what would make them happy. Perhaps appearing to rush in “where angels fear to tread,” I offer my own contribution to the discussion.

When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s in Washington, DC, I frequently saw university women wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a Dr. Seuss-style painting illustrating a slogan often erroneously attributed to Gloria Steinem: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Even as a young man, I wondered how young women acting on that conviction would play out. Would women eventually find men dispensable? Yes—and no.

No—women would not find men dispensable. Women found that they still needed someone to provide for them while they are pregnant, nursing their children, raising their children, and so on. They still need someone to play the role of protector and provider, etc.—roles ordinarily played by men as husbands and fathers.  

Yes—women would find men dispensable, as so many of them outsourced men’s traditional roles of provider/protector to Uncle Sam, i.e., the federal welfare state. I think that people across the whole spectrum of opinion/conviction can agree that this arrangement has not worked out well for women or children or men. So, perhaps the men/fish/bicycle simile needs to be reconsidered. Where shall we turn next?

I was looking through one of my favorite books, “Another Sort of Learning” by James Schall, S.J. He makes reference to the essay “The Education of Women” by Jacques Maritain. Father Schall sent the essay to his friend, Anne Burleigh. Below is part of her response:

… it would seem so important to get across to the students that how they “act” is intimately related to their intellectual life. They cannot think straight if they do not act right. And acting right is something that does not come entirely naturally. Somebody has to help them think through these things. Ideas and beliefs are so exciting. They call for great passion, for stout hearts and disciplined minds. They call for great movements of the will, in the sense of deciding to stake one’s life on them, on dying for them if necessary. It seems to me that girls ought to understand that. Girls are so naturally willing to give everything they have. And that is just where they are so vulnerable. It has to be giving to the right thing, the right person, in the right circumstances.

Burleigh makes the observation that the feminine capacity for self-donation is a root cause of their vulnerability, and that part of female maturity is learning how to give wisely and well, as she said, “the right thing, the right person, the right circumstances.” It is here that Catholics can gladly turn to the example of Our Lady. She is the model for women; she is the beacon to be followed out of the present (and in fact ancient) tangle that women find themselves in.

In my columns about men, I wrote that Satan hates God and all that God created. Satan schemes to destroy what is human—which is the crown of God’s creation. Satan hates authentic masculinity, and so seeks to undermine it and replace it with something that is unnatural and therefore ungodly. Satan’s hatred for the human (and hence the masculine) is also seen in his hatred of the feminine. Pope Saint John Paul II notes in his ”Mulieris Dignitatem” (30):

The “ancient serpent” wishes to devour “the child.” While we see in this text an echo of the Infancy Narrative (cf. Mt 2:13, 16), we can also see that the struggle with evil and the Evil One marks the biblical exemplar of the “woman” from the beginning to the end of history. It is also a struggle for man, for his true good, for his salvation. Is not the Bible trying to tell us that it is precisely in the “woman” — Eve-Mary — that history witnesses a dramatic struggle for every human being, the struggle for his or her fundamental “yes” or “no” to God and God’s eternal plan for humanity?

We see in Genesis 3 that the serpent sows mistrust in the heart of Eve. Her failure to trust God and His covenant (along with the failure of Adam) bring about catastrophe. God’s plan for humanity seems undone almost at its inception. But God speaks with the firm determination of a most stubborn love in Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” In the divine plan, the rift caused by the lies of the serpent and the mistrust of Eve will be undone by truth and trust. Here we can turn to a book that deserves to be reprinted by its publisher.

Joyce Little, in her marvelous work, “The Church and the Culture War: Secular Anarchy or Sacred Order,” writes:

Mary is our most reliable guide to Christ, the person in the best position to attest to the truth of Christ, precisely because she is his mother. She knows this Son of hers as no one else among us possibly can. And because God was able to entrust his only Son to her, her Son has been able to entrust us to her guidance. When Mary counsels every one of us to “Do whatever he tells you”, she is assuring us that we can entrust ourselves to him. By so doing, she invites every one of us to do what is, in the created order, the supremely female thing, namely, to surrender ourselves to another… If Christ is the truth, Mary is the trust. And the truth, because personal and material, cannot be efficacious in our world unless we entrust ourselves to him. For that reason Christ requires the female mediation of his mother, for only a mother can offer us the assurance of this woman who is uniquely the mother of God.

Christ is the truth—Mary is the trust. The liberating and healing power of Mary’s “fiat” to the Truth Who is her son and the Son of God is the remedy for the schemes of Satan, the mistrust of Eve and the failure of Adam.

“Why do women seem so unhappy today?” If they are unhappy, it may well be because they have answered poorly the questions, “What do women want?” “What do women need?” The shining and lived answer to those questions is found in Mary, Virgin and Mother. When I write next, I will consider how the example of Mary as the answer to these perennial questions can be applied to our times. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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