St. Edith Stein broke the limitations of her era on what a woman was allowed to achieve. She was a philosopher, a writer, a teacher, and ultimately a martyr in a Nazi death camp. During her varied experiences, she worked to define what it means to be feminine in the fullest sense of the word. All her life, Edith Stein sought to promote the particular contributions that only women can make in the world.
Over the years, she wrote many essays exploring what it means to be a woman. Those essays have been collected and are available to read. One avid reader of Edith Stein was Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope St. John Paul II, and her writing made a dramatic impact on his teaching about the goodness of the human body and the particular gift of femininity.
For Edith, the feminine is the key to understanding humanity’s capacity to love and to connect with our creator. She wasn’t a better woman because she was beautiful, accomplished, smart, or a religious sister. This would mean that being a woman is about achievements, but Edith Stein simply wanted to be herself. To the very core, she was a woman, which is the wellspring from which flowed her identity.
In her writing, a few specific themes come to the forefront, outlining why she thought femininity was so wonderful. We can all — both women and men — draw inspiration from her words. After all, as Pope John Paul II writes, it is a woman – Mary – who, “represents the humanity which belongs to all human beings, both men and women.”
These four pillars of femininity focus on the greatest virtue there is – Love.
Edith says that women have “a longing to give love and to receive love, and in this respect a yearning to be raised above a narrow, day-to-day existence into the realm of a higher being.” The willingness to receive love makes us vulnerable and, at first, it may make us appear weak. After all, a person who is trying to display power and dominance will never admit they need anything from another person. But what Edith points out is that receptivity to love actually raises us up and expands our perspective.
Edith is not content to only receive love, she also insists on giving it away generously. She says, “The soul of woman must be expansive and open to all human beings.” This open-heartedness of spirit actually makes the soul strengthen and grow. It’s a great paradox for us that, as we go out of ourselves to become a blessing for others, we come home to ourselves and find that we are happier.
“Each woman who lives in the light of eternity can fulfill her vocation, no matter if it is in marriage, in a religious order, or in a worldly profession,”Edith says. Women are capable of expressing their femininity in so many different ways. There are no limits. For Edith, any woman that lives as God guides her is fulfilling the meaning of her womanhood because women are particularly sensitive at finding ways to love. Being feminine does not mean conforming to a set of expectations or arbitrary ideals, it means that, where ever life leads, each situation will be ennobled and dignified by love.
Edith doesn’t think that women all need to physically become mothers. She herself had no children. But she does believe that all women have a maternal instinct. She writes, “Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.” In other words, women naturally nurture and bring to life. Feminine love has a creative impulse that is capable not only of bringing children into the world, but also making dreams become reality and to nurture growth in other people.
St. Edith Stein shows a path for the feminine to reclaim its dignity, acknowledge the irreplaceable value of women, and rediscover their particular way of bringing love to the world. She is an example of authenticity that both men and women desperately need as we seek to promote the dignity of all people.
7 Edith Stein quotes every woman should read