Pamphlet from the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in 1946 concerning the function of woman in the social order. Its message is applicable today, to help a Christian “woman know her power, her role, her destiny” in today’s world.

National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 1946, written by Janet Kalven


“THE important thing for a country is that the men should be manly, the women womanly.” This comment of Chesterton’s embodies a fundamental principle of social order. In society, as in any organism, unity and order are achieved through the cooperation of very different members, each fulfilling his own functions and contributing his special qualities to the common good.

The deepest difference among human beings–far more fundamental than any difference of intelligence or ability, nation or race– is the difference of sex. “And God created man to His own image: to the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

This basic difference is not merely physical but also psychological, coloring the total personality. In the whole range of her being–her mind, her senses, her emotions, her will, her interests and reactions–woman differs profoundly from man.

It is obviously of the greatest importance that this difference find its proper expression in the social functions of the two sexes. Each has unique qualities to contribute to the enrichment of human life. It is essential for the full and harmonious development of society, and especially for a Christian society, that “the men should be manly, the women womanly.”

Man and woman are made to complement each other at every point. Man’s capacity for theory, for forming an abstract and comprehensive view, is matched by woman’s practical sense and her gift for detail.

Man’s ambition and self-assertion which spur him on to great achievement must be balanced by the creative power of woman’s spirit of sacrifice and self-surrender. Man’s ability for leadership and desire for power must be tempered by woman’s spirit of love and selfless devotion.

The undue predominance of either masculine or feminine qualities creates profound disturbances which reverberate throughout the entire social structure, as we can see in our own culture.

In our time we need women with a vision of their great task as women who will help to restore the social equilibrium by creating a vital current of the great womanly virtues: the spirit of love, compassion for the suffering, generous self-sacrifice.

As women our fundamental contribution to the new order lies in finding our proper role in society. Our most urgent task in the work of reconstruction is to face this problem: What is the function of woman in the social order?

The Universal Mission of Woman

Woman’s essential mission in the world is to be for mankind a living example of the spirit of total dedication to God. To love God with her whole heart, her whole mind, her whole strength, and to radiate that love to the world—this is the universal task of woman. It is true that every human being is made for the love of God and is meant to be totally consecrated to His praise. In what sense, then, can we say that it is the particular mission of woman to be both an example and guide of man along the way of dedication?

There are two poles, two principles in human nature. Father Gerald Vann, O.P., in his recent book, The Heart of Man, distinguishes these two basic tendencies as “man the maker” and “man the lover.” Both principles are present to some extent in every human being, but man the maker is realized most perfectly in man; man the lover in woman. It is the maker who asserts, who imposes his idea and his will on the surroundings. The race takes its forward motion along the way of organization and invention from him. It is man the lover who gives, who yields his own will and gladly surrenders not only his will but his very self to the beloved.

Mankind has always recognized that love plays a far greater role in woman’s life than in man’s. Every woman when she looks into her own heart finds there the deep desire to surrender herself completely in love. Woman is by nature total in her giving; love absorbs her whole being. Byron was expressing the common experience of mankind when he wrote:

“Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart
‘Tis Woman’s whole existence.”

In relation to God, we must all fulfill the role of the lover, awaiting the divine initiative, surrendering completely to the divine will. As C. S. Lewis writes so beautifully, “Our role must be always that of patient to agent, female to male, mirror to light, echo to voice. Our highest activity must be response, not initiative. To experience the love of God in a true and not an illusory form is therefore to experience it as our surrender to His demand, our conformity to His desire.”

Christian tradition has often expressed man’s relation to God in the beautiful phrase: the soul is the bride of Christ. But woman’s nature has the greater innate affinity for the bridal role, for the act of loving surrender.

That is why woman has been throughout Christian history a symbol and example of the spirit of complete consecration to God. Woman’s natural capacity for wholehearted giving of herself in love is the basis for her glorious supernatural vocation. It is her function to help to lead mankind to God by becoming herself a radiant example of total dedication to His will.

The lover’s surrender opens the way for the action of God’s grace in the world. “The world can be moved by the strength of man, but it can be blessed in the real sense of the word only in the sign of woman,” writes Gertrude von Le Fort.

It is first of all to Our Lady that these words apply. In her, the universal mission of woman, the lover, was fulfilled most completely. Her “fiat” is the perfect expression of the creature’s wholesouled surrender to the creator, and through her surrender the fullness of blessing entered into the world. These words may be applied, too, to the universal task of womankind, for it is the function of every woman to re-echo the “fiat” of Mary and thus to become a source of blessing to humanity.


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