Feature 10.20.2022 10 minutes

Womanly Virtue

Side view of new mother comforting her newborn while crying.

On the first actuality of a body having womanhood potentially.

Editors’ Note

The following is a transcript of remarks originally given in Miami at the National Conservatism Conference in September 2022.

“What is a woman?”

When Matt Walsh asked this question in his viral documentary by the same name, he confounded the nation. Progressives recoiled seeing their most loyal foot soldiers attempt to answer, but stumble, saying things like “a woman is whoever feels like a woman.” The question was rhetorically brilliant. It exposed the linguistic gymnastics and circular reasoning meant to conceal the lie at the heart of the progressive view of the human being: that we are self-creating individuals. We are whatever we say we are. “Reality,” if we can speak of it, bends to neologism, always.

Others were happy to finally see progressives on the backfoot—a position more familiar to conservatives, who, especially when it comes to sexual norms, have lost every fight there was to be had over the course of the past century.

Owning the libs might be delicious, and it is actually important, but it is not a sufficient political position for any kind of long-term winning strategy. No one is satisfied by the bare minimum answer to Walsh’s question, which has become a new conservative slogan in itself: Woman, (n.), adult human female. And yes, of course. This is the scientific description of a woman, based on physically observable phenomena like gametes and chromosomes and sexual dimorphism. It’s true. It’s concrete. But it is incomplete.

Human persons are body and soul, and the human soul yearns for recognition and for cultivation. It may be useful think of the transgender movement as the gnostic answer to an unanswered soul-ache, which year over year has sharpened in the hearts of an increasingly secular and lonely society (as documented by Robert Putnam in his extremely prescient book, Bowling Alone). The advantage of progressives, as cultural creators, has been their readiness to provide something resembling soul-answers to a dehumanized public, while conservatives, in a sort of libertarian dereliction of duty, have left it up to the so-called individual to decide for himself what makes happiness.

Catholic intellectual history offers us vital perspectives on gender and the politics of sex which respond directly to this God-shaped hole in the modern person’s heart. In so doing, Catholic thought might even inspire the sort of political revolution—a sexual counterrevolution—that, for the sake of each unique soul and the body politic, we all desperately need.

So let us return to the question at hand: what is a woman?

According to the principle of anima forma corporis, which comes to us from Aristotle by way of Saint Thomas Aquinas, “the soul is the form of the body.” The soul is “the essential ‘whatness’ of the body,” the principle that explains its organization and makes it really alive. Our bodies are not appendages for our souls to play with or lumps of clay in which our souls are trapped. Rather, the body is like the language in which the soul is expressed, through which the soul makes contact with the outside world, cultivates knowledge and virtue, and lives an ethical and political life. There is no such thing as a body being “wrong” for its soul, for the simple reason that each is fully known only with reference to the other.

It follows that “male” and “female” are aspects of complete persons, of embodied souls—not of souls or bodies only in isolation from one another. There can be no dualist separation between the “sex” of the body and the “gender” of the person or the soul.

Philosopher Saint Edith Stein elaborates on this Thomistic principle, writing, “of course woman shares a basic human nature, but her faculties are different from men; therefore a differing type of soul must exist as well.” To be clear, this is not to say that gender is located in the soul, which is actually much closer to the transgender position. Rather, the embodied soul expresses its own sex. The soul and the body of the human being are never disintegrated so long as we are alive. And so, we can deduce, from our physical composition, something about the reality of our spiritual makeup.

The Great Invitation

What might we say are the defining physical realities of the female? They would include pregnancy, relative softness, and hormonally, a propensity to cyclical phases. Each of these basic facts of our being correspond to metaphysical potentialities of virtue.

Pregnancy—including conception, gestation, and lactation—corresponds to the capacity, in the words of Dr. Abigail Favale, to be receptive, as well as to cultivate a home for, and to nourish others. Edith Stein writes, “Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole. To cherish, guard, and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.” And again, “the woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold.”

There is more. Relative physical softness may correspond to tenderness, a readiness to comfort the afflicted. The cyclical nature of our hormonal processes indicates a mode of living that accommodates frequent change. Women are icons of becoming—the liminal connection between past and future. You might even call this principle timelessness. It may correspond to the capacity to preserve and to maintain.

One important qualifier: these potentialities also reflect our capacity for vice. The devouring mother, according to Jordan Peterson and Mary Harrington alike, is the dominant archetype of the day—we see it too often in the type of woman who happily delivers her young child to the activist-surgeon to have his penis or her breasts removed. Opposing tenderness, there is both the jaded temptress and the frigid careerist, who we all know and recognize as deeply unhappy people. And finally, on the point about hormones, a deficiency in constancy would look like emotional incontinence, an excessive focus on the present moment, or an unwillingness to delay gratification. We see this in the embrace of no-fault divorce, which has made the eternal into the disposable. Women are responsible for initiating 80% of divorces today.

So now that we know of the body and of the soul, what does all this mean for politics? Dare we infer from these facts political duties? We know, again from Saint Thomas Aquinas in tandem with Aristotle, that virtue is what it means for us to reach the fullness of our human potential: it is how we become excellent at being human, in relationship with one another in the form of structured community that Aristotle calls “political.” So: if the particular capacities of our personhood, body and soul, provide a roadmap for virtue, then they must also indicate a roadmap for our political life, however loose.

We can only be offended by or fearful of connecting the dots if we have a completely unimaginative conception of vocation, or if we assume that the physical reality I’ve laid out automatically implies blanket inferiority, or if we are perceiving gender relations in Marxian terms, with men and women as distinct class groups with competing, zero-sum material interests, rather than as complementary political beings, whose mutual harmony resembles heaven, as we are. And to be fair, in many non-Christian societies, an anti-woman perspective is institutionalized in various forms, including polygamy, abortion, and the criminalization of girls’ education. This is where another key part of the Catholic vision of womanhood can alleviate our internalized misogyny, to borrow a phrase.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was brought into this world through the body of a woman, Mary, whose receptivity to God’s will culminated in her fiat. Mary, whose perfect tenderness earned the highest affection and devotion from her Son, and Queenship over heaven and earth. Mary, a woman of few words but perpetual prayer, whose faith and constancy through thick and thin meant she remained at the foot of the cross even when all but one other could not bear the sight of it.

Women are capable of greatness. But modern woman’s call to greatness, indicated by God’s perfect creation, has been drowned out by a legacy of toxic feminism which denigrates pregnancy, domesticity, true friendship, and conformity to God’s will—all in favor of a sexually “liberated” girlboss paradigm that rewards promiscuity, atomization, and unthinking yet unwavering devotion to the philosophy of self-creation.

It’s not that we need to repeal the 19th or institute white sharia or any of the similarly funny memes that occasionally circulate on reactionary Twitter. Rather, a political program that aims for a civilization of love would simply, unapologetically invite women into their natural vocations rather than socially and economically punishing them for pursuing marriage and motherhood, for cultivating conviviality, for looking at babies, the elderly, and people with special needs and saying “I choose to take care of you.” Carrots over sticks. This invitation will be made more appealing by the additional fact that virtue leads to happiness.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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