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Is There a Specifically Feminine Spirituality?: An Exploration of Edith Stein's Thesis


During her university years, Edith Stein (now St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross) held a strongly pro-feminist view of femininity, and as a professional woman she appreciated the gains made for women who wished to enter fields dominated by men.


When she converted to Catholicism in 1922 after her study of St Teresa of Avila, her views of women deepened into a spiritual vision of the particular way a Christian woman is called to live. In what follows, I want to give a glimpse of some of her views and insights. My hope is that it will stimulate interest in her Essays on Woman (herein referred to with initials EW), worth detailed study in their own right.

As a philosopher, Edith Stein approached the question of whether there is a specifically feminine mode of expressing human nature, a feminine "psyche". She takes up the issue of whether woman's being is determined primarily by her biology. Following the Aristotelian and Thomistic idea in which the soul is the form of the body, she concludes that there must be a feminine principle in the soul to determine a body as feminine. "Matter serves form, not the reverse. That strongly suggests that the difference in the psyche is the primary one."

This is a critically important insight in the light of the radical feminist claim that for the Church, "biology is destiny." The failure to understand the primacy of the spirit in a woman's life, and the unity of body and spirit in the human person, underlies much that has gone wrong in contemporary society. Stein's understanding that womanhood originates in the soul implies that there are intrinsic and permanent aspects to gender that are not constructed or substantially changed by environmental, cultural or economic factors.

In Stein's philosophical analysis, woman partakes in a common human nature. Secondly, this nature is differentiated as male or female. And thirdly, each human person exists as a unique individual. Speaking in terms of these three distinctions is helpful in comprehending the complexity of masculine and feminine, since each person expresses these differences within the uniqueness of their individual personal being. Men and women share equally in all the capabilities of human nature, and women express both their humanity and their femininity in an individual way. However, Stein suggests that the individuality of each person, as well as sexual difference, originates in the soul, in contrast to Aquinas who considers both individuality and sexual difference to come from matter.

Stein is not alone in speaking of a feminine soul. For example, the medieval St Mechtild of Hackeborn "perceives herself as feminine soul," according to Sr. Prudence Allen's study, The Concept of Woman.

Stein draws out other important keys to this question from the Book of Genesis. There she notes that God created two different ways of being human, male and female, and that each is called to be the image of God, to be fruitful and to have dominion over the earth. When woman is created from Adam's rib, his exclamation that she is "bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh" communicates to us that woman is of the same nature as man. The description of woman as a "helpmate corresponding to him" (eser kenegdo) indicates that within the similarity there is also something complementary to man that he does not have within himself. This difference within the same nature brings delight and help to man. God has told Adam that it is not good for him to be alone, that he is called to live in a community of love with another who will bring to him something he needs.

"This signifies that we are to consider the life of the initial human pair as the most intimate community of love, that their faculties were in perfect harmony as within one single being; likewise, before the Fall, all faculties in each individual were in perfect harmony, senses and spirit in right relation with no possibility of conflict." (EW, 62)

John Paul II later developed this analysis in further detail (in the Wednesday audiences of 1979-1981). He speaks of three levels of knowing: 1) man knows himself as a human being distinct from the animals; 2) man knows woman as another human being like himself but different, in a way that draws him into a communion of love that more fully reveals the image of God; and 3) man comes to know woman in "the mystery of femininity...manifested and revealed completely by means of motherhood," and that in this way "the mystery of man's masculinity, that is, the generative and fatherly meaning of his body, is also thoroughly revealed." It is interesting that the late Holy Father not only emphasizes the unity of body and soul, but locates gender distinctions in the context of knowledge; that is, in spirit, not matter. This is not the same as saying the origin of the sexual difference lies in the soul, but it points in that direction.

Stein was trained in phenomenological analysis. This philosophical school focuses on lived experience as the source for understanding reality. During her ten years of teaching young women in secondary school, she accumulated much first-hand knowledge of the habits, thoughts and desires of the female students entrusted to her. Her careful observations of women and reflection on their experience led her to describe several characteristics she thought were particularly evident in women (although not exclusively so). "In her contact with people in general and with her students in particular, Edith Stein possessed an unusual intuitive faculty which made it possible for her to find her way into the depths of an unknown soul" (EW, 4).

Here are some of the positive qualities she observed as particularly strong in women:

  • "Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal and whole" (EW, 45). She has an intuitive understanding of total being and organic development, and strength in perception of emotional and personal life. Stein also believes that "Woman's soul is more intensely present and lives in all parts of the body..." (EW, 95). A woman, thus, has a more holistic perception of the good.

  • "To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning" (EW, 95). The maternal orientation is directed not only to family relationships, but also to caring for the sick, neglected youth, the poor of the parish, education of children and so on. Empathy or sympathy for the other is particularly strong in women. She has a gift of being a companion. Her role of dominion or leadership is included in her maternal vocation.

  • While women are very capable of theoretical and abstract considerations, they tend to direct these toward practical applications.

  • Woman's receptivity gives her a facility for obedience, subordination, readiness to be guided by the Lord. She also has the gift of enduring pain, collecting her forces in silence, adapting and abnegating herself.

  • Joy in creation, desire to create an environment of beauty, order and peace is typical of woman.

  • Sensitivity to moral values -- dislike of what is low and mean -- protects woman against seduction and surrender to sensuality. The prophecy of Genesis points to woman as most particularly engaged in the battle against evil.

Original sin, Stein believes, has tainted the purity of woman's nature as created by God, and she describes in some detail the particular temptations and faults to which women are prone.

Stein does not consider these characteristics as absolute or exclusive. Nevertheless, they indicate that women have a particular call, distinct from men; that they can make a positive and complementary contribution to the human family, to society, culture and spiritual development. The deepest feminine yearning is to achieve a loving union. This is not just a human desire, but part of the eternal destiny and character of women. Woman also has a desire for perfection in others. She challenges herself and others to focus more on perfecting the personal inner being than on achieving external goals -- in contrast to man's essential desire to reveal himself in action and in work.

Original sin, Stein believes, has tainted the purity of woman's nature as created by God, and she describes in some detail the particular temptations and faults to which women are prone. These are what women need to deal with in order to develop an authentic spiritual life appropriate to the call God has given.

"Usually, the personal outlook appears to be exaggerated unwholesomely; in the first place, her inclination to center both her activities and those of others about her own person is expressed by vanity, desire for praise and recognition, and an unchecked need for communication; on the other hand, it is seen in an excessive interest in others as in curiosity, gossip, and an indiscreet need to penetrate into the intimate life of others. Her view reaching toward the whole leads easily to the frittering away of her powers: her antipathy for the necessary objective disciplining of individual abilities results in her superficial nibbling in all areas. And in her relations to others, it is manifested in her complete absorption with them beyond the measure required by maternal functions: the sympathetic mate becomes the obtrusive mischief-maker who cannot endure quiet, reserved growth; and because of this, she does not foster development but rather hinders and paralyses it. The dominating will replaces joyful service. How many unhappy marriages can be attributed to this abnormality! How much alienation between mothers and growing children and even mature offspring!" (EW, 47.)

Many of us women can find something of ourselves reflected in this portrait. I think it is helpful that Edith Stein has courageously pointed out these tendencies to her Christian sisters, both for their own sakes and those of the young women they teach and guide. It is not only that the pure feminine spirit does not develop in us, owing to the effect of original sin. There is also the problem of the perversion of the true masculine character, in a way that dominates our culture -- emphasizing aggression, self-seeking and pride. This too has led to the Marian model for women being downplayed or openly opposed.

In her educational speeches, Stein also pointed to other weaknesses to which women can be prone. A woman's joy in the beauty of the earth can degenerate into greed, hoarding of objects or mindless sensuality. A temptation particularly strong today, but evident also in Stein's era, is that a focus on career can lead to infidelity to the feminine vocation of marriage and motherhood, jeopardizing domestic life and community (EW, 74). Alternatively, irresponsibility can flow from dependency and laziness. There can be temptation to be a pretty object for others rather than a self-possessed person capable of making one's own decisions. Emotionalism can weaken objectivity. A woman can also fall into bitterness, callousness or depression if her vocation is thwarted.

To counteract these tendencies, and build on the positive qualities of womanhood, Stein asks: what is the perfection a Christian woman seeks? Perceptively, she suggests: "First become a person!"

To counteract these tendencies, and build on the positive qualities of womanhood, Stein asks: what is the perfection a Christian woman seeks? Perceptively, she suggests: "First become a person!" She illustrates this principle through analysis of the female heroines in three novels, (Ibsen's A Doll's House, Goethe's Iphigenie, Undset's Olaf Audunssohn), that reveal something of the inner struggles of women. Stein notes that before a woman can become wife and mother in a positive way, she must first mature in her own self-possession (EW, 89-94). Although woman longs to love and receive love, she must also become strong enough to be a true gift to another.

To have an image of the pure ideal of womanhood before original sin, Stein points to the Virgin Mother Mary, in whom the positive qualities of woman are most perfectly lived out. The Mother of God demonstrates the basic spiritual attitude which corresponds to woman's natural vocation; her relation to her husband is one of obedience, trust and participation in his life as she furthers his objective tasks and personality; to the child she gives care, encouragement and the formation of his God-given talents; she offers both selfless surrender and quiet withdrawal when unneeded. All is based on the concept of marriage and motherhood as a vocation from God; it is carried out for God's sake and under his guidance (EW, 48).

Every woman is ennobled by Mary. "A woman was the gateway through which God found entrance to humankind" (EW, 70). Her "yes" made possible the faithful assent of every Christian. As such, and by Christ's bequest, she is Mother of the Church and symbol of the Christian response to God's initiative. Stein envisages the Christian woman as called, in imitation of Mary, to a four-fold vocation as child of God, organ of the Church, symbol of the Church and child of Mary (EW, 241). A true feminine spirituality is formed through a careful study and contemplation of Mary. To counter the notion of the Mary-like woman being passive or vacuous, Stein suggests a natural remedy, albeit one that requires the help of grace to renew us from within.

"A good natural remedy against all typical feminine defects is solid objective work. This demands in itself the repression of an excessively personal attitude. It calls for an end to superficiality not only in her own work but in general. Because it requires submission to objective laws, it is a schooling in obedience. But it must lead neither to relinquishing of the good and pure personal attitude nor to a one-sided specializing and enslavement to a discipline which typifies the perversion of masculine nature. How extremely sufficient this natural remedy of objective work can be is seen in the maturity and harmony of many women who manifest a high intellectual formation or who were trained by the hardship of life in the discipline of strenuous professional work" (EW, 48).


In her lectures, Stein speaks concretely and practically of the lives and challenges for married, single and consecrated women, and of the spiritual calling particular to women in each state in life. She is clear that the primary calling of woman is the procreation and raising of children. At the same time, she sensitively addresses the situation of the single woman, stressing her spiritual needs and temptations, for which she advises staying close to the Lord in the Eucharist and to the community of the Church; and seeking a spiritual director. The single person need not be alone. She also beautifully describes the New Testament ideal of virginity, and considers the consecrated life of a "spouse of Christ" as the highest fulfillment of feminine nature. Her practical wisdom in these areas is well worth reading in detail. Finally, as an educator, Stein considers carefully the question of formation of young women. This includes formation both for a particular state of life, such as wife and mother, and as a member of the kingdom of God.

As a mother, "she will stand firmly before the souls of her children, guarding the life of grace begun in them by holy baptism" (EW 122).

In general, a woman is called to have an attitude of selfless service, to consider others as gifts entrusted to her and the development of their God-given natures as a holy task. She is to endeavor to enkindle in others the spark of love for God. In all vocations, a woman is called to a maternal care for others, drawing forth her power to give love and to help them in their own growth. This can only be sustained by Christ's power and love, prayer and recourse to all the resources of the Catholic Church in the Mass, the Eucharist, Penance, the graces of the sacrament of matrimony and of virginal consecration. The woman is "the visible symbol of the Church"(EW 120), with the vocation to increase God's children, to be fruitful, whether bodily or spiritually. As a mother, "she will stand firmly before the souls of her children, guarding the life of grace begun in them by holy baptism" (EW 122).

The value of Stein's treatment of spirituality lies in its concrete practicality and in its holistic approach. For her, spirituality is not a separate part of one's life, but rather that which undergirds everything. Feminine spirituality is expressed throughout every aspect of a woman's life. But although Stein believes that women have a feminine soul, and that all women are called to be maternal, just as all men are called to be paternal, she allows for individual differences to affect the particular way this is lived out. Woman's response to God's call must be flexible and creative. Nor must this detract from Jesus Christ as the ideal model for both women and men:

"To belong to and serve God in love's free surrender is the vocation of every Christian, not only of a few elect. Whether consecrated or not, whether man or woman -- each one is called to the imitation of Christ. The further one continues on this path, the more Christlike he will become. Christ embodies the ideal of human perfection: in him all bias and defects are removed, the masculine and feminine virtues are united and their weaknesses redeemed; therefore, his true followers will be progressively exalted over their natural limitations. That is why we see in holy men a womanly tenderness and goodness and a truly maternal solicitude for the souls entrusted to them, while in holy women there is manly boldness, proficiency, and determination" (EW, 84).

She warns, however, that this result is not achieved through "an arbitrary battle against nature and by denial of natural limitations, but only by humble submission to the God-given order" (EW, 85).

Stein sees men and women as making complementary contributions to the harmony of the whole Christian community. John Paul II has developed the concept of dual unity: that it is the existence of real differences that make unity possible. The distinctions of male and female are what make harmony possible. When masculinity and femininity are lived in their original purity, they become a gift to each other, forming a civilization of love which is not based on sameness but on respect for difference.

The fact that spiritually mature persons may combine both masculine and feminine qualities does not, I think, negate Edith Stein's thesis concerning a feminine soul and spirituality. According to Sr Prudence Allen's analysis, women will express qualities considered masculine in a feminine way, and men will express feminine qualities in a masculine way. This does not alter the reality of their soul being constitutively male or female. Nevertheless, this thesis requires more study and reflection. It is my hope that this article will encourage others to devote to it the attention it deserves.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Kathleen Sweeney, "Is There a Specifically Feminine Spirituality?" Second Spring issue 8 (2007).

Reprinted with permission of Kathleen Sweeney.

Second Spring is a quarterly journal. It is a forum to explore, from within the Catholic tradition, the beauty that inspires conversion to Christianity and the creation of a Christian culture.

The Author

Kathleen Sweeney is a freelance writer who has published articles on pro-life topics, bioethics, education and history. She holds an MTS degree in Theological Studies on Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and MA in History from the University of Washington and a BA from Seattle University. Her recent articles include: “The Perfection of Woman as Maternal and the Anthropology of Karol Wojtyla (Logos, Spring 2006); “A Little Child Shall Lead Us: Theology of the Child” (Linacre Quarterly, May 2006); and “The Technical Child: In Vitro Fertilization and the Personal Subject” (Linacre Quarterly, May 2003). She and her husband live in Arlington, and have a grown son and daughter.

Copyright © 2007 Kathleen Curran Sweeney

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