“What does it mean to be a woman?”
It was 1995. I was a college sophomore, walking across a tree-lined campus, flanked by red-bricked Georgian buildings. And all around me, young people were racing to and from class, laughing, shouting out greetings, and talking about the things college kids talk about.
But not me. I wrestled with my thoughts as I walked, asking myself for the first time what it meant to be a woman. What constituted femininity? What, besides anatomy, made me different from a man?
A million other people had asked the question before. But not me. It had never occurred to me. All my life, the only thing I’d been told was that men and women were the same and I could do anything a man could do. Suddenly, however, at 19, I wasn’t so sure.
I was asking good questions. But at a secular university, with friends more interested in the Dave Matthews Band than philosophy, I didn’t know where to look for answers. So, I looked around me, at the women on my campus, in magazines and on television, who men seemed to find attractive. They were all beautiful women, sexy women, thin women. Femininity, the culture seemed to say, was bound up with sexual desirability. I also looked for guidance from the Protestant church I attended. It taught that women were meant to be quiet, meek and mild.
At that point, I concluded I wasn’t a very good woman by anyone’s standards — church or culture. No one would ever describe me as a beauty, and sexy was not my vibe. I also had intelligence and opinions in spades, but there wasn’t an ounce of mild in me. By every measure of femininity, I seemed to fall short. Except for one.
While I could never be beautiful, sexy, quiet or mild, I was thin — a little too thin, actually. In 1995, I was already in the early stage of an eating disorder, and my confusion over the meaning of femininity only reinforced my quest to be as thin as possible. It sounds crazy now, but somehow my 19-year-old self believed she could fool people into thinking she was meek and mild and therefore “feminine,” if she could hide her intelligence and opinions behind a delicate, fragile frame.
It didn’t work. I fooled no one. My opinions are hard to miss. But I did spend the next five years trying to conform, in the only way I knew how, to what I thought it meant to be a woman. Then, in December 2000, at the end of the Great Jubilee, I returned to the Catholic Church. There, thanks to my encounter with the man who had called for the jubilee, Pope St. John Paul II, everything changed.
A Letter for Women
As both pope and philosopher, John Paul II had a singular focus: to affirm the God-given dignity of every person. In the human person, he recognized the image of God. He also recognized that behind every great conflict of our age lay a failure to recognize that dignity — or a desire to deny or destroy it.
John Paul II saw that same failure in sexism and radical feminism. In 1994, at a United Nations’ conference on population control, those feminists had nearly succeeded in defining abortion as a universal human right. John Paul II’s gentle but concerted advocacy against that was widely credited for thwarting their efforts.
A year later, however, another U.N. conference, this time on women, was scheduled to take place in Beijing. The same abortion-rights advocates would be there, pushing the same agenda. So, in 1995, the very year that I was wrestling with what it meant to be a woman, John Paul II went on the offensive. First, he declared 1995 “The Year of the Woman.” He then began talking and writing consistently about the struggles women face and the dignity we possess. The most important of those writings was his “Letter to Women.” Published on June 29, 1995, it laid out a different understanding of women and feminism than the one proclaimed by the world. At the outset, John Paul II explained that he wanted to “speak directly to every woman, to reflect with her on the problems and prospects of what it means to be a woman in our time” (1). And about the Church’s understanding of women’s dignity, he left no doubt: Man and woman both were created in the image of God, different but equal, not in competition with one another, but complementary to one another. He also lamented the world’s failure (and at times, the Church’s) to recognize women’s dignity, noting, “This has prevented women from truly being themselves, and it has resulted in the spiritual impoverishment of humanity” (3). He further lamented the world’s insistence on reducing a woman to her body and condemned “the widespread hedonistic and commercial culture which encourages the systematic exploitation of sexuality.”
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