What does it mean to be a woman? Certainly there are a lot of conflicting responses to that question. Catholic women in particular have a rich history and wealth of tradition in the theology of femininity. A lot of what we talk about, though, has to do with motherhood – both physical motherhood and spiritual motherhood. But for women dealing with infertility, this can be a painful thing to think about.
Shortly after my diagnosis (in my late-teens) I went through a gender identity crisis. If I was born without a uterus – actually created by God, but without a womb – could I truly call myself a woman? I bought a copy of Alice von Hildebrand’s “The Privilege of Being a Woman”, hoping that it would give me some answers. When I got to the part near the end (maybe the 7th chapter?) where she begins, “Every woman has a womb…” my eyes welled up with tears and I threw the book in a rage. I cried and cried, and told my mom, “I just wish someone would write a book to tell me what it means to live and be a woman with this condition.” My mom is no theologian. She didn’t know how to answer. But she did say, “Maybe you’re the one who’s supposed to write the book.”
Maybe. Does this blog count?
It’s been over 13 years since I started this journey, and I’m finally at a place now where I can enthusiastically answer this question:
What does it mean to be a WOMAN who is a follower of Jesus Christ, a Catholic, a daughter of the Most High?
Let’s take a look at some real-life examples (who also, coincidentally, were not physically mothers).
St. Mary Magdalene
Contrary to Dan Brown novels, Mary Magdalene didn’t become the secret matriarch of a centuries-old bloodline. But she did have a unique relationship with Jesus.
Mary Magdalene was a woman who, in her desire to be loved, fell into sin and became broken. Jesus saw her in the midst of this, and had compassion on her. He lifted her from her life of sin, freeing her from seven demons and accepting her beautiful act of contrition and repentance saying, “Her sins are forgiven her, for she has loved much.” She understood what it meant to be loved and rescued by Jesus, and wanted nothing more than to sit at his feet and listen as he taught her. She was the first one whom he appeared to after his Resurrection.
Having finally known true love, she gave her whole heart to Jesus. She teaches us that to be a woman means to love deeply, to run and jump into our Savior’s arms, and never look back. She shows us that, as women, we have the privilege of having a special, deep love relationship with our Rescuer. A woman’s relationship with Jesus is a very different thing than a man’s relationship Jesus, something that is worth reflecting on further.
St. Joan of Arc
Jumping 13 centuries into the future, we find the most adventurous example of Catholic womanhood the world has ever seen. This peasant farmer’s daughter bravely gave her “yes” to God when she was asked to leave her home and lead the French army during the Hundred Year’s War.
What is perhaps most impressive about Joan is her profound courage and trust in the Lord. She went where he led her, even though it was unheard of for a woman (let alone a teenage peasant) to go before the future King of France and be given leadership of his army. She trusted in her Voices (Sts. Michael, Margaret, and Catherine) and not in herself. When she realized that she had been trusting too much in herself, she confessed the sin of pride. After that, she gave everything she had over to the Lord, even though it led to her death by burning at the stake. In her last moments, she asked that a crucifix be held level with her eyes, and as the flames roared around her, witnesses say she called out the name of Jesus.
Joan of Arc teaches us that to be a woman means to be brave. It take courage to give our full trust and reliance on Jesus, no matter the circumstances. Courage and bravery are things we typically associate with men, but Joan of Arc shows us that they belong just as much to women, and perhaps more so. Her unyielding loyalty and trust in the Lord are uniquely feminine as well.
St. Therese of Lisieux
Being a woman means being the Lord’s daughter, and no one understood that better that St. Therese. Jesus was her first and only love. Her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, is full of sweet, simple thoughts about how a “little” soul like hers can reach the heights of sanctity simply by giving every little thought, word, and action over to the Lord. She writes that Jesus never showed himself to her in a vision, never even in a dream. But “weak” and “little” as she was, she knew that Jesus loved her, and would always carry her in his arms.
Therese shows us a uniquely feminine combination of gentleness, humility, and trust. She fully embraces the Lord’s words, “Unless you become as little children…” No matter what happens, no matter what you do or do not achieve in this life, you are Jesus’ little girl, and nothing will ever change that.
7 thoughts on “What does it mean to be a woman?”
Another beautiful reflection! Definitely some things for me to think about. Approaching holidays still single and more and more aware that I may never be a physical mother, it’s definitely one of those times where things are a little harder. I especially love your thoughts about a woman’s relationship with Jesus. Definitely something to think about in more detail!
Can I just say, your story at the beginning, my heart broke for you and your mom because I’m sure she would have loved to just fix it, but instead in her wisdom gave you something practical that you could actually do. I could see you writing the book someday, but definitely appreciate the blog for now. Yes, it counts.
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Thank you M! The holidays are so tough!! One thing that’s helped me recently is really trying to focus on the real reason for Christmas joy (not kids, not presents, not even a baby per se but specifically that Jesus loves me so darn much that he became man).
Yep about my mom – my journey became a journey for her too, in a different way of course. She was changed by it. I think it’s kind of amazing how Jesus can work on us through other people’s crosses – like maybe a cross isn’t just meant for you, but rather your cross is just a piece of his cross and it’s meant for everyone… ok, rambling thoughts out loud here, but maybe it’s something to think about more.
That whole thing about a woman’s relationship with Jesus – I want to think more about that too! It was Sr. Helena Burns I think that said in a movie review of Risen something about Mary Magdalene as “a woman before her God, which is a very different thing that a man before his God.” and it got me thinking. It’s such a beautiful thought!
Love this so much! Thank you for such beautiful reflection.
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You’re welcome Kalah! ❤
This is a beautiful reflection – I would have wanted to chuck that book as well. I read “My Sisters, the Saints” after one of the lowest points I’d experienced, and I loathe spoilers of any kind, so I found myself so relating to the author’s experience of infertility, nodding as she explained it, feeling like someone had finally put into words what it was like – and then, *wham* she is pregnant, and not just that, but does one of the exact things she had described, and that I, too, see as being one of the most harmful things to say when sharing of a long awaited for pregnancy. I was reading the book sitting by the ocean and had it been a paper book and not my kindle, I’m quite sure I’d have thrown the book into the water and cursed it as it was washed away.
Overall, I still found the book helpful, with lots of individual sections to quote and grow from, but yea, that one part – grrrr.
I recently read a good portion of “Mary of Galilee” and found myself highlighting virtues of what it means to be a woman, here are some of the items that I marked (with reference to the women of the old testament who were being discussed):
~beauty (true beauty, not Hollywood beauty), goodness, wisdom, and life (our own life, not bearing children), curious, seeker of knowledge, tester of limits (Eve)
~faith, love, holiness, self-control
~thoughtful courtesy, self-assurance, energetic speech (Rebekah)
~leadership, courage, prophetic call, listen and respond to cries of her people, total confidence in God (Deborah)
~leader, prophetess, mediator, initiator, servant, nurse, caring person, model of discretion and timing, a negotiator, secretly and effectively works behind the scenes in the salvific history of the people (Miriam)
~exemplary in prayer life and religious participation (Judith)
~faith, ingenuity, and hospitality; open and sensitive to the power of God and creative in her use of God-given gifts (Rahab)
~active respondent to God; loving-kindness (Ruth)
I found such power in this list, as none of them had anything to do with whether a woman is a mother or not, but are a school of virtue for what it means to be a woman.
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Rebecca, this is amazing!!! Thank you so much for sharing this list. I love it. Can’t wait to read it again slowly and think over it. (I also loved My Sisters the Saints, but then thought it was weird the way she talked about her pregnancy after the fact).
What a beautiful reflection. I love your mom’s response. She didn’t brush off your feelings but gave you a chance to do something with your suffering. I have often found myself rolling my eyes and fuming whenever someone reduces what it means to be a woman by the parts we were given or not given. My SIL has a similar condition to you and will never bear children but she is every bit a woman. Not to say our biology is not important but, it is not the whole of who we are. I would much rather hear reflections on virtues that women possess as Rebecca pointed out.
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