Katharine Birbalsingh, one of Britain’s most famous educators, recently commented on why women are less likely than men to go into STEM. “From my own knowledge of these things, physics is not something that girls tend to fancy,” she said. “They do not want to do it. They do not like it.” Her remarks rekindled a debate that goes back to Plato and Aristotle: Are the physical differences between men and women indicative of psychological, emotional, and intellectual differences as well?
The thought of Edith Stein can help us chart a path forward in this complicated age of gender-neutral bathrooms and biological men in women's sports. Stein, or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was neither an angel in the house nor a virago. She was a phenomenologist philosopher, theoretician of education, and eventually a Carmelite nun. In 1942, she was murdered at Auschwitz, becoming a Martyr of the Shoah. Today, she remains an influential source in differentiated psychology, which is the study of differences in individual and group behavior (see her Essays on Woman).
Stein argued that men and women alike are equally called to imitate God, but that they imitate the divine being in different ways. “The image of God is imprinted in a binate way,” she declared when commenting on Genesis. To Stein, the female body mirrors God’s own life-giving, nurturing essence. To denigrate functions rooted in female biology—childbearing, caring—is to denigrate an aspect of God’s divine nature. The “bowels of mercy” (Col. 3:12) is more accurately translated as “the womb of mercy.” Mercy, as a divine attribute, is illustrated through an analogy with the source of all human life, specific to the female body. As a phenomenologist, Stein held that one’s experience of the world is mediated by a material body. I believe she would have been thrilled by recent discoveries that the placenta behaves differently depending on whether it is feeding a female or a male fetus.
For Edith Stein, our intellectual life exists at the individual level, at the collective level—depending on what lineage or community influences our learning—and finally, at the binate male-female level. Although Stein obtained her doctorate with flying colors, she was not allowed to receive a university professorship. She knew firsthand what it meant to be prevented, as a woman, from developing one’s talents. She strongly defended a woman’s right to a high-quality education and wanted women to be seen in the professional world not merely as assistants and companions, but as independent contributors to society. So Stein hardly wanted to limit the feminine vocation to its biological fecundity. She believed we are all called to “be fruitful and multiply”—some physically, some intellectually and spiritually. Women are often especially suited to professions—those that involve teaching, healing, and caring, for example—that invite us to participate in a broader form of fruitfulness. For this reason, Stein encouraged the idea of having a particular curriculum for girls.
That being said, she also asserted that women could, and should, embrace any profession, because in doing so, they would use their unique perspective to turn abstractions into real benefits for humanity. Stein believed that women tend to be better than men at recognizing the importance of the whole person and cultivating one’s entire being—body, mind, and spirit. Scientist and Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie is a clear example; her works not only developed chemistry and radioactivity, but gave them direct applications in the medical field. Countries that have the most efficient gender-equality policies, such as Norway and Sweden, still notice an overwhelming majority of women veering toward “care” professions. This is because women tend to be more oriented toward studies and activities that consider human beings in their entirety; there are therefore more female doctors than female surgeons, for instance.
Regarding marriage, Stein reminds us that men and women have a duty of companionship toward each other. She reminds men that their duty as providers also implies meeting the wife’s intellectual needs and ensuring that she gets enough time to fully cultivate herself as a whole, integrated human being. However, insofar as God possesses both feminine and masculine attributes, a man can embrace God’s nurturing action—as when Jesus said he longed to gather Jerusalem’s children together “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Symmetrically, a woman can yearn for justice, as Judith did—a prefiguration of the Virgin Mary.
“Whoever seeks the truth seeks God,” writes Stein. Therefore, she argues, provided one has enough discipline, the intellectual vocation can be embraced in all conditions of life, and one must train one’s intellect as much as one can. Any subject, when studied by a mind that yearns for truth, is bound to teach us something about God and his plan for mankind. The commonalities and differences between the two sexes point toward one end. Both men and women can engage in the intellectual life and, in doing so, be enriched by it through their individual experiences, which are mediated by their male or female bodies.
Of course, some girls can be highly interested in different branches of STEM; and while it is valid to stimulate their interest in science, not as much effort is put into encouraging boys toward the Humanities. Conversely, we seem to lay a surprising burden on young girls to be as strong as men. Edith Stein would surely have approved of Katharine Birbalsingh’s educational perspective: When it comes to the intellectual life, we should neither enforce stereotypes nor counter them too forcefully.
In many paintings of the Annunciation, the Blessed Virgin is depicted reading Scripture. St. Edith Stein exalts her as the model for all women, and indeed her meekness is no weakness. The devotional image of the Annunciation reminds us that a fifteen-year-old girl was more learned than the Scribes and the Pharisees. The Virgin read and understood Scripture enough to discern the signs of the coming of Christ—to say “yes” to the angel, to hold her dead son's body in her arms, and to trust in his Resurrection.
Marie Kawthar Daouda is a Stipendiary Lecturer in French at Oriel College, University of Oxford.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Artwork is in the public domain. Image cropped.