What Does it Mean to be a Woman?

Posted on February 22, 2014 by Katherine Ruch


Note: What began as a blog entry became a behemoth.  Of course, the question elicits a lifetime of answer.  You may want to read this in a few sittings.  I wish I could provide you with a bookmark and a large cup of coffee.

In the novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Garcia Marquez, the author describes in his magical but realistic way a village suffering from an insomnia plague.  As this plague continues, it gradually causes the loss of memory.  To try and salvage memory, the people developed an elaborate plan that involved labeling everything, for instance, "This is a cow."  But even the labels lost meaning over time and needed to be further defined.  So, for instance to "This is a cow," they added: "She gives us milk.  We add milk to our coffee."  Eventually the village put a placard at the entrance to town that said, "God exists," as that knowledge too was slipping.  Then the people began to forget what a mother was and what a father was and lost all language to describe it.

This image from Garcia Marquez describes with haunting accuracy the plague that is spreading through all levels of our culture and society.   It is as if we have lost the regular recalibration of sleep in which sanity is restored.  We are beginning to lose the most fundamental and elemental truths, such as what it means to be a mother or a father, a man or a woman.  If any of us was asked to define "man" or "woman," I daresay we would hardly know where to begin.  This is not simply because we have lost the meaning, it is because these iconic ideas were never meant to have to be defined; these truths were meant to be lived in such a way that a cognitive explanation or defense would never be necessary. For certainly the reality of Man or Woman is much larger than words, and any attempt to wrestle down a manageable definition would fall far from the mystery that is Woman or Man. 

But if the human race is to flourish, we must not lose a grasp on who we are, especially in the fundamental identities of Woman and Man.  We seem to have become disconnected from the ancient truths which have anchored us.  In order, then, to salvage memory, an attempt at a description is perhaps a starting point.

Because I am a woman, and because Woman seems to be the gender that is most searching for definition and perhaps the identity most under attack, I will begin with Woman.

Women carry such deep hurt from attempted definitions over time.  We as women somehow feel definition diminishes us rather than ennobles us; we can feel squeezed into molds so small that we can hardly breathe.  So I tremble putting words to the "feminine genius" (to quote John Paul II).  But I also fear that we as women, in fear of definition, in fear of limitation, will forget the gift we have to give the world, which is uniquely ours to give, and if not given, will leave a gaping and unimaginable chasm in the psyche of the world. And all persons will walk crippled from this loss; indeed this is already happening. As women move toward androgyny (being distinguishably neither masculine or feminine), I do not see women who try to throw off any descriptive feminine identity walking into freedom.  I see them more compressed, more unmoored than ever.

Where to begin when approaching the mystery of Woman?  Let us go back to the beginning...the creation of the woman.  Woman was created because man needed a companion to help him carry out his creational instructions:  to image God, to be fruitful, and to be master of the earth.  In the first pair of man and woman there is a presupposed harmony, a dance that had no power struggle, no need to assert importance or influence over another.  Certainly the solidarity between man and woman in their joint task of mastering the earth deserves its own essay, but for this essay, I choose to focus here on the woman's vocation as mother to the earth.  The first command of God was, "Be fruitful and multiply." Be a father. Be a mother.

Mother to the world.

Why does the serpent come to the woman first?  We don't know.  But one reason seems to be that she is, as Adam named her, "The mother of all the living." And as such she represents the most vulnerable point of entry for Satan to attack and distort the human family. (Of course, Adam's passivity in this situation is another vulnerable point of entry).  We know that Satan hates life, and after Woman came from Man, now all mankind would come through Woman.  As a friend of mine recently noted, throughout history it has been, "women and children first," not because they are so weak, but because they represent the future. The book of Revelation in the Bible paints this mythic war against Woman as the source of life, and through whom ultimately came Jesus,  the one who would redeem all mankind from the tragic fall.

The curse of the Fall (which is simply just stating the natural trajectory of the choices made), as it is aimed at Woman, is twofold: her fruitfulness in childbearing will become complicated and painful, and she will begin to look to man for definition.  To be fruitful requires harmony between man and woman.  It is only natural that the consequences of the Fall would begin at the very core of who she was created to be--1. a mother and 2. a companion to stand beside her husband.  Now a disequilibrium with Man is a natural outcome of the relational breakdown that occurred with God.  In the ESV Bible, it says, "her desire will be for her husband," and then in the notes it says, "or against her husband."  That pretty much sums it up.  Desire itself is distorted by the new struggle for power and identity. We women say to men, "Tell me who I am, and by the way, don't you dare tell me who I am."

The Fall broke the harmony and introduced the sword between the sexes.  Forevermore, we would see ourselves in competition, in a power struggle for influence and recognition.

But God did not leave us there.  Even as he spoke the words of the curse, he spoke the words of the promise:  from Woman's womb would come the one that would redeem all of this.  Centuries later, God sent an angel to a young woman and said that he would overshadow her and bring through her very body into the world the one who would crush the head of the deceiving serpent.

Eve is called the mother of all the living.  What is Mary called? The early church began to call her the mother of God.  In their parallel stories, we find the redemption of Woman's role in the world, and the healing she is capable of bringing to humanity by being available to God.

God, when he chose to come to earth in the flesh, did not just appear as a 30 year old man as he just disappeared when he was finished with his work.  He chose to come through the womb of a woman, be nurtured by her, connected to her.  Jesus came as a man, and that is essential because he is the new Adam, but he came through the womb of a woman, and in so doing hallowed both Man and Woman.

The early fathers began to understand Mary as the new Eve.  She is the new icon of Mother, of Woman.  Mary accepted the word of the Lord that Eve did not accept.  Instead of doubting God's Word as Eve did and fearing that something good was being withheld, Mary stepped out in faith that God's Word would bring good, "Be it done unto me according to your word."

I would offer that the looming icons of woman in Scripture are mothers.  A church father said, "The woman's womb is the doorway to heaven."  No human being will be in heaven who did not first travel through the womb of a woman.  You must be born again, yes, but you have to be born the first time, and that involves the starting home of a woman's body.  The second birth, the water and the Spirit, is ministered through the Church, which is our spiritual Mother (John 3).  Bishop Cyprian said when speaking of the Church as our Mother, "...From her womb we are born, by her milk we are nurtured, by her spirit we are given life...She watches over us for God, she seals her sons, to whom she has given birth, for the kingdom...He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother."

This is a tall order to be the icon of the Church--the Mother that nurtures life.  All of us women--celibates and married, fertile and infertile-- cannot flee from this call.  We are the sacramental embodiment of the Church that births and nurtures life, and there is none other as uniquely crafted to carry this kind of life into the Church and the world as we are.  The world is languishing while we cast about seeking to be released from this privilege that carries so much responsibility.

Our bodies tell a story worth listening to: woman has been given a unique unity between her physical and spiritual being  We have been given the unparalleled vocation of assimilating into our bodies another living being.  Your personhood began inside your mother's body.  I would offer that woman has a different calling from man in her impartation of being.  She is the one who has the precognitive connection to the baby.  This development of personhood as it is nurtured in the attachment to Mother extends beyond birth.  Babies need their mothers, not just any loving caretaker.  A growing cluster of psychological research on attachment indicates that the depth and consistency of a child's bond with its mother is the primary determinant of a healthy sense of being and personhood. Woman as Mother is essential to the well-being of all humanity.

This is beautiful, but we diminish and resist it.  Why?  It is sometimes hard to be needed in this way, to this depth, by another.  It is sometimes hard to believe that even the apparently meaningless and trivial motions of caring for another who cannot possibly appreciate the sacrifice, could be so fundamentally important.

I would offer that the apparent smallness and the very hiddenness of this call is one of the primary Christian paths of formation in love.  Everyone has the opportunity to learn to love in life.  Some take it; some do not.  Every mother has a unique opportunity, that if seized upon, can be the making of her own personhood.  Through this obscure path without worldly advancement or promotion, a woman can learn love.  And in turn, she can multiply the effect of this love by giving a gift to the world (though it is increasingly undervalued)--children with the capacity to love others because they themselves have received sacrificial love.

Gertrude von le Fort, a German philosopher and poet, in her book, The Eternal Woman, says that men are like stones in a stream, planted, giving all their creative energy to this generation;  women are like the water flowing and carrying the treasure into the next generation.  Even if one disagrees with the metaphor, no one would disagree that stone and water are primal elements of force in nature, and both are essential for holding together the earth.  This metaphor does, however, capture the deeper complexity in water as compared to stone.  Stone is fairly straight-forward.  Water is formless, shapeless, colorless but can seep through solid rock, erode away a mountain over time, evaporate into air and be carried to another location altogether.  The differences are real, but it would be foolish to spend energy trying to decide whether stone or water was more powerful or to strategize how we might neutralize their differences so that they are interchangeable.

Masculine and Feminine are this elemental to holding the world together.  Their differences become absolutely necessary to the preservation of the human race.  And yet, little thought is given to preserving the uniqueness of each gender as fundamental to society. And certainly women do not seem that concerned in preserving their own unique powers and making sacrifices to be sure we carry from our age to the next generation those gifts that those who come next, both men and women, (for we build being in both) might be ready to take the baton and run the race.  Woman by her very design has a unique bond to the next generation and in giving life to that whole generation, she naturally gives something of herself away by flowing from one place in time to another.

Does this mean that a woman who is celibate or unable to bear children is not participating in the vocation of womanhood?  Heaven forbid!  [Does it mean that every woman who biologically bears children has entered into the spirit of motherhood?  No.  I have met women who have birthed even seven children but whose spirits treat motherhood as an imposition.]  The capacity of the woman's body to bear children tells a story of how all of us as women impart life.  A celibate woman is uniquely freed in the Church to minister the mother love of the Church to the world.  Edith Stein, a celibate Jewish Christian in Nazi Germany who died for her faith, wrote extensively about women bringing a unique gift of motherhood in the work place.  Her book of essays, Woman, is definitely worth reading to expand our understanding of the gift women bring to society when they choose to be mothers (even when it is not biological). Recovering the gift of Motherhood in our generation means recognizing and valuing the diverse ways in which this mothering identity brings healing to the world.  Turning away from the posturing of mothering has affected us on all levels, even in the world of academia and the marketplace.

This beautiful gift of imparting being as mothers is the very gift women are trying to shake off.  I read recently that 40% of German female graduates are choosing not to have children.  The government said that if the birthrate in Germany does not go up, they will eventually have to "turn out the lights," meaning say goodnight to what was once "Germany."  Not one country in Europe has a replacement population level.  Whole populations are facing demographic crises as women define their lives away from the calling to motherhood. (I recommend the DVD, "Demographic Winter," a sobering evaluation by secular social scientists on the depopulation crisis).

America is a little better off, but the attitude toward childbearing is quite charged with ambivalence. Just follow the recent national conversation on motherhood in the Wall Street Journal or read the books on motherhood published in the last five years. 

Pope Benedict spoke to this resistance to bearing children:  "Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future.  Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present." So why are the women of our generation so ambivalent toward being mothers?  Well, it is hard.  And it is a sacrifice. And women say that there is a lack of childcare options.  But I think Pope Benedict put his finger on the real issue:  children appear to be a threat to self-actualization.

Women are resistant to the limitations motherhood imposes on their own ambitions--a limitation very different than fatherhood.  It is easy for us to think that men get it all--successful career and the chance to be a parent.  This creates resentment, partly because increasingly it seems to be the reality that when women have both, they lose on both fronts. That is because men do not create a home like women do, and women have a deep longing to bring soul to the home even if much of their energies are expended outside the home.  So they feel torn and stretched.  Men can sacrifice themselves for present success and gratification.  The sacrifices a mother makes are often invisible to the world outside, are not rewarded with a raise in pay, and the results are only manifested in the future. For this reason, a mother would have to be motivated by the future joy and assurance of her essential identity in the master plan of the world to make these sacrifices over and over.

From the outside, simply imagining motherhood or hypothesizing about it only allows a mathematical evaluation of loss.  The reward of LIFE, indeed multiple lives, however, that is woven into the fabric of her life, and even her body, becomes a masterpiece of art that is its own discovery and treasure, but is only unveiled as she steps into the sacrifice. The benefits and rewards are immeasurable.

I am going to share a personal story that carries a symbolic import of every woman's fear of giving life that results in her own loss of life.  After four happy births complicated by manageable post partum hemorrhage, my fifth birth was a beautiful and fast birth that quickly turned into trauma by bleeding that would not stop.  After a great deal of medical intervention brought the bleeding under control, I was relieved that I had been blessed with five healthy children and was alive to raise them.  Imagine the shock when three years later, at age 45, I found I was pregnant.  For nine months,  I suffered with fear of losing my life--not just for myself, but for my husband who would have to raise all these children alone, and for my children who would grow up without a mother.  I went in and out of trusting God with my life and knowing my times were in his hands.  I worked closely with a midwife, surgeon, a hematologist, and the hospital to do what we could to make a plan.  But I knew enough about birth to know that no plan could insure that I and the baby would make it out alive. This experience became for me the inner struggle played out in a physical way.

I think on a metaphorical level, we often face into a primal fear of losing ourselves if we give life to another. We forget that the one who maneuvers to save his life, finds himself without life in the end. The one who lays down his life for Jesus' sake and the Gospel's, will find life.  Imparting life by necessity requires parting with life as we understand it.  The promise is that life will be returned to us--a kind of divine exchange.  "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24ff)

I recently read a poignant article by the daughter of the stridently feminist author, Alice Walker.  Alice raised her daughter to despise motherhood.  Her daughter resisted motherhood in attempt to imitate her own mother.  When she finally had a child, she realized in deep regret what she had missed her whole adult life.  She was now awakened as a mother in her own being, and she had to reckon with the way in which the freedom that had been sold to her had robbed her of years of meaning that were unrecoverable.  You can access this article here:

If you are a Christian, then you belong to Christ--the whole of you.  God gets to decide how your intellect is used and fulfilled, how your gifts are used, how your education is used, how your body is used, how your time and creative energy is used.  What if God decides that your children need your education, your gifts, a good parcel of years, and most of your creative energy?  Our current culture would say that it would be a waste for you to give all of that to children.  You were made for more or educated for more.  Our vision for the future has stopped with ourselves.  We cannot see that the future generation will have very little to give because it has received so very little from us.

Various legitimate reasons emerge for a woman to work outside the home, the details of which deserve their own conversation.  The point I am making is that we must give motherhood its proper priority.  In helping young women plan their future, we should be helping them plan a life that has room for imparting being (especially to children God may give them) because if not, their creative energy will be in so much demand elsewhere.  It is hard to choose to give that mothering FIRST to one's own children, and it is certainly not as gratifying in the short term.

Edith Stein said, "Whatever is surrendered to God is not lost but is saved, chastened, exalted, and proportioned out in true measure."  Mary is an icon for all of us of our relationship to Christ.  We are all called to carry Christ to the world.  We are all called to become less as Christ becomes more.  It is the seed that goes down alone into the earth and dies that bears much fruit.  I understand now what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that women would be sanctified through childbearing--it is how we can become like Christ in our giving up of self for the sake of new life.  It is the Christian lesson available to women in a particular way.

After nine months of trying to trust God for my life and future, the birth of our sixth child took place during a blizzard of epic proportions.  I began to bleed during labor from a placental abruption, forcing the hospital staff to go out with an emergency vehicle and get the surgeon who could not get out of his driveway.  As they wheeled me into surgery, I was panicked.  Would this sweet baby who I already loved live?  Would I live?  In my swirl of overwhelming emotions, I knew I needed to still myself and be present to God, who was with me in this valley of death.  I quieted myself and listened.  I was surprised at what I heard.  I heard God whisper to me among the beeps and buzzes of machines, in the gathering of the crowd of surgical nurses, anaesthesiologists, surgeon, and so many others, and this is what I heard:

"Thank you."  Thank you.  I asked you to walk into your deepest fear;  I asked you to lay down your body because I wanted this person at this intersection in history, and you had to be his mother.  Thank you for being open to giving life.  I can thankfully say that Becket and I are both alive and well.  It could have turned out differently but still with a result of the victory of life.

We as women have a choice before us:  will we ensure the survival and success of the human race?  This seems extreme, but it is exactly that crucial. Whole cultures and people groups are soon to disappear because women are saying, "No. I won't do it.  Make it worth my investment."

Sacrifice of self is required for future generations to thrive.  The beauty is that when we choose to make that sacrifice, we find we become someone we would not have become otherwise because we find that we walk into who we were created to be.  Our beings expand as we give being away.  Before I became a mother I had grandiose visions for myself.  I was going to change the world, write books, adventure into difficult places, be recognized for my gifts to the world...all for God, of course. What I didn't realize is that God wanted to perfect me in love.  He was not so concerned about all I would do for him.  Motherhood taught me the greatest lessons in becoming less. Instead of doing great deeds, I was taught to do small deeds and realize their secret grandeur.  All the desire for recognition was slowly rung out of me, and my desires became more aligned with God's call to smallness for the purpose of fruitfulness. 

Maybe it is time for women to give the world what it so desperately wants and needs--motherhood.  And in so doing, we might just find ourselves.