The ENDOW class I’m facilitating is nearly finished (where did the time go??) and in chapter 6 of the class on JPII’s Letter to Women the elusive “feminine genius” is introduced.
So what is the Feminine Genius? Does it mean that women are really, really smart? What’s all this genius stuff about anyway?
As you might have guessed, the word genius has many connotations. In the sense that John Paul II uses it, it expresses and essential nature or spirit. “In other words, in recognizing the “genius of women”, he is honoring us for who we are and how we act in relation to other persons, for the very gift of womanhood that we bring to every area of society, to the family and to the Church.” (ENDOW Study Guide, Letter to Women Pg. 63)
If genius means essential nature or spirit, and we’re talking about that “genius” which women possess specifically, then what does it look like? Examining our own hearts can provide some clues to what the feminine genius looks like, because it looks like you!
However, one trait of the feminine genius that is most observable and clear is this: “In the very essence of our being, we have a capacity for recognizing the value of persons over things and the primacy of of being and relationship over having and doing.” (SG, Pg. 62) Seems like a pretty important contribution to the world, doesn’t it? To be specially suited for recognizing the humanity of others and valuing people over stuff, profits, or ideas? Is it any wonder that the majority of social workers, and other caregivers are women? Or that women are more likely to favor spending on social programs?
Another aspect of the “feminine genius” is woman’s capacity for empathy. Of course, being empathetic is a by-product of recognizing the humanity of others and valuing people over things. Empathy is not merely understanding the experiences of others, but being able to in some way, take them on as one’s own. A good example of this is crying at movies. I can count the number of times on one finger that my husband has cried during a movie (and it was while watching Jesus be crucified!). I, on the other hand, would need all my fingers and toes, and all of his too! I know I’m not unique in this regard. This is a small thing, but I think it shows how easily women can take on the experiences, struggles, and triumphs of others, even of people we don’t know or who don’t even exist!
Pope John Paul II, in speaking of the feminine genius, said the following, which is long, but I wouldn’t dare to sparse it:
“Woman has a genius all her own which is vitally essential to both society and the Church. It is certainly not a question of comparing woman to man since it is obvious that they have fundamental dimensions and values in common. However, in man and in woman these acquire different strengths, interests, and emphases, and it is this very diversity which becomes a source of enrichment.
“In Mulieris Dignitatem, I highlighted one aspect of feminine genius that I would like to stress today: woman is endowed with a particular capacity for accepting the human being in his concrete form. Even this singular feature which prepares her for motherhood, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually, is inherent in the plan of God who entrusted the human being to woman in an altogether special way. The woman of course, as much as the man, must take care that her sensitivity does not succumb to the temptations to possessive selfishness, and must put it at the service of authentic love.” (John Paul II, Genius of Women, Pg. 27-28)
The feminine genius is a way of looking at what it means to be a woman and examining it from the perspective of God who created us as women. Often feminists rightly criticize what society has made of woman’s God-given genius. In our culture, any person, male or female, who places people and relationships above money, possessions, or pleasure is viewed as being a fool at best and someone to be scorned and ignored. Anyone, but especially women, who seek to be of service and to give back and participate in communities, rather than working for self-promotion and power, is seen as being a fool or unenlightened.
Young women, increasingly, see this too. They feel pressure to cut off from themselves the part of who they are that is distinctly feminine and given by God to increase our holiness and love for Him. Some women succeed at doing this, but often at great price to themselves. There is a lot of anger, pain, and bitterness among young women at what we often feel we are being forced to sacrifice in order to “succeed”.
I was out exercising the other day, and listening to my ipod. I don’t know if any of you remember the band No Doubt, but I was a big fan of them in middle school and high school. Their one song, “Just a Girl” was an especial favorite of mine. It has a very fast, hard rock beat, which actually makes it perfect for working out. I know the lyrics, but I hadn’t really listened to them in a long time. So I did the other day, and I realized that this song, though sung from one woman’s perspective, is an indictment of society for its deliberate trampling on of the feminine genius of all women. She’s right to be mad, though she (and many other young women like her) may not even really be aware of what they’re actually mad about.
On a surface level, she is mad because she can’t “drive late at night”, and because she’s “living in captivity”. She starts out the song so angry that she doesn’t “have any rights” because she’s “just a girl”, but as the song goes on, that anger turns to confusion and resignation because what and who she wants to be doesn’t fit with who society says she should be. Especially telling is the final verse:
I’m just a girl, what’s my destiny?
What I’ve succumbed to is making me numb
I’m just a girl, my apologies
What I’ve become is so burdensome
She’s desperate to know her “destiny”, in other words, what she was created for. But what she’s “succumbed to”, which one can only guess at – eating disorder, drugs, poor body-image, cutting, promiscuity, etc. – is making her numb.
Then, just when you think she’d lose it with anger for how she’s been treated…she apologizes. “My apologies, what I’ve become is so burdensome.”
What she’s become, cut off from her “destiny”, from her essential nature, is something she thinks she needs to apologize for. But society is the one that should be apologizing to her. To all of us. To any woman who has been told she’s crazy for caring. To any woman who puts her children and husband ahead of her career. To every woman who has felt that she had to cut off portions of who she is, who she was created to be, in order to “fit in” or “get ahead”.
John Paul II gets this. The feminine genius is a way of reclaiming that. “The feminine genius describes who we are, the essence of our nature which is endowed with a special capacity to call the world back to a ‘priority of love’, which never reduces the person to an object, but recognizes his or her immeasurable dignity as a child of God created for infinite love and eternal life.” (SG, pg. 65).
The feminine genius helps us see we are so much more than “just a girl” and points the way to how we were created, to our ultimate destiny, which is to be united with God forever in love.