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The Paradox of the Weaker Sex, Part 2: The “Cons” of Being a Woman

9:27:00 AMAnne Foster

“You wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior”

“ … let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.” 

“… Likewise you husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker sex, since you are joint heirs of the grace of life, in order that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1)

These words of Saint Peter usually have one of two possible effects upon his female readers. We are either filled with aggravation at the apparent “male chauvinism” seeping through every line, or are brought to tears at the reverent and profound truths he is referring to. 

If you have read my previous post The Paradox of the Weaker Sex, Part 1: Story of a Polish nun, then you probably have a hunch that these quotations from Scripture happen to have the latter effect upon me. But before you roll your eyes and reach your mouse for the close button, allow me to explain further my resolve that the privilege of being a woman is intimately bound to our weaknesses.

Lucky for me, my argument has already been eloquently laid out by the esteemed Dr. Alice von Hildebrand in her work The Privilege of Being a Woman

Yet before we approach this delicate subject, I believe it is in order that we remind ourselves, particularly due to the topic at hand, of the key role which humility must play when speaking of gender. I propose that if we are to gain anything from this inquiry which we hope will aid us in growing in virtue, then we must take upon a shroud of humility. 

Let us move forward in the spirit of St. Augustine who said, 
“Who the more they showed up my misery, the more I praise my physician.” (2)

Thus, what can we learn from observing the weaknesses of the feminine nature? 

Dr. von Hildebrand begins her list of “Cons” by drawing to light the emotional vulnerability which women are more so inclined to than most men. This vulnerability is best exemplified by a woman’s tears. That our feminine nature is more prone to tears is a claim which I believe even the most stoic amongst us can attest to.

And yet, although we are addressing vulnerability as a “con”, the way in which Dr. von Hildebrand explains this so called weakness expresses her stance. She believes that when our feminine attributes are properly disciplined, they become a means to our glory. Of the connection between a woman’s tears and her sanctity she writes,

“A woman’s way to holiness is clearly to purify her God-given sensitivity and to direct it into the proper channels. She should fight against maudlin tears and pray for holy tears -- tears of love, of gratitude, of contrition.”(3)

 Dr. von Hildebrand expounds upon womanly sensitivity as a “meld of heart and mind”, a quality more common in women than in the men. And due to this intimate relationship women have with their hearts, they are much more likely to be wounded than men. Not that men are impervious to heartbreak, but rather women are less successful at shielding themselves from their feelings. Women feel more deeply and thus tend to take their feelings more seriously, to the point where they begin to dwell on them to a dangerous degree. Being romantic and sentimental, they can escape into their daydreams, allowing their imaginations to run wild, untethering them from reality and rational thinking(4). 

Dr. von Hildebrand claims that due to this great primacy which women award to their emotions and their hearts, women are in need of much guidance. This guidance to which Dr. von Hildebrand refers can be found within their male companions. For many virtuous men are as in touch with their gift of reason as women are with their hearts.

A testament to this complementary exchange between the sexes, are the many great women saints who sought the counsel of male spiritual directors, so as to help them “channel their emotions, distinguishing between those that are valid and those that are tainted by irrationality.” St. Teresa of Avila repeatedly stressed a woman’s need for guidance due to the dangers which emotionalism, daydreaming, illusionism and self-centeredness pose. But she also writes that since more women than men receive extraordinary graces, that they are more receptive to God’s voice and particularly capable of heroic donation when their heart is purified (4). Essentially, she is saying the more privileged the person, the more they need guidance. 

Of course it goes without mention that both men and women are in need of guidance. Therefore, does it not all the more pay heed to the complementarity of the sexes that they can look to one another for the guidance which they need? Does this revelation not exemplify the harmony between man and woman, which works towards their individual pursuits of virtue and holiness?

Once we have purified our sensitivity, our title of “the privileged sex” is made unquestionably apparent. In my next post, I will expound upon the great privilege of “the weaker sex”, by honoring our intimate relationship with our hearts, our holy tears, and our mission towards the other sex: one of awakening and refining man’s affectivity.   

1) 1 Peter 3:3, 1 Peter 3:4, 1 Peter 3:7 
2) Augustine, Contra litteras Petiliani 3.11, quoted in Gueranger, Liturgical Year, feast of Saint Augustine (August 28), 14:101.
3) Hildebrand, Privilege of Being a Woman, p. 45.
4) Hildebrand, Privilege of Being a Woman, p. 38.
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