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The Woman Question

A quick review of Genevieve Kineke, The Authentic Catholic Woman (Servant Books, 2006):

What is woman? The question has long been asked, in one form or another, but the answer has remained as obscure as the solution to other interesting issues. The modern age doesn’t like questions it can’t answer, so we’re given stupid answers: woman is a social construction, an economic and sexual commodity, exactly the same as man only different and better, whatever. Most of us bump along somehow, doing our best to act reasonably and mostly ignoring the official answers in practice because they obviously make no sense.

Still, it must be possible to do better. Women are half the world, so it must be possible to say something intelligent about them. One suggestive finding that might serve as a point of departure comes from a study correlating intelligence with brain tissue. It’s been known for a while that men and women use different parts of the brain to deal with the same problems. What the study shows is that the parts of the brain correlated with intelligence are not only different in men and women, but composed of different sorts of tissue.

Specifically, men have 6.5 times the amount of gray matter in the tissue most related to general intelligence, women 10 times the white matter. Gray matter represents information processing centers in the brain, white matter the networking among processing centers. So while it’s not quite true that men and women think with different bodily organs, it appears that they use their brains very, very differently.

The physical difference suggests that men’s intelligence is more a matter of solving particular problems and making particular decisions, women’s of connecting things. That would explain a lot. Women are notoriously concerned with relationships, men with solving problems. Women complain that men are simple-minded and have one-track minds, men that women mix everything with everything else and never come to a conclusion that sticks because something somewhere always seems different at some point and that makes everything else change.

Naturally, the difference means that the sexes normally need and attract as well as complain about each other. It also means though that the sexes are subject to different difficulties and weaknesses. In particular, they mean that especially today it is difficult to define just what a woman is. After all, if everything depends on everything else, and there are no settled standards so the world seems very complicated and hard to interpret (which is especially true in modern times), then the identity of someone who defines things—including herself—relationally will become elusive-to-nonexistent.

The consequences are familiar. Since there are no settled standards women feel guilty about everything and responsible for nothing. They define themselves by others, so they’re easy to prey on and abuse. They see things as fluid, and are vividly conscious of what they want, so they become manipulative and abusive themselves. They’re objects of desire, so they see and present themselves as such, and use the resulting persona aggressively because they’re in a world that mistakes self-assertion for self-realization. Such, at least, are tendencies that are common enough to be noticeable.

So what’s a woman to do? Where can she find stability and dignity in the world today? If you’re a mom what do you want to point your children toward? And what is going to give you a good relationship with your husband? Enter Genevieve Kineke, Catholic wife, mother of 5, and author of The Authentic Catholic Woman. Plato investigated the just man by drawing up plans for the perfect society and saying the just man would be like the perfect society. Mrs. Kineke follows much the same procedure, but as a Catholic convert she has available a well-developed theory of the perfect society, the Church, and the further advantage that Catholic tradition explicitly represents the Church as Bride and Mother, and thus a natural model for women.

So for the author the authentic Catholic woman, and thus the true woman (since she accepts authentic Catholicism as true), is an image of the Church. She picks up that ball and runs with it, or whatever the feminine equivalent of that operation may be. She actually does so quite successfully. The comparison of the Church with a woman is not just a conceit, but an analogy that has been found fruitful and illuminating throughout Christian history and before that among the Jews, with the Song of Songs and the personification of Jerusalem as a woman leading the way.

So she’s got a lot to draw on. She uses her materials to treat the ordinary tasks women take on, from scrubbing floors to feeding children to making nice with difficult people, as a type of the actions of the Church, and so raises them to a dignity denied by the hedonistic rationalism dominant today. Going beyond that she points to a grand role for woman as woman in the scheme of things: woman as sustainer, reconciler, teacher, source of culture and civilizational rebirth.

She goes through the issues in some detail, with good sense as well as piety. Most men are somewhat alarmed by inspirational books with pink flowers on the cover written by women for women. They expect something soppy. She rises above that and has written a book that actually seems quite thoughtful and practical. Whether it actually works for women they’ll have to decide themselves. She’s perfectly aware of the pitfalls of feminine attempts at selfless love—the fears, the hidden motives, the lapses, the likelihood of burnout, ingratitude and resentment—but argues that identifying what one does with something much larger and more authoritative changes the situation so that actions becomes less a personal assertion and so are less troubled by such issues.

In general, I’d describe her as an intelligent and practically-grounded JP II Catholic. She cites the late Pope’s theology of the body a great deal, and doesn’t much draw much on pre-Vatican II materials except the Bible and a couple of saints like Edith Stein. It’s worth noting that she has no objection to male authority—if what women do has great intrinsic dignity it becomes less of a threat—and thereby deviates somewhat from the emphasis of most Church pronouncements in recent years.

The book’s a good effort. People don’t create themselves, so there has to be something that tells women (like men) what they are. It would be nice if that thing justified and gave dignity to the things women do, like looking after babies, that don’t tie in to the life of economic production and consumption. Mrs. Kineke’s discussion does so in a way that makes sense at least for Catholics. (Whether Catholicism makes sense is of course another discussion. I think it does.) It’s hard to think of anything that would work better. A theory of Woman should have enough specificity to offer guidance but enough depth and diversity to avoid oppressiveness and remain applicable to women in very different situations. Reasoning by analogy to something large, public, long-lasting, diverse and nonetheless authoritative seems a better way to go than most. And by good fortune something like that is available to the author: the Church.

Many people of course won’t approve for one reason or another. To liberals who find the whole project sexist and obscurantist I’d say to come back when they come up with a way of life that people will actually find rewarding in the long run. To captious anti-Vatican II trads, I’d say that she may cite Lumen Gentium and George Weigel, but it’s what you do with your materials that counts, and I think she does very well indeed.