Edith Stein

Feminine vocations

What formation does woman’s soul yearn for? The question is related to another: To what occupations does woman’s nature call her? It is not our concern here to compile statistical data to demonstrate the vocations in which contemporary woman is engaged. (She is engaged in nearly all of them.) Rather, our intent is to discover woman’s genuine inclinations. In doing so, statistics are of little help. A presentation of numbers involved in particular vocations does grade the inclinations and talents concerned; even so, it can inform only clumsily regarding the success of the various activities. Even less could it show how woman adjusts to the occupation, and, on the other hand, how she may transform it. We must here limit ourselves to that which nature and destiny demand in true feminine vocations. But it is necessary to cite concrete examples. Therefore, we shall attempt to show how woman can function in marriage, in religious life, and in various professions in conformity with her nature.

According to Genesis, woman was placed by man’s side so that he would not be alone but would have a helpmate who suits him; she will primarily fulfill her vocation as spouse in making his concerns her own. Normally, we understand “his concerns” to mean his profession. The woman’s participation in her husband’s profession can be performed in various ways. In the first place, it will be her duty to shape their home life so that it does not hinder, but rather furthers, his professional work. If his work is in the home, she must see to it that disturbances are kept as far away from him as possible; if his work is away from the home, she must be sure that the home affords appropriate relaxation and recovery when he returns to it. There can be immediate participation in the performance of direct help; indeed, this happens frequently in modern marriages between people of similar or related professional training, or at least with those of congenial interests. In former times this was the case to a large extent, generally in country life but also frequently in business enterprise (especially in those on a small scale), in doctor’s households, and also very prominently in those of Protestant pastors.

“Man’s concerns,” however, does not only refer to the purely objective content of his work but also to the procurement of his family’s livelihood—the “battle for existence.” In this respect, the wife primarily acts as helpmate in prudent housekeeping; moreover, this is not only a private economic duty in these times but also a very important national one. But possibly more nowadays than in former times, both husband and wife will work. Therein arises the difficult problem of the double vocation: there is danger that her work outside of the home will so take over that finally it can make it impossible for her to be the heart of the family and the soul of the home, which must always remain her essential duty.

But the woman who “suits” man as helpmate does not only participate in his work; she complements him, counteracting the dangers of his specifically masculine nature. It is her business to ensure to the best of her ability that he is not totally absorbed in his professional work, that he does not permit his humanity to become stunted, and that he does not neglect his family duties as father. She will be better able to do so the more she herself is mature as a personality; and it is vital here that she does not lose herself in association with her husband but, on the contrary, cultivates her own gifts and powers. Her mission as mother relates closely to her mission as spouse, only here she must primarily care for the children and bring them to development. She must guide and then gradually withdraw to attain, in face of the mature human being, the role of a companion. This demands, on the one hand, an even more refined gift of sympathy because it is necessary to comprehend the dispositions and faculties of which the young people themselves are as yet unaware; she has to feel her way towards that which wishes to become, but which as yet does not exist. On the other hand, the possibility of influence is greater. The youthful soul is still in the formative stage and declares itself more easily and openly because it does not offer resistance to extraneous influences. However, all this increases the mother’s responsibility.

In order to develop to the highest level the humanity specific to husband and children, woman requires the attitude of selfless service. She cannot consider others as her property nor as means for her own purposes; on the contrary, she must consider others as gifts entrusted to her, and she can only do so when she also sees them as God’s creatures towards whom she has a holy duty to fulfill. Surely, the development of their God-given nature is a holy task. Of even higher degree is their spiritual development, and we have seen that it is woman’s supernatural vocation to enkindle, in the hearts of husband and children, the sparks of love for God or, once enkindled, to fan them into greater brightness. This will come about only if she considers and prepares herself as God’s instrument. How this can be will be considered at a later time.

It would not be difficult to mention women in the most diverse professions who have achieved excellence, but this would not prove that their occupations were specifically feminine ones. Not every woman is a pure embodiment of feminine nature. Individualities are not simply variations of feminine nature but are often approximations of masculine nature and qualify, thereby, for an occupation not regarded as specifically feminine. If the care and development of human life and humanity are women’s specific duty, so the specifically feminine vocations will be those in which such efforts are possible outside of marriage as well. I do not wish to enter here into the question of domestic service because here it is not a question of specifically feminine work, and in many respects it produces tasks other than those which the woman of the house must fulfill. It is more important to clarify the significance of occupations outside of the household, occupations which were denied women for some time and have only become available for women gradually through the struggles of the feminist movement.

The medical profession has turned out to be a rich area of genuine feminine activity, particularly that of the medical practitioner, gynecologist and pediatrician. There have been severe objections to the admission of women into this profession: a young lady may encounter many things in her medical studies which would otherwise be kept away from her; a serious objection has been that the studies make extraordinary demands of bodily strength and nervous energy, and professional practice even more. Indeed, professional practice requires a particular physical and spiritual constitution, as well as the professional zeal necessary for the assumption of the difficulties unique to that profession. Such misgivings are dispelled when these stipulations are respected. Of course, one will always be grateful to encounter the untroubled, innocent beauty which moves us, and which is completely unaware of the seamy side of human nature. Today it is hardly possible, but in former times how many women who were so protected in their innocence until marriage were suddenly robbed of all their ideals, in the cruelest manner, in marriage itself! In this respect, could one not say that the matter-of-fact and objective, scientific approach is still one of the most accepted methods, if not the absolutely best one, to become acquainted with natural data? Since most women are obliged to come to grips with these data, should not individual women who have the calling and opportunity make all sacrifices in order to fulfill this calling and stand by their sisters’ side?

Experience indicates that this has happened in large degree. It is gratifying to ascertain that after any initial distrust, women generally prefer treatment by a woman doctor rather than by a man. I believe that this is conditioned not only by the patient’s modesty but even more so by the specifically feminine manner of empathy which has beneficial effects. The human being, especially the invalid, needs sympathy in his total condition. The widespread method of modern specialization does not satisfy this need in treating a limb or organ while disregarding the rest of the person, even though the specific treatment is pertinent. (Also, in many cases, specialization is not the best method because most illnesses are illnesses of the total human being even if they are manifested in only one organ; the patient needs treatment in his individual peculiarity as a whole organism.) Counteracting this abstract procedure, the specifically feminine attitude is oriented towards the concrete and whole person. The woman doctor has only to exercise courage in following her natural inspiration and liberating herself whenever necessary from methods learned and practiced according to rule. (Of course, it must not be denied that it often happens as well with masculine specialists, although not generally—in earlier times the house doctor typified this total approach.) It is not only a question of summoning up the patience to listen to much which is absolutely irrelevant to the subject. The intent must be to understand correctly the whole human situation, the spiritual need which is often greater than the corporal one, and perhaps to intervene helpfully not only by medical means but also as a mother or a sister.

So conceived, the medical profession is a truly charitable one and belongs together with other social professions. These professions have been developed for the most part only in recent years, and they are specifically feminine vocations as rightfully as the housewife’s. In all such vocations, it is a matter of actions which are truly maternal in the care of a large “family”: parishioners, the poor or sick of a rural parish or of a municipal precinct, the inmates of a prison, endangered or neglected youth. There is always the potentiality, and basically the necessity, of understanding and helping the whole person whether one initially encounters these human beings to care for them in bodily sickness or to assist them financially, or to give them legal counsel. Demands here on the power of love are even greater than in one’s own family: the natural bond is lacking, the number of people in need is greater, and preponderantly there are people who repel rather than attract by their disposition and frame of mind. In this type of work more than others, it will be shown that normal psychic power does not suffice in carrying out the tasks noted above. It must be sustained by Christ’s power and love. And where it is so supported it will never stop at mere attendance to natural humanity; but, on the contrary, it will always aim at the same time towards the supernatural goal of winning these human beings for God.

Copyright ICS Publications. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, if this copyright notice is included. Maintained by the Austrian Province of the Teresian Carmel.

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MLA Citation

Stein, Edith. “Feminine vocations.” ----. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 2 Mar 2007. 23 Mar 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/stein/feminine_vocations/>.

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