Women’s Work


Dr. Deborah Savage
St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity
University of St. Thomas
St. Paul, Minnesota

It was, apparently, no surprise to anyone that Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si, begins by invoking the image of the earth as feminine. Indeed it seems almost a commonplace, even seamless way to introduce the question of humanity’s responsibility toward creation by reminding us that the earth is “our common home like… a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” She offers up her gifts in ways that often go unheralded or unnoticed and we have forgotten, says the Holy Father that “our very bodies are made up of her elements.” In the end, Pope Francis’ vision is of an integral ecology that both serves and is served by that which is authentically human.

Truly, who could imagine a more nurturing, more caring, more watchful guardian of our health and well-being than “mother” earth? At once both generous and strict, she gives of herself to those who love her enough to till her properly, without demanding permission or thanks. She provides a cover and a home for the immense diversity of God’s creatures, no matter their needs or foibles. The natural fertility of her soil and its fruitful harvest permit us all to sustain ourselves and our families. Her rages are always followed by an apologetic peace. And silently she welcomes anyone seeking a refuge for the weary – or a place to contemplate her beauty.

The mysterious greatness of creation contains within itself an intelligence hidden in the order of things, through which God’s presence and design is made known to us and expressed in infinite ways. In its receptivity and embrace of all that is human, the earth surely can be said to serve as an icon of the feminine. For it is woman, and woman alone, who contains within herself the same miraculous capacity to bear life. This gift, argues Pope Saint John Paul II, is the source of her “feminine genius,” woman’s particular charism, which lends her a particular orientation toward the world: a natural sensitivity to “the other,” to persons. Indeed, says the late Holy Father, God has entrusted all of humanity to the care of woman, a reality that finds its fullest divine expression in the event of the Incarnation - and perhaps its most human manifestation in the ordinary rhythms of daily life.

Bracketing for now the existence of a “masculine genius” (there clearly is one!) this understanding of woman and her mission has become a persistent theme in the Church’s concern for humanity, bringing with it a profound sense of urgency. In fact, in the Second Vatican Council’s Closing Address to Women, the Church Fathers turn to women with real hope, declaring that it is only now, when the vocation of woman is finally being achieved in all its fullness, that “women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.” Even more explicitly and more recently, The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church reveals a new emphasis on the vital role women are to play in realizing the Church’s social vision. There we find the following statement: “The feminine genius is needed in all expressions of the life of society, therefore the presence of women in the workplace must be guaranteed.” The clear implication is that women “belong” everywhere because we bring something to community life that is unique to female personhood – and that whatever this something is, it is necessary to make our society fully human. But perhaps most dramatically and most prophetically, it was Pope Pius XII who declared in 1945: “This is your hour, Catholic women and Catholic girls. Public life needs you… The fortunes of the family, the fortunes of human society, are at stake—and they are in your hands.”

Our love affair with the hectic pace of urban life and its demands has obstructed our vision of these realities – and obscured the place that woman occupies in the scheme of things. In our hyper-technical culture, her natural capacities are often dismissed as irrelevant or even seen as obstructions to the pursuit of success or pleasure, her natural inclination to think first of the persons involved reduced to an unnecessary complication. In her own very human search for happiness and fulfillment, the contemporary professional woman often finds that she must give up her prerogatives or deny who she is in order to compete in a marketplace unwilling to expand its vision to include what is genuinely human.

It is a mostly forgotten historical fact that, prior to the industrial revolution, women played an important and significant role in the economic life of most communities. They basically took charge of what amounted to micro-industrial operations on the farm, assuming responsibility for the baking and weaving industries, the poultry and dairy industries, the brewing and milling industries. But as factory employment gradually supplanted work on the farm or domestic service, families moved to the cities to find their living. Women whose efforts had been central to the activities that fed the family and generated the things needed to survive, suddenly found themselves in small, airless rooms in impersonal cities, tending to the hearth while their husbands went to “work.” Woman’s very human desire for meaningful work certainly found an outlet in the care of her children and the creation of a home, and western culture has always benefited from the radiating influence of women. But seen in this light, it should not be surprising that she would eventually seek additional means for exploring her own potential. In a very real sense, the professional woman is simply searching for a reasonable outlet for her gifts and talents, an inclination completely human in its contours and divine in its origin. What has perhaps escaped her notice is that women engaged in rural life also have such an outlet.

This impulse is something that none of us can ignore, for each of us is obligated by the gift of life to fulfill our own potential by discerning who God is calling us to become; each has a natural right to become fully who one is. And it is this that must govern the process of discerning our vocation and the search for a meaningful occupation. Our vocation is the locus of discovery, where all that we can be is realized and offered in service to the common good.

But the Church is trying to convey to us the significance of woman’s mission, for clearly it involves more than working the soil or producing goods and services. Perhaps the source of her mission can be traced to the first chapters of Genesis when, at Genesis 2:22, woman is made from man’s rib. Here we see that though man’s first contact with reality is of a world of lower order creatures, what we might call “things,” woman’s first contact with reality is of a horizon that, from the beginning, includes man, that is, it includes persons. Upon seeing man, woman recognizes another like her, an equal, while the other creatures and things around her appear only on the periphery of her gaze. Thus, in addition to her capacity to conceive and nurture human life, indeed prior to it, woman’s place in the order of creation reveals that – from the beginning – the horizon of all womankind includes the other.

The genius of woman is found here. While man’s first experience of his own existence is of loneliness, woman’s initial horizon is different. For from the first moment of her own reality, woman sees herself in relation to persons. And it is this insight that informs woman’s genius – attested to both by science and by human experience – to keep constantly before us the fact that the existence of living persons, whether in the womb or walking around outside of it, cannot be forgotten while we frantically engage in the tasks of human living. Woman holds in her hands the secret to all truly human civilizations, hidden in the order of things: the certain knowledge that all human activity is to be ordered toward authentic human flourishing. Wherever woman finds herself, whatever outer tasks are hers to complete, it is this that is her work.

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On 1 September 2016 the

Pontifical Council for the Laity
ceased its activities.
Its responsibilities and duties
have been taken over by the
Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life.