One of my New Years’ resolutions for 2015 is to read one book on femininity every month. I’m two months in and still carrying on (just finished Rhonda Cervin's Feminine, Free and Faithful, and very much looking forward to book #3 in one week, Gertrude von le Fort’s The Eternal Woman). While I’m working at forging ahead, I like to look back and ponder where I’ve been. There are several books that greatly influenced my ideals of Femininity, to date. They’re in no particular order except the order in which my brain remembered them, but I hope you enjoy, and perhaps get inspired to pick one or two up yourself.
1. The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander
“There is one big thing we can do with God’s help, that is, we can trust God’s plan, we can put aside any quibbling or bitterness about ourselves and what we are. We can accept and seize upon the fact that what we are at this moment, young or old, strong or weak, mild or passionate, beautiful or ugly, clever or stupid, is planned to be like that. Whatever we are gives form to the emptiness in us which can only be filled by God and which God is even now waiting to fill.”
I know this is an odd choice for a list of books that inspired my ideals of Catholic femininity but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this marvelous masterpiece of a book on my list. And near the top. Houselander’s book isn’t specifically for women, but it is a book about Mary so there is much about femininity in it. What spoke to me most though was Houselander’s poetry about being content with who you are – who God made you to be – and that God has definitively made each one of us, exactly as we are. This was a life-changing revelation. My femininity wasn’t an afterthought – it was a pre-thought. It was THE plan, not the B-plan. God had specifically made me feminine. That bit of wisdom, in addition to being one that brought much healing, was something that encouraged me to read and study more about femininity and it’s one of the only books I re-read, almost every year. And even after umpteen times reading it, her words still work their way into my heart.
2. The Privilege of Being a Woman by Alice von Hildebrand
“Unwittingly, the feminists acknowledge the superiority of the male sex by wishing to become like men. They foolishly want to alter inequality rather than to achieve truth or justice. Femininity is a linchpin of human life; once it is uprooted, the consequences are disastrous. In fact, experience proves that feminism benefits men and harms women.”
Alice von Hildebrand is one of my literary, and personal, heroines. What an intelligent, articulate and strong, yet feminine and graceful woman. Her book The Privilege of Being a Woman influenced me greatly, especially her thoughts surrounding the difficulties and hypocrisy found in radical feminism. I have never considered myself a radical feminist, but I am definitely a product of this North American society. I had ideas about women and their roles from the media, friends and family and to be perfectly honest, before I’d read her book I hadn’t really thought too much about how problematic my own views really were. Hers is one book I keep close by, and one that I quote often when writing about the counterfeits of femininity. Because it truly is a privilege to be a woman.
3. Discovering the Feminine Genius by Katrina Zeno
“…While some women are called to biological motherhood, every woman is called to spiritual motherhood because motherhood is knit into the very structure of a woman’s being. Women are created with the gift of interior readiness to receive others into their lives, and in doing so, to nurture their emotional, moral, cultural and spiritual well-being.”
I read this book on the advice of my spiritual director and thank God for his wisdom. Zeno’s book is a good mix of down-to-earth practicality with the intellectual richness of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I’d been primed already – having taken an in-depth course on JPII’s ToB, but I hadn’t heard it spoken of in quite this way. Her experiences with and insights into motherhood, especially the spiritual motherhood of every woman, were particularly striking. After reading the book I began to notice the motherly hearts of little girls as they sang their dollies to sleep, and the loving hearts of elderly women as they said their prayers for others, day and night. And I was able to look at my own heart and see where I was mother to others, since I am not a mother of others.
4. Dressing with Dignity by Colleen Hammond
Colleen Hammond is truly a remarkable woman. She’s a former news anchor, actress, model and beauty queen but didn’t get sucked in to the drama of any of those careers. Instead she took all that she learned in them and wrote this book. While some of her opinions were a bit hard to swallow, Colleen’s insights around modesty being about the whole person instead of just one’s clothes were most memorable for me. Modesty is about clothing yes, but it is also about tone of voice, posture, grace, charity in word and deed and about avoiding extremes. Being an image consultant she stressed the importance of image. Because we, as human beings, judge others, whether we like it or not, within seconds of seeing them. And the impressions that others have of us sometimes matter. I may have belonged to the camp that thought that it mattered little what I wore outside my home. I may have, at one point in my life, worn pajama’s to the store and tank tops and shorts to mass. Not any more. Reading Dressing with Dignity drew my attention to parts of me, inside and out, that needed work, and I feel I am all the more feminine because of it.
5. Honourable mentions: Love, Marriage and Children by Fulton J. Sheen, and Woman by Edith Stein
I have read neither of these books in full, but the bits I have read have stuck with me, so much so that it wouldn’t be right not to mention them here. Sheen’s essay entitled Does a Business Career Harden a Woman is one that I refer back to over and over again. He was a brilliant man, and it was the first time I’d thought through the idea that women’s gifts are needed everywhere in the world. The problem of women in the workforce has always been apparent to me, as no woman I know has ever been able to do or have “it all”. Something in their lives always suffers. Sheen explains that happiness, for a woman must include some kind of motherhood – something that affirms and gives life to others – whether she works at home or not. And she must be true to this vocation, otherwise she will live her life frustrated and unfulfilled.
“Woman, to be happy, must be co-worker with the Divine; she bears what God alone can give.” ~Fulton J. Sheen
Related to this idea that women must somehow bring their gifts to the world is Edith’s Stein’s understanding of the vocations of women (and that’s vocations – plural). She lays out three levels of vocation for all women – a universal vocation (we’re all daughters of The Father), a vocation according to gender (that call to be receptive life-bearers through motherhood of every kind), and an individual, unique vocation (dancer, doctor, friend, counsellor). Her thoughts helped me to gain perspective in my life, allowing me to understand better that it wasn’t just my individual vocation that mattered (as the world is wont to think), but that being always comes before doing. It’s not what you do that gives significance and meaning to your life, it’s who you are: Daughter of the Father, first and foremost. Being anchored in the Father (or working towards it at least), everything just seemed to flow out from there, without too much fuss or worry on my part.