Published April 26, 2021
Imagine you’re built like Michael Phelps, with a long torso, and arms and legs that slice through the water. Early in your life, however, everyone around you starts insisting you should be a jockey. Swimming is no longer trendy, and anyone with any kind of sense knows that he should be racing horses.
So you and your body, which is totally unsuited for horse racing, head for the arena to jockey up. For years, you do everything you can to be the best jockey out there but are greeted only with failure after failure because no horse can fly like the wind with you on its back.
Those among us with the Michael Phelps physiques instantly know they should never be encouraged to racehorses. Doing so thwarts human nature, as well as the horse’s nature, and it will never end well. The physics and the mechanics tell us immediately that these two do not mix.
Most of us still have eyes to see distortions of human nature in sports, but do we still have the capacity to see human nature – its physics, mechanics, and purposes – in male and female? For more than 50 years, feminists have been telling women that men have it better.
We have dismissed womanhood and all its attending realities, like having children and raising them. Meanwhile, we’ve encouraged women to become so men-like that we can’t tell the difference anymore. If we can, we aren’t supposed to say that part out loud. We have scarcely any idea what true womanhood or manhood is anymore.
The saddest aspect of this long march to androgyny is that the options on the table for women cut women off from the very things that can lead to flourishing and happiness. True flourishing requires that something act in accord with its nature. But like the Michael Phelps-built jockey, women have been told the lie that their happiness resides in being a male, not female.
So what, then, does it mean to be a woman? The ancient thinkers (and the not-so ancients) have recognized that women hold things. In romance languages, words that are types of containers are feminine, such as a ship, the ocean, even the church. We see this capacity to hold in our hips, arms made to cradle a baby, and wombs.
We also nourish others. Our body nourishes an unborn child and then our breasts feed the born baby. Clues have been left in every cell of our being. Holding and nourishing aren’t just for biological mothers, but all women. All women are called to hold others in their minds, hearts, prayers, and often arms, but also to nourish, or in some other way to give them something they are lacking.
It’s a deeply feminine type of holding and nourishing to give to and improve life in others. Of course, this is not all that women do, but it is at the core of what it means to be a woman.
The biological clues also reveal deep spiritual truths. Women have the capacity to harbor, hold, nourish, and bring to life great ideas and lofty spiritual projects. Think of Mother Teresa, who gestated the tiniest seed of an idea of serving the poorest of the poor in India, only to see that seedling grow to maturity and take on a life all its own, carrying on even after her death.
Or consider Mother Angelica, who had no television experience but went on to birth the largest Catholic television network in the world. It is no accident that both are called “mother,” because they embody this idea of holding, growing, nourishing both in their religious orders and in unique vocational calls. Their virginity was made fruitful. Although the world sees their celibate lifestyle as something confining or unnatural, on a spiritual level it is a unique and beautiful call to be radically open to works that God can plant in a soul.
There are few things more scorned in the culture today than virginity or motherhood (especially if you are a mother of many). That has been by design with radical feminism’s Marxist efforts sparked in the 1960s. It was then that the idea was planted that human nature can be changed, that happiness and flourishing can be anything we want them to be, and that virginity and motherhood are out of fashion.
Over the decades, despite the bright feminist promises, the sad decline of health and happiness among women continues. A 2020 Pew Research Report reveals that more than 50 percent of liberal, white women under 30 have some kind of mental health issue. These numbers will only increase with the advent of the physical destruction through hormones and surgeries for women who want to be more like men. In the past, it was one thing to have to heal emotionally and physically from the wounds of the sexual revolution, but this new development takes women (and even young girls) to a place where there is no going back physiologically.
The obvious frustration of a Michael Phelps continually seeking the wrong sport is far less tragic than the frustration of generations of women rejecting their very selves. Women continue to chase to the ends of the earth any trend that promises happiness, yet we continue to reject the very things we are made for.
One wonders when it might collectively dawn on us that perhaps the great hope we have in popular trends isn’t working and that the things we have most overlooked might in fact serve as a guide. The answers are right under our noses.
Carrie Gress is a Fellow at Ethics and Public Policy Center.