|Simone deBeauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre|
Simone deBeauvoir begins her famous book, The Second Sex, with the following observation:
"For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new. Enough ink has been spilled in quarrelling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it. It is still talked about, however, for the voluminous nonsense uttered during the last century seems to have done little to illuminate the problem. After all, is there a problem? And if so, what is it? Are there women, really?...One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should, what place they occupy in this world, what their place should be."
I share deBeauvoir's sympathies here. For a long time, I too have resisted writing a blog post on the topic of woman. It wasn't until a few weeks ago, on the Feast of the Annunciation, that I decided to just do it. I want to write about woman not only because I am a woman, but because as a woman I feel impelled to examine the questions that deBeauvoir herself poses. Of course, I suspect that I will come to very different conclusions about the true identity of woman. For Catholics, this identity crisis shouldn't be a crisis at all because we have a model of womanhood. But knowing how to imitate a model isn't so easy.
How can a Catholic woman find her way in the midst of all the modern expectations and stereotypes? Because despite all of feminism's attempts to liberate woman from expectations, they are still there. We cannot escape the notion of identity. Even if we attempt to construct a new one, the idea of woman will always be fashioned in some image. One might think of this identity as some kind of Platonic curse, always gravitating woman towards some kind of "essence" or "perfection," the curse words of post-modernity. One could spend their whole life trying to escape the fact that woman is something. Or, one could just take the simple, humble, less complicated route and investigate who woman is. For Catholic women (and for any woman who seeks an example of womanhood), Mary is the model. The meaning and message of her life are summed up in her response to the angel Gabriel, which we celebrated on the Feast of the Annunciation:
I am the handmaiden of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word."
What do these words mean for women today? For many, they mean nothing but submission and weakness, the antithesis of true feminine existence. For the Catholic woman, of course, they cannot mean that, since they were uttered by none other than the Theotokos herself. And yet, as the current state of affairs demonstrates, the true identity of woman remains in a state of confusion, just as deBeauvoir expresses. The result of this confusion is that, whether or not one believes in the Immaculate Conception, virgin birth, and other Marian teachings of the Catholic Church, Mary's words pose a dilemma. For the unbeliever, they call for a reconsideration of the concept of choice. For Catholics, they demand nothing short of a revolution---a revolt against the inadequate and incomplete modern image of what it means to be a woman. A revolution that aims at the core, at what is fundamental to the many questions that women face today. Perhaps even what deBeauvoir calls the "place" of woman in society is not really the heart of the matter. Perhaps what is most at stake is something far less obvious and simple, a steady current beneath the turbulent swirls and eddies of modern discourse--- "I am the handmaiden of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy Word."