The genius of my sister — St. Edith Stein

This is the latest installment of the series, “The genius of my sister.” Read other articles in the series to learn more about Catholic women throughout history and how they can inspire us today.

“Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic” (“Letter to Women”).

In the words of Claire Swinarski, author of “Girl, Arise!,” “I’m a feminist for the same reason I’m bold and honest and sometimes ragey: because Jesus was all of those things. In a time when women were some of the lowest of the low, Jesus embraced them with open arms.” I could not agree more. Yet, as I sat in my English class, I was wary of the next unit we were entering into: feminist literary criticism.

For all my non-English major friends, feminist criticism is a school of theory that aims to expose the enforcement or rejection of misogyny and oppression of women in writing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with scrutinizing literature through this lense. In fact, it is good and necessary to be cognizant of the ways in which society oppresses people. The reason for my wariness was not because of the subject, but because of the environment I was in — one I found to be uniquely hostile to Catholics. Thus, I doubted that this unit would align with my beliefs of what it means to be a woman.

The unit began with an introduction to the first wave of feminism (late 1700s to the early 1900s). Here I was introduced to the brilliant Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. As a means of highlighting this time period, we examined a piece of writing by German philosopher, Edith Stein. I don’t recall what it was, but I remember my heart being on fire. I was so excited that the school I was attending was upholding something I believed to be so true. Ironically, Stein’s philosophy, which resonated so deeply with me, was quickly critiqued by my professor and fellow classmates as we moved on to the second and third waves of feminism. Women like Gloria Steinem were placed on pedestals. As the conversation of my classmates swirled on around me, reinforcing my negative perception of feminism (anti-men, pro-abortion, etc.), I dove into the writings of Edith Stein and found truth — beautiful, profound expressions of what it means to be boldly, authentically, unabashedly, courageously feminine.

For Stein, to be a woman was not one dimensional. Much like the Catholic faith to which she eventually converted, to be a woman was full of juxtapositions — “both, and” rather than “either, or.” In her eyes, a woman was both strong and sensitive; both a professional and maternal; had both an intellect and a heart. It was liberating.

Indeed, “each woman who lives in the light of eternity can fulfill her vocation, no matter if it is in marriage, in a religious order, or in a worldly profession,” she writes in her collection, “Essays on Women.” However, a woman’s “primary vocation is maternal.” Thus, regardless of wherever we go, or whatever we do, we are called to bless the world with our gift of maternity, for “filled with the spirit of supernatural maternity, woman has the mission to win others over as children of God.”

It is tempting to fall into the trap of proving one’s worth as a woman. We exist in a society where we are often judged by external factors — our looks, temperaments, accomplishments, degrees, careers, relationships, etc. We are challenged to “break the glass ceiling.” But Stein confronts this utilitarian mindset. The world needs more than what we have. We must be more vulnerable and offer the world our souls; for “a woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold,” she writes in her essay, “Fundamental Principles in Women’s Education.”

Only by seeing people through the eyes of God will women be able to transform a world in which others are oppressed. When we provide a sanctuary for others, building people up instead of tearing them down, focusing on nurturing each others’ gifts rather than competing or comparing ourselves to them, we will achieve greatness.

Indeed, this is what Edith Stein did. In many ways, she was radical for her time. In 1916, she earned her Ph.D. in philosophy and had dreams of becoming a professor (which were never realized due to cultural norms of the time). Determined to still share her thoughts and gifts with the world, Stein addressed women’s issues by pairing her love of philosophy and theology. In all things, she sought to do what was true and good. This habit eventually led her to convert to Catholicism (having previously been atheist after renouncing her Jewish faith). Her love for the Church brought her to the Carmelite order, where she became Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1942, she died a martyr’s death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

March is Women’s Month. As we celebrate women and the accomplishments of those women who have forged new paths for us, let us not be afraid to look to women who contradict the traditional values of feminism — women like St. Edith Stein. Let us celebrate women who fight for women’s rights while simultaneously fighting to protect the unborn. Let us celebrate women who have pursued their dreams without letting an unplanned pregnancy deter them from choosing life. May we raise up women who embrace their gift of spiritual maternity. May we not forget the women who are in the depths of their vocation of natural maternity, veiled behind the mundane, changing diapers, cradling crying babies, enduring sleepless nights, forming souls and raising saints.

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