What you need to know about Edith Stein and feminism

It may be hard to imagine that a Jewish girl turned teenage atheist could grow up to be a saint. But this was the story for Edith Stein, who we venerate as St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross. As an ardent seeker of truth and an advocate for authentic female empowerment, Edith Stein cast a vision for the Catholic feminine ethos that can shed light on what it means to be a woman today.

Edith Stein’s conversion

At the age of 20, Edith entered the University of Breslau, focusing on philosophy and women studies. During this time, Edith became a radical suffragette but then lost interest in feminism, seeking a more “pragmatic solution” to women’s equality.

As Edith pursued her doctorate, she had providential encounters with people that led her to Christ. One day she was visiting Frankfurt Cathedral when a woman entered with her shopping basket, stopping to pray after going to the market.

Edith recounted: “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.”

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She soon stumbled across the biography of St. Teresa of Avila, which tipped the scales of conversion in her heart. Edith read the book through the night, and when she finished, she said: “This is the truth.”

Within a year Edith Stein was baptized Catholic. It was New Year’s Day 1922.

Her big-souled response to rejection

As Edith’s faith took flight, her professional ambitions were grounded. Although she was the first European woman to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy, when she attempted to become a professor, she met with rejection — for being a woman.

The rejection on the basis of her sex could have triggered a destructive response in her heart, as she staunchly believed, “There is no profession which cannot be practiced by a woman.” Yet, instead of her soul shrinking in bitterness, Edith became big-souled, kind and generous in mind and heart. She did scholarly work for the Church, taught at a Catholic school for girls, and also spoke from a Catholic perspective on women’s issues. Ultimately she took vows as a Carmelite before being deported as a Jewish Christian to Auschwitz, where she courageously faced martyrdom in the gas chambers.

Her big-souled spirit is the opposite of the small-souled spirit of the radical founding feminists. So often feminists who faced rejection similar to Edith reacted by taking away from others, as if to say: If I can’t have a happy life, neither can you.

We don’t usually hear of feminism being small-souled. Instead worldly choirs sing its praises at every turn, though most can’t give a coherent definition of feminism — much less point to who its founders really were.

The heart of radical feminism

Interestingly, radical feminism shares ties with communism. The infamous Vladimir Lenin — whose brutal regime snuffed out 8 million lives via starvation, torture and execution — was a feminist of his day, claiming: “The status of women up to now has been compared to that of a slave; women have been tied to the home, and only socialism can save them from this.”

The words of feminist firebrand Betty Friedan echo those of Lenin: “women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife,’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps … they are suffering a slow death of mind and spirit.”

Feminism denigrated the idea of women being at home with her family — and not just that, but the spirit of what it truly means to be a woman. Woman can be a home by her very nature. She can hold human life within her, yet this physical capacity is a reflection of a greater ability: to be a spiritual life-giver to those around her.

This generative spirit for good opposes the feminist spirit of destruction, which calls not only for abortion on demand and smashing “the patriarchy,” but also the dissolution of the family and distinction between sexes. The destructive feminist ethos is revealed countless times by founding feminists: Germaine Greer (who referred to women as caged canaries) rallied “ungenteel” women to “call for revolution … disrupt society … and unseat God”; Gloria Steinam claimed the ultimate goal would be a society “where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves”; Kate Millet believed, “One of children’s essential rights is to express themselves sexually, probably primarily with each other but with adults as well.” Clearly this thinking isn’t about female empowerment and equality, but something sinister.

It is frightening that these once radical ideas have come to mainstream fruition. It calls to question the wisdom of using the word feminist as a way to define female empowerment, much less oneself.

The Catholic feminine ethos

Perhaps Edith Stein sensed the ill-fruit of feminism, as she abandoned the ideology and embraced the Catholic feminine ethos. She articulated this worldview in her numerous scholarly works, affirming the dignity of women, advocating for female opportunity in fields dominated by men, and emphasizing the complementarity (as opposed to competition) of men and women.

Stein had a much broader understanding of womanhood compared to feminist thinkers. She wrote: “Whether she is a mother in the home, or occupies a place in the limelight of public life, or lives behind quiet cloister walls, she must be a handmaid of the Lord everywhere … then would each fulfill her feminine vocation no matter what conditions she lived in and what worldly activity absorbed her life.”

She profoundly acknowledges that there is no “one size fits all” style to being a woman and that a woman can fulfill her feminine vocation in a variety of ways, all while being a handmaid of the Lord.

Unfortunately, to be a “handmaid” gets a bad rap in our day, especially with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” where “handmaids” are the used and abused of society. But the historical moment Edith Stein references when she speaks of “handmaid” means something entirely different than what the world thinks. When Mary of Nazareth humbly proclaimed herself “the handmaid of the Lord’’ (Lk 1:38), it was not an act of subjugation but liberation. Mary’s willingness to be “at hand” to God’s call, brought freedom to the enslaved world in the person of Jesus Christ. The children of Eve were no longer chained to the mistake of their first mother, who fruitlessly chose to serve herself over God. Mary, aptly called the “New Eve,” by choosing to serve God and not herself, modeled a restored dignity for all people, but especially womankind. Woman, who once caused the world’s demise, would now birth its savior. And thanks to Jesus Christ, women who were often equated to pieces of property (in both pagan and Jewish cultures) would not only be valued as equal to men, they would also be loved.

In “The Ethos of Women’s Professions,” Stein proposes that a woman fulfills her life, as Mary did, when she becomes a “handmaid of the Lord.” She writes about what spirit this requires: “The soul of woman must be expansive and open to all human beings, it must be quiet so that no small weak flame will be extinguished by stormy winds; warm so as not to benumb fragile buds … empty of itself, in order that extraneous life may have room in it; finally, mistress of itself and also of its body, so that the entire person is readily at the disposal of every call.”

Reading this makes it clear that women have a greater calling than becoming an astronaut, or winning wars that save millions, or building the greatest cathedral in God’s honor. A woman has the call to give life to those around her. This may be through the motherhood of physically having a child, but it transcends even that. Every woman is called to have the heart of a mother, because a woman has the unmatched capacity to give life spiritually to those entrusted to her care.

The views espoused by radical feminism versus the Catholic feminine ethos couldn’t provide a starker contrast: one wants to tear the world apart, the other wants to lift it up; one is for selfishness, one for selflessness; one is barbaric, the other big-souled.

Radical feminism has been working overtime for decades and tries with ever-increasing ferocity to upend womanhood, manhood, childhood even the Godhead. The thoughts of Edith Stein offer women much-needed exhortation. She further encourages women by saying: “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.”

We can live in the light of eternity, as we step closer to who God made us to be — recognizing that authentic female empowerment is not found in the fetid offerings of radical feminism but, rather, in the radical call to be a handmaid of the Lord.

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