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“Modern Woman, Once our Superior and Now our Equal”

The Worlds First Love: Mary Mother of God

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen


Equity and Equality

[175] The two basic errors of both Communism and Historical Liberalism on the subject of women are: (1) that women were never emancipated until modern times, since religion particularly kept them in servitude; (2) that equality means the right of a woman to do a man’s work.

It is not true that women began to be emancipated in modern times and in proportion to the decline of religion. Woman’s subjection began in the seventeenth century, with the breakup of Christendom, and took on a positive form at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Under the Christian civilization women enjoyed rights, privileges, honors, and dignities which have since been swallowed up by the machine age. No one has better dissipated the false idea than Mary Beard in her scholarly work: Woman as Force in History. She points out that, of eighty-five guilds in England during the Middle Ages, seventy-two had women members on an equal basis with men, even in such professions as barbers and sailors. They were probably as outspoken as men, for one of the rules of the guilds was that “the sistern as well as the brethren” may not engage in disorderly or contumacious debates. In Paris, there were fifteen guilds reserved [176] exclusively for women, while eighty of the Parisian guilds were mixed. Nothing is more erroneous historically than the belief that it was our modern age which recognized women in the professions. The records of these Christian times reveal the names of thousands upon thousands of women who influenced society and whose names are now enrolled in the catalogue of saints – Catherine of Siena alone having left eleven large volumes of her writings. Up to the seventeenth century in England, women engaged in business, and perhaps even more so than today; in fact, so many wives were in business that it was provided by law that the husbands should not be responsible for their debts. Between 1553 and 1640, ten per cent of the publishing in England was done by women. Because the homes had their own weaving, cooking, and laundry, it has been estimated that women in pre-industrial days were producing half the goods required by society. In the Middle Ages women were as well-educated as men, and it was not until the seventeenth century that women were barred from education. Then, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, all the activities and freedom of women were curtailed, as the machine took over the business of production and men moved into the factory. Then came a loss of legal rights by women, which reached its fullness in Blackstone, who pronounced woman’s “civil death” in law.

As these disabilities continued, woman felt the loss of her freedom, and rightly so, because she felt she had been hurt by man and robbed of her legal rights; and she fell into the error of believing that she ought to proclaim herself equal with men, forgetful that a certain superiority was already hers because of her functional difference from man. Equality then came to mean, negatively, the destruction of all privileges [177] enjoyed by specific persons or classes, and, positively, absolute and unconditioned sex equality with men. These ideas were incorporated into the first resolution for sex equality passed in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848: “Resolved that woman is man’s equal, was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she be recognized as such.”

This brings us to the second error in the bourgeois-capitalistic theory of women, namely, the failure to make a distinction between mathematical and proportional equality. Mathematical equality implies exactness of remuneration, for example, that two men who work at the same job at the same factory should receive equal pay. Proportional equality means that each should receive this pay according to his function. In a family, for example, all children should be cared for by the parents, but this does not mean that, because sixteen-year-old Mary gets an evening gown with an organdy trim, the parents should give seventeen-year-old Johnnie the same thing. Women, in seeking to regain some of the rights and privileges they had in Christian civilization, thought of equality in mathematical terms or in terms of sex. Feeling themselves overcome by a monster called “man,” they identified freedom and equality with the right to do a man’s job. All the psychological, social, and other advantages which were peculiar to women were ignored until the inanities of the bourgeois world reached their climax in Communism, under which a woman is emancipated the moment she goes to work in a mine. The result has been that woman’s imitation of man and her flight from motherhood has developed neuroses and psychoses which have reached alarming proportions. The Christian civilization never stressed equality in a mathematical [178] sense, but only in the proportional sense, for equality is wrong when it reduces the woman to a poor imitation of a man. Once woman became man’s mathematical equal, he no longer gave her a seat in a bus, and no longer took off his hat in an elevator. (In a New York subway recently a man gave a woman his seat and she fainted. When she revived, she thanked him, and he fainted.)

Modern woman has been made equal with man, but she has not been made happy. She has been “emancipated,” like a pendulum removed from a clock and now no longer free to swing, or like a flower which has been emancipated from its roots. She has been cheapened in her search for mathematical equality in two ways: by becoming a victim to man and a victim to the machine. She became a victim to man by becoming only the instrument of his pleasure and ministering to his needs in a sterile exchange of egotisms. She became a victim to the machine by subordinating the creative principle of life to the production of nonliving things, which is the essence of Communism.

This is not a condemnation of a professional woman, because the important question is not whether a woman finds favor in the eyes of a man, but whether she can satisfy the basic instincts of womanhood. The problem of a woman is whether certain God-given qualities, which are specifically hers, are given adequate and full expression. These qualities are principally devotion, sacrifice, and love. They need not necessarily be expressed in a family, nor even in a convent. They can find an outlet in the social world, in the care of the sick, the poor, the ignorant in the seven corporal works of mercy. It is sometimes said that the professional woman is hard. This may in a few instances be true, but if so it is not [179] because she is in a profession, but because she has alienated her profession from contact with human beings in a way to satisfy the deeper cravings of her heart. It may very well be that the revolt against morality and the exaltation of sensuous pleasure as the purpose of life are due to the loss of the spiritual fulfillment of existence. Having been frustrated and disillusioned, such souls first become bored, then cynical, and finally, suicidal.

The solution lies in a return to the Christian concept, wherein stress is placed not on equality but on equity. Equality is law. It is mathematical, abstract, universal, indifferent to conditions, circumstances, and differences. Equity is love, mercy, understanding, sympathy – it allows the consideration of details, appeals, and even departures from fixed rules which the law has not yet embraced. In particular, it is the application of law to an individual person. Equity places its reliance on moral principles and is guided by an understanding of the motives of individual families which fall outside the scope of the rigors of law. In the old English law of Christian days the subjects, in petitioning the court for extraordinary privileges, asked them “for the love of God and in the way of charity.” For that reason, the heads of courts of equity were the clergy, who drew their decisions from Canon Law, and in vain did civil lawyers, with their exact prescriptions, argue against their opinions. The iron ring outside a Cathedral door, which a pursued criminal might grasp, gave him what is known as the “right of sanctuary” and while giving him immunity from the prescriptions of civil law, it made him subject to the more merciful law of the Church.

Applying this distinction to women, it is clear that equity rather than equality should be the basis of all the feminine [180] claims. Equity goes beyond equality by claiming superiority in certain aspects of life. Equity is the perfection of equality, not its substitute. It has the advantages of recognizing the specific difference between man and woman, which equality does not have. As a matter of fact, men and women are not equal in sex; they are quite unequal, and it is only because they are unequal that they complement one another. Each has a superiority of function. Man and woman are equal, inasmuch as they have the same rights and liberties, the same final goal of life, and the same redemption by the Blood of Our Divine Saviour but they are different in function, like the lock and the key.

One of the greatest of the Old Testament stories reveals this difference. While the Jews were under Persian captivity, Haman, the prime minister of King Ahasuerus, asked his master to slay the Jews because they obeyed the law of God rather than the Persian law. When the order went out that the Jews were to be massacred, Esther was asked to approach the King to plead for her people. But there was a law that no one should enter the King’s presence under the penalty of death, unless the King extended his sceptre as a permission to approach the throne. That was the law. But Esther said: “I will go in to the King, against the law, not being called, and expose myself to death and to danger.” (Esther 4:16) Esther fasted and prayed and then approached the throne. Would the sceptre be lowered? The King held out the golden sceptre, and Esther drew near and kissed the top of it, and the King said to her: “What do you want, Queen Esther? What is your request?” (Esther 5:3)

This story has been interpreted through the Christian ages as meaning that God will reserve to Himself the reign of [181] justice and law, but to Mary, His Mother, will be given the reign of mercy. During the Christian ages, Our Blessed Mother bore a title which has since been forgotten, namely, Our Lady of Equity. Henry Adams describes the Lady of Equity in the Cathedral of Chartres. Stretching through the nave of the Church are two sets of priceless stained-glass windows, the one given by Blanche of Castile, the other by her enemy, Pierre de Dreux, which seem to “carry on war across the very heart of the cathedral.” Over the main altar, however, sits the Virgin Mary, the Lady of Equity, with the Holy Child on her knees, presiding over the courts, listening serenely to pleas for mercy in behalf of sinners. As Mary Beard beautifully put it: “The Virgin signified to the people moral, human or humane power, as against the stern mandates of God’s law.”

And we might add, this is the woman’s special glory – mercy, pity, understanding, and the intuition of human needs. When women step down from the role of the Lady of Equity and her prototype Esther and insist only on equality, they lose their greatest opportunity to change the world. Law has broken down today. Jurists no longer believe in a Divine Judge behind the law. Obligations are no longer sacred. Even peace is based upon the power of great nations, rather than on the Justice of God. The choice before women in this day of the collapse of justice is whether to equate themselves with men in rigid exactness, or to rally to Equity, to mercy and love, giving to a cruel and lawless world something that equality can never give.

If women, in the full consciousness of their creativeness, say to the world: “It takes us twenty years to make a man, and we rebel against every generation snuffing out that manhood in war,” such an attitude will do more for the peace of [182] the world than all the covenants and pacts. Where there is equality there is justice, but there is no love. If man is the equal of woman, then she has rights but no heart ever lived only on rights. All love demands inequality or superiority.

The lover is always on his knees; the beloved must always be on a pedestal. Whether it be man or woman, the one must always consider himself or herself as undeserving of the other. Even God humbled Himself in His Love to win man, saying He “came not to be served, but to serve.” And man, in his turn, approaches that loving Saviour in Communion with the words: “Lord, I am not worthy.”

As we said, professional careers do not of themselves defeminize women; otherwise the Church would not have raised political women to sainthood, as in the cases of St. Elizabeth and St. Clotilde. The unalterable fact is that no woman is happy unless she has someone for whom she can sacrifice herself – not in a servile way, but in the way of love. Added to the devotedness is her love of creativeness. A man is afraid of dying, but a woman is afraid of not living. Life to a man is personal; life to a woman is otherness. She thinks less in terms of perpetuation of self and more in terms of perpetuation of others – so much so, that in her devotedness she is willing to sacrifice herself for others. To the extent that a career gives her no opportunity for either, she becomes defeminized. If these qualities cannot be given an outlet in a home and a family, they must nevertheless find other substitutions in works of charity, in the defense of virtuous living, and in the defense of right, as other Claudias enlighten their political husbands. Then woman’s work as a money earner becomes a mere prelude and a condition for the display of equity, which is her greatest glory.

[183] The level of any civilization is the level of its womanhood. This is because there is a basic difference between knowing and loving. In knowing something, we bring it down to the level of our understanding. An abstract principle of physics can be understood by an ordinary mind only by examples. But in loving, we always go up to meet the demand of the one loved. If we love music, we submit to its laws and disciplines. When man loves woman, it follows that the nobler the woman, the nobler the love; the higher the demands made by the woman, the more worthy a man must be. That is why woman is the measure of the level of our civilization. It is for our age to decide whether woman shall claim equality in sex and the right to work at the same lathe with men, or whether she will claim equity and give to the world that which no man can give. In these pagan days, when women want only to be equal with men, they have lost respect. In Christian days, when men were strongest, woman was most respected. As the author of Mont St. Michel and Chartres puts it; “The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period when men were at their strongest; never before or since have they shown equal energy in such varied directions, or such intelligence in the direction of their energy; yet these marvels of history – these Plantagenets; these Scholastic philosophers; these architects of Rheims and Amiens; these Innocents, and Robin Hoods, and Marco Polos; these crusaders who planted their enormous fortresses all over the Levant; these monks who made the wastes and barrens yield harvests all, without apparent exception, bowed down before the woman.”  Explain it who will! Without Mary, man has no hope except in atheism, and for atheism the world was not ready. Hemmed back on that side, men rushed like sheep to escape the butcher. [184] and were driven to Mary only too happy in finding protection and hope in a being who could understand the language they talked, and the excuses they had to offer. Thus, society invested in her care nearly its whole capital, spiritual, artistic, intellectual, and economical, even to the bulk of its real and personal estate. As Abelard said of her: “After the Trinity you are our only hope . . . you are placed there as our advocate; all of us who fear the wrath of the Judge, fly to the Judge’s Mother who is logically compelled to intercede for us and stands in the place of a mother to the guilty.”

Christianity does not ask the modern woman to be exclusively a Martha or a Mary; the choice is not between a professional career and contemplation, for the Church reads the Gospel of Martha and Mary for Our Lady to symbolize that she combines both the speculative and the practical, the serving of the Lord and the sitting at His Feet. If woman wants to be a revolutionist, then The Woman is her guide, for she sang the most revolutionary song ever written – the Magnificat, the burden of which was the abolition of principalities and powers, and the exaltation of the humble. She breaks the shell of woman’s isolation from the world and puts woman back into the wide ocean of humanity. She, who is the Cosmopolitan Woman, gives us the Cosmopolitan Man, for which giving all generations shall call her blessed.

She was the inspiration to womanhood, not because she claimed there was equality in sex (peculiarly enough, this was the one equality she ignored), but because of a transcendence in function which made her superior to a man, inasmuch as she could encompass a man, as Isaias foretold. Great men we need, like Paul with a two-edged sword to cut away the bonds that tie down the energies of the world – and men [185] like Peter, who will let the broad stroke of their challenge ring out on the shield of the world’s hypocrisy – great men like John who, with a loud voice, will arouse the world from the sleek dream of unheroic repose. But we need women still more; women like Mary of Cleophas, who will raise sons to lift up white hosts to a Heavenly Father; women like Magdalene, who will take hold of the tangled threads of a seemingly wrecked and ruined life and weave out of them the beautiful tapestry of saintliness and holiness; and women, above all, like Mary, the Lady of Equity, who will leave the lights and glamours of the world for the shades and shadows of the Cross, where saints are made. When women of this kind return to save the world with equity, then we shall toast them, we shall salute them, not as “the modern woman, once our superior and now our equal,” but as the Christian woman – closest to the Cross on Good Friday, and first at the Tomb on Easter morn.


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