In my last post on St. Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman, I wrote about her view on the natural feminine vocations of wife and mother, for which the characteristics specific to women make us particularly suited. St. Stein also wrote on other feminine vocations besides these natural ones, such as those professions to which a woman can be disposed. St. Stein begins this essay with a disclaimer of sorts, writing that, “Only subjective delusion could deny that women are capable of practicing vocations other than that of spouse and mother…One could say that in case of need, every normal and healthy woman is able to hold a position. And there is no profession which cannot be practiced by a woman” (47). So, obviously St. Stein does not believe that women should not have professions; rather, she is simply explaining how our God-given feminine qualities predispose us to certain ones and that a certain spiritual attitude of service is necessary to allow a woman to perform any profession according to her feminine nature.
* An explanation may be handy before I describe these professions. It must be understood that St. Stein is really writing these essays as guides for women to live their lives according to how God created them. It is not that women are incapable of any profession, but that living according to God’s will entails submission to His will in every aspect of your life, including the domestic and professional spheres. Essentially, what everything boils down to is, “This is how we can live to fully realize the potential for which God created us.” Therefore, these views may not be easily accepted by those without a strong faith in a God who created them with specific qualities and talents for a specific purpose. *
St. Stein uses the term “feminine profession” to describe these positions that allow women to fully embrace and enact the fullness of their feminine nature. The most obvious ones are those that necessitate “sympathetic rapport” (48), which is basically working with and in the service of others. She writes that such professions include (but are not limited to) nurse, doctor, teacher, and a worker in the social services. She also writes, however, that even those professions that are generally considered “masculine” can be performed in an “authentically feminine way” (48) if they are viewed from the perspective of participating in service for humanity. In order to perform any profession according to the feminine nature, she writes that, “Basically the same spiritual attitude which the wife and mother need is needed here also, except that it is extended to a wider working circle” (48). Again, this is more a description of how a woman can perform her specific professional work with an attitude that is in keeping with her feminine nature than a precise list of “acceptable” or “unacceptable” professions for women.
Once again, St. Stein uses the Virgin Mary as a model of how feminine virtues can be developed and used well. She refers to Mary’s role at the wedding of Cana as a specific example, recounting how Mary observed what was needed and quietly found the remedy, serving others modestly and without self-glorification.
Let her be the prototype of woman in professional life,” St. Stein writes. “Wherever situated, let her always perform her work quietly and dutifully, without claiming attention and appreciation. And at the same time, she should survey the conditions with a vigilant eye. Let her be conscious of where there is a want and where help is needed, intervening and regulating as far as it is possible in her power in a discreet way. Then will she like a good spirit spread blessing everywhere. (49)
You may ask how women can find the strength, in this harried and cuh-razy world, to perform, not only their natural vocations as wife and mother, but also other professional vocations while remaining faithful and magnanimous. How can we be these superhero women? St. Stein writes that, “only by the power of grace can nature be liberated from its dross, restored to its purity, and made free to receive divine life. And this divine life itself is the inner driving power from which acts of love come forth” (55). St. Stein prescribes participation and respite in Eucharistic and liturgical relationships with God. This allows us to entrust our troubles to Him, from which is follows that, “our soul is free to participate in the divine life” (55). This participation happens by working for God and humanity in ways according to how we, male and female, were created. St. Stein writes that, “God created humanity as man and woman, and He created both according to His own image. Only the purely developed masculine and feminine nature can yield the highest attainable likeness to God. Only in this fashion can there be brought about the strongest interpenetration of all earthly and divine life” (56).