defining women

defining women February 27, 2016


If several thousand years ago a group of aristocratic women invented western philosophy. If, in the course of their discussions, they decided to define men as a secondary type of human, useful only for impregnation and fighting, while women excelled in the nobler arts of creation and fecundity. If this philosophical trend dominated western civilization, intermingling with the magnificent sciences of metaphysics, ethics, physics, biology, and politics these assumptions about male inferiority.

The question of “Man” would be a philosophical subset of “philosophy of the human.”  Might this secondary creature be considered to have some of the same excellences as women? Some women, admirers of men, might speak of the mysterious power of male beauty, writing poems anatomizing his parts and treatises hailing his bloody sacrifices in battle. His sexual service to women might be seen as a path to perfection. Others might scorn men, advocating that women remain far from their corrupting habits, their uncouth behavior, their essential barrenness. Men would be encouraged to cultivate attitudes of simple brutality, for the sake of their service to women and the State, but also be derided for this same brutality.

At long last a whole body of work would emerge, presenting a series of conflicting views on this mysterious creature, Man. Given the myriad of contradictions, intellectuals would agree that whatever else, Man is mysterious – more mysterious than women – possibly inferior in most ways, but with a certain splendor. A few might even agree that Man, who never has to go through the messy and vulgar ordeal of pregnancy and childbirth, is more spiritual and hence closer to God, an inspiration to women, even if women, who bear and birth children, are more powerful.

A few men might suggest that since men are superior killers, they should actually be the ones in power. This idea would be unpopular. And at certain points over the ages, daring men might speak up and assert their right to possess and define themselves, but most of them would be shouted down or associated with those other men, the ones trying violently to wrest power from women on the basis of military excellence.


(This hypothesis might be regarded as some as ridiculous, because I’m leaving out the question of how women would gain power – but for the purpose of the exercise let’s imagine that they pulled off some kind of faux-religious brainwashing. See Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals for handy tips on how this is done).

I am putting forth this hypothetical (and possibly ridiculous) scenario because, to wax Chestertonian, often a situation needs to be looked at upside-down in order to be understood. And I would like my readers to consider the condition in which we women find ourselves, emerging from the corners after 2500 years of being professionally and systematically mansplained, finally being invited into the conversation, and confronting so many predetermined ideas about the kind of beings that we are – ideas that were developed by men in dialogue with other men, not ideas emerging from a communal discourse.

“To reach something good it is very useful to have gone astray, and thus acquire experience.” – St Teresa of Avila

My recent completely informal and unscientific Facebook poll on how women are tired of being defined yielded some interesting answers.

Sara: “I’m tired of being defined as largely illogical and thinking mainly with emotion first because I am a woman. Emotion isn’t a weakness, neither is having a heart.”

Alysa: “As a bride planning my upcoming wedding, I’m SUPER SICK of being pre-defined as some sort of insufferable, picky, hysterical micromanager, and THEN being defined as an unfeminine freak when the person actually talks to me about wedding plans and finds out how little I care about the details.”

Allison: “Emotional. Or that my feelings/opinions/thoughts are somehow invalid due to a surge in hormones once a month. That I should always be “doing something” whether it’s raising kids, having more kids, staying at home, going to school, working. Oddly enough, most expectations others have of me, often conflict. Broodmare. If one more person asks when the girls are getting a brother, I’ll have a sudden and violent response.”

Michelle: “As some kind of special liturgical vessel that should be draped in lace whenever I step into a church.”

Lisa: “I’m tired of being defined as a “woman,” who therefore must care about certain things more (or less) or differently than a man does. I’m a person, that’s enough.”

Cynthia: “As a woman, I’m disgusted that the genitals God gave me render me invalid for the priesthood. As a single women, I’m tired of not counting, because I’m neither married nor a consecrated religious. I’m tired of men who overlook my comments and restate exactly what I just said, because they are apparently the only valid participants in a theological discussion.”

Sarah: “Tired of being defined as a misandrist when I comment on ways in which women are mistreated. Any post about a woman being treated unfairly results in a thread where I am expected to coddle men who think I am attacking them.”

Daniella: I’m tired of being defined by my beauty (she’s stuck up, she’s stupid, she’s constantly dying to be picked up by men). It goes both ways, I know. But you don’t see men so defined by their appearance. I often wish I could pretend to be Muslim and keep covered.

Sarah: “I’m tired of the assumption that as a woman over 40, my main concern is how to remain sexy.”

Alice: “I’m tired of being treated as blindly submissive, because I choose to be a stay-at-home mother to many, while my husband provides financially.”

Erin: “I’m tired of being defined by my period…if I’m mad or pissed off, it doesn’t mean I’m on my period or pmsing! It could just mean someone is an ass or I’m mad!”

Anonymous: “My one serious regret so far in life is changing my name when I married- I hate the pressure that made it feel impossible to keep my own name and still value the permanence of marriage and husband, etc. It has not seemed less unfair as the year have passed that the expectation is that women should go about with their husband’s family’s name rather than their own.”

Molly: “That because I am a woman, my ex can drop the kids whenever and I will pick up the slack. We work the same hours (I may work more), and the court won’t enforce his visitation, so whenever he doesn’t want to take them, I have to make up for it. Meanwhile, I have them 80% of the time.”

Jennifer: “I’m tired of parents of my students assuming that I’m rich and have nothing better to spend my money on than school supplies that they should provide for their children! And I’m not even talking pricey, fancy stuff…just the basics! And I’m tired of the “boys” who live in my house expecting me to do all of the household chores just because I’m mom. I work more hours than dad, and the 14 year old has chosen not to participate in extra curricular activities!”

Anonymous: “Persona non grata.”

Mary: “I hate being called “receptive.” It means nothing, it makes zero sense, it is not a virtue, it’s just vapor, it’s a nonsense concept. Oh, and “vulnerable.” At least “vulnerable” means something, and in some ways it describes me. But not my femininity specifically. My femininity is one of the steeliest things about me.”

Monica: “I despise being defined by ethnic stereotypes. Because I hail from Latin America I must be: feisty, sensual, provocative, have a “fiery” temper, tanned skin and an accent, have a house full of babies and religious icons, cook like a pro, dance like a star and be a tigress in the bedroom. Complete and utter drivel, but both men and women don’t know what to make of me because I simply won’t fit this image.”

Janet: “Being defined as a woman. I’m human. No less, no more. A work in progress. As a woman, I have some advantages, some challenges. This is not definition, but color. What’s your story?”

Genevieve: “I’m tired of being THE ONE in charge of the home. It happens within my marriage, which is tiring, but more than how my husband and I divvy things up, the world tells me that this is my realm and has told me that when I was single, too. Women who live like the stereotypical bachelor are unacceptable. And then you get married and face a two edged sword: are you keeping your home presentable and feeding your family well and seeing to xyz? AND, if you are using all your mental and emotional energy to do this, why are you “just” a housewife, why don’t you do fun/exciting things, you really shouldn’t neglect yourself (but really attending to yourself must produce something that everyone can see, it is not a completely private practice), “oh you’re like a 1950s housewife”? I would try to explain it better but for the sobbing infant I’m sustaining at the moment. I also have always hated that as I woman I am expected to do things for beauty. I have to look good, to be toned, to dress presentably in flattering clothes that are different each day. I am to do it for the people who must behold me. My husband is expected to have his hair brushed and no holes in his clothes and that’s it. Everything else is up to him.”

Helen: “As serious. I can make you laugh much faster than most! I may look serious but I do have joy more!”


“Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


I have included every response from every woman who gave me permission to quote her, because – whether we agree among ourselves or not – it is vital that women’s voices be heard if we are going to develop a more complete, less one-sided, more personal understanding of sexual and gender identity. And this is a Christian issue, because the revolutionary message of the gospel is one which flies in the face of earthly powers. The kingdom of men is one in which violence and hegemony are used so that some individuals or groups are able to gain supremacy over others, in the polis, the agora, or the oikos.

“Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:23 – 4.4).

What precisely this means is something that wiser people than me have discussed for centuries – but too often these wiser people were mostly male people.

And the order of the kingdom of heaven is not patterned on that of earth. We should be careful, in a world racked with sin, of assuming that our temporal orders necessarily repeat the patterns of heaven. Looking back at human history – at slavery, imperialism, the subjugation of women, sexual violence, the scapegoating of the poor, religious persecution, genocide, torture, abortion, eugenics, war, factory farming, bigotry – is seems pretty clear that our temporal orders are too often governed by impulses anything but heavenly.

“I feel as if I were called to be a fighter, a priest, an apostle, a doctor, a martyr; as if I could never satisfy the needs of my nature without performing, for Your sake, every kind of heroic action at once” – St. Therese of Lisieux

Developing a more complete philosophy of the person is essential, but as Christians, remember that the terms narratives of civilization have been shaped too often by forces of greed and violence, so we must make a thoughtful effort to fill in the spaces that are lacking, to seek for the voices that were never heard. We must allow persons to be subjects, not objects. We must remember that the human person herself is a being who defies definition. We can spend years talking about what it means to be a human person, but any definition is necessarily limited.

By the way, I also have a list of ways men dislike being defined, and I am aware that hegemonic earthy systems also harm and mis-define men, that men are also in danger of being reduced to a means to an end – that we’re functioning not only in a patriarchy, but a kyriarchy – “a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression” (Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza). But the purpose of this post was to point out that the defining of women, for most of western history, was done within a male-only conversation. It is our Christian obligation, then, to attempt to understand female experience, what it means to be a female human person, with recourse to reality instead of to pre-existing prejudice. This means that we should extend to women the same courtesy that men have enjoyed throughout the ages: the freedom to disagree, and still be heard, whether in the academic world or in daily life.

I believe efforts to defend life and promote justice require better understandings of personalist ethics, and a good personalist ethics ought to steer away from the temptation to trap others in definitions and determinations.


“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.”
Charlotte Brontë, Shirley

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