Scattered Thoughts on Womanhood

9:46 PM

I just walked from the most amazing lecture through wet grass and a September night chill to my computer. Forgive the scatterbrainedness of this post. I just want to digest what I heard, what I'm thinking, what I'm hoping for anyone who might need to hear the lecture too. (Come to Hillsdale. Please. It's good for you.)

The lecture was called "Women of Virtue," and even though it's a Hillsdale lecture and not a Vision Forum CD, I hesitated to attend. I didn't have time between a psychology paper and Spanish vocab to hear about how horrible feminism is, how sexualized the culture is, how amazing I am for valuing motherhood or any other cliche topic related to the rather frighteningly stereotypical label of "virtuous womanhood." Praise God that I did attend. You'll quickly see why.

The word virtue has negative connotations for me, especially in conjunction with womanhood. Whenever I hear it, I think about the book Raising Maidens of Virtue, which provided some of the most precious bonding time with my mother at 9 p.m. every night as well as some of the worst stereotypes about womanhood. A virtuous woman smelled nice, planned on staying home, and wore feminine colors. Virtue meant some sort of Christianized Victorian or antebellum view on home and femininity.

Did you know the word virtue comes from the Latin word vir, which means man? An interesting juxtaposition, to be a woman of. . .manliness. The lecturer pointed out that virtue was not about being manly or being a particular sex but of being strong. Being a woman of virtue meant being a woman of strength. Strength -- not the color pink, not skirts, not babies, not dishes -- ought to be a primary defining characteristic of a woman.

With that being said, the lecturer warned against the extremes of defining minutely what a woman's nature is and of leaving a woman's nature up for definition by just anybody. He described our culture as devoid of stability in this area -- an earthquake -- and people's first reaction is to brace themselves against anything they see as solid (ironically a piano on wheels, in his demonstration). This is where we get vehement opinions about what a woman is: She must be a stay-at-home mother or she's blaspheming God's Word. She must get a career. She must do this, be this, no ifs or buts about it. The radical feminists and patriarchalists exemplify this. They live counter to reality -- skirts only are not always practical for the things a woman might be called to do, being a stay-at-home mom is not always possible, hating men and burning bras doesn't help anything related to gender issues.

On the other extreme -- and this is where I tended to fall, since I was confident about what femininity and womanhood was not but clueless about what it was -- is unwillingness to define woman's nature at all. It is not prudent to let any woman determine her own nature. This also goes against reality. A woman of virtue, a woman acting in conjunction with her true character, recognizes that she does possess a nature as well as recognizes the reality around her. She knows what is convention (high heels and pearls) and what is essence (strength). And she develops a life in light of those things.

So then -- what is this nature?

The lecturer used the female body as an analog -- not an exact one-to-one ratio but an analog -- of what her nature is. And like comparisons between male and female bodies, exceptions apply. (For instance, while most men possess more physical strength in certain areas, the lecturer quickly admitted to being an overly-confident loser in a foot race to a girl in the third grade.) The female body was designed not just to give life but to nurture life. This provides insight into her nature as a life-giver and a nurturer -- not necessarily in the context of motherhood but in the essence of her nature. While men may possess natural instincts to protect, women possess natural instincts of noting who needs protection, regardless of who performs the protecting in the end. They are sensitive to and intuitive toward people, wanting to mold them, teach them, protect them, be strong for them. (As a side question, is it possible to have a female or male nature -- a true essence of something -- that doesn't apply to all females and males? Is it then a nature or a tendency? If there really are natures to men and women, is the "exemption" then an aberration of nature?)

This nature provides profound implications for interactions with men, but before he explored those implications, the lecturer emphasized the uniqueness of a woman's nature apart from men. She is still a woman with a woman's nature regardless of whether there are men around. When a woman dies and she no longer has a body, her soul will retain its womanness. Thus, her nature exists separately from both the existence of men and her physical makeup.

However, there do happen to be men around, and the oft-times rocky interchanges between the sexes confuse everyone. Still, women influence men (and vice versa, of course). If it's true that women ought to retain their particular nature distinct from men, then they ought to encourage men to retain their own nature distinct from women. How do they do that? (And here's what struck me the most.)

Women inspire men to be men when they don't budge an inch on their general nature as women and their particular nature as a woman. In other words, they don't need to swagger around and knock back beer at the bar to prove their strength. They don't need to back down and let more incompetent men take a position they are more qualified to fill. They should never suppress their strength, talents or interests in order to make a man feel stronger or manlier. They should never feign weakness to encourage men to "rise to the challenge."

"Weakness does not inspire men," the lecturer emphasized. "Strength inspires men."

Feminine strength calls out masculine strength in men. What happens when a man feels intimidated by a strong woman? In a nutshell, that's his problem. A woman does a man no favors by weakening her nature, suppressing her opinion or silencing her voice. True men of virtue can handle true women of virtue. If they can't, they need to mature using feminine strength as an inspiration to discover masculine strength. Beyond this, there is a danger in becoming weak, because weakness calls out the wrong kind of strength in a man -- a bullying, authoritarian, obtuse strength. 

Being weak doesn't do anyone any kind of favors.

Life-giving. Nurturing. Dependable. Steady. Strong. This is the essence of womanhood. Of me. That's a beautiful, wonderful nature to possess.

Addendum. The lecturer presented an interesting (and I think correct) take on the question, "Is the stay-at-home mom versus working mom argument an issue of convention or of nature?" After requesting a postponement of rotten vegetables, he said he thought it was an issue of convention. Being a mother and a stable, steady, dependable nurturer is not a convention -- that's nature. But the idea of a stay-at-home mom is a new idea, only about 200 years old. Women for most of history were both at home and working -- just like their husbands. It wasn't until the agrarian society gave way to an industrial society that men and women working outside the home became normative. Take that as you will.

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13 impressions

  1. Hmm, this is very interesting. I have to say that I agree with the lecturer here in that working mom vs. 'full-time' mom is a matter of convention rather than nature.
    May I ask the name of the lecturer and any sources he cited?

  2. His name is Dr. David Whalen, the provost of Hillsdale college. He didn't cite any sources that I remember.

  3. Wow! That is a wonderful, fresh look at womanhood. Thank you for sharing the lecture, Bailey! I, too, have gotten a little burned out with all the rants about womanhood, both the extreme patriarchal version and the gotta-get-a-career version. The part about the agrarian vs. industrial culture? Yes, I agree. :-)

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Does anyone besides me find it ironic and a little sad that this lecture on women of virtue, which sounds like it had great content, was given by a man? I am curious as to whether the audience was 100% women, 90% women, evenly divided, or actually predominantly male. Bailey, would you attend a lecture by this same speaker on the nature of men? Would you attend a lecture on that topic by a woman? Would most men? These questions are not intended to be challenges. I am actually interested in your answers.


  5. Adele,

    It was the first in a series of lectures specifically for women on "Women of Virtue" by different speakers, so the audience was 100% female. The same campus organization put on a similar lecture series for men last year and invited the same speaker (our provost) because he also spoke at the men's lecture series. I would DEFINITELY love to hear his thoughts on manhood, which sounds far humbler and stronger than the version most conservative males ascribe to.

    I'm curious as to whether any female speakers were invited to speak at the men's lecture series and what the attendance would be like. I can imagine either there being a wide turnout due to the novelty of the idea or a small turnout (because, sadly, there are some way-too-traditional men still on campus).

    I don't think it ironic or sad that a man spoke on this topic (especially since other lecturers in the series will undoubtedly be female). It's SO REFRESHING for me to hear an adult male, a father figure, a prominent member of my campus community, encourage women in a strong view of womanhood...especially since I'm so used to narrowmindedness and insensitivity and uncreativity toward a woman's role from adult men.

  6. Bailey,

    Thanks for the response. I didn't realize this was part of a series. That makes a big difference. Definitely if you are getting multiple perspectives on the topic some should be from women and some from men. I am also glad to hear this same speaker spoke at a series directed at men. My questions about the audience were because I felt that men really ought to hear these ideas as well as women! I hope you plan to attend the other lectures in the series and will share you reactions to those on your blog as well.


  7. <>

    This almost sounds like the stay-at-home mom isn't "working". I believe that all mothers are called to work--the question is where. If I weren't working at home, raising the children, maintaining the household, then I'd be working outside the home and paying someone else to do those domestic jobs. Or else trying to frantically do 2 jobs. The stay-at-home mom who is truly devoted to her calling is adding to the economy of how a marriage, home and family is designed to work.
    I know this point isn't the main point of your post (which is quite interesting), but just wanted to throw this in.
    And I hope I didn't warp your mind too much by sharing "Maidens of Virtue" with you. I value femininity. We live in a genderless, gender-confused society, and I value both femininity and strength.
    Love you!

  8. Aaahhh! I love this! And Vision Forum... don't get me started on Vision Forum... Though I did like Raising Maidens of Virtue. My parents have never taught us a "narrow" form of womanhood; they never said we must do this or can't do that. The emphasis on strength is good. A man's strength and a woman's strength are unique and important. I would definitely be interested in hearing your thoughts on the rest of the series.

  9. Thanks for sharing the name and all your thoughts on this lecture, Bailey! Plenty to think about. :)
    To comment on the idea of nature vs. convention, I must mention that just because something is a matter of convention, doesn't mean that God doesn't care about it, or have commandments for it! But how often do we jump towards convention first before discovering nature? It seems humans are always, always planning ahead next- what we're going to DO next, what we're going to DO when we grow up, what we're going to DO for work, so on and so on. And the Bible speaks of how we should not say what we'll do next tomorrow because quite frankly, it's out of our control. We instead should understand nature and how we're defined by Christ; understand Who the Lord is and Who we are, as humans, as Christians, as women, and THEN let that understanding of nature define what 'convention' will look like in my life. What we DO is important to Christ, but our hearts- which are usually reflected in our actions- are infinitely more important!

  10. Hi Bailey! I've been a bit fan of your blog for a while now. You bring up such great thoughts. :) I really appreciate what you said in this post...

    "Feminine strength calls out masculine strength in men. What happens when a man feels intimidated by a strong woman? In a nutshell, that's his problem. A woman does a man no favors by weakening her nature, suppressing her opinion or silencing her voice. True men of virtue can handle true women of virtue. If they can't, they need to mature using feminine strength as an inspiration to discover masculine strength. Beyond this, there is a danger in becoming weak, because weakness calls out the wrong kind of strength in a man -- a bullying, authoritarian, obtuse strength.

    Being weak doesn't do anyone any kind of favors."

    I believe in competence, so the idea of the girls letting the guys lead all the time has always bothered me. It never sat right with me that gender was more important than actual abilities. And come to think of it, this type of "submission" isn't fair to the's like babying them. *shrugs* Anyways, that's just what I thought after reading your excellent post. You said everything better than I could have. :)

    God bless,
    - Elsa

  11. Hello! My sister and I really enjoy your blog! We have awarded you the Sunshine Blogger Award! Hope to hear from you soon!

  12. I literally sat in front of my laptop, spread out my arms and said "YES!!" when I read this post. THANK YOU! I loved learning that a woman of virtue means being a woman of strength, of conviction, or godliness, or taking care and protecting others and looking out for those who are needy. I too, was exposed to the "virtuous christian girl standards" when I was younger, and I never felt like I could be any of those things. I wasn't naturally quiet, clean, considerate of others, ultra-feminine, interested in babies and cooking, sewing, or stuff like that. God's been refining my character traits and my personality, but it's so refreshing to learn that God values a heart that is firm in him more than my sewing skills. Thank you again!


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