The Quest for Feminine Identity

(Part I)

Cormac Burke FAITH Magazine March-April 2010

Mgr Burke offers a profound meditation upon the role of the feminine and of gift of self in reaching human fulfilment. He brings out some of the inhuman tendencies in this regard promoted by our culture. This paper was presented at the Ethics and Public Policy Center Conference, in Washington D.C. last April. We plan to publish Part Two in our next issue. Mgr Burke is a former Judge of the Roman Rota, the High Court of the Church, and now lectures at Strathmore University, Nairobi, Kenya. His best known books are Covenanted Happiness and Man and Values, both published by Scepter Press. His website is:

To Henry Higgins' expostulation, "why can't a woman be more like a man?", the brief answer is of course that she can; but then she will be less like a woman. Is that progress? Is she made richer or poorer by that? Is humanity made richer or poorer? Or is everyone made richer if woman is more like a woman?

But - do these questions make sense? A woman is born a woman, isn't she? Can she, as she grows, become more like a woman or less like a woman? Does it make a difference? I think she can; and I think it makes an immense difference. This implies - as I believe - that sexual identity, masculine or feminine, is not just a 'given' at birth, but also a goal to be sought; and to be achieved - or not. Some aspects of feminine identity and its achievement are what I propose to consider in this study.

1. A Disenchanted, Disconnected World

We live in a thoroughly 'disenchanted' secular age (as Charles Taylor brings out so well).[1] There is nothing beyond what I see, nothing underlying what I feel, nothing that promises more than what I have... Things, events, relationships, have no more meaning than what I choose to give them. I decide their value. But, at the best, that value is limited, for I do not, I will not, believe in absolute values. I identify things by how they suit me - my satisfaction my advantage - not by any value they have in themselves.

But there is an enchantment in creation. God himself, the Bible tells us, was pleased, very pleased, with what he had created. He saw it all as good, very good (Gen 1:31). For God, it is a very good world. For man, the summit of his creation, God wished it to be an enchanted world, a world where everything, as an imago Dei, can point to the hidden, ultimate and infinite wonder of God's existence and life.

It was Adam's experience when he saw Eve. He was thrilled, she was an enchantment for him; something that seemed to come from another world, or to promise another world. And similarly when Eve saw Adam. In that mutual attraction of theirs, the physical differences were seen, undisturbedly, as a sign of a much richer human reality; and indeed as imaging an infinitely higher reality.

Male and female God made them; and the closer they are, the more they live in mutual understanding, the more they reflect something of the image of God. This closeness is only secondarily expressed in physical coupling. It is in the meeting of souls more than of bodies, in the harmonising of a masculine and a feminine way of being, that they image a perfection much higher than anything either can achieve on his or her own.

There is, or was, truth in that old saying that 'woman promises to man what only God can give'; truth also if the promise is expressed the other way round. Today it is not clear what the sexes promise to each other, and less still what they mean to each other. Romance, so it seems, is almost gone. The enchantment is gone, as is also the sense that there is something of magic in sexuality that has to be protected. Something of good magic that, if not safeguarded, can be reduced to something of dark magic. We have to restore the good magic, the ideal of a noble love, the awareness too of the threat of the dark side, and the resolve to restore and protect the goodness. We have to restore the enchantment.

That, I maintain, is not possible without a restored sense of sexual identity; a sense of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, what it can mean to show together a better image of God.

A few further preliminary considerations may be helpful.

Does 'Identity' Matter for the Person?

Modern life makes us all quite used to describing our identity; filling in ID cards, making up CVs. And when we need to portray ourselves, e.g. in applying for a job, we try not to omit any important detail; a degree, a special quality or skill, and perhaps we cover up or omit what might be considered a defect, like being short-sighted or suffering from asthma.[2]

Subjectively speaking, one's identity is one's awareness of oneself as a separate conscious entity.

Is it not enough to say "I'm me; that's who I am; that's my identity"? It would seem not, for it says nothing more than the obvious, and really says nothing concrete at all. Of course, you're you and I'm me, but that does nothing to identify what or who or how you and I are. This is what identity is all about.

Moreover, one's identity is not something static. It is in a certain flux. It is not only a present reality, it is also a goal - to be achieved or to be botched and frustrated. I may identify myself as an athlete. But that is not enough.

Am I just an athlete in training? Am I a successful, or a mediocre, or a failed athlete?

On the other hand, since my identity is in constant transformation, if I cannot identify myself as I am now, I do not know what I am building on, or building towards, or what I am likely to be in 5, 10 or 20 years time. For each one of us is an unfolding story, a narrative of daily and distinct episodes; but one without meaning or coherence if I can't connect my self-story of yesterday with that of today and with the continuation of it I will write tomorrow. If there is no connection in my self-awareness, then I am a life without a plot, a tale signifying nothing. If I cannot sense or propose some linear connection between my past, present and future, then there is no continuity, no development between different chapters of my life-story. There is in fact no story; my life is no more than a succession of dis-connected episodes. I am or am becoming a disintegrated being.[3]

2. Identity and the "Givens" of Nature

So, one's identity is made up of certain characteristics which we have in common with others, and certain characteristics we have differently: and again of some qualities we have as "givens" and others we have acquired. It is only by knowing these that we can identify ourselves. The person incapable of self-identification just does not know himself or herself.

The current confusion about identity is mainly rooted in the idea of the self-identifying or the self-defining person. 'My life is mine and I can make whatever I want of it'. This is not so, in the first place because I only possess my life precisely insofar as it has been given to me; it is a gift.

When I receive a gift, it becomes mine; yes, that is true. But if I am sensible, I want to know the nature of the gift so as to use or handle it wisely; for it can be spoiled, even completely, by bad use. If I am given a paperweight of gold, I may drop it and nothing is lost. If the gift is a precious porcelain vase and I drop it, the gift itself is lost. It is important to know that some things given to us in life are both precious and breakable, and not easily recovered if broken.

Of the elements, then, which characterise the human person in her or his particular identity, some are given, some are acquired; some are foundational and inalienable, others are accidental; some identify the person positively, others negatively. Some may be virtues, some may be vices. Some may be treasured, some may be despised (in both cases, for the right or the wrong reasons). Further, the less some feature important to a person's identity is esteemed and possessed the less that person is likely to fulfil himself or herself.

The question before us is whether sexual difference, femininity in our concrete case, is an important and positive element in self-identification; and, I would add, an even more important element in reaching an identity worth achieving, in attaining a worthwhile self-fulfilment.

3. Human Sexual Identity

Now we enter more properly on our theme. Is sexuality, as a 'given', an important part of my identity, of my personal makeup?

One is born male or female. Does the difference matter? Is male identity an advantage over female? Can full personal identity be achieved without any reference to sexual identity? Do men and women fulfil themselves (identify themselves in fullness) in much the same way, or is the mode of proper fulfilment also conditioned (and therefore differentiated) in each case by sexually given elements?

Human sexuality is more than animal sexuality. The man-woman relationship cannot be reduced just to male-female. Male-female denotes just physical differences; it is a distinction apt for the animal world. Masculine-feminine is peculiar to the human world.

What main elements go to make up human sexual identity? I wish to dwell on four. Human sexual identity: a) is a relational identity; b) is tied up with creativity; c) suggests complementarity; d) implies a power regarding others.

a) Sexual identity is a relational identity.

Each of us is an individual. But the individual in isolation, by himself, shrinks. He only grows in relation to others. No one is meant to be an island. If we don't open out to others, appreciate them, discover values in them, connect and build bridges with them, each will remain a desert island, floating - or sinking - in a desolate sea.[4]

Among the various forms of human relationship there is one that can draw people together in a unique way, one bridge that can unite (though it can also separate), one where the sense of mutual need is strongly present. And that is human sexuality. Without in some way understanding how masculinity and femininity stand in relation to one another, without admiring the values each sexual mode should incarnate and letting oneself be enriched by that appreciation, one can never achieve a full human identity.

b) Sexual identity is tied up with creativity.

Humanity is at its highest when it gives itself. And self-giving is at its highest when it is creative. The person who sees nothing worth giving himself to, is trapped in a valueless life. The person who does not want to be creative lacks one of the fundamental aspirations of humanity. Not to want to create betrays a lack of vitality which reflects or facilitates the culture of death

Love is creative. The sculptor hews his vision of beauty into lasting stone. Only a man and a woman together can create living works of art, with each child a unique monument to the creative love that inspires and unites them.

Disesteem for the procreative wonder of sexuality reflects a devalued human outlook.

c) Sexual identity suggests complementarity.

Initial feminism made the totally logical and totally human demand of equal rights for women as for men. When part of that feminism let itself be radicalised into demanding not just equal rights but equal roles, it lost both logic and humanising power.

Equality in the sense of equivalence, where everyone is the same, would turn society into an assembly line. The awareness and cultivation of complementarity is vital for the development of a society that is truly human. Some people, who don't understand what a human society means, and simply want one that is efficient and scientific, see it the other way round. Differences can be hard to manage; so let's have the minimum number, those necessary for the orderly management of things; e.g. the alpha, beta, gamma differences of Brave New World, each at its proper level -with an "identical" identity - trained for a particular type of job, to slot in there and nowhere else.

Such a gray and uniformed prospect should appal us. What we need to foster is a society where people rejoice in variety, being so formed that differences are a source not of friction but of joy. How boring if everyone were the same! And how exciting if everyone is different and we are able to rejoice in those different qualities that fill out and complement our own.

Yet some people today want functional, mechanistic, complementarity, but not personal, me-to-you, complementarity. That approach is hostile, in the first place, to the idea of friendship which finds a special complement in a particular person, and still more hostile to the notion of a distinctive complementarity between the sexes, all the more so if it were to lead two people to want an exclusive union between themselves (since the assumption is "everyone belongs (and is useful) to everyone else").

There can be no complementarity between identicals nor between absolutely disconnected beings. Hence, while sexuality points toward differences, it is toward differences that are correlative and can so serve to build a new and more perfect wholeness.

We should all seek to develop all the human qualities or virtues. But it is easier to learn some virtues from a woman - from a well-identified woman - and easier to learn others from a well-identified man. Sexual complementarity implies mutual learning in the process of growing toward all-round human maturity. "It is not by imitating the opposite sex, nor by seeking to dominate it, but by learning from it that a person grows in that sexual identity which is so important for maturity in life".[5]

Rather than detailing various virtues that might be considered more appropriate to each sex,[6] I will limit myself here to one broad observation as to how true masculinity can help form true femininity, and vice-versa. Man needs taming, the acquisition of the "humility of strength", which is truly strong only when placed at the service of fidelity and love. For her part, woman needs the "strength of humility" which leads he and woman, the more they complement each other, the more each helps or inspires the other to make the effort toward personal wholeness. Man without the inspiration of femininity is lost; he has no heroine to worship, no queen to serve; he is left with just the stimulus of femaleness, and no ideal with which to counterbalance his sensuality and so learn to be humbly strong in the service of others. For her part, woman, if she has no appreciation for the gift of masculinity, will have no hero to worship, no one to care for, no one to be proud to serve, nothing to help her forget herself and her vanity.[7]

d) Sexual identity implies a power concerning others

Sexuality involves an attraction between persons, and hence a certain power in their mutual relationship. Where there is power, there needs to be responsibility, for power can be used well or badly. Power can fascinate; power can exhilarate. Power can also corrupt - not just political power; but sexual power too.

Women realise that men are attracted to them; and they like the sense of dominion this gives them. It works vice-versa of course, but not in the same measure. A fundamental truth that sociology and anthropology tend to pass over is that man is weaker than woman before the powerful fascination of sex, more easily succumbs to it; and hence is more easily exploited.

Sexuality in our age is almost completely dominated by the stimulus of bodily attraction, that is, the male-female mode of sexual power or that power of attraction which humans have in common with the animals. What is being so alarmingly lost today is that other mode of human sexual attraction or sexual power, the feminine-masculine attraction. It is normal that both be present in men-women relations. But when, as today, the male-female mode becomes dominant, then the sexual attraction itself tends to become an instrument of domination or of exploitation.

So we need to distinguish between the power of the female vis-a-vis the male, on the one hand; and on the other, the power of the feminine vis-a-vis the man. The power of the female generates physical desire in the male: once satisfied he withdraws into that satisfaction, into himself, until desire is aroused again. The power of the feminine generates respect that can grow, even to a form of veneration, which draws a man out of himself and inspires him to higher things.[8]

But if a woman, by emphasising her femaleness, capitalises on her particular power of attraction, she will provoke the mere male instinct; men will be attracted to her, or rather to her body, out of simple physical sexual desire. She is inviting them to treat her as an object of lust inasmuch as she is a female, never of admiration as a woman, as a truly human and feminine woman.[9]

Recently, in a family I know, the teenage daughter had a date with a young man her parents too happened to like. Just before going out, she appeared dressed in a somewhat provocative way. Her dad called her aside. You like this boy, don't you? - Yes. And he likes you? - I think so. Look, honey, you've got a pretty face and a nice smile. But if you want to be sure of that boy you've got to observe the way he looks into your eyes. (For love is specially spoken through the eyes). But as you are dressed now, you won't get much chance to see the look in his eyes, because his eyes will be going elsewhere. Is that the sort of date you want, so as to know him better? She got the point and went off to dress differently.

Women have power, great power, over men. One can largely identify and even classify a woman by how she uses this power, especially though not exclusively by her way of dressing and walking. The identity of the prostitute used to stand out in this way. One sign of the times is that many men find it hard to distinguish the ordinary woman from the prostitute; to distinguish the true woman whom the more noble part of their masculine nature wishes to look up to, from that other woman whom the lower part of the same nature seeks simply to possess.

Given that, it should be clear that 'sexual harassment' has a two-way application.

4. Fecundity as a Key to Feminine Identity

Masculine identity is not our topic; and in any case, man, to achieve his sexual identity, depends more on woman achieving hers, than vice-versa.

To this writer's mind, feminine identity is first bound up with woman's radical orientation towards child-bearing. This of course is evident on the physical level - the makeup of the female body. In terms of corporal sexuality, the female body is much more fundamentally configured toward maternity than the male toward paternity. Along with the whole complexity of her genital apparatus, her breasts also show this; she is made not only to bear but also to nourish.

A woman can never establish a true feminine identity unless she in some way senses the greatness of this potential for maternity, and holds it in reverence. Unless a girl grows in awareness of the creative mystery of her body, she will remain at a subhuman level and will never be able to develop her proper sexual identity.

This is borne out too in that human motherhood (and pride in motherhood) is what most inspires reverence in men. It is there that they sense that women are the special depositaries of the power of creation and of the mystery of life. Motherhood resulting from merely laboratory techniques may stir wonder at technology, but not reverence for maternity.

If a woman reverences the mystery of her body, it will be easier for men to do so too. The natural instinct of modesty (or that which used to be natural to women) shows that reverence, and moreover stirs up a reverential attraction in man. In contrast, the immodest woman, who treats and regards her body and her sexual parts as a bait and not as a mystery, just stirs a sensual attraction in man causing him both to desire her and to despise her.

[to be continued]

[1]Cf.A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, 2007.
[2]In slight anticipation of our main theme, let me confess to the impression that some women today feel it would be an advantage if they did not have to identify themselves as women.
[3]Not thinking about what I am meant to be, or what I mean myself to be; pretending not to care about what I am or am becoming: that is the problem of so many today. No goal, no challenge, no idea of a story to be told or an identity to be conquered; just letting self drift, as if one became oneself by drifting. The drifter dissipates self, disintegrates self, loses self. We have largely been educated into this. In so much of modern psychological and educational theory the goal of education is that of forming 'independent persons, persons whose maturity is shown in being self-sufficient, non-committed, non-connected, having no bonds, being directed to nothing, being dedicated to no one...
[4]The self-sufficient, non-connected, I'm-my-own-good-cause mentality rejects the idea that we are inter-dependent, that we need one another. There it is wrong, with a wrongness that can totally frustrate personal as well as social development. And then emerges the lonely crowd, the lost people, the faceless generation. There can be no true human relationship or bonding principle between faceless people, people who can't look into each others' eyes and see something there that can complete or complement their own lives.
[5]C. Burke: Man and Values, Scepter, 2007, p. 135.
[6]Something which I tentatively consider in Man and Values, pp. lOlss.
[7]I did not quite see eye to eye with a recently reported theological opinion that man's besetting sin is lust, while woman's is pride. Pride, after all, is the besetting sin for all of us. Nevertheless, it may be true that in matters sexual, woman sins more through vanity, while man does so more through lust.
[8]Why does one offer a flower to a woman and not to a man? The girl who does not appreciate the gift of a flower, who perhaps laughs at it, shows a deficient sexual consciousness. Perhaps she has never sensed the connection between the giving of a flower to a girl and the placing of a flower on an altar.
[9]An important point here. Feminine grace is a quality that all women can cultivate, even if today few seem to do so — or even to understand the concept. When it is genuine, it reflects, also on the outside, a particular feminine trait capable of evoking the best in men. See Man and Values, pp. 106-107.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2010