The Quest for Feminine Identity (Part II)

Cormac Burke FAITH Magazine May-June 2010

Mgr Burke, a lecturer at Nairobi University, Kenya, continues his profound meditation upon the role of the feminine and of the gift of self in reaching human fulfilment. In this part he convincingly brings out the character of true love, and its counterfeit promoted within modern culture. Part One was published in our March issue.

5. Two Contrasting Modes of Sexual Identification

The main thesis of my book Man and Values is that we do not fulfil ourselves just around ourselves. The thrust of fulfilment is not inward, towards self, but outwards - towards values, especially as found in others. The discovery of worthwhile values, and the response to them, is the key. Not to be able to discover anything of real worth is a primary limitation in the development of one's life. Not to be able to respond to a real value once discovered, is an even more radical limitation. That is the reason for the sub-title given to the book, "A Personalist Anthropology", because its thesis reflects the basic principle of modern personalism: that we can only find ourselves through the sincere gift of ourselves.

One chapter in that book considers the humanising role of sexuality in general. Another considers marriage as a way of fulfilment through sexual self-gift and union. Now, in attempting to tie together the main elements of feminine identity, I would like to take these considerations a bit further and centre upon two realities that some might regard as opposed, and which I see as complementary. Further, the proper understanding of each and their relationship is basic to the attainment of feminine sexual identity. These two realities are virginity and marriage.


True friendship, with its sincere elements of mutual self-giving, can be a step toward fulfilment. Whoever lacks a capacity for friendship does not come out of self and will not find fulfilment. Calculated friendship, by which one wants to receive at least as much as one gives, inherently limits happiness and fulfilment.

But the gift of self that truly fulfils must be total; and a total gift of self can only be made to one. There are two forms of self-giving which aim to be total: the gift of self to God, and the gift of self in marriage.

The sexes are made to give, to each other, but not to give easily; to give for the first time, and to give completely and exclusively. Casual or indiscriminate sexual self-giving, which really implies partial self-giving, tends to reduce the very power to give oneself, for it reduces the self that is given. This is why the self-giving of sexuality should be a virginal self-giving, for then it is indeed the total gift of self - of a self that has never been given to anyone else before.

We will leave aside the virginal giving of self to God, just noting that since the sexes - man and woman - "image" God, virginal giving to God is to transcend the image and give oneself to the Reality that is imaged.[1]

On the human level, virginity means keeping oneself in order to give; keeping what is unique so as to be able to give oneself uniquely. Only in the context of marital self-giving can the greatness of virginity be understood - the preserving and maturing of one's self so as to have a worthwhile self to give, and to be able to give it whole and exclusive, as any true gift must be.

A virginal union in marriage says so much, much more than any words can say. It says in effect: I have been tempted to give or to throw away parts of myself. But I have managed to keep myself entire, for love.[2]1 was waiting for the one person whom I could feel to be worth all of my love, all of my heart, all of myself. And you are that person. I give myself entirely now for the first time. Take me; I am yours. This speaks so much of the past and promises so much for the future.

Marriage. Self-gift - to Love, to Life

The truly human attraction between the sexes is toward a corporal union that incarnates a spiritual union; a mutual gift of the body that represents a mutual gift of self. A gift, however, not a loan or a mere permission to use - which is a travesty of the human meaning or exercise of sexuality.

The readiness to give implies the disposition to receive. Our fulfilment depends on our openness to values and our receptivity towards them. Does that mean a dependence? Of course! The false exaltation of a closed and impervious independence is one of the main blocks today to human fulfilment. The phenomenon of human love - I delight in you, I want you and what is good for you, I need you and I want to be what you truly need; if you will take me so and give yourself to me, I will try to give myself to you so - belies the pitiful and destructive myth of total personal autonomy.

Sigrid Undset was the author of the Nobel Prize winning novel Kristin Lavransdatter. In one of her earlier books, Jenny, the protagonist, in a juvenile assertion of independence, says to the man she will eventually fall in love with, "You can't love something you're dependent on, can you?" [He does not quite agree]. "I don't know. Aren't you always dependent on what you love? You're dependent on your work, aren't you? And if you're fond of someone, isn't that when you first become truly dependent?" - "Well, yes..." She thought for a moment. "But then you've made your own choice," she said briskly. "I mean, you're not a slave; you voluntarily serve something or someone that you value more than yourself".[3]

Precisely. None of us can achieve our human identity unless we discover something we value more than self, and to which and for which we are prepared to give our self.

That is not the way we are encouraged to think in today's world. We are rather taught the opposite. Take what you can get from life. Expect that others will esteem you not by what you give but by what you manage to get. We are taught to love nothing else than our sterile independence, our bubble self-esteem and the self-importance of our work- as if this could fill us. In that same novel, someone comments to Jenny, "Maybe you think that it's only women who find life meaningless or feel their hearts frozen and empty when they don't have anything but their work to love? Just their own impulses, and nothing else to rely on! Do you think there's a single soul alive who doesn't have moments of self-doubt? No, there has to be another person with whom you can deposit the best of yourself - yourlove and your trust - and that's the bank you must be able to rely on".[4] Is it possible that the current global collapse of confidence in our financial institutions could help people clutch their way back to a different sense of values and to the commitment of self which underlies any firm investment in their own happiness?

Creativity: the Family Project

Self-gift - to love, to life - go together. Love for another is love for the life of another. It is love for life with another; and for what eventuates from that united life. Love and life and creativity go together. One of the major impoverishments of our value-free world is that we are no longer artists, no longer creative in any true sense. What sort of creativity can spring from a life-view which refuses to envision limitless beauty, goodness, love, life, glory, generosity - or their opposites? Without a personal sense of being involved in a win-all/lose-all affair, life itself is made banal.

That is why another reason for the shakiness of feminine identity today is, I think, woman's loss of her sense of distinctive creativity. True; some women, like some men, get engaged in creative activities - gardening, design... But what motivates them? What does it all amount to? Maybe just the satisfaction of looking at something I did "of my own"; maybe the self-centred vanity of hoping others will admire it; maybe the desire to leave behind a bit of myself. But how is it that woman in particular should have lost the sense of the wonder of her greatest artistic capacity, her power to create new life itself, to pro-create - which is really to co-create, to be joint creators with God himself?

Yes, of course this applies to men as much as to women. The privilege is the same. But the miserable presentation of the contraceptive movement in terms of women's rights - the right to be free from the burden of child-bearing - has blinded so many women to the peculiar privilege of motherhood.

But surely - one may object - it is undeniable that the woman has the greater part in this: in pregnancy, in giving birth; and yes, in rearing. And is this greater burden not unfair to woman? Greater burden? Is that all there is to be said? Is it unfair to her that she has the greater privilege and that as a good mother she will stand higher, at least in her children's estimation, than a good father?

Does motherhood demand more of a woman than fatherhood of a man? Yes, because maternity is a greater mission and a unique privilege. But girls are no longer brought up to regard it so. Men should indeed be blamed for their neglect of their role as fathers. And thank God there are a growing number of feminists who are campaigning for a radical reform in this matter - not through getting men to wash an equal number of dishes, but by reviving in them the sense of what their man's role as a father calls for. But that will never be achieved without women who have a deep pride in their role as mothers.

6. Humanising Society

Let me here try to forestall an objection - that what I have expounded so far seems to suggest that a woman's place is in the home; and that she should go back there...

In a certain sense, yes I am suggesting that we all need to go back to the home. The only trouble is that, practically speaking, there is no home to go back to. Home needs to be remade. To be homemakers is one of the highest ideals for both men and women, especially today. It draws them on to true personal fulfilment, and involves them in the great enterprise of rehumanising our modern world.

To anyone who has real eyes to see with, the dehumanisation of present-day society is evident. It will continue unless the family, as a source and stable reference point for a person's values, is remade. And woman has a privileged role there. She needs to stop allowing herself to be exploited by those who would have her both stir up the worst of men's instincts and imitate the worst of men's defects. We need the active presence of woman in public and professional life; but a presence by which she brings with her the best of her feminine qualities, and not one where she declines into a servile imitation of men in the ruthless efficiency, the heartless dealing with persons, the manipulation of people and circumstances that so many men seem capable of.

The woman truly aware of her feminine identity has a special sense of her own dignity and of the respect due to it, and hence of the dignity due to every human being. She aspires to give life and, in giving life, she learns to respect life. She has an intuitive awareness of the deeper human concerns - and not just the technical issues - at stake in so many problems facing society.

But she will never develop her feminine identity without a sense of sexual complementarity, without an appreciation of man's strengths and man's weaknesses, without a sense of the dignity of virginity and of the glory of motherhood; without a sense that humanity is especially in her care.

Many women, with no pride in their feminine identity, try to live off pride in their masculine or pseudo-masculine achievements. Such achievements add nothing human to personal or societal enrichment. But if their professional competence carries with it a feminine stamp, then they are fulfilling themselves as well as exercising their peculiar ability to humanise society.

Are we far from that? Yes, indeed, for we have gone through a century in which woman has stepped down from her pedestal, has cast away her throne and her crown, and preferred to have the democratic right of being just one guy more. Some - few, I think - manage to be the tough guy and make the boardroom level. But most, as I see it, just end up as weaker guys and then grasp at the only power left to them - their sexual ability to exploit men's weakness. It is a degrading role, and a choice for degradation.

This is the situation to which radical feminism has led us. I am inclined to think that its radicalism could be traced to a few very intelligent and perhaps professionally successful women of the last three or four decades who became progressively more and more 'anti-men', maybe due to men's scant appreciation of their professional achievements. Along with that, not a few of them would seem to have had a highly unsuccessful experience of love or marriage and family life. That would also explain why some appear so keen to enlist their daughters into their radicalism. If, as it seems, many of their daughters don't respond, this can certainly add to their resentment. And my impression is that such feminists are already among the most resentful elements in our resentful society. No societycharacterised by growing self-pity and resentment can for long survive.

For this is what we are faced with: a dehumanised, devalued, civilisation where, having stupidly mortgaged our life's possibilities, sinking them in the acquisition of material things, we see society totter on the verge of bankruptcy. In a frenzy of accumulating possessions and experiences, we have pawned or jettisoned the treasure of selfhood and self-gift, and now we are tempted to think there is no way of redeeming what has been so recklessly thrown away. Oh, but there is. It will take time, but there is a way to redemption, and it depends very principally on woman's proudly recovering her feminine identity.

7. Identity and Ideals

Virginity marks a stage toward that identity, inasmuch as it matures one for life and for love. Marriage and motherhood are the normal next step in personal development. A virgin has identity. A mother has identity. Both are ideals - to be sought, to be lived, to be proud of. Do young women today regard their life in the light of such ideals? What identity can possibly be left to them?

It is impossible to develop any worthwhile human identity without some worthwhile human ideal. But if you have no ideal! - just goals of money, or power or pleasure - can you develop an identity worth having?

What a poor mentality is shown by the one who rejects the family project! "I am not interested in future generations, in people who may come after me, not even in those who could be a continuation of me, of my effort, of my dedication, of my worth as a person, of my love". But then, what am I interested in? In me? - in such a worthless me? Yes, then it is sadly logical that I should not want to perpetuate my valueless life. But, is that life of mine really and inexorably without values? No, no. I can change. I can help others to change, and bring coherence and purpose back to our world.

It is only natural to want to do something of worth with one's life. Marriage used to be considered the common, and yet individual, worthwhile adventure to which each one is called; and a large part of one's adolescent life was guided by the call to prepare for such a sacred venture. There was a sense of greatness in this preparation: the greatness of preparing oneself to share life with someone one can trust, to be someone who can oneself be trusted, to found a family, to continue the work of creation... There was and is a good pride here - a pride that the pusillanimous person can indeed turn his or her back on, and then be left with all the sadness of having had no ideals.

Some years ago a teacher who had found one of his students very down referred him to me. I talked with him a couple of times. Indeed he was down. It was hard to find any spark of life or ambition in him. Finally, perhaps in a moment of impatience,

I asked him, "But man, don't you have any ideals?" He hesitated and finally answered, "No". A bit taken aback, perhaps by the directness of his answer, I asked him again: "But, doesn't that seem sad to you?" His answer, once more after a pause, was just as direct: "Yes".

How much a No and a Yes can say about a life. Today if more men, and I think especially more women, asked themselves the question, "what ideals do I have in my life?" and answered sincerely, they would be in a better position to grasp the real value of their lives, and the prospect of real sadness and real emptiness that may be facing them.

A truly feminine identity - in the home no less than in the public square - is the means by which women can fulfil themselves. But it must be as women, not as ersatz or pseudo men! The fact is that those very qualities which fit woman to be a home-builder - her tact, her sense of justice due to each one, her readiness for service, her gift for being a peace-maker (when she wants), just to mention a few - are the very qualities needed so that she can play an outstanding role in rehumanising our professional and public life. That is the way our feminisms need to go: not forming tough guys, but forming thorough women.

However, the conditions should be clear. If women are going to mature in their sexual identity, they need to overcome the contempt for virginity, for home-making and motherhood, that has become so widespread today. Otherwise their intervention in professional and public life will lack that truly feminine and humanising influence contemporary society so badly needs.

What would our society gain from more women who have indeed managed - pace Henry Higgins - to be more like men: more efficient perhaps; at times even more ruthless? And what would those women have gained? More power, more dominance perhaps? But... more personality? More identity? More sense of belonging? More sense of mission?

Not a few feminists hold that the ills of the world have been largely the work of men. A case could be made for their point of view. But, then, why be so keen that women become more like men? Let's give a chance to women who, by asserting their identity, become more like women, and see if they make a better job of things. I think they can. But it is no small task; and, I repeat, the conditions are clear.

So many women, in these years of radical feminism, have set themselves the challenge of beating men, beating men taken at their worst. And, even when they have succeeded, they have missed the mark. For the challenge facing them is much greater, and is yet within their possibilities. Not to beat men at being men, but to beat themselves at being women: with minds and hearts large enough to care for a family, and as a result large enough also to humanise society. Society needs, badly needs, what truly feminine women, and only they, can give.


[1]'It should be noted too that the virginal gift of self to God expands the heart, with the result that there is more of it, and not less, to give also to others.

[2]There is a challenge, that shows worth, in virginity: the challenge of being a woman who prizes herself and will not let herself be easily won. What worth can a woman have if she does not prize herself? What self- worth — in this age of self-esteem -can she attribute to herself?

[3] Jennjin The Unknown Sigrid Undset, Steerforth Press, 2001, p. 37.

[4] ibid. p. 168.

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