What's Wrong with Feminine Genius?

source: CNN

source: CNN

As women raised Catholic, we were taught about differences between men and women, of personality and preference: men are more systems-thinking, more leadership-oriented, while women are more nurturing, more emotional. This is a fundamental part of the Catholic belief system, and it’s what we were taught about ourselves: because we are women, we are not leadership-oriented. We are nurturing and emotional.

Pope John Paul II coined the term ‘feminine genius’ to describe these female characteristics, and to convince us that as women, we’re innately special. Here’s a good summary of feminine genius, from an article in Catholic Answers:

·      Women are receptive, as Mary was receptive to God and bore his child.

·      Women are sensitive, and are tuned in to the needs of others because they have the capacity to be tuned in to the new life that may form in their own bodies.

·      Women are generous, because they care about the needs of others.

·      Women are maternal, having been created by God to be like Mary, who devoted her life to her son and her husband.


There are many points to make about feminine genius, but I'll start with three. First is that the church’s assurances of the worth and dignity of women, and its celebration of our feminine genius, are the shiny wrapping paper and bow that disguise an audaciously self-serving gift.  As Anne E. Patrick wrote in “The Vatican, ‘Feminism’ and US Women Religious,” the Catholic church’s declarations of women’s dignity and value are modern, and follow centuries of its teachings that women are “a lesser form of humanity than males.”  These declarations, says Patrick, have little value if they’re not accompanied by “efforts to remedy the twin injustices of sexism, namely patriarchy and androcentrism.”

Patriarchy is, of course, a societal system of power that excludes women. Androcentrism refers to attitudes that revolve around the perspectives and experiences of males. Writes Patrick:

“Androcentric attitudes include not only viewing women as inferior to men, but also seeing them as so essentially different from men that their roles must be circumscribed, or "special." Sometimes in the latter case women are thought to be superior in specified ways, but when thus placed on a pedestal they are deprived of rights and opportunities that ought to be recognized. When Cardinal James Gibbons opposed women's suffrage in an interview for the New York Globe on June 22, 1911, he exemplified this "essentialist" thinking: ‘Why should a woman lower herself to sordid politics? . . . When a woman enters the political arena, she goes outside the sphere for which she was intended.’ “

The cardinal’s logic is an excellent example of androcentric thinking that meets both criteria. Women are inferior compared to men (they are not intended for and do not have the aptitude to participate in political arena) and women’s fundamental difference from men means they must be treated as special. “Why should a woman lower herself to sordid politics?” is a patronizing assurance to women that they’re too clean, too pure, to participate in the dirty reality of politics, when the cardinal knows that politics is power, and keeping women out of politics means keeping them powerless.

The church’s embrace of feminine genius demonstrates the fullness of its androcentric thinking. The bonus is being able to claim that such thinking comes from God, and thus must be true. God gave all women the universally female qualities of sensitivity, generosity, and maternal caring, because God made women to be too special to participate in leadership, authority and power. Pity poor men, who must, because women are above such pursuits, take up the slack and run the church and the world.

If you boil feminine genius down to its patriarchal and androcentric essence, it looks like this: God made men to run things, and God made women to have babies and to do what men tell them to do. Aren’t women lucky?

Of course, people carry the beliefs they learn as children into greater society, where the Catholic belief system informs what both genders believe women are capable of. Catholic girls are raised to believe they just do not possess the abilities needed to be leaders, but instead were gifted with feminine genius. They complement men, they provide what men don’t – and vice versa. And Catholic men are raised to believe the same.

What is the benefit to the church? Most obvious is the exclusion of women from roles of power, authority and leadership. Popes and cardinals and bishops don’t have to worry that their men’s club will be polluted with women, who surely would want to do things differently. But the far greater impact is to be found not in excluding women from Catholic leadership roles, but in creating an entire gender of people who believe they are born to be servants.


The second point to make: the popular assumption is that the church is at least partially right. There exists a body of research (and a slew of best-selling books) supporting the idea that men and women are neurologically wired differently, making women less suited for careers that require other skills, like engineering, science, math, and leadership positions in any field. It all sounds scientific, and perfectly logical, and so we believe, as described by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C Barnett in "The Difference Myth":

“WOMEN ARE THE chatty sex, using three times as many words each day as men. They are society's great communicators. The verbal parts of their brains are larger than men's and they are hard-wired for empathy, but they lack a natural ability to reach the top levels of math and science.

Men, on the other hand, have brains that are good at understanding systems, and they are adept at acquiring and using power. They are hard-wired to excel at math and science, but lag behind women in reading ability. They talk less and are not naturally inclined toward caring for others.”

However, as pointed out by Rivers and Barnett, the research that supports these conclusions is deeply suspect.

 “…a hard look at the real data behind these claims [that men and women are fundamentally different because their brains are different] suggests they are simply untrue. Some of them are baseless, using the language of science to cloak an absence of serious research; others are built on tenuous studies, with methodological flaws and narrow margins of significance. More and more, they are simply coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility.”

And what are these old stereotypes that have found their way into today’s science? You guessed it. Women are more naturally caring than men. Women are more emotional. Women are more empathetic. Women are better caregivers. Women are wired to be mommies, to their own children and to anyone who needs nurturing and care. In short, women – all women – have brains that are different than men’s brains because they are wired for feminine genius.


Which brings us to the third and most important point: the impact of our Catholic upbringing on what we believe about ourselves.

Cornelia Fine, in Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, notes that the mind is exquisitely susceptible to external gender stereotypes and attitudes. Human minds are very good at absorbing external expectations, norms and assumptions, and those manifest in measurable differences in abilities between men and women that reflect those cultural expectations.

"When the environment makes gender salient, there is a ripple effect on the mind. We start to think of ourselves in terms of our gender, and stereotypes and social expectations become more prominent in the mind. This can change self-perception, alter interests, debilitate or enhance ability, and trigger unintentional discrimination. In other words, the social context influences who you are, how you think and what you do."

All women raised in our society experienced some negative stereotypes about their abilities and their value. But we women raised Catholic got something more. We were explicitly taught those stereotypes about ourselves.

We learned about our feminine genius when we were very young, and what we learned shaped what we believe about our capabilities and our place in the world. Those beliefs informed the choices we’ve made. And yes, we live in an age of women’s rights and women’s equality and powerful women role models. But while we may know that we as women are capable of anything, do we believe that we are capable of anything? Do we believe our value is the same as men's? The choices we’ve made, the paths we’ve taken or avoided, the times we’ve faltered without knowing why, all reveal our bedrock beliefs about ourselves and what we are capable of, or incapable of. For women raised Catholic, deep down in our psyches, our beliefs may still be the beliefs we grew up with: that we all carry within ourselves the limitations that come with being feminine geniuses.