Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, was a philosopher, teacher, academic and then Carmelite nun. Born to a German Jewish family on Yom Kippur in 1891, she fell away from religion as a teenager, studied philosophy under phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, and converted to Catholicism after discovering (and staying up all night reading) the autobiography of St. Teresa of Ávila, a Carmelite Doctor of the Church.
Edith Stein felt a calling to be a Carmelite, too, but she had to be content staying in academia for a while. She spent her days teaching, writing and praying, upping the praying up a notch as reports of Nazi oppression of Jews grew. She finally entered the Carmelite convent in 1934 and took her final vows in 1938. She was arrested in 1942, along with her sister, who had also converted and was at the Carmelite convent.
St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross offered her suffering at Auschwitz (where she died on August 9, 1942) for the Jewish people. In fact, according to the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus, she is considered a martyr, “having offered herself as a holocaust for the people of Israel.” When she and her sister were arrested, she reportedly told her, “Come; let us go and die for our people.” Pope St. John Paul II beatified her in 1987 and canonized her in 1998.
I read Edith Stein’s “Essays on Woman” earlier this year, and it has informed and enriched the way I think, talk and write about gender. Repeatedly while reading the collection (which is full of underlines and margin notes), I thought, “She could have said this today!”—either because we haven’t learned or because she was ahead of her time.
In honor of her feast day, here are 13 such statements that are as true now as they were when St. Teresa Benedicta wrote them.
1. Everywhere about us, we see in the interaction of the sexes the direct fruits of original sin in most terrifying forms: an unleashed sexual life in which every trace of their high calling seems to be lost; a struggle between the sexes, one pitted against the other, as they fight for their rights and, in doing so, no longer appear to hear the voices of nature and of God (“The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to Nature and Grace”).
“An unleashed sexual life,” “a struggle between the sexes” … sound familiar? In a #MeToo world that lacks respect for what sex should be and full of sexual violence that often seems to be accepted by the majority of society (pornography, TV and film) or, when it’s not, lacks serious consequences (Brock Turner), we really are seeing “the direct fruits of original sin in most terrifying forms.”
2. Since woman is mainly concerned with serving people and making provisions for them, she is able to function well in all educational and medical professions, in all social work, in the human sciences, in the arts which depict humanity, as well as in the business world and in public and parochial administration (“The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman According to Nature and Grace,”).
We haven’t reached gender parity in all occupations, but we’re closer than we were in Edith Stein’s day. There is, at any rate, broader acknowledgement that women can succeed in business, in medicine, in education, in government … in short, anywhere.
3. Most illnesses are illnesses of the total human being even if they are manifested in only one organ (“Spirituality of the Christian Woman”).
Health care is becoming more integrated as we understand better the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit. I see this truth in my own life; my fibromyalgia and PCOS leave me with no question that to ignore one part of my body or my mind is to leave it defenseless. My hormones can wreak havoc on my body and my emotions, and my fibromyalgia creates a cycle of fatigue and pain, depression and anxiety that would make my life impossible if it weren’t for holistic treatment.
4. Women are needed to deliberate, resolve, and initiate laws in matters which are primarily their concerns (like legal protection for women, youth welfare, etc.) (“Spirituality of the Christian Woman”).
In the U.S., 23.4% of the House of Representatives and 25% of the Senate are women. It’s not enough, but female representation among our national lawmakers is at historic heights, and both of the major parties are starting to understand that for Congress to represent the people of the United States, it needs to represent both genders–especially when women are so invested in so many of the issues debated in Washington.
5. The faculty for this quiet must be there; otherwise, it could not be so profoundly practiced as it is, after all, by many women: those women in whom one takes refuge in order to find peace, and who have ears for the softest animist imperceptible little voices (“Principles of Women’s Education”).
Speaking of which, women are leading the fight to end abortion, giving a voice to the most voiceless. With organizations like Rehumanize International, New Wave Feminists, Feminists for Life, Students for Life, National Right to Life, the March for Life, Sisters of Life (naturally), the Susan B. Anthony List, the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and many others all led by women, it’s clear that to be pro-life is not to be anti-woman.
6. The development of intellect may not be increased at the expense of the refinement of emotion (“Principles of Women’s Education”).
Researchers, business leaders and educators are increasingly recognizing emotional intelligence as equally, if not more, important than technical or “intellectual” skills. The ability to understand and regulate your own emotions, and understand and respond with empathy to others’ emotions, is key to success but also to holiness.
7. What does our age demand of women? First of all, it requires most of them to earn their own living … It requires women who have a knowledge of life, prudence, and practical ability; women who are morally steadfast, women whose lives are imperturbably rooted in God (“Principles of Women’s Education”).
Today, most women must earn their own living. Many of us want to work, enjoy working and hope to contribute a great deal through our work. Others would prefer not to have to earn a living but would rather stay home with their children. The price of child care sends some women who want to work home, and low wages send some women who want to stay home to work. What’s best for the woman and her family? It depends on the family. What’s important is that we somehow find a way to support her so that she can do what’s best and, most importantly, imperturbably root her life in God.
8. There are so many theoretical requirements involved even in training for essentially practical vocations that many persons who have practical skills are excluded from them (“Principles of Women’s Education”).
High school teachers and counselors probably feel this one the most. Even as more and more jobs require a college degree, the cost of earning one is skyrocketing, and the truth is that not all jobs–good, meaningful jobs that pay well–require a four-year or even a two-year degree. Why aren’t we encouraging more teenagers to enroll in vocational and trade programs?
9. In the contemporary Church we may expect that increasingly women will be called to Church duties–in Caritas, in pastoral work, and in teaching … It seems that today [the Lord] is calling women in ever greater numbers for specific duties in His Church … It has been woman’s mission to war against evil and to educate her posterity to do the same (“Problems of Women’s Education”).
Once you get past the seemingly endless debates over whether women should be priests—which, frankly, I think are a red herring—you can see the growing opportunities for women to lead in the Church. As the Church faces evil in the form of the sexual abuse crisis, more people leaving the Church, and low numbers of men and women exploring a vocation to religious life and the priesthood, women must take up this call to fight evil and educate our posterity to do the same.
10. Radical feminists supported their views by insisting that both sexes shared the same nature and the same rights … There is a difference [between sexes], not only in body structure and in particular physiological functions, but also in the entire corporeal life … The most significant evidence of the eternal meaning and value to be found in sexual differentiation lies in the fact that the new Eve stands beside the new Adam on the threshold between the Old and the New Covenants … [The eternal order] demands rejection of a social order and of education which deny completely woman’s unique nature and particular destiny, which disclaim an organic cooperation of the sexes and organic social patterns but rather seek to consider all individuals as similar atoms in a mechanistically ordered structure (“Problems of Women’s Education”).
The two genders are unique. We share a lot, but we also differ in fundamental ways. Research shows this differentiation to be true, yet radical feminists more and more tell us that to be equal, we must be the same. True equality comes when women are valued as human beings with a unique value to offer to humanity. I have done some research on women in business and found a troubling contradiction: Advocates in this area simultaneously say that woman has great leadership strengths of her own and that there is no difference between men and women. If you look at the research, however, there are both physical and psychological differences that are important and also support the notion that God made us beautifully unique.
11. In order to be fair to [girls] as individuals, [the teacher] must guard herself against classifying them schematically in a fixed system of types (“Problems of Women’s Education”).
I’ve written about this one before; personality assessments can be useful, but they can also be destructive when we pigeonhole ourselves or others based on tests, especially those of questionable validity.
12. Mathematics and the natural sciences, as characteristic ways of intellectual activities, could be brought closer to human and personal concerns through the humanities (“Problems of Women’s Education”).
STEAM is a relatively new concept in education that takes STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and adds A: art. Integrating the beautiful and good with the true enables us to educate the whole person and develop people who not only understand how to use technology but also how to use it well.
13. Mothers are probably the most important agents for the recovery of the nation (“Woman’s Value in National Life”).
Let’s hear it for the mothers—the physical mothers, the spiritual mothers, any woman who has ever cared for another human being in any small or large way. We were made to love, and while this statement was especially poignant, perhaps, in Germany post-World War I, we need mothers just as much today.