THE QUEST FOR FEMININE IDENTITY (Faith. 2010, vol. 42)
To Henry Higgin's 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.
I. A DISENCHANTED WORLD
We live in a thoroughly 'disenchanted' secular age (as Charles Taylor brings out so well. 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 harmonizing 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'; also if the promise is expressed the other way round. Today I am not sure 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 shortsighted or suffering from asthma.
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"? No, I don't think that is enough, 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.
II. ESTABLISHING IDENTITY.
Identity, and the question of 'givens', of nature
So, one's identity is made up of certain characteristics 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 characterize 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.
III. 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.
Elements of human sexual identity.
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.
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 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 of 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 radicalized into demanding not just equal rights but equal roles, it lost both logic and humanizing 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.
I find that gray and uniformed prospect appalling. I want 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, job-to-job, 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 "everyone belongs 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" (C. Burke: Man and Values, Scepter, 2007, p. 135).
Rather than detailing various virtues that might be considered more appropriate to each sex, 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 her to rise above both vanity and self-pity, to an ambitious pride: the "pride" of caring and living for others.
As between man 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.
d) Sexual identity implies a power re 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 realize 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-à-vis the male, on the one hand; and on the other, the power of the feminine vis-à-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.
But if a woman, by emphasizing her femaleness, capitalizes 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.
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.
IV. A MAIN 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 my 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. But it falls outside the scope of the present study to go further into this point.
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.
V. TWO MODES OF SEXUAL IDENTIFICATION AND FULFILMENT
May I refer again to my book, "Man and Values". Its main thesis is that we do not fulfil ourselves just around ourselves. The thrust of fulfilment is not inward, toward self, but outward - toward 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 give 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 humanizing 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 farther and center on 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 total self-giving: 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.
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. I 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 want you, I need you, and if you will take me and give yourself to me, I will give myself to you - belies the pitiful and destructive myth of total personal autonomy.
Perhaps you have read Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, her Nobel Prize winning novel. 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".
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 - your love and your trust - and that's the bank you must be able to rely on" (ib. p. 168). 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 banalized.
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-centered 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?
Motherhood demands 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 is 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.
VI. THE HUMANIZING OF SOCIETY
Let me here try to forestall an objection; i.e. that what I have expounded so far seems to suggest that 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 rehumanizing our modern world.
To anyone who has real eyes to see with, the dehumanization 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 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 single 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 humanize 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 society characterized by growing self-pity and resentment can for long survive.
For this is what we are faced with: a dehumanized, devalued, civilization 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.
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? Or if what sadly passes, if not for an ideal, for an aim among them, is that of - neither virgin nor mother!, 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 inexorably without values? No, no. I can change. I can help others to change, and to be proud of it.
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 - 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. It is in both worlds that women can fulfil themselves. But - 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, here 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 rehumanizing 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 humanizing influence contemporary society so badly need.
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 they 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 were successful, 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 humanize society. Society needs, badly needs, what truly feminine women, and only they, can give.
 Henry Higgins had at least one thing to be said for him. He thought woman would be better if she were more like a man. I don't agree, but at least he had an idea that a certain way of being is better. Today we don't have any idea that any way of being is better; except that my own way is better - for me. This is mindless. Better than what? Better due to what? If one can become better, one can also become worse. Better implies a scale, a sense of values, it suggests higher or lower, the possibility of rising or falling, of gaining or losing...
 Cf. A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, 2007.
 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.
 Not thinking about 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...
 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.
 Something which I tentatively consider in Man and Values, pp. 101ss.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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?
 Jenny in The Unknown Sigrid Undset, Steerforth Press, 2001, p. 37.