The Genius of Woman
Deborah Savage, Ph.D.
It is said that every era inevitably finds itself face to face with a particular question, a burning issue that belongs to it—and to it alone. Our era is no different. And it would be difficult to dispute that the most pressing question that confronts us now, at the beginning of the 21st century, is that of the nature—nay, the very existence of—man and woman. That these are hotly disputed categories in contemporary discourse is self-evident. Perhaps we could even say that they exist at the nexus of the confusion that characterizes our times. Surely we can agree that one of the things we need now is a robust, full-throated account of the nature of man and woman—both in and of themselves (in se) and in relation to one another (inter se).
Now clearly, man and woman are both equally human; they are both embodiments of the same human soul. But just as clear is the reality that they are not the same; their equality is not the equivalent of a mathematical formula, like two plus two equals four. They are not interchangeable. As Pope St. John Paul II teaches, they express two ways of being human in the world. And so, our initial task must be to understand what that means. What are these “two ways of being” pointed to by the late Holy Father? Can they be captured as definitive realities?
In a previous WWNN post, I explored what might constitute the nature of man (homo) qua male (vir) and the gift he is to the world. There I argued that men possess something we could reasonably refer to as the masculine “genius”—a corollary to the well-publicized existence of a feminine “genius”—though a mostly overlooked reality in our efforts, both noble and ignoble, to elevate the status of women. Man’s great genius, I claimed, emerges out of his place in the order of creation; it unfolds in Genesis 2:15-20: God assigns him a specific task—to till and to keep the Garden—and further, to name everything in it and, in doing so, take dominion over them.
We are all familiar with the narrative. The sacred author tells us that God, recognizing that man is alone and that this is not good, determines to make a “helper fit for him.” And of course, it is in the search for this perfect mate that man names all the animals. Until finally, there is a pause—and woman is “built” from man’s rib. All this is clear. But its deeper meaning has remained hidden in the text. For I would argue that these passages illuminate the quite conceivable idea that it is man’s capacity to name things, to determine what can be predicated of something and what cannot—and an ability to arrive at a systematic way of judging the matter—that constitutes the primordial gift that men are to the world—and the feature that engenders the particular orientation he brings to the tasks of human living.1
After all, it is man (and only man) who, well before the Fall puts him at odds with creation, is given a specific job. This is his work, his mission. To what end is not clear. That is what comes next in the story, and to that moment we shall return. But it is manifestly evident that man creates outside of himself, he is oriented toward the external, he acts on the world. Indeed, he is made to build things. And his genius has served and preserved families and communities since the beginning of recorded history.
But, of course, he has not done it alone. And this brings us to the genius of woman. In this second essay we will consider the nature of homo qua woman (mulier) and the gift she is to the world. We will see that, as with vir, the nature of the gift woman is to the world is discernible in the well-trod tale of her creation. Indeed, the full meaning of mulier also has remained buried in the text, just waiting to be uncovered. It will become clear that without woman, man’s work in the world has no telos. That without her, man’s gifts cannot fall on fertile soil. Without her, he has no purpose.
Woman Is First in the Order of Love
It is fairly common knowledge that Pope St. John Paul II first introduced the phrase “feminine genius” in his 1988 Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women),2 invoking it again in his 1995 Letter to Women.3 Though in the main a rhetorical device, his words seemed to capture the existence of something familiar, a quality of womanhood already known to all of us—but one that had previously gone unnamed.4
Woman, declared the Holy Father, embodies a unique capacity to attend to the person; her genius is grounded in this reality.5 She sees the person in his or her totality. Most fully expressed in Mary, the Mother of God, the feminine genius reflects God’s plan for woman: to her God has entrusted all of humanity. This is the aquifer and the source of her undeniable moral force, her strength, her nobility. It reveals her vocation.6 She is first in the order of love.7
Now unquestionably John Paul is right when he argues further that woman’s sensitivity toward the person is grounded in her capacity to be a mother; it is this very capacity, he declares, whether fulfilled in a physical or spiritual sense, that orients her toward the other, toward persons. Indeed, woman’s strength, her fundamental posture toward the world, her very life, gives testimony to it. Surely this originates in a divine mandate.
But here I would argue that there is a prior point of departure for this claim, one unencumbered by the risk of reducing woman to her reproductive capacity (as miraculous as that is) and—more significantly—one that opens the door to a fuller account of the gift that woman is to the world. As in our account of man, it is found in Genesis. Who woman is and what she is for is discernible at the precise moment she appears in the order of creation; it comes into view as she emerges from the side of Adam. We will turn our attention to this possibility now.8
Woman in the Order of Creation
First, let us acknowledge that, at least in Christendom, the “woman question” has been with us since the beginning. Indeed, we could trace the vexed nature of the question to its origins in Aristotle’s unfortunate conclusion that woman is a “malformed male.”9 Woman suffers from a “privation,” he declared; she lacks an attribute essential to the full meaning of “human.”10 Now Aristotle can be forgiven for this obvious misstep. It originates in something hidden from scientific scrutiny at the time: the mystery surrounding woman’s contribution to the reproductive act.11
Nonetheless, it is a matter of historical record that this notion entered silently into the substratum of the western intellectual tradition, lending mostly unacknowledged support to a particular interpretation of Genesis 2:24: that the text reveals that woman is created second to man and is therefore somehow less in stature than him.12 After all, wasn’t woman created to be his “helper”? Surely we are justified in concluding that woman is the “second sex,” that her place in the scheme of things is that of a servant?
But an honest appraisal of the text reveals this claim to be completely without merit. For in the broad sweep of God’s creative activity is a discernible pattern: both creation accounts reflect the unfolding of a particular hierarchy. The order in which God creates clearly proceeds from lower creatures to higher, a reality evident in both accounts. In the first account, it culminates in the creation of man per se; in the second, it culminates in the creation of woman at Genesis 2:22.13 Woman is not created second; she is created last—and on the way up.
Indeed, it is only when we come to the making of woman that we see the final significance of the order introduced in the first account and brought to completion in the second. Man is made from the earth (adama) but woman is made from man. Though it has troubled feminists forever—and is arguably a beginning point of the historical misinterpretation of this passage—the fact that woman is created second is not to make her subservient. Woman is not created “second”; she is created last. She is, in fact, the last creature to appear, a creature made, not from earth, but from something that arguably already contains a greater actualization than dust or clay. It is certainly plausible to suggest that she is made of “finer stuff.” But at least minimally we can say that because of the order suggested by reading the accounts together, woman can be seen as the pinnacle of creation, not as a creature whose place in that order is subservient or somehow less in stature than that of man.
This proposition is reinforced when we consider that the Hebrew word usually translated as “helper” is “ezer” and actually does not mean servant or slave.14 When this word is used elsewhere in Scripture, it has the connotation of Divine aid.15 Used here to express helper or partner, it is a word that indicates someone who is most definitely NOT a slave or even remotely subservient—there is the sense of a companion, a partner, help sent by God.16 Thus, woman is not built to be his domestic servant—a different word would have been used if that were the intention—but someone who can help him to live.
But let us hasten to note the full text: it is ‘ezer kenegdo. And kenegdo is a preposition that means “in front of,” “in the sight of,” “before” (in the spatial sense). And so we recognize that while Eve is not “below” Adam in the order of creation, neither is she above him. She stands in front of him, before him, meeting his gaze as it were and sharing in the responsibility for the preservation of all that precedes them. Indeed, it is only at this moment in the text, Genesis 22, that the sacred author refers to man and woman for the first time as concrete subjects of existence—as real existing persons. They are only now ish and ishshah.17 Here we learn that there is no concretely existing man without a concretely existing woman; man as such exists in the concrete only as either man or woman.
And thus is the full significance of man’s profound act of recognition at the moment of woman’s appearance revealed: “Here at last,” he exclaims, “is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh!” The text reveals that it is not until this moment that man actually knows who he is. For reflected in her gaze, he sees himself. And in that same breath, the meaning of his own existence and of his work is suddenly made clear: it is to be an act of service to her. Indeed, the text illuminates the reality that they are both called to make of themselves a gift to the other. He is now ‘îsh (vir) because there is now an ishshâh (mulier), revealing the astonishing fact that, according to Scripture, there is no concretely existing man until there is a concretely existing woman. Man qua male and man qua female occupy the same rung in the order of creation.
And here we come to the most important conclusion concerning the identity of man and woman. Surely, we can say that, with the creation of woman, human community appears for the first time—and for the first time enters into human history. And it is suddenly clear that while it is true that without man, woman has no place, it is equally true that without woman, man has no future. Perhaps this is why man leaves his mother and father and cleaves to his wife—he knows that she is his future.
And we are led to understand that man and woman each occupy a certain pride of place in the created order—they need each other, and they are made for each other.18
The Genius of Woman
And now, finally, we are able to discern the origin of woman’s genius. In contrast to man and of special significance is the quite legitimate claim that, since woman comes into existence after man, her first contact with reality is of a horizon that, from the beginning, includes man, that is, it includes persons. One can imagine Eve, a person also endowed with reason and free will who, upon seeing Adam, would recognize another like her, an equal, while the other creatures and things around her appear only on the periphery of her gaze. This exegetical insight seems to provide a starting place in Scripture for the equally well documented phenomenon that women seem more naturally oriented toward persons.19
Now Pope St. John Paul II is surely right to argue that woman’s sensitivity toward the person is deeply rooted in her capacity to be a mother. And in every sense, Eve is certainly the mother of all humankind. But the point is that, in addition to her capacity to conceive and nurture human life, indeed prior to it, woman’s place in the order of creation reveals that—from the beginning—the horizon of all womankind includes persons, includes the other. This may explain why girls and women seem to know—from the beginning—that they are meant for relationship, while it takes men a bit longer to look up and realize they are lonely for something they only just realized was missing, and to look for the one who can complete them.
The genius of woman is found here. While man’s first experience of his own existence is of loneliness, woman’s horizon is different, right from the start. From the first moment of her own existence, woman sees herself in relation to the other. Her first encounter with reality is the person in his totality; she is marked by that encounter forever after. And thus, the gift that woman is to the world is to keep constantly before us the undeniable truth that the existence of living persons, whether in the womb or walking around outside of it, cannot be forgotten while we frantically engage in the tasks of human living. Woman is responsible for reminding all of us that all human activity is to be ordered toward authentic human flourishing.20 She is an ever-present reminder of the telos of the created order, an eschatological sign of what is to come.
It is this very reality that has been ignored and sidelined—and with it, the fundamental mission of woman—and thus, woman herself.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger warns us that the mentality that characterizes Western culture has come to place an almost exclusive emphasis on “doing, on achieving results, on actively planning and producing the world oneself.” In other words, he says, we live at a time when “only the masculine principle counts.”21 It is self-reliance and autonomy we value most now; we abhor the idea of being dependent on anyone—or of anyone depending on us. We are impatient, in a hurry, intent on action, and unwilling to wait for those things that need time to ripen and mature. The fact is that both women and men have come to measure their own value in terms of productivity, efficiency, and external achievements. It is a trap of our own making.
But surely it is obvious that this capacity—to include the other—is not a lesser quality. It is not something that only unnecessarily complicates things, diverting us from an otherwise clear line of sight to achieving results. Nor does it compromise woman’s fundamental intelligence, competence, or ability to get things done; she can and clearly does contribute much to the realm of such accomplishments. But when we reduce woman’s value to her ability to keep pace with the feverish tempo of modern life, when we convince her that only her productive capacity matters—that who she is, woman as such, is not wanted—we destroy her and with it, God’s plan for humanity.22 The persons entrusted to her care are left without an advocate.
The Sign of the Woman
Let us conclude this essay with one final consideration that may further illuminate what is at stake here. There is an ancient Talmudic tradition that speaks of the “Shekinah,” the Divine Presence—that which dwells within.23 It is a feminine presence, for it is understood to represent the image, not of God’s creative act, but of His inner life. This understanding of the feminine first finds expression in the Mishnah, the first major written collection of the Jewish oral tradition. It permits us to draw a parallel between the Ark of the Covenant and the icon of Woman, Mary, the Theotokos¸ the mother of God. For both are the dwelling place of the Shekinah, and thus a reflection of the deeper meaning of the Marian dimension that forms the heart of the Church. Mary serves as the vessel of the Divine Presence, sustaining her inner life.24 And thus she brings the Shekinah into the world.
But if we are to accept John Paul’s claim, that Mary is the “sign of the woman,” the icon of womanhood and, as the fullest expression of the feminine genius, the model for all women, then surely, we are to conclude that it is woman’s explicittask to bring the Divine Presence into the world.25 She is to be the channel through which it reaches into the family, into the economic sphere, the political realm, even into the Church—indeed, wherever she is found, no matter her place in the complexities of modern life. Woman is called to be an eschatological sign of what is to come. And if woman refuses—if she declares “I will not serve”—it is mankind who will fall, perhaps irretrievably, into the abyss that the Evil One has been preparing for us since the Garden.26 For as it is revealed in Genesis 3:15, it is woman who is destined to crush the head of the serpent—a woman clothed with the sun.
Deborah Savage is Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a recognized scholar of the work of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and has written extensively on several aspects of his thought including his account of the person, his understanding of human work, and his writings on women. For most of the last decade, her primary area of research has been the pursuit of a robust, adequately grounded account of the nature of man and woman, their respective identities, their mission, and their genius—as they find expression in the family, the Church, and the world. The most recent iteration of her theory on man and woman can be found in The Complementarity of Women and Men, edited by Paul Vitz (CUA Press, 2021). Dr. Savage is currently at work on a book entitled Woman and Man.
I am grateful for this formulation by Professor Anthony Esolen who, in an interview with Zenit, admits he doesn’t exactly have a theory, but his thinking is very helpful. He adds: “Without this literal ‘discernment,’ I mean the clear separation of what may be predicated of a thing and what may not, with systematic means for judging the matter, there can be nothing so intricate as law, the government of a city, higher learning, a church — not to mention philosophy and theology.” Indeed. Aquinas states that Adam would have had to have been given a distinct preternatural gift to enable him to accomplish this task (see Summa Theologiae I, Q. 94, a. 3).
Mulieris Dignitatem (hereafter MD), 30.
John Paul II, Letter to Women, 9–12.
One cannot argue that the Holy Father intended to introduce an entirely new property into our account of the human person. What sort of property would it be? Is it attributable to the form? The matter? These questions would need to be answered before we could point to “the feminine genius” as a recognized feature of the traditional anthropology.
That woman is more oriented toward persons than toward “things” is a well-documented claim, demonstrated by psychological studies and anthropological investigations as well as human experience. For two such studies see Steven Rhoades, Taking Sex Differences Seriously (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004), 22–26; Anne Moir and David Jessel, Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991), 68–112.
See MD, 30.
See MD, 29.
I have developed a rather elaborate interpretation of the first three books of Genesis. I can only provide a sketch in this brief essay. For the full account, see Savage “Woman and Man: Identity, Genius, Mission” in The Complementarity of Women and Men, ed. Paul Vitz, CUA Press, 2021.
The Generation of Animals, edited and translated by Arthur Leslie Peck (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press and William Heinemann Ltd.), 716a.
For a more thorough treatment of this issue, see Savage, “Redeeming Woman: A Response to the Second Sex Issue from Within the Tradition of Catholic Scriptural Exegesis,” Religions, September 2020.
Indeed, the full discovery of the ovum would have to wait until the mid-17th century.
See Sister Prudence Allen’s The Concept of Woman, Vol I: The Aristotelian Revolution (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 87–99, 193; Philo’s Supplement I: Questions and Answers on Genesis, translated by Ralph Marcus (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press and William Heinemann, Ltd., 1929–1962), Bk I, chp. 27, 16.
See “Woman and Man” p. 108.
I am using the word here as it is usually meant—as someone who occupies a lower rung on the ladder in any particular context. A different interpretation of the word servant is associated with being a follower of Christ, which, at this point in salvation history, cannot be invoked. But I do not mean to imply that woman is not to serve man. As St. Paul says in Ephesians 5, both men and women are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. The question of the headship of the man in the family is not under scrutiny here and is a topic for further research.
Excellent examples can be found in the Psalms: for example, Ps 30:11b, “The LORD will be a helper (‘ezer) to me,” or Ps 121:1, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains, whence comes my help (‘ezrî).” The name of the great scribe “Ezra” of the restoration of Israel under the Persians, namesake of the biblical book, seems to be the Aramaic masculine form of the same word.
In his very fine translation of these texts, Robert Alter translates ezer kenegdo as “sustainer” rather than helper, a word with a much closer meaning to that intended by the sacred author in my opinion. I refer here to “helper” since that is the more traditional term used in most translations and makes my dispute with the usual interpretation more precise. See Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: Norton and Company, 1996), 9, fn. 18.
Savage, “Woman and Man”; see also John Paul II Theology of the Body, 8:3, p.159.
This understanding opens the door to a deeper understanding of St. Paul’s own teachings on women, in particular Ephesians 5:21–33.
See Rhoads, 23–4.
Angelo Cardinal Scola’s argues that the father introduces the child to the “law of exchange [work] as the law of growth in life,” while the mother introduces her to the “law of gratuity [love].” See The Nuptial Mystery (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 242.
Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), p. 16.
Paul Edvokimov, Woman and the Salvation of the World (Yonkers, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994)
See “Shekinah.” Perhaps the earliest sources of this idea are located in the Mishnah, the first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions, the first part of the Torah. It is a Talmudic term referring to the manifestation of God’s presence on earth, which is equated with the feminine, the maternal. See Judith Deutsch Cornblatt, The Divine Sophia: The Wisdom Writings of Vladimir Solovyov, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009) 68, 201. See also Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1990), 96–111. The term is derived from shaken, the act of dwelling within. It would be hard to ignore the obvious connection to the understanding of Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. See Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 107. See also “Women of the Inner Bible,” The Jewish Woman; Andre Villaneuve, “Narratives of Motherhood in Scripture,” Presented at “Truth of Love” conference, Steubenville, July 9, 2022. This is an area of research in need of further investigation.
See especially Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Mary: the Church at the Source (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997). The text is a profound reflection on Pope St. John Paul’s encyclical Redemptoris Mater.
John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 1987, 11.
Savage, “Women in the Church,” presented at conference on “Joseph Ratzinger’s Vision of the Church,” Franciscan University of Steubenville, October 20–23, 2022. Conference was cosponsored by the Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI Foundation and Franciscan University. Publication anticipated January 2024.