Gender and Charity I: On Stereotypes

Ardent young Catholics often want to know what masculinity and femininity mean, what they consist of, how to identify them. They want the lists, the distinctions, the clear clues. They want to know the tricks for identifying a masculine man and a feminine woman, and how to become one.

But where can we find these tricks? It’s shockingly difficult to know, as Catholics, what masculinity and femininity are, without falling into stereotypes or amorphous distinctions like “activity” and “passivity” (or, to put in a nicer way, “activity” and “receptivity”). Many want to say that women are relation-oriented, and men orient towards action. Men excel in objectivity, women in subjectivity. Men are made for strength, the story goes, and women for nurturing.

But with the ballooning of these distinctions comes machismo culture, and a silent pseudo-femininity where women cannot work, or speak, or vote apart from their husbands who do these things for them. This brings insecurity for boys who value relationships or like babies or interior design, and for women with secret interests in engineering or politics. And it facilitates cultures that associate “masculinity” with violence, and “femininity” with sexual appeal and availability.

I was speaking with a friend who once thought of herself as a masculine woman. Her interests and desires tend towards what we often associate with masculinity. But, apparently, her husband once told her, “The things you do are feminine, not because they are feminine in themselves. But because you are feminine, and you do them.”

These words came to mind when a theology professor once defined masculinity as “charity in a man” and femininity as “charity in a woman.” This challenged me. His definition suggested that all of those traits, stereotypes, and expectations didn’t matter. Masculinity and femininity, if we follow this definition, are not things to aspire or work towards, but things which naturally manifest themselves as we live lives of creativity, love, and service.

It eschews limited or clearly delineated understandings of masculinity and femininity. A father’s nurturing of his child is masculine, because he is a man, and it is an expression of his love. He does not become feminine because he exercises tenderness. A woman’s work as an analytical engineer or a business executive does not make her masculine. Rather, her strength in this work is feminine simply because it is an exercise of her personhood.

And this definition also assumes a moral effort. Masculinity and femininity can neither be practiced nor understood apart from charity. And our confusions about them may not come simply from conceptual errors, or from intellectual failings, but from sin and selfishness. A philosopher or theology professor may fail to comprehend masculinity and femininity simply due to his failure of active love, while the uneducated may understand–even if they cannot clearly articulate–them in their little works of charity. This may be why the most tyrannical and corrupted views of gender often come from the educated classes. Because the educated have the most developed tools for hiding their moral failings behind words.

I think we could all benefit from caring less about being “masculine” or “feminine,” and caring more about just living lives of love. In my next post, I will consider the gender of the soul and its implications for how we view men and women.


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