At the end of the summer, I had the chance to read John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) as part of a women’s study group at my parish. In my reading, one passage about motherhood particularly caught my attention:

Although both of them together are parents of their child, the woman’s motherhood constitutes a special ‘part’ in this shared parenthood, and the most demanding part. Parenthood–even though it belongs to both–is realized much more fully in the woman, especially in the prenatal period. It is the woman who ‘pays’ directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul. It is therefore necessary that the man be fully aware that in their shared parenthood he owes a special debt to the woman. No program of ‘equal rights’ between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account.

This passage in particular raised a lot of thoughts in my mind.

First, one of the questions that has come up in my research, and which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to, is about what constitutes the essence of “women’s experience,” or if we can even speak of such an essence. I really want there to be something there, something that we can point to and say, “This is where women’s experience differs from men, and this can therefore be a foundation for a theology of and by women.” Unfortunately in John Paul II’s text, he did not offer anything specific about what is particular about the dignity of women. He starts from Mary as a model for women, but notes repeatedly that Mary, in various ways, is a model for all of humanity, both men and women. Similarly, in discussing virginity, he focuses on women in this text, but notes that what he is saying about women and virginity applies equally to celibate men.1

In this text, and in the chapter this passage is from (VI) in particular, however, the essence of women is implied to be connected to motherhood since even virgins (for the Kingdom of God) take part in a spiritual motherhood. I recognize that there are problems with using motherhood as a defining feature of women, in particular for those who are not mothers, and John Paul II’s use of motherhood as the defining feature of all women strikes me as a little idealistic in relation to our actual state in this world. Because of this, I generally am uncomfortable with the idea of using motherhood as the basis for descriptions about the essence of women. On the other hand, what else can we say about women that we cannot also say about men? The fact that John Paul II continuously begins by referring to something in relation to the dignity of women then notes that it applies equally to men illustrates that point.

Any qualms about the ways in which the magisterium defines the “essence” of women aside, this passage strikes me as a particularly insightful observation concerning motherhood. The mother’s part is “the most demanding” and the mother realizes parenthood more fully than the father. A little further on, John Paul II says in relation to men, “in many ways he has to learn his own ‘fatherhood’ from the mother.” This all corresponds to some of the reading that I’ve done in the past about work-life balance in academia in reference to women (I’ve posted on the topic before as well, here and here). I never want to claim that men don’t have their own difficulties with work-life balance in academia, because I’m sure they do, but there is a reason why all (or at least most) of the literature on the topic is addressed specifically to women and it focuses on the “second shift” that working moms put in at home once their “job” is done for the day. Someone needs to still do the laundry, dishes, cleaning, and child care at home, though Professor Mommy notes that “having an untidy house is one of the realities of being a working mom.”2 In this sense, John Paul II’s observations about motherhood being the more demanding role seem accurate.

  1. I can’t let this go without at least noting that John Paul II refers to women as virgins and men as celibate. But that’s a whole separate discussion… 
  2. Rachel Connelly & Kristen Ghodsee, Professor Mommy: Finding Work-Family Balance in Academia (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 154. 

6 thoughts

  1. I have read this document many times but never noticed that JPII refers to men as “celibate” and women as “virgins.” This seems quite significant! Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

    1. I know! I doubt that he did that intentionally, but I feel like the different terminology indicates some sort of implicit gender bias. Because, of course, you can be celibate without being a virgin…

  2. The “second shift” is an outcome of sexism. Men are of course capable of laundry, dishes, cleaning, and child care at home, but society gives them a pass in ways it does not give women. I really wouldn’t point to it as evidence that motherhood is more demanding.

    The initial quote about pregnancy was interesting, but its final sentence strikes me as a non sequitur. Equal rights between me and my male coworkers are utterly distinct from anything having to do with pregnancy and parenting.

    1. For me, the issue that I’m looking for is that when we talk about the importance of having women’s voice/experience/theology in the church, there needs to be something THERE that we’re pointing to that says, “This is what makes the experience of women different from that of men.” I’m not entirely sure what that is. Is the women’s experience only due to societal pressures and expectations? Maybe. But I imagine that part of the reason society evolved in such a way is the biological role that women play in bearing the child and then breastfeeding the child. Of course, like I say in the post, I’m generally uncomfortable with the idea of defining the essence of women via motherhood.

  3. “Motherhood,” it is something that has been taught, to so many of us women, as we were children that…that it something we are simply made to do. The mentioning of spiritual motherhood, I found quite intriguing. Especially given that there are so many women in the world today who are unable to conceive. A question I cannot help but raise here, and wonder if there is any supporting evidence outside of what common belief is, is: Are women truly the more nurturing gender? Or is it merely assumed? I personally would like to see some statistics, documentaries, and even scriptural proof on this as it is something I have been considering re-examining.

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