One of the more novel ideas to come out of the lengthy reign of John Paul II is the concept of the “feminine genius.” The so-called feminine genius refers to the special way in which women relate to the world, which stems from the unique ability for women to bear life. This means that being a woman is characterized by by an openness to life, submissiveness, empathy, purity, and modesty. Even if a woman does not physically give birth in her lifetime, the fact that she is able to will affect her outlook on life and the way she interacts with others.
If you’re rolling your eyes at this, you aren’t alone, because I am too. Like much of the Catholic church’s teachings on sex and women, the feminine genius sounds beautiful and flowery on paper, and has no bearing on life as it is actually lived for the average woman. According to the feminine genius rhetoric, women should naturally eschew contraception, in-vitro fertilization, abortion, and stem cell research because they possess the mother’s urge to protect their young. How then does explain it the fact that large numbers of women support these things, even in traditionally Catholic cultures? I guess conservotrad Catholics would say that these women are selfish and ignoring their “true vocations” as women, but if a “real woman” has to fit the feminine genius criteria to qualify for the title, then there must be a lot of ersatz women running around.
The idea of a “feminine genius” is the old nineteenth cult of domesticity now updated with the grudging acceptance of women’s suffrage and the even more grudging acceptance of the fact that many women now have careers outside of the house. Like the feminine genius, the cult of domesticity stated that “real women” are supposed to be submissive, pure, pious, and oriented towards motherhood. Both concepts reduce women to a single biological function and then extrapolate what “real women” are like from there. At least the cult of domesticity was clear that most women couldn’t aspire to “real womanhood” by dint of being black, working class, or an immigrant, whereas the feminine genius asserts that motherhood is the defining characteristic of all women for all time. Much like how doctrines about purity/modesty reduce girls to what they wear or what the status of their hymen is, the feminine genius reduces women to their uterus, as if to say, “It doesn’t matter what you do in this life, because at the end of the day it’s all about what you are and aren’t doing with your womb.” How does the feminine genius explain hyper-analytical women like Temple Grandlin, who have not shown any inclination towards motherhood, whether in the biological or the spiritual sense? What about women who drive trucks or become astronauts? Is there a peculiarly feminine way to be a political leader? The crude gender essentialism found in the feminine genius is unable to account for the natural diversity of strengths, weaknesses, and gifts found in the human population.
The rhetoric of the feminine genius is simply the newest iteration of men defining the parameters of acceptable womanhood. As with The Theology of the Body, it’s unclear how John Paul II, an ostensibly celibate man who lived in an all-male world, was able to gain this knowledge about the real nature of the female sex. The most likely scenario is that the late pope used pre-existing Catholic teachings about the subservience of women and his natural affection for the Virgin Mary and then proceeded from there to get the feminine genius. Stating that men and women are of “equal dignity” but have different roles is simply a nice way of maintaining the sexual apartheid that currently exists, not just in the Catholic church, but in society at large. The qualities that define the feminine genius are those that coincide with the ideal woman according to Catholic theology and social teachings, not necessarily those that define how women actually are or want to be.