The Tragedy of Modern Woman
If you want to take the measure of modern society in terms of human happiness, watch the faces of the women.
The female of our species is much more sensitive than the male to the things of the spirit, and whatever she feels, and is, will be written on her face after the age of 25 or 30. We are so fashion-conscious that we seldom even look at the soul of modern woman as revealed by her eyes and the lines of her face. In this way we miss observing that most American women, those emancipated and lovely ladies of commercial fiction, either cry themselves to sleep every night or are past giving way to the sorrow and frustration that encompasses them.
What Women Want
The nature of woman is a matter for philosophical and spiritual investigation. No Gallup poll is needed, or would even be useful, in finding out what women are made for. They are made as all human beings (men included) for God, both here and here-after. But in a special way women are destined for love and service; love and service of God, usually in the person of another human being. It can be stated dogmatically that the key to any woman's character and to her happiness or unhappiness, lies in discovering whom she loves, whereas a man, though he shares ultimately the same destiny, is frequently caught loving a yacht or a car or a corporation.
In respect to a woman's loves, she will be happy if they are rightly ordered and duly reciprocated, miserable otherwise. Rightly ordered means that God will get her first love and that all her other loves will be somehow in Christ. In this light one can examine modern woman and see that our society has betrayed her on every level.
The Tragedy of Wasted Sacrifice.
The tragedy of the aging woman with grown-up children today is the tragedy of wasted sacrifice. In God's plan marriage is intended to be the path of sanctification for most women, the altar of daily sacrifice made easy by love. Marriage is so natural a vehicle for dying to oneself that even today it is rare to see a married woman who is selfish unless she has refused through contraception to permit the ordinary fructification of marriage. A woman with a child immediately takes on a dignity, a dignity which increases as the family grows and the sacrifices multiply. The normal woman, be she Christian or pagan, gives to her children before herself. They are well clothed while she gets shabbier; they attend school at the expense of new furniture or perfume. The normal woman does not even notice her sacrifices because she loves her children and is surrounded by their need for her.
So far it is all part of God's plan.
It is all a prelude to joy unceasing. It is a sort of purgatorial stage of the spiritual life to act as a prelude to the joys of union with God. A Christian woman, while loving her husband and children, should grow increasingly eager for what popular psychologists, with their foolish terminology, call the "empty nest" period, when the house is deserted and the children all at college or married. She should be eager because she should be pretty well stripped of self-love and ready for a swift progress in the spiritual life once she is free for more prayer. She should be already far enough advanced spiritually to count past sacrifices as nothing and to hope she can soon live a more penitential, frugal, simple, and contemplative life than has been possible with a growing family around. Like the saint queens of hagiography she should be planning the personal service she will give to the sick or the needy when her hands are free to love Christ in His least lovable.
The tragedy of the middle-aged American woman whom God intended thus to sanctify hits you with full force if you listen to any of the radio give-away programs. They represent a mountainous vulgarity, a truly shameful indignity. But slightly less vulgarly the same tragedy extends to the more refined suburbanites who waste their declining years in bridge, travel and gossip.
Everyone cooperates in making sure that the years of sacrifice do not fructify.
"Now you can have your new car, your trip to Bermuda, your hair elegantly done, the latest dish washing machine and fine clothes!" scream the advertisements, seconded by public opinion. What they are really saying is,
"Now that you have been at least partially stripped of self-love, you can learn to love yourself again, so that you may be able to lose your soul after all, and if you don't lose your soul you can at least have the opportunity of going through the stripping all over again, and in a much more painful way, in purgatory."
Husbands only serve to heighten the tragedy, although for other reasons. Owing to a distorted ideal of married love (more about this later), it is considered today that a woman must hold her husband's affection by her physical charms. How cruel the world's way is, compared to God's.
In God's plan a man and his wife would so have grown in spiritual unity by middle age that the most beautiful 18-year-old secretary, despite her evident charms, would fail to hold the husband's attention.
In the world's scheme love never deepens. It's always superficial and physical.
This imposes a torture on all middle-aged women whose waistlines finally expand beyond all repressing and who look more and more pathetic in their determined youthfulness. They must always be dieting when they would otherwise (had they been nearing the goal of holiness) be fasting. They suffer doubly because they will not accept suffering. They are vastly more lonely for having turned away from solitude. The devil is a hard task master.
The Tragedy of Half-Giving.
The tragedy of half-giving stalks the unmarried women who are not nuns. Perhaps the best way to see their plight is within an historical perspective.
The single state is, strictly speaking, unnatural. It is tolerable and significant (as will be shown) only within a Christian context where it can be raised to a supernatural role. Pagan societies never tolerated single women (as a class, that is; there were accidental special cases). They were pressed into concubinage or prostitution.
One of the most notable social effects of Christianity was that it provided a status and function to unmarried women. They would be "brides of Christ," women who were impatient of reaching their final goal of divine love through the intermediary channel of human love and so chose a direct route of total and immediate self-giving to God, either in a life stripped of all but the barest necessary activities for the sake of contemplation or within the framework of a religious order devoted to the works of mercy.
As brides of Christ these women were able to love as fully as possible and their love overflowed all over Europe in the service of the poor and the sick, the homeless, the leper and the ignorant. Peace and joy characterized their countenances and people said of them then as they say of them now, "You can never tell how old a nun is–they always look young."
The Protestant Reformation dispensed with nuns, totally in some countries, partially in others.
But Protestantism couldn't erase the memory of the freedom not to marry, nor the ideal of free service in the works of mercy.
The last several centuries have witnessed the progressive deterioration of the status of the single woman as she was divorced progressively from her role of Christ's spouse. We still have vestiges of the tail end of that regression in the "noble humanitarian" maiden lady who was popularly called an "old maid."
Popular appellations are usually somewhat accurate, even if cruel.
No one would ever have called a nun an old maid.
It was the secular spinster who had withered up because she couldn't love fully and give her service wholly. And now we see the final decay of half-giving.
Teachers, nurses and social workers, divorced from Christ except accidentally (where they are pious on the side but do not see Christ in the patient or the student or client, or if they do are caught up in a system which doesn't corroborate their findings), are sick of half-giving, of leading lonely if useful lives, and are capitulating to self-seeking. They are all asking for more money, not knowing that their frustration comes from quite another source and that they are but jumping from unhappiness to ruination.
Career girls are another facet of the unmarried woman problem, descended in an indirect line by way of the emancipation of woman. They are not wholly the termini of the secularized nun but are caught up equally with the disgruntled wife. Without tracing their ancestry in detail, let us examine their present plight.
It can be said categorically that the career girl cannot be happy (that is as a career girl–she may accidentally be fulfilled because her career is secondary to the support of an aged mother or a brother studying for the priesthood, or because she only works for a little while and finds it exciting). You have only to ask one question to see why. Whom does a career girl love? As a woman she must love someone wholly.
She does not love God, not enough anyhow. That is apparent by definition. A career girl is one who is forging a place for herself in business, government, the arts–some secular activity. It does not involve a religious dedication. God, then, is out as the renter of her life.
Most career girls try to go against their natures. They pretend that they can make themselves like men, impersonal, objective, and happy in the pursuit of things. If they have love affairs they try to make them seem casual, as though their hearts were not involved. The more glittering a woman's career (in the eyes of the world) the more apt the woman herself is to be distorted, unhappy and neurotic.
Then there are a multitude of career girls who love their bosses, knowingly or unknowingly, morally or immorally, with home-breaking effects or not. It is not in a woman to give her total service and dedication to the Amalgamated Pickle Company or National Horseshoes, Inc., without having a personal attachment involved. Business tends to exploit this fact because it is to the interest of the firm to have devoted workers, and if a roomful of girls is going to be asked to work late night after night it is useful to have a handsome personnel manager. The situation is especially acute in the case of secretaries so aptly named "office wives." Night after night, from coast to coast, important Mr. Jones leaves the office early for golf and then cocktails and dinner, while Mary Jane Smith works on until 8:00pm cleaning up the mail. Often enough she doesn't know why she does it, and most often too Mr. Jones is obtuse enough to accept the sacrifice without realizing its disorienting effects on Mary Jane's life.
The only way for a determined career girl to escape from the emotional disorders which beset her is for her to give all her love to someone whose interests are identical with her own, that is, herself. Needless to say, self-love is to the self's ultimate destruction, but it seemingly frees people from being hurt by others (the person you love always has the power to hurt you). When a career woman thus "frees" herself by loving only herself she becomes a ruthless creature who terrifies all around her. A calloused male, seeking money or power, is warm and human by contrast. And, needless to say, such a woman is in a far more perilous state as regards her soul, than the secretary she makes miserable and the comptometer operator who is secretly in love with the head bookkeeper.
The Lay Apostle
Single women must again turn to Christ with a total love and service. It is easy to say that they ought to marry or enter the convent, but that is often not the answer. Neither is it the answer for them to continue their secular course and pile up novenas on the side. Today's answer to the problem of the single girl is usually the lay apostolate, some form of Catholic Action which will give her a Christ-centered life and a very important function within the contemporary framework of life. Wherever girls have turned to some vital form of the apostolate, the marks of frustration, neurosis, loneliness and unhappiness have indeed begun to disappear. Life is not really as difficult as it seems. God's way is easy and includes everyone.
The Tragedy of Superficial Union
The tragedy of the married woman today can be traced to a misunderstanding about the nature of human love. We are made, says the Church, in the image and likeness of God. The modern world contradicts this: We are made, it says, in the image and likeness of animals. The union of a man and woman in marriage, says the Church, is analogous to the union of Christ and His Church and can only be understood in that light. It is a spiritual union, expressed through the union of bodies. The union of man and woman in marriage, says the world, is like the mating of animals, to which is attached a little more delicacy and cerebration because we are higher animals.
So the world prepares young people for marriage by teaching them physiology and the techniques of making love, and sends them into marriage (armed with contraceptive devices) physically mature but spiritually infantile.
As the marriage relationship becomes (as it must) progressively more intolerable, the publishers belch forth a mountain of books giving further instructions on the art of eroticism, and finally society shepherds the aggrieved partners singly onto the psychologist's couch, and on to the divorce court.
There virtually is no such thing as sexual incompatibility. The root trouble is the lack of spiritual harmony, and behind that a deficient spiritual development or a complete absence of spiritual orientation. How could marriage possibly succeed?
But let us return to the married woman. She has to love someone wholly. Whom does she love? She ought, of course, to love God and her husband as Christ's intermediary but most times she does not.
There is a natural tendency for women to love their husbands as though their husbands were God, were indeed the woman's final end. This is owing to woman's great need to love and give herself wholly and it always leads to disaster. If the husband becomes her god the wife becomes subordinate to him in a disastrous way. She takes her standards from him (what is good is what pleases him, what is bad he doesn't like), whereas she is supposed to be the member of the family who preserves the moral standards which come from God. Her entire happiness hinges on him, and he is often a poor enough specimen. She becomes jealous, she demands much more of him in time and attention than he wants to give. Eventually the husband will be unable to tolerate this unnatural worship, accompanied as it usually is by frequent tears and emotional outbursts, and the woman will be driven to a nervous breakdown. Or else she will discover in one shattering blow that her god is a clay idol and be so disillusioned she will hate him.
If a woman doesn't love God supremely, and chances not to worship her husband, there is always the possibility of gross over-attachment to her children. Under the guise of maternal solicitude a vast multitude of woman are seeking a self-satisfaction in their children, making their sons over dependent on them and robbing their daughters of real lives of their own. Enough evidence of this sort of thing is at every hand to omit any elaboration here.
Or the married woman, like the single woman, can love herself. All loves reduce in the end to self-love or love of God, but those who love another during their lifetime have not yet settled in self-love even if they haven't attained God.
Determined, premeditated self-love, as in the newly married girl who loves clothes inordinately and wants no children, is like premature self-damnation.
It's like making the final choice between God and self on the very threshold of life.
The New Paganism
Paganism has always been marked by the degradation of women. Whether in cultured Athens or Hindu India or ancient or modern China, you will look in vain for the regard for women with which Christianity marked Western society. The degradation takes two forms: women are reduced to slave-like work and to objects of pleasure. We are returning to paganism with ever more swift strides in our society, and again it is marked by the two signs of women's degradation.
The emancipation movement has ended in women's slavery. The myriads of office and factory girls, regimented, depersonalized, with their every gesture prescribed and tabulated, are the armies of slaves on whom the new paganism is being built. Superficially it does not seem so because, for the moment at least, we encourage our new slaves to dress like Hollywood stars and we appease their appetite for life by the vicarious excitement of the movies, radio and pulp stories. We even pay them well, but it is a quarter of a century since Belloc reminded us that slavery is still slavery even if it is well paid–and cushioned about with television sets and double chocolate sundaes.
The moral debacle, plus divorce, birth control and other "enlightened" measures, has resulted in the reduction of women to a pseudo-prostitution, of which the wolf call (which so many poor ignorant women think flattering) is the symbol.
It is into this atmosphere, this post-Christian situation, that the young girl of today emerges from adolescence. For her it will be like starting all over again to work for the true emancipation which Christ came to bring her. She can no longer drain out the last dregs of happiness and dignity left by a residual Chrisiatianity, but has to forge a new path in the manner of Sts. Agatha and Agnes.
But not quite in their way because they were lone Christian martyrs, defying worldly parents and a pagan society. The modern Catholic girl has the opportunity of uniting with a multitude of others in the lay apostolate, not so much to defy an inevitable authority and suffer death as (through the lay apostolate) to take advantage of what freedom of action is left to bring Christ, purity and happiness to a dispossessed younger generation whose elders have not seen fit to pass on their residual Christianity. But like the early martyrs, the young women of today may well be repudiated and cast out by their materialistic parents.
Not Less Love, but More
There is only one answer to the tragedy of the women who are making modern society quite literally a vale of tears, and that is an ordering and an increase in their love. It is pathetic to see the pseudo-solutions which the popular magazines hold out to women whose problems they often see quite clearly, and whose unhappiness has certainly not escaped them (as has not the potentialities of exploiting them for profit). How can they give any but superficial remedies?
How can they suggest anything except what might deaden the pain (sometimes at the expense of virtue)? Bridge is no remedy. Helena Rubinstein does not hold the key to happiness. A new dress won't do it. Neither will an affair, a raise, a cruise or a good book.
Unlike the indifferent husband, Christ welcomes love and total devotion, and reciprocates a thousandfold. Unlike children, Christ does not outgrow His desire for our affection. Unlike the world, Christ forgives us, no matter how far we have fallen. He can purify the impure, as He perfected the woman taken in adultery.
The central fact of the case is that women need to love tremendously and there is only one Person whom they can safely and satisfactorily love: Christ. And the more disordered their present loves the more whole-hearted will have to be their conversion to a love of Christ.
There is no remedy for modern woman's tragedy except Christ, and wherever Christ is introduced all human relationships begin immediately to straighten themselves out.