December 9, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

How to judge the value of a woman

Recently, our granddaughter, Jenny, asked me to answer some questions about how gender attitudes have affected my life. She was writing a college paper on that subject, using answers provided by herself, her mom and me. I guess the idea was to find out whether ideas about gender had changed over the generations, and if so, how.

The subject interested me because I knew that such attitudes certainly had changed during my lifetime. After all, when I was Jenny’s age, young women’s magazines like Mademoiselle featured articles about how to play dumb in order to get a boyfriend. Hunky guys supposedly wanted only beauty, never brains.

However, like many girls of my generation, I’d been raised to think I was an OK person, not some pawn in the game of life. The idea of fawning upon boys, pretending I admired basketball and muscle cars in order to gain their admiration, seemed ridiculous. In fact, I absolutely knew it was ridiculous.

Still, my expectations included finding a husband, marrying and raising a family, which were the common female expectations of the time. A career, if any, was a secondary ambition. Those were the days when spending most of one’s life raising children was considered the highest calling of a woman. Personally, I still think it is.

If Mr. Right didn’t appear, I figured I’d be happy anyway teaching English somewhere, with a cat and a dog and books and a glass of wine now and then with friends. But, although I was oblivious to it, the prevailing attitude of the times was that women’s life choices were fewer and somehow less important then men’s.

The contradiction between exalting women as mothers while refusing to take them seriously as completely functional beings seemed to be lost on everyone. The Madonna complex was alive and kicking.

Well, look how far we’ve come from my day to Jenny’s! Much good has resulted from the so-called “feminist movement,” which declared that gender should not be the sole determination of one’s worth, opportunities or decisions. Equal pay for equal work and allowing women to take up certain “male” occupations, among other things, are possible today because of it.

On the other hand, women appear to have lost the right to be full-time moms. For reasons beyond my understanding, most families seem to need two incomes in order to survive. Mothers work at jobs outside the home, in addition to loving a husband, raising kids, running a household and doing whatever Church or volunteer work they can squeeze in.

Stress of a new and different kind has become many women’s lot in life. Besides that, the so-called “sexual freedom” women have today has largely destroyed whatever respect they used to receive. Women may no longer be kept out of the workplace or overprotected, but now they’re treated as objects to be used.

It seems to me what we need is an authentic Madonna complex. That is, we should look to the Blessed Mother as an example of womanhood, not in the sentimental way we often see her, but as she truly is.

Mary was a faithful, loving, strong woman who trusted God enough to involve herself in the greatest mystery in human experience. Women today can do no less.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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