In my last article, “Hilaire Belloc’s List of Eight Manly Activities,” I drew on Belloc’s principle that in order to be reasonably happy we ought to do “what men have always done.” I enumerated eight perennial activities which promote strength, virtue, and sanctity while filling the void left when we abandon the wastelands of social media.
However, since I wrote primarily about men, I thought it would be in order to say something about women. Now, with the excellent input of my sister Rose and several other female friends, I turn to the complementary, overlapping, and yet beautifully different companion to the Renaissance Man—the Renaissance Woman.
Men and women have more in common as regards their nature because of their shared humanity than they have differences resulting from their masculinity or femininity. Nevertheless, the differences are great, important, and meaningful. I would thus want to make the disclaimer that this article is not saying men and women are different as regards their human nature, nor am I trying to define the most fundamental and essential things that make men male and women female.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The eight activities listed in my previous article were by no means exhaustive, nor did they claim to be the defining characteristics of men, masculinity, or Christian manliness. Similarly, the following reflections and companion list are not meant to be exhaustive or defining of what a woman is, what femininity is, or what it means to be a good woman.
In fact, there are several things which both lists obviously share in common. But like that for “Renaissance Men,” the list simply presents good activities which women have always done and which seem closely tied to being a fulfilled and feminine woman. They are not meant to suffocate the “valiant women” of the world but empower them.
Because of this, I have specifically refrained from listing vague, amorphous things like “nurturing” as a feminine activity; the list is supposed to present particulars not transcendental characteristics of the all-too-often undefined “feminine genius.” As I did not try to define fatherhood, along with providing for or protecting a family, as an essentially male task, I have not incorporated motherhood in this list. Of course, this does not mean that fatherhood and motherhood are not essential characteristics of men and women; that is obvious and, in a way, too fundamental.
Surveying Western Europe’s traditional roles of the sexes, then, I (together with my female advisers) decided upon the eight following activities, four of which are in common with Belloc’s list and four of which are different. These activities were perhaps perfected in the High Middle Ages and Renaissance, although some of them can obviously be found in Homer and other pre-Christian sources. This is our list:
- Textile arts
- Beautifying contained spaces
- Beautifying themselves
- Hearing Mass
Claiming that some sort of “textile arts” is a proper and excellent womanly activity is often interpreted in a chauvinistic manner. Yet it need not be: to say that knitting, crochet, weaving, dying cloth, darning, or embroidery is a feminine activity is, first of all, to state a simple historical fact.
Literature has portrayed this quintessentially feminine activity across all ages, from the valiant woman of Proverbs who “puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle,” to the goddess Calypso in the Odyssey “lifting her breathtaking voice as she glided back and forth before her loom, her golden shuttle weaving,” to Louisa May Alcott’s saccharine description of Meg March in Little Women, who “sat upon her cushion, sewing daintily with her white hands, and looking as fresh and sweet as a rose in her pink dress among the green.” When Athena appears to Odysseus in book 13 of the Odyssey, it is as a “woman beautiful, tall and skilled at weaving lovely things.” Hardly bad company to keep!
There are many more facets to this art than the creation of the beautiful, however. The creation and mending of clothing are harmonious and fitting (pun intended) accompaniments to the other caring tasks which have always occupied mothers. The creation and mending of clothing are harmonious and fitting (pun intended) accompaniments to the other caring tasks which have always occupied mothers. Tweet This
Who knows the size and needs of the child better than the mother? And who should judge what will look best on her husband than the wife? And who can say better than the stay-at-home mom what curtains, or tablecloth, or quilt will be the most pleasing?
Creation of the home and its furnishings can express faithfulness, commitment, and sacrificial love. Penelope’s weaving and unraveling her weaving, putting off the suitors while waiting for the return of Odysseus, is an act of faithfulness that comes to mind in regard to the textile arts.
Turning to the second, as we just saw, the textile arts are closely tied to the role of beautifying domestic spaces, which is preeminently the task of the lady of the house. The curmudgeonly G.K. Chesterton quips: “Women have a thirst for order and beauty as for something physical; there is a strange female power of hating ugliness and waste as good men can only hate sin and bad men virtue.”
The third point of my list has its origins in Eden. Devin Schadt, in his biblical and spiritual meditation The Meaning and Mystery of Man, writes that
woman has an innate longing for [man] to rejoice in her beauty in the manner that Adam rejoiced in Eve. The need for her man to “see her” is a foundational motivating factor for much of her decisions. Woman longs to be affirmed by man, particularly for her beauty.
This is a fact which “is confirmed by our subjective experience,” Schadt says. This reality needs to be understood, embraced, and loved—otherwise, it will lead to the extremes of vanity and promiscuity or a denial of feminine beauty as unique.
Anna Kalinowska has written powerfully in defense of cultivating feminine beauty as spiritually healthy, ontologically defensible, and even necessary. “As beings made in the image and likeness of God, we must seek to reflect the all-beautiful God,” Kalinowska writes. “Men and women arrayed in ugly clothing (even with the best intentions) generate an illusion, an obstruction to the truth about who we are.”
Kalinowska defends women spending significant amounts of time, effort, and money on procuring high-quality and beautiful clothing because “a woman who seeks beautiful clothing for herself and her household, seeks their spiritual nourishment just as much as their physical protection from the elements.” In fact, taking care to be beautiful is spiritually, psychologically, and intellectually productive since it promotes “a proper view of” a woman’s “dignity,” helps her to realize “her own ontological beauty,” and enables her to “raise the minds of men to Heaven” by means of the beautiful.
Cooking is another one of those things which is not essentially feminine but often approaches it. G.K. Chesterton, in his essay Woman, writes of the way in which cooking contributes to the creative authority of women:
I should favour anything that would increase the present enormous authority of women and their creative action in their own homes…. So far from wishing her to get her cooked meals from outside, I should like her to cook more wildly and at her own will than she does. So far from getting always the same meals from the same place, let her invent, if she likes, a new dish every day of her life. Let woman be more of a maker, not less.
On many levels, the provision of food is a truly feminine thing. Even on a physiological level, women are the only half of the species who can feed with their very bodies by nursing children. If nursing is not a “gender-neutral” task, cooking in many ways is. Yet the traditional arrangement of the family, where the father is working while the mother cultivates the home, makes cooking fall obviously under her purview, since the man is not free to prepare his food but needs it in order to have strength to work. Even outside of marriage, cooking is a hands-on creative activity which enables women to engage in meaningful work, socialize with each other, and contribute to their communities.
The last four—dancing, singing, handcrafts, and hearing Mass—are all activities shared with the Renaissance Man but with important differences. Since we have already spoken here and elsewhere of the benefits of handcrafts, we will only note in passing that the woman in the home is in a unique position to cultivate crafts and hobbies many men wish they were free to pursue. This liberty, in fact, affects all of these activities, since women may be freer to research and practice these beautifully human activities.
In my experience, women are more often interested in dancing than men. Women need to realize that they should encourage men to learn to dance and be willing to help teach them. Learning to call folk dances or mentor other sorts of dancing is a wonderful expression of leadership. As mentioned in the prequel to this piece,
the most fun and least promiscuous dancing is traditional folk dancing. This ought to be organized communally; it is simple enough that men, women, and children without any previous dancing experience can learn it. At the same time, it is complex enough that when a group becomes coordinated and smooth, they have the satisfaction of having achieved something worthwhile.
Unlike men, hearing Mass for women ought not to involve being able to serve at the altar. Singing, however, is an opportunity for women to contribute during the liturgy. Obviously, there are a multitude of sacristan-type things that women can assist with, but that is by no means the central focus here. In regard to activities already touched on, women have historically had a very large role in contributing to liturgical worship via the making of vestments and hangings.
Hearing Mass should mean (as it did for Belloc and his wife, Elodie) hearing the Traditional Mass—that is, the liturgy which contains all our “race needs to do and has done for all these ages where religion was concerned.” This is the Mass for all Ages, not only of men but also of women, great and small; the Mass of Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, and Gianna Molla.
At the end of the day, these skills are not meant to shackle or inhibit the valiant women of the world. Their identification and practice are meant to help us be happy and “decent and secure of our souls” by embracing what is “buried right into our blood” as human beings. Listen again to Belloc:
Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long—but I mean reasonably happy), and, what is more important, decent and secure of our souls.
One of the ladies who reviewed this article had this to add: women can experience particular temptations to frivolity in social media. For instance, “Mommy” chat groups and social media can drain women and suck them into abstract artificial worlds when they should really make an effort to cultivate the real in activities such as those listed.
As Jared Noyes said in the article which inspired mine,
When we fail to be productive and put to use the gifts and talents God has given us, we open the door to our time being filled, at best, with frivolous nonsense…pursuing good, true, and beautiful endeavors to fill our time and expand our knowledge can result in our becoming more fruitful, happy, and well-rounded men.
While the scope of this article has been much more modest than trying to define the essence of femininity or womanhood, we have tried to identify a representative handful of activities which are predominantly and traditionally feminine, comparable to those mentioned in the previous article which were essentially masculine. We have also tried to show why at least some of these activities, despite not being necessary to being a woman, nonetheless help to realize and support womanhood.
As with men, such works contribute or facilitate strength, virtue, holiness, and liberty of spirit by exercising our natures as rational animals, whether in arts or manual crafts. It is perhaps for these reasons that the husband of the valiant woman praised her, saying, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all” (Proverbs 31:29).