Edith Stein on the Education of Women

Author: Igino Giordani


Igino Giordani

One could say that "woman" is a subject of the day in these times that represent the culminating phase of her civil and social emancipation. The problem of her position in society, examined from the Christian point of view, has been treated by some of the best male and female scholars: especially female. In Italy, the book "The Eternal Woman" by Gertrude von Le Fort is well known; and now various writings of Edith Stein, published under the title, "Woman" (ed. Città Nuova) are becoming known.

The figure of Edith Stein is familiar to everyone, for the extraordinary intelligence which marks her writings, and for the tragic events of her life. Born in 1891 in Germany of a Jewish family, she became a Catholic and a Carmelite nun in the midst of her philosophical studies (she had been a fellow student of Heidegger), thus synthesizing, with an extraordinary logic and insight, traditional theology with the most modern conceptions of education and with the most vigorous demands of a new femininity. Her ideas were considered dangerous for Nazi politics and so she was arrested and killed, supposedly because of her Jewish blood, in the camp of Auschwitz in 1942.

In the articles collected in this book, Edith Stein studies the nature and duties of women with an exceptional perception that illuminates the mission of women in social existence, and hers is a high and noble insight that cannot be compared with the sham philosophy of certain glossy magazines. Edith Stein looks at woman in the light of nature and grace and she always represents her in this completeness, made of human and divine values.

According to her, there are those who represent woman as "the demon of the abyss" and those who exalt her as the salvation of modern society. By reason of the social and technological development of modern times, and uprooted from the blessed and peaceful circle of her home, woman has found herself suddenly forced to face problems of a practical nature which she never expected to have to deal with. She was not prepared. But she should have been, and she must be prepared. How then can she best be educated for her new tasks?

These are the themes treated by Edith Stein, who seeks to discover the properties of the sexes, the characteristics of femininity, the modes of educational formation, showing with singularly evident reasoning the necessity of continually sustaining natural development with supernatural forces.

"To become what one must be, to unfold and mature in the best way one's hidden humanity..., to make it mature in that union of love that alone can animate this rigorous process, and at the same time, drive others toward perfection and maturity: this is the deepest need of woman... A specifically feminine need".

In comparison to woman, man seems to be more oriented towards exterior activity, towards action, towards objective performance. He is made for work. The woman is made for motherhood, and all her other services normally remain subordinate to this.

According to the Bible and to Thomist theology, woman is a personal and free help to man; a help that makes it possible for him to become what he must, and which places her, not under but on the same level of dignity as man.

Edith Stein strongly proclaims feminine dignity; a dignity which has as its model and support the virgo-mater, Mary, seen as the goal of female education. The feminine prototype as described in the Old Testament, is a creature "who stays at the side of her husband, keeps the house and educates his children in the fear of God".

According to the New Testament, the prototype is primarily the sponsa Christi, "she whose house is the kingdom of God and whose family is the community of saints". For her, virginity and maternity become the goals of the education of woman—of every woman.

To be mothers, according to the Carmelite in whom we find such a vivid sense of the duty of spiritual motherhood, means to "protect and safeguard true humanity and to bring it to its full development". This operation is of prime importance for the birth and growth of both civil and religious society: State and Church.

The example of true humanity, full humanity, is Jesus Christ, son of man, "copy of God in human form". And the woman stands beside the Lord and leads her own existence in union with him, living the ideal of the sponsa Christi.

"This must be the purpose of the education of girls: to make them enthusiastic about the ideal of making their lives a mysterious symbol of that union which Christ contracted with his Church, with redeemed humanity. The girl who comes to marriage must know that marriage has this sublime symbolic meaning, and that she must honour in her husband the image of the Lord".

In this way, Edith Stein teaches women who live in the world to behave spiritually as women consecrated to God out of the world, and, anticipating the insights of the Council, she points out the characteristics of those women who, already in her time—between the two wars (massacres of men born of woman)—lived in the world united with the Lord in a supreme degree of perfection.

Edith Stein does not engage in politics, even though she points out the political duties of women. However, the Nazi pressure that crushed even the ideal femininity sought by her, did not spare the field of her labour. Quite the contrary. Nazism did not educate women to natural and supernatural maturity, to the full flowering of humanity. Rather it dehumanized themby strangling that source of human dignity—liberty.And the authoress-nun made clear that "soon we must measure ourselves" against a system, implanted tyranically in the midst of a technological transformation, which "wants to reduce all individuals to mere atoms in a great mechanically regulated economic mechanism"; a system contrary to the spiritual element in man and ignorant of every supernatural orientation. "Against these currents of our times—she said—there is no other bulwark today than the Catholic faith".

That is the testimony ("martyrdom") of this woman, teacher of humanity, which she has left to us in these pages as a living testament, full of reason and beauty, and sanctioned as it were by a frightful death; a death that sounded the death knell of an ideology without God, and thus without life.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 March 1969, page 9

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