Women’s Duties in Social and Political Life:
Address of His Holiness Pope Pius XII
To Members of Various Catholic Women’s Associations
October 21, 1945
The special importance of this question today
Your presence in such great numbers before Us, beloved daughters, derives a particular significance from the conditions existing today. For besides the joy which it always gives Us to welcome you, to bless you, and to give you Our fatherly counsel, there is also today the need which We feel, in answer to your own urgent requests, to address you on a subject which is of the very first relevance and importance to our times: We mean the duties of women in social and political life. We had Ourself been looking forward to such an opportunity as this, because the feverish unrest of a troubled present and still more the anxieties about an uncertain future have given woman’s position a central interest for the friends, no less than for the enemies, of Christ and His Church.
Let it be said from the beginning that for Us the problem of woman, whether as a whole or under each of its many aspects, resolves itself into preserving and exalting the dignity which woman has received from God. For Us, therefore, the problem is not merely juridical or economical, educational or biological, political or demographical. It turns entirely, however it be considered, on one question: How is that God-given dignity of womankind to be maintained and enhanced, especially today and in the circumstances in which Providence has placed us? To see the problem in any other light, to consider it one-sidedly under any of the particular aspects just mentioned, would be simply to evade it and so to profit no one, least of all woman herself. To detach it from God, to view it apart from the Creator’s wise ordinance and His most holy will, is to miss its essential point, which is woman’s true dignity, the dignity which she has only from God and in God.
Therefore systems which banish God and His law from social relations, and allow to the precepts of religion at best a humble place in a man’s private life, are in no position to consider the problem of woman from the right standpoint. And this is why you have refused to have anything to do with the high-sounding slogans with which certain people love to advance the claims of feminism, deciding rightly, to band yourselves together as Catholic women and girls, and so respond in a proper manner to the natural demands of your sex and promote its true interests.
DISTINCTIVE AND COMPLEMENTARY QUALITIES OF THE SEXES
What, then, is this God-given dignity of woman? The answer lies in human nature as God has fashioned it, elevated it, and redeemed it in the blood of Christ.
As children of God, man and woman have a dignity in which they are absolutely equal; and they are equal, too, in regard to the supreme end of human life, which is everlasting union with God in the happiness of Heaven. To have vindicated and proclaimed this truth, and to have delivered woman from a slavery as degrading as it was contrary to nature, is one of the imperishable glories of the Church. But man and woman cannot maintain or perfect this equal dignity of theirs unless they respect and make use of the distinctive qualities which nature has bestowed on each sex: physical and spiritual qualities which are indestructible, and so co-ordinated that their mutual relation cannot be upset without nature itself intervening to re-establish it. These peculiar characteristics which distinguish the sexes are so obvious to everybody that nothing short of willful blindness, or a doctrinaire attitude as disastrous as it is utopian, can ignore or fail to see their importance in the structure of society.
Indeed, this co-ordination of the sexes through the characteristics peculiar to each is such as to extend its influence to every single manifestation of the social life of man. Two of these, and only two, We mention here because of their special importance: marriage, and voluntary celibacy according to the evangelical counsel.
The benefits of true wedded life do not consist only in the offspring which God may grant to the married pair, nor only in the material and spiritual blessings which family life confers upon humanity. The whole of civilization in all its ramifications—–nations, the community of nations, the Church herself—–in a word, all human values feel the good effects of married life when it is in a flourishing and orderly condition, and when youth becomes accustomed to look up to it, to honor it, and to love it as a holy ideal.
Where, on the contrary, the sexes disregard the intimate and harmonious relations which God has established and willed to subsist between them, and indulge instead in a perverse individualism; where man and woman are nothing more to each other than the object of selfish desire; where they do not co-operate in mutual harmony to serve humanity according to the designs of God and nature; where youth, irresponsible, and flighty and frivolous in mind and conduct, renders itself morally and physically unfit for the holy life of matrimony—–here the common welfare of human society, spiritual and temporal alike, is seriously compromised, and even the very Church of God trembles—–ot for her own existence, since she has the Divine promises—–but for the greater success of her mission among men.
Voluntary celibacy according to the counsel of the Gospel
And yet, for nearly twenty centuries, we have seen thousands upon thousands of men and women, and among the best of them, freely renouncing a family of their own and foregoing the holy duties and sacred rights of married life. in order to follow the counsel of Christ. And is the common welfare of nations and the good of the Church jeopardized in consequence? On the contrary—–These generous souls recognize the association of the sexes in wedlock as a great good. If they step aside from the ordinary path, if they leave the beaten track, it is not to desert the service of humanity but rather to devote themselves to it with complete detachment and self-denial, and an activity which is incomparably more extended, indeed, all-embracing and universal. See these men and women; see how they dedicate themselves to prayers and works of penance, to the work of instructing and training the young and the ignorant; see them at the bedside of the sick and dying, their hearts compassionate to every kind of misery and infirmity, ready to heal, to comfort, to relieve, and to sanctify.
The Catholic girl to whom marriage is denied
‘Vocation’: this is the significant word which springs to our lips when we think of those girls and women who voluntarily renounce matrimony to consecrate themselves to a higher life of contemplation, sacrifice, and charity. It is the only word that fits such a noble sentiment. This vocation, this loving call, makes itself heard in many different ways, as many as the infinite variety of accents in which the Divine voice may speak: irresistible invitations, affectionate and repeated promptings, gentle impulses.
But there is also the Catholic girl who remains unmarried in spite of herself; and she too, if she believes firmly in the Providence of her Heavenly Father, recognizes the voice of the Master in the life that has fallen to her lot. ‘The Master is here and calleth for thee.’ [John 11: 28] And she answers the call; she abandons the fair dream of her adolescence and young womanhood, surrenders her hope of having a faithful companion to share her life, of making a home and family of her own. In the impossibility of marriage she discerns her own vocation and, sad at heart though resigned, she too devotes herself entirely to the highest and most varied forms of beneficence.
Motherhood is woman’s natural function
Be she married or single, woman’s function is seen clearly defined in the lineaments of her sex, in its propensities and special powers. She works side by side with man, but she works in her own way and according to her natural bent. Now a woman’s function, a woman’s way, a woman’s natural bent, is motherhood. Every woman is called to be a mother, mother in the physical sense, or mother m a sense more spiritual and more exalted, yet real none the less.
To this end the Creator has fashioned the whole of woman’s nature: not only her organism, but also and still more her spirit, and most of all her exquisite sensibility. This is why it is only from the standpoint of the family that the woman, if she is a true woman, can see and fully understand every problem of human life. And this is why her delicate sense of her own dignity causes her a thrill of apprehension whenever the social or political order threatens danger to her vocation as a mother, or to the welfare of the family.
Conditions unfavorable to the family and the dignity of woman
And in fact social and political conditions today are, unfortunately, fraught with this danger. Indeed, the sanctity of the home and therefore the dignity of woman threatens to become more and more precarious. This is your hour, Catholic women and Catholic girls. Public life needs you. To each one of you it may be said: ‘Tua res agitur’ [Horace, Epist. I, xviii, 84]: ‘Your fortune is at stake.’
That public life has now for some time been developing in a manner unfavorable to the true welfare of the family and the true welfare of woman, is beyond dispute. It is to woman that various political movements are now turning in the hope of gaining her support. A certain totalitarian regime tempts her with marvelous promises: equality of rights with men; assistance during the period of gestation and labor; communal kitchens and other public services relieving her of domestic burdens; public creches and other institutions, maintained and administered by the State and local authority and exempting her from her maternal obligations towards her children; education without fees, public assistance in the case of illness . . .
We have no wish to deny the advantages to be derived from certain of these
social measures, provided they are administered in a proper manner. We have in
fact Ourself insisted that, for the same work and the same service rendered,
women have a right to equal pay with men. But what We have called the essential
point of the question
still remains: Has all this improved woman’s condition? Equality of rights with men has led her to abandon the home, in which she used to reign as queen, and subjected her to the same burden and the same hours of work. No heed is paid any longer to her true dignity, to that which is the firm foundation of all her rights: her distinctive quality of womanhood and the essential co-ordination of the sexes. The Creator’s purpose for the welfare of human society, and especially of the family, has now been forgotten. In the concessions that are being made to woman it is easy to see, not so much the respect which is due to her dignity and her vocation, as rather a desire to build up the economic and military power of the totalitarian State, to which everything must be inexorably subordinated.
And what of a regime in which capitalism is dominant? Does it offer a prospect of real welfare for woman? We have no need here to describe the economic and social consequences of this system. You know its characteristic signs and you yourselves labor under the burden it imposes: the excessive crowding of the population into the cities; the ever-growing and all-invading power of big business; the difficult and precarious condition of other industries, especially the crafts and even more especially agriculture; the disquieting spread of unemployment.
Restore woman as soon as possible to her place of honor in the home as housewife and mother! This is the universal cry today. It is as though the world had suddenly awakened in alarm and horror to see the results of a material and technical progress of which it had hitherto been so proud.
Let us glance at the realities of the situation.
The absence of woman from the home
Here is the wife who, to augment her husband’s income, also goes out to work in a factory, leaving the home. neglected during her absence. Already squalid and confined enough, perhaps, the house becomes even more desolate for lack of care. And here are the members of the family, working separately at different hours in different parts of the city and hardly ever meeting one another, not even for the principal meal or for the rest at the end of the day’s work, much less for family prayers. What remains of family life? And what attractions has it to offer the children?
The girl’s education distorted
In addition to these unhappy consequences, the mother’s absence from the home has another and more lamentable result: it affects the children’s education, especially the girl’s training and preparation for real life. Accustomed to her mother being always absent from home and to seeing the home itself so dismal in its neglected condition, she will not be able to find anything attractive in it; nor will she feel the slightest inclination for the austerities of housework, any appreciation of its dignity and beauty, any desire to devote herself to it one day as wife and mother.
The daughter of the worldly mother
The same is true of every class of society and of every condition of life, The worldly woman’s daughter, seeing the management of the home left entirely in the hands of strangers while the mother busies herself with frivolous occupations and futile amusements, will follow her example; she will want her own freedom as soon as possible, she will want—–according to that unfortunate expression—–‘to live her own life.’ How, in such circumstances, can she possibly conceive the desire of becoming one day a true ‘domina,’ mistress of a home in a family which is happy, prosperous, and worthy of the name?
The daughter in the worker’s home
As for the working classes, obliged to earn their daily bread, careful reflection would perhaps convince the housewife that in many cases the additional wages, which she earns by working away from home, are soon swallowed up by other expenses and even by ruinous waste in housekeeping. The daughter, who also goes out to work in factory, shop, or office, finds herself deafened by the turmoil in the midst of which she lives; dazzled by the glamor of a tawdry luxury; hungry for equivocal pleasures which distract without giving satisfaction or repose; frequenting the music halls and dancing palaces which, often for purposes of party propaganda, are springing up everywhere to corrupt the morals of the young. She is a ‘lady of fashion’ now, and has no use for the moral standards of two centuries ago. How can she fail to find her modest home uninviting and even more grim than it is in reality! To take any pleasure in her home, and to want to make one for herself in the future, she would have to be able to counterbalance a natural impression by a serious intellectual and moral outlook, by the strength of mind that springs from a religious education and a supernatural ideal. But what sort of religious education, in conditions such as these, can she have received?
And this is not all. Her mother with the passing of the years has become old before her time; she is worn out and broken by sorrows, anxieties, and work that has overtaxed her strength. When she sees her daughter return home very late at night, far from finding in her a prop and a support, she must herself arise and discharge all the duties of a domestic servant for one who is unaccustomed and unequal to the work of a woman and housewife. The father will be no better off when advancing years, illness, infirmity, unemployment have forced him to depend for his meager support on the good or ill will of his children. How is the august and sacred authority of father and mother dethroned from the seat of its majesty!
THE DUTY OF WOMEN TO TAKE PART IN PUBLIC LIFE TODAY
Are we therefore to conclude, Catholic women and Catholic girls, that you must resist the current which, whether you like it or not, is drawing you into the stream of social and political life? Certainly not. Various theories and systems, we have seen, are in various ways detaching woman from her true mission and, whether with the flattering promise of emancipation or with the hard realities of a hopeless poverty, depriving her of her true dignity, her dignity as a woman; and we have heard the cry of alarm, calling her back as soon as possible to take her active place in the home.
The fact is that woman is kept away from the home, not only by her declared emancipation, but often also by vital necessity, by the need to earn her daily bread. It is therefore useless to preach her return to the home so long as conditions continue which in many cases force her to remain absent from it. And here is the first aspect of the mission in social and political life which now presents itself to you. Into this public life you have entered all of a sudden, forced into it by the social changes we have witnessed. No matter—–you are called upon to take part in it. Would you leave to other women, to those who are actively engineering the ruin of the home or at least conniving at it, the monopoly of organizing the social structure, in which the family forms the principal element of its economic, juridical, spiritual, and moral unity? The fortunes of the family, the fortunes of human society, are at stake; and they are in your hands: ‘Tua res agitur!’
Therefore every woman without exception is under an obligation—–a strict obligation of conscience, mind you!—–not to remain aloof; every woman must go into action, each in her own way, and join in stemming the tides which threaten to engulf the home, in fighting the doctrines which undermine its foundations, in preparing, organizing, and completing its restoration.
This is one motive, calling the Catholic woman to enter on the new path now opening to her activity. But there is another: her dignity as a woman. It is for her to work with man for the welfare of the civitas in which she enjoys a dignity equal with his, and here each sex has its part to play according to its nature, its distinctive qualities, its physical. intellectual. and moral capabilities. Both sexes have the right and the duty to work together for the good of society, for the good of the nation. But it is clear that while man is by temperament more suited to deal with external affairs and public business, generally speaking the woman has a deeper insight for understanding the delicate problems of domestic and family life, and a surer touch in solving them—–which, of course, is not to deny that some women can show great ability in every sphere of public life.
It is not so much that each sex is called to a different task; the difference is rather in their manner of judging and arriving at concrete and practical applications. Take the case of civil rights, for example; at the present time they are equal for both sexes. But just think how much more intelligently and effectively these rights will be used if men and women pool their resources in using them. The sensibility and delicacy which are characteristic of the woman may perhaps bias her judgment in the direction of her impressions, and so tend to the prejudice of wide and clear vision, cool decision, or far-sighted prudence; but on the other hand they are most valuable aids in discerning the needs, aspirations, and dangers proper to the sphere of domestic life, public assistance, and religion.
A wide field of action open to women in public life
It has been seen that a woman’s work is concerned primarily with those tasks and occupations of domestic life which contribute so powerfully, and more powerfully than is generally appreciated, to the true interests of the social community. But the furtherance of those interests calls for a great number of women who will have more leisure at their disposal, and so be able to devote themselves to the task more directly and more completely.
And where should we find these women if not especially [We do not, of course, say exclusively] among those to whom We have been alluding: those upon whom the force of circumstances has imposed a mysterious vocation; those whom events have destined to a life of solitude which was not in their thoughts or aspirations, and which threatened to be nothing more than a selfishly useless and purposeless existence? And now, behold, their mission at the present day is revealed: a mission many-sided, militant, and calling for all their energies; a mission such as they can more readily undertake than many of their sisters, occupied as they are with family cares and the education of their children, or else subject to the yoke of a religious rule.
Of these women some have hitherto devoted themselves. with a zeal often quite admirable, to parochial activities; others, gifted with wider vision still, have been engaged in more extended work of moral and social improvement. The war, with its calamitous results, has led to a great increase in the number of such women. Many brave men have lost their lives in this terrible conflict, others have come back disabled or sick; many a young woman will therefore await in vain the return of a husband. will vainly hope for the coming of new young lives to cheer a solitary home. And just at this moment new needs, created by the entry of women into civil and political life, have arisen to claim their assistance. Is this nothing more than a strange coincidence? Or are we to see in it a disposition of Divine Providence?
Thus a wide field is opened to woman’s activity. an activity primarily intellectual or primarily practical. according to the capabilities and qualities of each individual. To study and explain the place and function of woman in society, her rights and obligations; to be the guide and teacher of her sisters; to correct ideas, dispel prejudices, clear up confusions; to expound and spread the teaching of the Church, as the surest means of defeating error, illusion, and falsehood, and as the most effective method of countering the tactics employed by the enemies of Catholic faith and morals—–here is an immense and urgently important task, without which the active apostolate, however zealous, will give only precarious results.
But direct action is also necessary, otherwise sound doctrine and solid convictions will remain barren, or at best yield little fruit. This direct action, this effective co-operation in social and political life, in no way alters the distinctive character of woman’s activity. Associated with the work of man in the sphere of civil institutions, she will apply herself especially to matters calling for tact, delicacy, the maternal instinct, rather than administrative rigidity. In such questions as those of woman’s dignity, a girl’s honor and integrity, the protection and education of the child, who better than a woman can understand what is needed? And what a number of problems there are of this kind which require the attention of government and legislature! In the suppression of licentious behavior, for example, only a woman has the gift which can temper firmness with kindness without sacrifice of efficiency; in dealing with morally abandoned children, only a woman will know how to save them from humiliation and have them trained to a decent life and to the practice of the religious and civic virtues; only she can be truly successful in administering orphanages, in welfare work for released prisoners, and rescue work for fallen girls; she alone can give true expression to the lament of a mother’s heart when she sees a totalitarian State—–call it by what name you will—–trying to rob her of the right to educate her children.
Such, in outline, is the program of woman’s duties; and in practice it comprises two stages: first, her preparation and training for social and political life, and secondly, the development and implementing of that life, in the private and the public sphere.
(a) The work of preparation
Obviously the function of woman as We have described it is not a matter of improvisation. The maternal instinct in woman is a human instinct, which nature does not determine down to the details of its application. It is directed by a free will, and this in turn is guided by the intellect. This is what gives it its moral value and dignity; but it is also the source of its imperfection, which needs to be compensated and redeemed by education.
The womanly training of the young girl, and often of the grown woman as well, is therefore a necessary prerequisite in her preparation for a life that is to be truly worthy of her. Evidently the ideal would be that such training should begin in infancy, in the intimacy of a Christian home and under the mother’s influence. Unfortunately this is not always the case, nor is it always possible. Nevertheless the deficiency can be made good, at least partly, by ensuring that the girl who is obliged to work away from home shall be engaged in one of those occupations which constitute a sort of apprenticeship and training for the life to which she is destined. The same purpose is served by schools of domestic economy, whose object is to make the child and girl of today the woman and mother of tomorrow.
Such institutions deserve the highest praise and encouragement. Here your maternal sentiments and zeal can find their fullest expression and widest scope; and here your work has a special value because the good you do is propagated, as it were, indefinitely: you make your pupils capable of doing to others, whether in the family or otherwise, the same good as you have done to them. And how can we praise sufficiently those many organizations through which you render assistance to mothers, helping in their intellectual and religious training, and bringing aid to them in the various difficulties and troubles of their lives!
(b) Actual participation in social and political life
In your actual participation in social and political life much depends upon State legislation and municipal administration. Consequently the vote is for the Catholic woman an important means of fulfilling her strict obligations of conscience, especially at the present time. For it is the proper duty of the State and of politics to assure for families of every class in the community the conditions in which they can develop as economic, juridical, and moral units. Then will the family be really the vital nucleus of a society in which human beings honorably earn their temporal and eternal welfare. This every woman understands, if she is truly a woman. What she does not and cannot understand is that politics should mean the dominance of one class over the others, an ambitious striving for an ever greater economic and national ascendancy, on whatever pretext it is sought. For she knows that this sort of politics leads to civil strife, open or disguised, to a constant accumulation of armaments, and so to a perpetual danger of war; she knows by experience that this sort of politics is in any case detrimental to the family, which has to pay dear for it with its property and its blood. Therefore no wise woman favors a policy of class-war or belligerency. Her path to the voting booth is the path of peace; and to that path she will keep, in the interests of the family and its welfare, refusing her support to any tendency, from whatever quarter it may come, which would subordinate the internal or external peace of the nation to any selfish desires for domination.
Conclusion Take courage, then, Catholic women and Catholic girls; labor without ceasing, undaunted by difficulties or obstacles. Under the standard of Christ the King, under the patronage of the Mother most admirable, Queen of mothers, work for the restoration of the home, of the family, and of society. May Divine favors descend upon you abundantly, in pledge of which We grant you paternally and with a full heart Our Apostolic Benediction