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Edith Stein and Feminism | Catholic Life

Edith Stein and Feminism

It just seems strange that a celibate, cloistered nun would care about normal women of the world. Stephen

Stein was shaped in her formative years by women who fought with their husbands (if they had them), and were disconnected from their children.

From Edith’s autobiographical account of Life in a Jewish Family it is clear that she did not see domestic life alone as sufficiently fulfilling for a woman. She describes her mother as perhaps outdoing the Proverbs 31 woman as the most demanding of housekeepers and mothers.  And this is when describing a woman who genuinely loved business and chose to continue her husband’s business after his death rather than depending upon friends and family for financial support. So the ideal homemaker was one who was away from the home for most of the time after Stein’s second year of life.

Not only was marriage not always (usually) happy, but the women around her did not thrive in typical feminine ways.  Her one sister, Rosa, who is portrayed as a competent housekeeper only remains such because she “lacked sufficient initiative and energy to implement her plans for a career” (112).

Stein pursued philosophy and deeply wanted to become a professor. But solely due to her sex she was relegated to sorting through Husserl’s notes rather than being allowed to teach at a university. Thus feminism was not some abstract concern for Stein, she personally felt the profound sting of patriarchy in the denial of her life’s greatest desire.

After converting to Catholicism, Stein wanted to enter the Carmelite Order. Her spiritual directors urged her to wait, and so she bided her time while working for a Dominican school for girls. During these years she gave most of the lectures on women (particularly the education of girls) which are compiled together as her Essays on Woman. In Stein’s Letters we learn that Stein became so captivated by the spiritual world that she lost her former interest in women’s issues. But she still saw it as her duty to help those who remained behind in the unjust secular world. Stein described herself as one who had been a radical feminist, then lost interest entirely in “the women’s question” and subsequently working on “purely objective solutions” because she was “obliged to do so.” Upon entering Carmel, Stein wrote to a feminist asking for a copy of her book because she knew that she had “a holy duty toward those who must remain outside.”

It is difficult for me to properly explain the feeling that one gets from reading Stein’s writing. It is clear how much she was stifled by sexism, and how strongly she saw that things needed to change. But eventually it is also clear that she was swept up into something more removed from this world. It is not that she no longer saw sexism as a problem, but rather that she began to care about something, someone who transcends all worldly issues. And so one can almost sense the tiredness with which Stein addresses women’s issues once she was caught up in longing for something more. She knew that others did not yet have what she had, but I read her as putting forth significant effort to work for something which no longer consumed her. She renounced the world, and in doing so renounced the ties that once held her back because of her sex.

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2 Responses to “Edith Stein and Feminism”

  1. Dawn Farias 27. Aug, 2010 at 12:39 pm #

    I’ve never read Stein but have read enough references to here to feel as if I’ve had. Your post has me wishing I was in a bookstore this.very.instant so I could snap her up. Is she even in a regular bookstore, like Barnes and Noble??

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