St. Edith Stein, who with Pope John Paul II was a supporter of women in the workplace, summed up the nature of woman in this way: “Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole.”
Can you imagine what good could be done in the world if women going out into it approached their work in this way? If their approach to work was living, personal and whole?
True to form, virtue lies in the mean, and there is the concern that a woman can approach work too much like a woman. In other words, I’m sure we’ve all seen the tendency of some women to infuse their work with the wrong feminine traits for the occasion. We’ve all seen the controlling woman, the bossy woman, the nanny woman who views her coworkers, her subordinates, and sometimes even her authorities as lazy husbands at best and helpless children at worst.
I think it’s safe to say that this is not what a genuinely feminine approach to work means, and is not a good characterization of what St. Edith Stein is referring to when she talks about the living, personal, and whole.
If I turn back to Lark Rise to Candleford, I see Miss Lane (at least in the first three episodes… I can’t judge any further at this point!) exemplifying the woman who gives the living, personal, and whole to her work. Despite her efficiency in her work and her independence in having such a job in the first place, what she offers to society is distinctly feminine. She pays attention to rules and regulations as anyone should, and she recognizes when they don’t apply to a particular circumstance as anyone should. She holds her employees to high standards as anyone should. But her mode of operation is personal. When a rule held to too strictly inadvertently causes devastating pain in someone’s life, she goes in person to apologize and empathize. When an employee is going through a rough time, she offers gentle support and encouragement. When gossip is ruining another employee, she exerts her influence in the town in an unobtrusive way.
In her essay The Ethos of Women’s Professions St. Edith Stein points to what some might consider an unlikely model for the working woman: the Blessed Virgin. In particular she points to her conduct at the wedding feast at Cana. The quotation is lengthy, but good enough to quote in full:
The participation of women in the most diverse professional disciplines could be a blessing for the entire society, private or public, precisely if the specifically feminine ethos would be preserved. A glance toward the Mother of God becomes indicative for us again. For example, Mary at the wedding of Cana in her quiet, observing look surveys everything and discovers what is lacking. Before anything is noticed, even before embarrassment sets in, she has procured already the remedy. She finds ways and means, she gives necessary directives, doing all quietly. She draws no attention to herself. Let her be the prototype of woman in professional life. Wherever situated, let her always perform her work quietly and dutifully, without claiming attention and appreciation. And at the same time, she should survey the condition with a vigilant eye. Let her be conscious of where there is a want and where help is needed, intervening and regulating as far as it is possible in her power in a discreet way. Then will she like a good spirit spread blessing everywhere.
St. Edith Stein concludes the essay I mentioned above by going right to the heart of manner. What it comes down to in the end is love. This applies to men as well as women, but the different sexes are called to give love in different ways. The source of love is God, and every woman who wishes to give the richness that her femininity has to offer to her work should begin by contemplating True Love in the Holy Eucharist, and frequently replenishing her heart through His.