Arguing with Edith Stein

OK, so the title of this post may be somewhat provocative, not to say presumptuous. After all, Edith Stein was an eminent philosopher, a brilliant writer, and an actual saint. And I’m…none of those things. She’s also a heroine of mine, someone whose life story has been an inspiration to me, especially since my return to faith. Indeed, I started writing this post on 9th August, Edith Stein’s feast day in the Church calendar. So, in a sense, this post feels a little bit like arguing with family.

A more accurate – but less eye-catching – title for this post might have been ‘Reflections on reading Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman as a man.’ And specifically, as a man who researches and writes about men and care. As for ‘arguing with’: it might be more appropriate to describe this post as an attempt to make sense of some of Stein’s key ideas about sexual difference – ideas to which I responded negatively on first coming across them – and their implications for thinking about men and masculinity.

Edith Stein as a young woman

But before going any further, perhaps there’s a need for some background information about Stein, for those who are not familiar with her biography or her work. Edith Stein was born into a Jewish family in 1891, in what was then Breslau, Germany, but is now Wroclaw in Poland. For a vivid account of her early life, I’d recommend her autobiographical account Life in a Jewish Family, though with the caveat that some details have been challenged by members of her family: see, for example her niece Susanne M. Batzdorff’s Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint.

Stein studied philosophy in Göttingen under Edmund Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology, and worked for a time as his assistant at the University of Freiburg. In 1922, she was received into the Catholic Church, then spent some years as a teacher and lecturer before becoming a Carmelite nun, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1939, in the face of the growing threat to Jews from the Nazi regime, she was transferred to a monastery in the Netherlands. However, following the Nazi occupation of that country, and the public condemnation of anti-Jewish policies by the Catholic Church, Jewish converts to Christianity, including Edith and her sister Rosa, were deported to Auschwitz, where Edith was murdered on 9th August 1942. Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Edith Stein’s contributions to philosophy include her influential thesis On the Problem of Empathy and her attempt to reconcile phenomenology and Thomist ideas in her major work Finite and Eternal Being. However, it was in her lectures and articles on women’s education and vocation, published after her death as Essays on Woman, that Stein set out her central ideas about sexual difference, particularly in the two essays entitled ‘The ethos of women’s professions’ and ‘The separate vocations of man and woman according to nature and grace’. These are the essays I’ll be referring to in this post.

So why should contemporary researchers, interested in issues of gender and care, take seriously the writings of an early twentieth-century Catholic nun? Well, firstly because those ideas might be helpful in developing an alternative, faith-based feminism (and male pro-feminism), and a way of thinking about sex and gender that’s compatible with a consistent life ethic, of the kind that I’ve been exploring in recent posts. But also because Stein is regarded by a number of modern feminist commentators as a feminist pioneer, someone who argued for women’s suffrage and promoted women’s education at a time when support for such ideas was by no means universal. In addition, there have been claims that her philosophical work, particularly in her writings on empathy, represents a potentially significant contribution to contemporary care theory. US care ethicist Maurice Hamington (2004) suggests that Stein’s work on empathy is helpful in understanding the part played by imagination in care, while the Czech philosopher and ethicist Petr Urban (2022) argues that Stein’s ‘ethical thought makes her a forerunner of some recent developments in feminist ethics, particularly ethics of care’.

Petr Urban (via

In fact, it was coming across articles by Petr Urban about Stein’s ideas on sexual difference, as well as conference papers of his discussing her thought as a resource for an ethic of care, that first alerted me to her work in these fields. Incidentally, it was Petr’s articles that also introduced me to the work of Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa on sexual difference, ideas that I’ve found extremely helpful in my own recent thinking. Reading Petr’s papers, and the essays by Stein to which they referred, I was intrigued, but also somewhat disconcerted, as a male reader, and as someone with a firm belief in men’s capacity for care. It wasn’t so much what Stein wrote about women that perturbed me, so much as the implications of what she wrote for men, or rather what they implied about men by default.

For example, in her essay on ‘The ethos of women’s professions’, Stein argues that, although women and men share ‘a basic human nature’, a woman’s ‘faculties’ differ from those of men,‘therefore a differing type of soul must exist as well’. She continues:

Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.

Stein elaborates on these distinctive feminine qualities elsewhere in the essay, and also in her essay on ‘The separate vocations of man and woman’, where she writes:

True feminine qualities are required wherever feeling, intuition, empathy, and adaptability come into play. Above all, this activity involves the total person in caring for, cultivating, helping, understanding, and in encouraging the gifts of the other.

According to Stein, these ‘natural’ feminine qualities equip a woman not only for motherhood, but also for her additional vocation as a ‘companion’. 

To grasp what Stein believes about men’s ‘natural’ qualities, one has to read what she says about women as if in a mirror. Although she doesn’t say so explicitly, the implication of what she writes is surely that men do not possess these innate qualities: they (we) do not have an instinctive feel for all that is ‘living, personal and whole’, they are not characterised by ‘feeling, intuition, empathy and adaptability’. And they don’t have an innate capacity for activities which involve the ‘total person’, such as caring for others.

Stein doesn’t have a great deal to say directly about men’s innate qualities (perhaps not surprisingly, given that her focus is on women’s vocation), except for one or two brief sentences. For example, in the first essay she writes:

Man is consumed by ‘his enterprise’, and he expects others will be interested and helpful; generally, it is difficult for him to become involved in other beings and their concerns.

And in the second essay we read that ‘masculine vocations’ tend to require not only ‘bodily strength’ but also ‘the ability for predominantly abstract thought, and independent creativity’.

As I read these lines, they just didn’t seem to align with my own experience, or the experiences of men I knew, or those of the ‘hands on’ fathers and male care professionals whom I’d interviewed as part of my research. Didn’t these men have an innate regard for what is ‘living, personal and whole’? Were they constitutionally, because of their sex, unable to respond as a ‘total person’ in their caring? And in their care for others, did these men (did we) find it difficult to ‘become involved in other beings and their concerns’? Speaking personally, as I read these essays by Stein I felt put into a box that didn’t feel at all comfortable or familiar.

Nancy Dallavalle (via

While I was in the process of writing this post, I discovered the work of the Catholic feminist writer Nancy Dallavalle,  an associate professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. In a 1998 article, Dallavalle criticised Pope John Paul II’s 1988 text, Mulieris dignitatem (‘The dignity of women’) – which is heavily influenced by Edith Stein’s ideas – in which he describes women’s innate capacity for ‘community’, but in Dallavalle’s opinion fails to present ‘any positive description of a male psycho-physical structure’, except to assert men’s deficiency in this capacity: ‘Men, in other words do not “naturally” care for others’. This omission, and the implicitly negative picture of masculinity, Dallavalle believes, significantly weakens John Paul’s account of sexual difference, and I suggest something similar could be said about Edith Stein’s account.

This is not the only criticism that could be, or indeed has been made, of Edith Stein’s notions of sexual difference. Sarah Borden (2007) sums up the criticisms of some later feminists as follows:

The claim that women’s ‘genius’…lies in their personal and relational capacities, as an orientation toward concrete, actual persons and their holistic development, is precisely the view of women that has caused trouble all these years. This view is, in fact, the reason the women’s movement and feminism were born. The critics might insist that, although Stein might claim that she is not limiting women to the nursery and home, yet that would be precisely the effect. In arguing that women’s genius lies in persons and attention to persons, Stein they would say has in essence put women back in children’s wards and the low-paying jobs and blocked their path to higher education or positions of leadership. One might argue that no matter what Stein may say about not limiting roles or jobs, this will be the inevitable result of allowing such gender distinctions into our discussion. The objectors might further argue that Stein’s descriptions also play into the hands of the worst stereotypes about women—seeing women as submissive, as secondary, simply the assistants to the more important work, and the ones who clean up all the dirty work when the day is done. Women care about people, so let them be the martyrs for all the men.

In her defence, it should be said that Edith Stein was writing at a time when women were still defined largely by negative traits, and by the ways in which they didn’t measure up to the positive qualities that were associated with men. For example, women’s supposed emotionality was generally seen as a weakness, not as the kind of strength and resource described by Stein. Her writings could be seen as an attempt to reclaim the positive value of these traditionally ‘feminine’ qualities.

Moreover, in the very essays from which I’ve been quoting, Edith Stein anticipates these later criticisms and makes it clear that she is certainly not arguing for women’s exclusion from certain professions or their confinement to ‘traditional’ roles. In fact, quite the opposite. On the one hand, she argues that ‘certain abiding attitudes are unique to the feminine soul and form a woman’s professional life from within’ and that ‘the very nature of woman draws her to certain professions’. But in the same essay she also suggests that ‘there is no profession which cannot be practised by a woman’:

Indeed no woman is only woman; like a man, she has her individual specificity and talent, and this talent gives her the capability of doing professional work, be it artistic, scientific, technical, etc.

Furthermore, she explicitly challenges the traditionalist view that a woman’s ‘natural’ place is in the home:

Obviously now, because of the development of the last decades and of recent years, we must consider as closed the historical epoch which made an absolute differentiation between the duties of the sexes, i.e. that woman should assume the domestic duties and the man the struggle for a livelihood.

Elsewhere, she elaborates:

Should certain positions be reserved for only men, others for only women, and perhaps a few open for both? I believe that this question…must be answered negatively. The strong individual differences existing within both sexes must be taken into account. Many women have masculine characteristics just as many men share feminine ones. Consequently, every so-called ‘masculine’ occupation may be exercised by man women as well as many ‘feminine’ occupations by certain men.

I have to admit that this last passage left me feeling somewhat puzzled. Doesn’t this contradict Stein’s earlier argument to the effect that women and men possess distinctive, innate qualities that fit them for different kinds of activity? Don’t those statements become meaningless if you then go on to say that, in fact, men can display ‘feminine’ characteristics and women ‘masculine’ ones?  Are these different qualities innate in men and women – or aren’t they?  And although Stein uses the term ‘so-called’ to describe masculine and feminine occupations, there is still an underlying sense that she thinks of care work (for example) as ‘feminine’, even when it’s undertaken by a man.

I tried to articulate some of this sense of confusion, as well as my initially negative response to Stein’s ideas about sexual difference, in an email to Petr Urban, back in 2017. He was kind enough to reply, and we entered into a brief email discussion, which we continued in person when we met in the following year at the inaugural conference of the Care Ethics Research Consortium in Portland, Oregon. I’ll try to summarise Petr’s response to my queries by referring to a recent paper of his which makes many of the same points that he made in our conversation. In this paper, he argues that it is on the ‘experiential, phenomenal level that [Stein] finds the core differences between man and woman.’ He continues:

Stein obviously does not think of ‘woman’s peculiarity’ in terms of exclusive traits and faculties. The personal traits in question are primarily human ones, and all faculties that are present in woman’s personality are also present in man’s personality. Nonetheless, Stein argues, the human traits may generally appear in different degrees and relationships in man and woman.

This makes a lot of sense, though I’m not sure about that ‘obviously’, or that the casual, as opposed to the philosophically sophisticated reader, would pick up this more nuanced meaning from Stein’s own writings. I find Petr’s interpretation of Stein’s thinking to mean that the same qualities exist in ‘different degrees and relationships’ in men and women a helpful one, and certainly one that I find sympathetic, but I’m not sure how explicit it is in Stein’s work.

Later in the same article, Petr refers to an earlier paper of his, in which he provided ‘a detailed argument in favour of a phenomenological reading of Stein’s “dual anthropology” by stressing that Stein conceives of the sexual difference as a difference between two related styles of intentional life rather than a difference between two separate essences (regardless of if it is ontologically or biologically defined).’ He continues: ‘From the phenomenological perspective it seems plausible to read Stein’s descriptions of woman’s specific capacities and attitudes as describing a particular life form that can be shared by women and men alike’ (my emphases).

Sara Heinämaa (via

This is somewhat similar to the distinction made by Sara Heinämaa, when she argues (2013) that a phenomenological account of sexual difference offers an alternative to both ‘naturalist’ (i.e. essentialist) and ‘constructivist’ (or social constructionist) theories of gender. Heinämaa writes:

Whereas gender-theories aim at explaining observed differences between men’s and women’s behaviours, dispositions, accomplishments, and positions, by the interplay of social, cultural, and biological forces, phenomenology studies how the sense of sexual difference is established in personal and interpersonal experiences in the first place.

I have to admit that, as a non-philosopher, I still struggle to understand what this means, just as I’m not quite sure I fully comprehend Petr’s description of gender identity as a ‘style of intentional life’.  I’m still waiting for the lightbulb moment when all of this begins to make sense. In my simplistic way, I still want to know whether these authors (and indeed Edith Stein) believe that the differences between men and women are innate, or learned, or somehow both, or neither?

In conclusion, I should make it clear that I’m not at all averse to the notion that there are innate differences between the sexes. As I’ve tried to suggest in my recent posts, I’ve moved from a position of believing that gender differences, particularly in relation to the capacity to care, are wholly socially constructed, to an acceptance that significant differences between men’s and women’s care might exist, and to trying to find ways to articulate those differences in a way that is compatible with my unchanged belief in gender equality. I suppose I wish that, instead of claiming that women have an innate and exclusive propensity for ‘caring for, cultivating, helping, understanding, and in encouraging the gifts of the other’, which by implication men don’t have, Edith Stein had asserted that women and men both care, but care differently – because we are different.

I’m prepared to accept that this difference may well derive, at least in part, from what Stein calls woman’s ‘primary’ maternal vocation. As she writes: ‘Only the person blinded by the passion of controversy could deny that woman in soul and body is formed for a particular purpose.’ I’m certainly willing to agree (in a way that I wasn’t in my social constructionist days) that, in Stein’s words, ‘because of the close bodily tie between child and mother, because of woman’s specific tendency to sympathise and to serve another life’, women’s care – particularly for children – will tend to have a distinctive quality that men’s care lacks. But this doesn’t mean that men have no capacity for care, or that their caring is somehow deficient: it’s just different. Just as, according to Stein, women have a ‘natural, maternal yearning’ which inclines them to ‘cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth’, so surely men can have a natural paternal yearning, a yearning that may express itself in different ways, but which ‘inclines’ them (us) towards the same things.

To end on a more positive note. Needless to say, my quarrel (if that’s what it is) with some of Edith Stein’s ideas doesn’t take away from my enormous admiration for her as a philosopher (not to mention as a spiritual model and guide). I’m already finding her work on empathy a valuable resource in my ongoing project exploring personalist thinking as a resource for an ethic of care, and I plan to write more on this in future posts.

A personal postscript

One of my side projects over the past few years, unrelated to my academic work, has been researching the life and work of Theodor Kern (1900-1969), a painter and sculptor who was born in Salzburg, Austria but spent the second half of his life in Hitchin, the English market town where we’ve lived for the past twenty years or so. My website about Kern can be found here. In addition to my intererest in his art, and the way it expresses his Catholic faith, I was intrigued to discover that, when living in Vienna, Kern had been a close friend of the philosopher and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich von Hildebrand, and indeed had helped him (and others) to escape from Austria following the Nazi Anschluss of 1938, activities which eventually led to Kern’s own flight to England. I’ve long been an admirer of von Hildebrand’s writings and in the past few years have enjoyed attending (virtually) the lectures and seminars organised by the Hildebrand Project, based in Steubenville, Ohio. One of the project’s leading lights is Professor John F Crosby, a former student of von Hildebrand and himself an eminent exponent of personalism, whose writings I’ve found immensely helpful in framing my own thinking in recent years. 

Stephen Schwarz (via

One of the pleasures of researching Theodor Kern has been making contact with people who knew him, people who were also part of the circle around von Hildebrand – including John Crosby, who kindly shared with me his own reminiscences of meeting the artist at the annual meetings of a religious community to which they both belonged. I had a particularly helpful exchange with another US-based philosophy professor, Stephen Schwarz, whose German-born father Balduin Schwarz was also a student and associate of Dietrich von Hildebrand, and also a vociferous opponent of Nazism who was forced to flee his native country. 

In one of his emails to me, Stephen shared the following story:

My father and Edith Stein were colleagues in the philosophy department at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Münster, in the Spring Semester 1933.  They were also close personal friends.  She came to visit my parents at regular intervals, for extensive talks with my father over tea, about Christ, philosophy and the current horrible political situation.  But before the serious discussions she always made it a point to go to the baby room and hold little baby Stephen, born November 8th of the previous year...This is surely one of the greatest blessings of my life.


Borden, S. (2007) ‘Foreword’, in Padua, M.M., Contemplating woman in the philosophy of Edith Stein, Manila: Far Eastern University.

Dallavalle, N. (1998) ‘Neither idolatry nor iconoclasm: A critical essentialism for Catholic feminist theology’, Horizons, 25 (1).

Hamington, M. (2004) Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Care Ethics, Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Heinämaa, S. (2013) ‘Sex, gender and embodiment’, in Zahavi, D. (ed.) Handbook in Contemporary Phenomenology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 216-242

Stein, E. (2017) Essays on Woman, Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications

Urban, P. (2016) ‘Edith Stein’s Phenomenology of Woman’s Personality and Value’, in Alles Wesentliche Lässt Sich Nicht Schreiben’: Leben und Denken Edith Steins im Spiegel Ihres Gesamtwerks‘, Regh, S., Speer, A., eds., Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Verlag Herder 2016; 538–555.

Urban, P. (2022) ‘Care Ethics and the Feminist Personalism of Edith Stein’, Philosophies, 7:60


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