I’ve been working my way through J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex over the last couple weeks in preparation for an article I’m planning to write. So far, it’s packed with pithy phrases and too many quotable lines — the struggle to not annoy my Facebook friends with too much information is real sometimes.
Yesterday, I finished reading Chapter 3, “The Meaning of Sexual Differences,” in which Budziszewski offers definitions of manhood and womanhood. As he geared up for this feat, I became a bit wary. It’s a hard thing, getting at the heart of masculinity and femininity, and some more traditionalist definitions have seemed more than wanting to me. But as with other aspects of this book so far, Budziszewski’s no-nonsense naturalism was refreshing, if slightly uncomfortable.
He begins by defining women: “We can say that a woman is a human being of that sex whose members are potentially mothers” (54).
Reading these lines, as a single woman with no children, I was a bit taken aback. Budziszewski quickly explains what he means by “potentially” — some women cannot or do not have children, but this does not make them any less “potential mothers”. In fact, he notes that the peculiar sadness that childless women feel is rooted in this potentiality — to not have children is to not have something deeply connected to our identity. He goes on to show that femininity itself is rooted in aspects of motherhood, describing how this natural telos of my sex shapes the way we interact with the world.
But what of men? As Budziszewski wrapped up the section on womanhood, I was eager to see how he would define manhood. I expected something a bit more, well, individual. I was surprised: “He is a human being of the sex whose members have […] the potentiality for fatherhood” (58).
As with his definition of womanhood, “potentiality” is a key word here, as not all men will be biological fathers. He writes, “Yet just as all women are called to motherhood in a larger sense, so we may say that all men are called to fatherhood in a larger sense” (59).
While a grappled with Budziszewski’s definitions, I was impressed with their simplicity and rootedness in creation:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'” (Genesis 1:27-28)
God created mankind in his own image — as creative beings. And he begins with the directive to “be fruitful and multiply,” to be creative as fathers and mothers, and as such, rule over the world he made. Neither sex could obey without the help of the other.
What does it mean to be a man? To be a woman? Budziszewski’s definitions seem like good places to start.