When I was little, I had to beg my mom to allow me to wear basketball shorts and jerseys outside of the house. In second grade, I couldn’t understand why the other girls made fun of me for having a best friend who was a boy. When it came time to choose after-school activities, I devoted all my time to basketball practices while most of my friends enrolled in jazz and tap dance. Even in middle school, I was resentful of my female classmates for wanting to spend recess gossiping about their crushes instead of playing touch football. You could say that from an early age, I was definitively a tomboy.
Imagine my surprise and confusion as I entered my pre-teen and teen years and discovered that it was no longer socially acceptable to wear only basketball shorts and t-shirts. Instead, I began to inherit the aisles of the makeup section at Target and endless anxiety that I couldn’t fit into skinny jeans. Needless to say, while being socialized to become a typical teenage American girl, I was caught between the cultural expectation of being female and my own feminine experience.
As I continued struggling with my desire to take advantage of my status as a college athlete by wearing sweatpants and t-shirts during my undergraduate career, I continued to wrestle interiorly with my appearance as the cultural measure of my femaleness. Despite loving the Church and studying pastoral ministry to give my life in service of her, I couldn’t help but feel cut off from the flowery buzzwords of some types of Catholic femininity, such as “modesty” and “emotional chastity.” No offense to the Little Flower, but in a world full of St. Thérèses at my Catholic university, I felt like the lone Joan of Arc.
To me, and in my personal experience, being female was a lot more than wearing skirts, covering up, and talking about purity. To me, a tomboy, femininity was toughness, fierce love for others, teamwork with both women and men, resilience, intelligence, and adaptability.
At the end of my college career, I stumbled upon this femininity in the Wisdom of Solomon, specifically chapter 7. In this chapter, Wisdom, the creative power of God that is interpreted as a biblical prefigurement to the person of Christ, is ascribed a feminine personification. Lady Wisdom, the personification of this creative power, is described as follows:
In Wisdom is a spirit
intelligent, holy, unique,
Manifold, subtle, agile,
clear, unstained, certain,
Not baneful, loving the good, keen,
unhampered, beneficent, kindly,
Firm, secure, tranquil,
And pervading all spirits,
though they be intelligent, pure and very subtle.
For Wisdom is mobile beyond all motion,
and she penetrates and pervades all things by reason of her purity.
For she is an aura of the might of God
and a pure effusion of the glory of the Almighty;
therefore nought that is sullied enters into her.
For she is the refulgence of eternal light,
the spotless mirror of the power of God,
the image of his goodness. (Wis 7:22–26)
This description of Lady Wisdom began to reveal myself to me. This is not overly romantic femininity; instead, these are the authentic qualities and attributes of a woman who does not merely reflect the worldly customs and expectations of femininity, but mirrors the very power of God. In Lady Wisdom, I discover femininity defined as drawing strength in knowing that I am infinitely loved by a God who wishes to reveal himself to me in subtlety and hiddenness through my own mere existence. True femininity isn’t diluted to “knowing your place” in the presence of men or rosy metaphors about purity and modesty; instead, it is recognizing that the Creator of all chooses to show the continuation of his creative power through me.
Like Lady Wisdom, women are called not to participate solely in the creative power given to them by virtue of their physical bodies; instead, they are also invited in love to partake in the Divine by reflecting God’s goodness, power, and light to the entire world. Each woman is called to be a manifestation of God to every person that she encounters. Starting from the immanent goodness of her physical body and continuing to the creative and beneficent design of her soul, woman is called to focus not solely on her physical capabilities; instead, she is to become the very image of the love of God. While society indoctrinates women to stare dissatisfied into their own physical image and become exactly like everyone else, Lady Wisdom challenges women to become the mirror in which the rest of the world can behold the power of God. The femininity of Lady Wisdom exhorts women to embrace their own individual inherent dignity by recognizing the power of God in their design.
Today, I realize that my experience of being a tomboy is understood by Lady Wisdom. She celebrates my propensity to find my own femininity in intelligence and strength, but also challenges me to recognize the divine in the humility and hiddenness that is associated with traditional femininity. Created in love and uniqueness, each woman, whether a Bernadette or Catherine of Siena, a Thérèse or a Joan of Arc, is called to become devoted to Christ in and through the gifts given to her such as her passions, interests, talents, and personality.
My experience is one valid example of many different models of Catholic femininity that have come before me. My passions, hobbies, and personality all find their place in the true femininity exemplified by St. Theresa of Ávila, Mother Cabrini, Dorothy Day, St. Edith Stein, and of course, the Blessed Mother. This is who God created me to be, and it is he who gave me the gift of being female. I am called not to fit into cultural or worldly expectations of womanhood, but instead commissioned to reflect God to the world in the best way that Colleen Campbell, a tomboy, can.
Featured Image: Andrea Sacchi (1599–1661), Allegory of Divine Wisdom (1629–33); courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.