Over the last 15 years, I have attended more than my fair share of retreats and conferences, and consequently I have heard plenty of talks — including “women’s session” talks.
Often, the session goes something like this: “You are the daughter of the King and therefore a princess. You are dainty, longing for love, and the Christian version of a damsel in distress.” After these declarations, the topic changes to chastity, modesty, or purity, including the task of all young girls to keep young boys from sinful thoughts.
Due to these types of discussions, women’s sessions always fell short for me. I am not a girly girl who desires to be a princess, nor am I dainty and in need of a hero. What I needed from women’s sessions, instead, was a way to understand who I am, what God desires for me, and how to live out an authentic femininity that honors God’s image in me.
As a high school theology teacher at an all girls’ school and mother to three girls, the topic of bad women’s session talks is no longer just another soap box. I am convicted to address this issue and work toward a solution. To that end, I asked several of my friends, colleagues, and students, “What do you wish you had heard in women’s session talks?” Based on my conversations with them and with members of the FemCatholic community, here are six things that we actually need to hear in women’s sessions.
1. Jesus Was a Feminist
Girls who are starting to form their identity and who rightfully seek to root it in Christ need to know how He approached the women he encountered. In the debate about whether one should be a Martha or a Mary, we often miss the fact that being a Mary at all in this situation was a radical affirmation of women’s inherent dignity. Mary was allowed to sit at the feet of the rabbi, to listen to him and to learn — a position usually only given to men at the time.
Girls who are starting to form their identity and who rightfully seek to root it in Christ need to know how He approached the women he encountered.
At the well, Jesus spoke not only to a Samaritan, but to a Samaritan woman, with compassion, justice, and mercy. He extended to her the task of evangelization, to share the good news of the coming of the Messiah with her community, who “began to believe because of the word of the woman who testified” (John 4:40).
We know St. Mary Magdalene as the “apostle to the apostles,” because Jesus chose to appear to her first and gave her the task of spreading the good news of the Resurrection to the men He left in charge. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that all of the apostles “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14, emphasis added).
Jesus not only recognized the dignity of the women He encountered, but He also empowered them to spread the Gospel. We have that same mission as women in the Church today. He speaks the words of Mark 5:41 to all of us “Talitha koum! ... Little girl, I say to you, arise!”
2. Be Who God Meant You to Be
I always came away from women’s session talks thinking that there was only one right way to be a good Catholic woman. This reaction continued into college, where I struggled with having other goals in addition to being a wife and mother, surrounded as I was by a “ring by spring” campus culture that focused too much on the transition from college life to marriage and SAHM life. There is nothing wrong with any of these goals, but the message I usually received was that they should be the goals of all Catholic women.
Look at many a Catholic Etsy shop, and you will find a print with this quote attributed to St. Catherine of Siena: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” God created us as different kinds of women and, more specifically, as unique individuals with our own gifts, interests, and vocations. One of the best things we can do for young girls is encourage them to discover who God created them to be in a world that often tells them to fit into a specific mold. They need to see, hear, and experience different ways in which women live out their faith. They need women’s sessions that focus on discerning their gifts and how God calls them to use those gifts in the world.
God created us as different kinds of women and, more specifically, as unique individuals with our own gifts, interests, and vocations.
Girls need to hear from women with a variety of experiences: those who had a great conversion experience and those who didn’t, but who have done the everyday work of maintaining their faith; those who work in ministry, and those who live their faith in a secular professional setting. They should hear from artists, musicians, engineers, and scientists. They should hear from stay-at-home moms, work-from-home moms, work-outside-the-home moms, and women who are not moms.
3. God’s Radical Love and Mercy Have a Transformative Power
Girls often struggle with allowing and accepting God’s mercy into their lives. The more problematic women’s sessions leave too many girls with the impression that there is an ideal they have fallen short of and that, consequently, they are less-than in some way. This issue is especially prevalent in talks that focus on chastity. More and more girls are involved in sexual activity at a younger age, ranging from exposure to pornography to sex. When chastity is presented as a standard of behavior without including and emphasizing the reality of God’s mercy and healing, it can lead to deeper shame and a feeling of being rejected by God for their choices.
When chastity is presented as a standard of behavior without emphasizing God’s mercy and healing, it can lead to a feeling of being rejected by God for their choices.
Some speakers bring these topics together well by directly addressing ways in which women can find God’s mercy and healing when there is a lack of chastity in their past and by encouraging their audience to not let their past define them. The sessions I attended did not take this approach, and the perpetuation of purity culture has done a lot of damage.
Furthermore, talks on mercy should extend beyond sexual morality and speak to any young girl who feels deeply shamed and unloved by God for whatever she has in her past. God has a radical love for them which can heal and transform them. Grace builds upon nature, changing us from the inside and conforming us to be more like God — but we have to accept that grace. Girls have to believe that God loves them individually and that Jesus would endure his Passion and Crucifixion for them alone.
4. There Is Beautiful Variety Within the Feminine Genius
When I asked my students what they wish they heard in women’s session talks, they said that they would love to hear about the female saints — not in a general way but in a way that specifically addresses their femininity. They want to hear about how the feminine genius was lived out by these women. A session on female saints is a great way to present diverse examples of what it means to be a woman (and a saint).
A session on female saints is a great way to present diverse examples of what it means to be a woman (and a saint).
Girls want to know how to be brave on the battlefield like Joan and in a doctor’s office like Gianna. They want an example of how to live out social justice like Dorothy Day or Mother Teresa and how to be holy in everyday life like a young Thérèse. We should show them how to be an academic like Edith Stein, how to do it all like Hildegard, or how simply serve your family like Zélie. As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.”
5. How We Can Cultivate True Friendships and Community
We live in a culture of comparison where girls are often encouraged to bring each other down. This tendency continues into adulthood, where women can feel that they are in competition with each other over the slim opportunities for advancement that come their way. My students want to hear more about how to support each other, what true friendship is, and how to cultivate true friendships and supportive communities with their peers. They want to be able to celebrate each other’s gifts and victories rather than live with envy and resentment.
Girls want to be able to celebrate each other’s gifts and victories rather than live with envy and resentment.
They suggested the Visitation as an example: Mary has something incredible happen to her and yet, when she receives the news about Elizabeth, she “makes haste” to be with her cousin, share in her joy, and support her. In return, Elizabeth congratulates Mary and speaks of the greatness that comes with being the “mother of my Lord.” Both women respond to these incredible, divine gifts with humility and an attitude of service and love.
6. Marriage Is Not the End-all, Be-all of Who We Are as Women
Some Catholic talks can make women feel like finding our vocation is a race to the altar and the only way to be joyful and fulfilled. While it is true that many of us will be called to marriage and motherhood, some will not, and it is dangerous for any of us to turn marriage into an idol. Too much talk of marriage creates the impression that being single is unfulfilling, but there are many women who live full and joyful lives as singles. The high school where I teach has great examples of this reality in the consecrated lay women of the Focolare movement who work at our school in various capacities, demonstrating what a fulfilling life in Christ looks like and sharing their spiritual maternity with our students.
While many of us will be called to marriage and motherhood, some will not, and it is dangerous for any of us to turn marriage into an idol.
The next time we have an opportunity to plan or give a “women’s session” talk, let us be bold by highlighting the diversity of our universal Church; giving young women permission to be themselves; and empowering them to use their gifts, love radically, and follow God’s call.