Catholic women are often held to the standard of gender stereotypes established by the world. From the domineering and childless female CEO to the demure and submissive stay-at-home mom, these stereotypes oversimplify the diversity of women throughout the world. They also ignore a salvation history that did not conform to stereotypes and expectations at all. How do we reconcile our identity as women with the stereotypes imposed on us by society? And what do we do when we’re tempted to conform our lives to the world’s expectations?

The first stereotype that comes to mind is the one (allegedly) established by our Mother herself: meek, mild, and ultra-feminine. I don’t know about you, but I’m meek and mild about 1% of the time. From the earliest years I can remember, I was a tomboy. Rather than playing hopscotch or jump-rope with the girls, I preferred to play football and capture-the-flag with the boys. My preferred uniform (when I wasn’t wearing my plaid skirt) was running shorts and a t-shirt because I was always ready for an adventure.

Even though I loved sports as a kid, I also loved school. I read every book I could get my hands on and was a straight-A student. I was never afraid to raise my hand in class or read aloud. But I also had to contend with jokes and insults like these:

“Boys are smarter than girls—it’s just a fact.”

“You’re such a bookworm. You’re never going to get a boyfriend that way.”

“I bet I can beat you in a race. You’re just a girl, after all.”

“Why are women’s feet so small? So they can stand close to the oven.”

The jokes and insults continued through high school. Classmates told me that I took myself too seriously and that, for a girl, I was too focused on getting into a good college. The comments continue to this day. Professors I encountered throughout my eight years of higher education insisted that women need to be demure and always defer to men. Others insisted that female lawyers who were too assertive in court were b*tches. A co-worker once told me that the downfall of society could be traced back to women’s entering the workforce (I’m not kidding).

What do we do when confronted by these gender stereotypes? I suggest that we acknowledge the ways they have impacted perceptions of women while also recognizing that they are just social constructs. Rather than let stereotypes dictate the way we live our vocation, let’s look to God for that inspiration.

Rather than let stereotypes dictate the way we live our vocation, let’s look to God for that inspiration.

Nonconformance with stereotypes is nothing new in the Catholic tradition. Our salvation history is filled to the brim with stereotype-busting characters who did not let the world’s expectations dictate their paths. God chose Mary, a fifteen-year-old girl, to be the mother of the Son of God. People expected her to marry Joseph and have his children; instead, she was found with child before they were married and she remained a virgin for the rest of her life. Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, came down to Earth in the form of a child, a helpless infant who needed to be nurtured and loved by a human mother. He was simultaneously a King and a sacrificial lamb, and when He didn’t live up to the world’s standards for a king, His own people demanded His crucifixion.  

When we let the world’s expectations, rather than God’s plan, dictate our lives, we deprive the world of the fullness of our feminine genius. God’s creation was not dictated by these social constructs when He formed each of us. He made every type of woman under the sun: entrepreneurs who are also stay-at-home moms, consecrated virgins, and married women who are international missionaries. These are but a few examples of the depth of femininity and the unbound possibilities for women. One is not better than the other; rather, they are co-equal expressions of God’s creativity and His love for women. When we limit ourselves to the boxes society creates for us, we allow society to be the driving force in our femininity and to constrain our feminine genius. But we are daughters of a God who is infinite in creativity and genius, and our lives should glorify this God of ours.

When we let the world’s expectations, rather than God’s plan, dictate our lives, we deprive the world of the fullness of our feminine genius.

I still can’t jump-rope. My favorite outfit is still running shorts and a t-shirt. I’m a wife and a lawyer in a field dominated by men. There will always be someone ready to tell me that women don’t belong in the workplace or the courtroom and asking me who is taking care of my (future) children. If I listen to those voices too much, I’ll let them talk me out of the vocation I was made for: wife, mother, and trial attorney.

My unique path leads to glorifying Him who created me, with all of my quirks and idiosyncrasies. I am made in the image and likeness of a God who dared to defy the world’s expectations for women in my creation. And so are you.

Michelle Mowry-Willems

Michelle Mowry-Willems is a lawyer currently working as a law clerk in Reno, Nevada. She and her husband David are newlyweds who met on Catholic Match (yes, it works!), and they are both avid runners who enjoy running together every day. Michelle is passionate about all things related to reading, coffee, and cooking, and is currently obsessed with her new Instant Pot.

Don't miss the Weekly Insight.

Delivered to your inbox every Friday, get the best insights we have on trending stories and who to read, watch, and follow.