Many of us probably share a common sentiment of relief that 2020 is over and 2021 is finally here. From COVID to the election and beyond, 2020 provided an abundance of food for thought on the role of the feminine genius in society. Even as women bore a significant share of the burdens of 2020, they also rose to the occasion with their examples of leadership and virtue. Women are uniquely situated to model the virtue of prudence and sensitively discerning the prudent course of conduct - and to encourage others to do the same.
Prudence is the first cardinal virtue. It is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) as “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” and “the charioteer of the virtues [which] guides the judgment of conscience” (CCC 1806).
St. Thomas Aquinas describes prudence as “right reason in action” (Summa Theologiae II-II, 47, 2). Prudence helps individuals examine a certain situation in which they must make a choice, consider the available choices, and then use practical reason to choose the right course of action: the good.
Another apt definition of prudence comes from St. Augustine, who insists that “[p]rudence is love choosing wisely between the things that help and those that hinder” (De Moribus Ecclesiae, Ch. XV). Prudence is “not to be confused with timidity or fear, nor with duplicity or dissimulation” (CCC 1806). The ability to exercise prudence is intimately connected with sensitivity, a characteristic of femininity identified by St. John Paul II (Mulieris Dignitatem 16). Women have a keen ability to sense their own needs and the needs of the family and adeptly choose the prudent path of action.
The ability to exercise prudence is intimately connected with sensitivity, a characteristic of femininity identified by St. John Paul II (Mulieris Dignitatem 16).
Prudence is also intimately connected with prayer. As St. Edith Stein wrote, the world needs women “who have a knowledge of life, prudence and practical ability ... women whose lives are imperturbably rooted in God” (Essays on Woman 139). What is prudent in one situation may not be prudent in another, and each requires an evaluation of the best course of action. In difficult situations, we can pray for guidance to discern that course of action.
2020: Prudence in Action
2020, more so than other years, required near-constant exercise of prudence, and women emerged as prudent leaders during times of crisis. For example, in the early days of the pandemic, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand took measures to slow the spread of COVID in her country. An early lockdown resulted in minimal community transmission of COVID, and life was able to go back to normal in New Zealand. To her acclaim, she won reelection in a landslide after proving herself to be a compassionate and capable leader.
Angela Merkel of Germany and Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan were also hailed for their responses to COVID. Each of these three women headed their countries against the backdrop of a pandemic where fatalities were twice as high in countries headed by men than in countries headed by women. As Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj wrote in Forbes, these leaders took “a broader view beyond economic results to consider wider impact on society.” Each of these women met the needs of their country by discerning what was required of them as leaders. Their behavior was prudence in action.
Even for women who aren’t elected leaders, 2020 provided an abundance of opportunities to showcase their prudence. Women had to discern which social engagements to attend or avoid, considering the risks of COVID transmission. Women were educated voters who had to select political candidates. Mothers, especially single mothers, had to weigh whether to send their children back to school or continue remote learning. In these ways, women provided essential leadership to their families and showcased their ability to lead effectively.
Women’s leadership abilities are not only on display in the home and the family. Research has shown that employees working for female bosses have higher levels of engagement, especially during a pandemic, where interpersonal relationships are key.
Women have untapped potential to lead in times of crises and to make prudent choices for themselves, those they lead, and their families. We are uniquely situated to use sensitivity in conjunction with prudence in order to discern courses of action. It’s time for the world to see that women can lead prudently and confidently.
Women are uniquely situated to use sensitivity in conjunction with prudence in order to discern courses of action.