Amid all the discussions related to the “Me Too” movement, there has been much attention given to the mistreatment and even abuse of women by men. Sometimes this panned decades, including multiple victims. The growing awareness of these situations has raised questions about the social and cultural roles of men and women. And it’s also worth reflecting on how the differences between men and women are complementary, which means they are mutually beneficial and enriching. There are many questions for us to consider.
First, are men and women actually different? To answer, simply consult your own experience and use your common sense. Take note of obvious differences in size and shape. Look at how men interact with men and how women interact with women. Notice how a man is a father and how he treats the children differently than his wife, who is their mother. Next, look at yourself. Young girls have different struggles than adolescent boys; women face growing pains that men do not, and vice versa. They are also interested in different things. Those sorts of differences are not bad, but really are very good, though not always easy to experience.
Going further, is it wrong to be different, to be “unequal”? No, because being different is not related to one’s dignity. Unequal dignity, as a philosophical position, is false and should be opposed. The “Me Too” movement (in part) is a response from women who have experienced an insult to their dignity precisely in the realm of their difference from men. In the material grounding of what makes her her, she was injured and degraded. Yet, she has nothing of which to be ashamed. Abuse and derogatory behavior toward the opposite sex are inexcusable and unacceptable. Acknowledging differences and attractions between men and women does not degrade either sex, nor do differences necessarily lead to the objectification and use of the other. What, then, is the alternative?
In a word, it is complementarity. Complementarity is a way of relating between man and woman, male and female, that respects and reverences the differences in the other without making “different” mean “less than” or “better than” the opposite sex. Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “Womanhood expresses the ‘human’ as much as manhood does, but in a different and complementary way. When the Book of Genesis speaks of ‘help’ (2:18-25), it is not referring merely to acting, but also to being. Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological. It is only through the duality of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ that the ‘human’ finds full realization” (Letter to Women, No. 7, emphases in original).
In other words, without both men and women, what humanity really is cannot be expressed or even fully known by us. This does not mean that every person has to be married or raise a family in order to realize his or her full potential. It does mean, however, that if we really want to know and understand men, we have to understand women, too. If we want to grow as individuals in strength of character, spirit and body, we have to do that in a community that teaches respect and understanding for the differences inherent in masculinity and femininity. These differences bring out the best of both worlds — the best of what is masculine or feminine in each of us.
None of this means we should do away with strong women or kind men. In fact, just the opposite is the goal. Let women become strong in an appropriately feminine way. Let men be compassionate in ways that incorporate all their masculinity. A young father recently confessed to me, “I’m a better father when my wife is around. I look at her and I want to be better for her sake, and for the kids. Her presence makes me do it right.” This is complementarity in action: she cannot be the father, only he can. But her presence makes him a better one. The same would be true for her mothering — it’s better with him there.
As Mary Prudence Allen, RSM, PhD wrote in her article, “The Fruitful Complementarity of Men and Women,” complementarity has four essential characteristics: equal dignity, significant difference, synergetic relation, and intergenerational fruition. Here, I only speak about the first two, but the last two can be summed up like this: something more happens when you have a man and woman together, and that something can be fruitful for generations (the obvious, but not only, example is children, grandchildren, etc.).
The equal dignity of man and woman is rooted in their creation in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gn 1:26-31). It can also simply be observed and known through philosophical inquiry. However, this knowledge is obscured by sins, especially sexual sins, which tend to make the other into an object for me, rather than a person who has rights and dignity that go beyond my pleasure. This goes both ways — women objectify men and men objectify women. Neither is good nor healthy. Making positive choices toward virtue, especially to interrupt the type of thinking or acting that objectifies the other person, is critical to understanding this foundation of complementarity.
The significant difference between men and women is known from experience and observation. Go back to your own reflection on what you see between men and women. They are different — this is not bad. Difference can be non-competitive; we can learn from each other rather than try to beat one another. In this same vein, we can learn to appreciate and even love what is “other” in men and women.
The biblical roots of “image and likeness” shape the Christian understanding of the human person. A Christian anthropology takes the polemics out of the differences between sexes: different is good, not a threat. The differences between male and female, man and woman, find their purpose in the relationship of complementarity. Therefore, not only is being different from each other not a threat, it actually brings out the best of both men and women.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan is with the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Michigan.