Carolyn Woo

Carolyn Woo

Since Pope Francis spoke of “feminine genius,” I get questions periodically as to what it possibly means. Does it refer to the instincts that women have for people with their intuitive sense of the interior? Is it the tenderness or expression of care through words, hugs or ministries of casseroles and on-time birthday and get-well notes? Is it the ability to weave in and out of roles as mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, friend? Or achieving the almost supernatural balance between work, family, play and the daily chores? Inevitably, someone will ask the question that makes me wince: Do women therefore make better executives?

I could not speak for the pope. I could only reach for my own answers, which come into view through the people I associate with his description. Funny that none of them comes with big titles or the achievements that will turn heads. One such person is my aunt, who used her fifth-grade education (interrupted by World War II) to cultivate a love for learning in my cousins and parlayed her small savings into good investments that she liquidated for her sons’ college tuition.

When my cousin logged astronomic grades in the Hong Kong public exams, journalists called for interviews only to be met with her simple answer: “Sorry, the mother is not home.” Just as she could not brag about her accomplishments, she never spent money on herself but always found a way to give to others.

I encounter the feminine genius in a colleague who made a commitment to send all four children to Catholic grade schools and high schools even when her husband lost his job and finances were tough, causing a few sleepless nights. I admire deeply a friend who was in her 50s when her husband lost his footing in a lucrative business. She dusted off her resume, steadied her nerves, interviewed for and then mastered a job in technology printing where young people reigned and competition was unrelenting. Together she and her husband rebuilt their lives and found a new profession for him, downsized their home, up-sized their faith, finding joy in each day and in each other, never looking back.

I can fill three essays with these examples, and to be fair, I see the “feminine genius” in many men also.

September heralds two Marian feasts: the birth of Mary on Sept. 8 and Our Lady of Sorrows on Sept. 15. An essay on feminine genius would be off-key if we do not center our reflections around Mary. She was lowly but turned her lowliness into the mirror of God’s glorious working in her life. She needed no recognition as her purpose was to magnify God, not herself.

Mary was always there for her son, from birth, through a migrant’s journey to Egypt, the panic of not finding him after the temple pilgrimage, letting him go as an itinerant preacher, standing by him despite mockery from those she must have known, and, of course, witnessing his torture and crucifixion in searing agony. Mary embraced the mystery. She had no answers beyond the “yes” she gave and kept it when God made his invitation.

Feminine genius, through the lens of Mary, is the genius of love that manifests itself in presence, not performance or position; grace, not calculations; trust in God’s power, not our own; devotion that transforms sacrifices into joy and hope-filled routines in the ordinary of life; hearts that always see the person, not his problems; courage that engages hierarchy and power with plain-spokenness; and humility that recognizes God at work in us no matter how daunting the challenges we face.


Woo is president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.