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  • William Green

Feminine Fortitude: Reflections on a Cardinal Virtue


Madonna and Child under an Apple Tree by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530s

Our family had the pleasure of reading through the devotional book Spiritual Contemplations of Christ’s Suffering by Steadfast Press during this past Lenten season. It was a wonderful series of daily meditations firmly rooted in the Lutheran tradition, including several devotions exploring how Christ embodied all the virtues during his passion. In his treatment of the virtue of fortitude or courage, the author writes: "the fourth Cardinal Virtue, courage, is derived from the Greek word that simply means 'manly.' This is the same word Saint Paul uses to exhort the Corinthians to good living, not merely 'being courageous,' but specifically 'acting like men.'"[i] The author continues by explaining how Christ provided a model of manliness during his passion: just as Christ was willing to die for his bride, the Church, so too we are called to be willing to die for our wives. This sparked an interesting conversation in our household regarding whether fortitude is a distinctively masculine virtue. If fortitude is the virtue that disposes us to be manly, what can we say about feminine manifestations of fortitude? Can there be such a thing?


It is true that the Greek word used in 1 Corinthians 16:13 is ἀνδρίζομαι, which is rightly rendered “to be manly” or “to act like men.”[ii] This is the only instance of this word in the New Testament. It is similarly true that the word Aristotle uses for fortitude is ᾰ̓νδρείᾱ, sharing the same etymological root. When one begins to read Aquinas’s treatment of fortitude in the Summa Theologica, he appears to tie fortitude chiefly to traditionally masculine vocations. One of the first questions that Aquinas addresses is whether fortitude is properly about dangers of death in battle, to which he, citing Aristotle, answers affirmatively.[iii] Aquinas reaches this conclusion because, as he defines it, courage is the virtue aimed at overcoming fear of bodily harm for the sake of achieving a good. Because death is the greatest bodily harm, he states that fortitude is chiefly about moderating the fear of dying. Even though courage does not only pertain to death, he reasons that “he that stands firm against great things, will in consequence stand firm against less things, but not conversely.”[iv] In other words, if one is able to properly moderate his fear of death, he will be able to be courageous in the face of less severe bodily harms. Similarly, Aquinas reasons that fortitude is properly about dangers of death in battle, seeing as war is one of the few instances where man must willingly overcome a fear of death for the intentional pursuit of a good; the same cannot be said of sickness, storms, or robbers, which are brought about by happenstance.[v] Thus, Aquinas links the purest expression of fortitude to the traditionally masculine vocation of being a soldier.


Let us first deal with the possibility of feminine fortitude by considering it in this strict sense: the habit that disposes us to overcome the fear of bodily harm for the sake of some good. It is not difficult for those of us who have children to think of instances where our wives have knowingly and intentionally subjected themselves to pain and bodily harm in the pursuit of a good. Even under ideal circumstances, childbirth is a physically taxing and painful experience. Risks of death and severe bodily harm have been mitigated by advances in medicine, but they have by no means been eliminated. This is no small thing, and it is an experience to which many women intentionally and knowingly subject themselves for the sake of attaining the good that is bringing a child into the world. I personally know several women who have conditions that cause them to be gravely ill for nearly their entire pregnancy, suffering months of pain and physical distress for the sake of having children. This willingness to set aside their fear of bodily harm to pursue the good of parenthood embodies fortitude in the strict sense that Aquinas describes. This uniquely feminine expression of courage deserves our recognition, and we do a disservice to our wives and mothers when we imply that fortitude is not required in their vocations. 


Aquinas also states that fortitude, more generally speaking, is required wherever one needs to overcome something difficult for the pursuit of some good.[vi] This becomes especially clear as he begins delineating the species of fortitude, among them being patience and perseverance.  Aquinas reasons that perseverance is a part of fortitude because it pertains to overcoming the “difficulty arising from delay in accomplishing a good work.”[vii] Similarly, he distinctly defines patience as the virtue that disposes us to overcome the sorrow brought about by evils that are perpetrated against us.[viii] It is in these species that the definition of fortitude as “a disposition to be manly” becomes less compelling. It is evident that the need for patience and perseverance is by no means exclusive to masculine vocations. If one were to create a list ranking which moral virtues are most important in motherhood, I imagine patience and perseverance would be in the top ten.


What, then, shall we say about the claim that fortitude is the disposition to “act like men?” Is this a helpful way of speaking about courage? Insofar as fortitude pertains chiefly to moderating the fear of death in the pursuit of some good, it does seem that men are called to courageous acts that are not demanded of women. For example, confessional Lutherans have historically maintained that men have an obligation to serve in the military when need arises, while women do not. At the 2023 LCMS convention, the resolution to oppose mandatory registration of women into the draft passed with near unanimous support, stating that, “both natural law and the vast majority of human history testify that men, not women, are required at times to enter combat and risk their lives in defense of their wives, daughters, family, and country.”[ix] If fortitude is chiefly about overcoming the fear of death in battle, there is a sense in which it can rightly be called a masculine virtue.[x] Similarly, Ephesians 5:25 teaches that men should be prepared to give themselves up for their wives.[xi] The same is not demanded of women. The diverse vocations of men and women lend themselves to their own expressions of virtue, and the vocations of the conscripted solider and husband require men to epitomize fortitude in the strict sense that Aquinas describes.


It would be wrong, however, to imply that fortitude is, in any way, an exclusively masculine virtue. This is where the claim that “fortitude means ‘to act like men’” requires careful qualification. Some species of fortitude are necessary for feminine vocations. Not only that, but some expressions of fortitude are only possible in feminine vocations, as we demonstrated above with motherhood. To be a good mother is to be patient. To be a good daughter is to be persevering. Not to mention the fact that all Christians, regardless of their sex, are called to become martyrs rather than deny their Lord. Aquinas devotes an entire question to the virtuous act of martyrdom, where he concludes that it embodies the “greatest perfection” of fortitude.[xii] Shall we say that the women who willingly offered themselves up to death for the sake of Christ were “acting like men” when they were martyred? Is a mother being “manly” when she puts her fears of bodily harm aside so that she may give birth to her children? Perhaps most importantly, does this language duly honor the uniquely feminine manifestations of fortitude that God has ordained for the lives of our wives, daughters, and mothers? These questions deserve consideration, and as is often the case, the best way forward likely lies somewhere in the middle. We should recognize that men are called to acts of courage that are not demanded of women, and our vocations indeed require us “to act like men.” By the same token, we should also recognize that women are called to acts of courage that are specific to their vocations, and these acts are of immeasurable value to the life of the church. We need not emphasize the masculine characteristics of fortitude at the expense of acknowledging these feminine expressions. There is no contradiction here; a proper understanding of the contextual nature of virtue will rightly acknowledge both. Praise be to God for the courageous women that fill his church!

 


[i] Joshua Scheer, ed., Spiritual Contemplations of Christ’s Suffering (Steadfast Press, 2024), 10.

[ii] “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” (ESV)

[iii] Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 123, A. 5.

[iv] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, vol. 9 (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.), 569.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] ST, II-II, Q. 136, A. 4.

[vii] ST, II-II, Q. 137, A. 2.

[viii] ST, II-II, Q. 136, A. 1.

[ix] Today’s Business, 1st edition (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: 2023), 208.

[x] This is not meant to imply that women who have voluntarily served in the military lack this kind of courage, or that their having courage in this strict sense is somehow disordered. It is simply to say that, from the Lutheran perspective, the vocation of solider is not something that can ever be licitly forced upon a woman, which is not the case with men.

[xi] “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” (ESV).

[xii] ST, II-II, Q. 124, A. 3.

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