An often-repeated quote of Archbishop Fulton Sheen is
“To a great extent the level of any civilization is the level of its womanhood. When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.”
I’ve seen various discussions (sources below) around the web regarding this quote. Some say this is foolishness. “Everyone knows men are the leaders and women are the followers so it’s men who determine the level of morality in civilization.” Some take it as a compliment to women’s seemingly natural higher virtue, which if embraced and lived out by women, men will automatically become more virtuous as well. Some are offended that it seems to imply that women are solely responsible for morality and everything bad in the world is because women are failing to hold things up by not taking seriously this responsibility.
First, the good Archbishop didn’t say women’s behavior is the end-all-be-all of civilization. He said, the level of womanhood is the level of civilization “to a great extent.” It can have a great influence but it’s not the only factor. Second, the problem with all of these opinions about the quote is that most people have never bothered to read The World’s First Love which is the full text from which this quote is lifted. If they read it, they would first see that the Archbishop is talking about the ideal of humanity that we should aspire to as Christians, while acknowledging that without Christ, we always fall short. When he speaks of women in the text, he is not speaking in terms of what women are in terms of virtue but instead speaks of what the ideal of womanhood has to give the world. They would also see that the book is about Mary, the Mother of God, who is the ideal in terms of what men and women should strive to be. He writes,
God has to have two pictures of us: one is what we are, and the other is what we ought to be. He has the model, and He has the reality: the blueprint and the edifice, the score of the music and the way we play it. God has to have these two pictures because in each and every one of us there is some disproportion and want of conformity between the original plan and the way we have worked it out. The image is blurred; the print is faded. For one thing, our  personality is not complete in time; we need a renewed body. Then, too, our sins diminish our personality; our evil acts daub the canvas the Master Hand designed. Like unhatched eggs, some of us refuse to be warmed by the Divine Love which is so necessary for incubation to a higher level. We are in constant need of repairs; our free acts do not coincide with the law of our being; we fall short of all God wants us to be. St. Paul tells us that we were predestined, before the foundations of the world were laid, to become the sons of God. But some of us will not fulfill that hope.
There is, actually, only one person in all humanity of whom God has one picture, and in whom there is a perfect conformity between what He wanted her to be and what she is, and that is His Own Mother.
When the Archbishop mentions “the level of womanhood” in his quote he is speaking not so much specifically about the behavior of women but more along the lines of how accepting society at large is of the ideal of womanhood in the person of Mary. When virtues like humility, obedience, self-disinterested love, purity of heart which in turn leads to sexual purity, and love for Christ are valued by all in society and by a willingness to have Mary as our role model, then the level of civilization will be raised. Womanhood encompasses all of these things because Mary, as The Woman, the new Eve, is our ideal for what God wants us to be. Perfect conformity to Christ. What does perfect conformity to Christ look like?
It’s having the humility of Christ, the obedience of Christ, the self-sacrificial love of Christ, the fiat to our crosses like Christ, the purity of heart which leads to purity of body like Christ.
In a sense, when women live up to the ideal of womanhood, men can be inspired to live up to that ideal because it’s the blueprint written on the hearts of all humanity for which we were created. This inspiration shouldn’t be mistaken for it being the responsibility of women to set the bar of morality for men and therefore uphold the level of civilization. It simply means that in the heart of the ideal man resides a love of virtue and when he sees it displayed in the noble character of a woman striving to meet that ideal, he will be inspired to strive all the more to meet it as well. However, when humanity has no love of virtue because they desire license over freedom within virtue’s bounds, then civilization will suffer and decay. Those who live by virtue and noble character will be hated and despised. It takes the turning of individual hearts to Christ who will then be able to see the beauty of Mary as the perfect model for humanity. We can honor Mary as the ideal of womanhood and the role model for all because the ideal is based on an imitation of Christ who is the embodiment of love.
The bar for morality is not set by men or women but by Christ and meeting that bar is modeled by Mary. Mary in her womanhood, is the ideal for us to strive for. Mary perfectly conforms to Christ. We, in imitation of her, are called to this conformity as well. When the dignity of true womanhood, the womanhood of Mary, is valued, upheld and honored in society, then civilization will flourish.