Feminism puts women in boxes. There are break-the-glass-ceiling power-dressing aspiring CEOs. There are activists in T-shirts with placards, shouting themselves hoarse in demonstrations. There are sultry, seductive women, who end up as #MeToo campaigners. There are conservative, pro-life housewives.
Alice Von Hildebrand, who died on January 14 at the age of 98, could be described as one of the world’s greatest feminists, but she fit in none of these boxes. For most of her life, she used her extraordinary intellect to redefine these stereotyped notions of femininity.
Alice Marie Jourdain was born in Brussels in 1923 and grew up speaking French. When the Nazis invaded Belgium in May 1940, her family fled to Bordeaux. She managed to find a berth on the last passenger vessel to depart France during the war. In the open ocean, the ship was intercepted by a German U-boat. Amazingly, the captain persuaded the submarine commander that he was transporting refugees and all the passengers arrived safely in New York.
However, on deck, faced with the prospect of death, Alice had a life-changing experience. Looking out onto the “mysterious, fog-covered Atlantic, … with a clarity and precision that approached the supernatural, all of a sudden, in a single flash, I relived everything I had ever done, failed to do, thought, imagined, felt. The experience was overwhelming and convinced me of God’s goodness. Could I not assume that, at the very moment of death, God would grant this experience to everyone, so that each person would have the chance to say, ‘have mercy on me, my Lord’?”
During the war, she lived with relatives in the Waldorf Astoria. They were difficult years. She was thought unfit for further studies and attended a secretarial school for a while.
Eventually she enrolled at Manhattanville College, where, in 1942 she met the eminent Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. He was also a refugee, from Nazi Germany, where he had founded an anti-Nazi newspaper. His ideas on the Christian life had a powerful impact on her. “He showed me that what we call Christian philosophy is not an abstraction, it is simply reason baptized by faith,” she said in 2014.
Alice attended Dietrich’s lectures and was part of his circle of friends, becoming close to his wife Margarete. Eventually she became von Hildebrand’s secretary and after his wife died in 1957, they were married. “Together they formed an extraordinary partnership in bearing witness to Christian culture and Christian life,” says John Crosby, a scholar specialising in their work, in his obituary at the Hildebrand Project website.
Meanwhile, Alice became a philosopher in her own right. Catholic colleges at the time were reluctant to hire women, so she found a post at Hunter College, a top-notch public college in Manhattan. She ended up teaching there for 37 years. Even in those days she was counter-cultural in her defence of the objectivity of truth against relativism. Some of her students ended up sharing her Catholic faith. “If someone finds the truth,” she would say, “he automatically finds God, because God is the truth.”
After her retirement in 1984, she developed her understanding of femininity — informed by her husband’s thought on love, but distinctively her own. This was expressed principally in her books The Privilege of Being a Woman and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention. Her book By Grief Refined related her experience of becoming a widow with Dietrich’s death in 1977. A website is dedicated to her work, with articles and videos showcasing her simple but deep philosophical and theological explanation.
One of the central themes of her reflection and writing was engagement with contemporary feminism. “I would not call myself a Christian feminist but a champion of femininity,” she said in 2014. “The sublime beauty of the female mission as virgin, wife or mother has been so degraded that I felt a calling to shed light on ‘the privilege of being a woman,’” the title of one of her most popular books.
The error of feminism was in promoting the idea that “femininity meant weakness,” she would often say. Feminists say that “to be a woman is to be inferior, to be a woman is to be a means of pleasure for men. But they are not respected and understood for what they are,” she said in an interview with Crisis magazine.
Instead of trying to be like men, or better than men, Von Hildebrand suggested that women cultivate their innate talents and abilities. For many this means being a wife and mother. Others, like her, might be childless and work tirelessly for the improvement of society. Each woman has her own mission, and that is what will ultimately satisfy the ache many women are not able to name.
The Bible has been branded misogynistic for proclaiming that Eve was made of the rib of Adam. But Von Hildebrand pointed out that Eve was created last in the entire hierarchy of matter. First there is “inanimate matter, then animate matter, lower animals, higher animals, man, and then comes the woman. She was created last.”
Who then is in the highest place?
In discussing the differences between men and women, Von Hildebrand said, “I think that a man should thank God for being a man because he’s given a very clear mission to protect. A woman should thank God for being a woman because her very special mission is to give life, to corroborate with God. I love it! And the older I am, the more I love being a woman. Which doesn’t mean to denigrate what manhood is, but simply to say that this is what He wanted me to do.”
The ability to cultivate life in the womb and in society is a radical sign of the dignity of a woman. Men have a role to play in the fertilization of the egg, but women play the key role in nurturing life at its most vulnerable. “Don’t forget that all accomplishments of men will be destroyed at the end of time, everything will be burned, [except for] every woman who has given birth to a child,” she said.
She spoke often about spiritual motherhood.
In an article from Plough magazine, she said, “If you don’t have children, for goodness’ sake don’t believe that you have to give up motherhood. Motherhood is not only biological maternity. It is spiritual maternity. There are hundreds of people all around who are desperately looking for a mother. A number of people have come to me to tell me about their problems. I listen to them. And I love them. And I say very little. But they know that I care for them. In this sense, I have become their mother.”
To women she said, “Your task is to love those that are weak, unhappy, helpless, and unloved. Sometimes you can do this just by saying one word. At other times you’ll just have to listen. In every life there is suffering; most people keep it inside. When they feel loved, they will open up and tell you about their suffering. Then you will find that by carrying other people’s suffering your own suffering becomes lighter.”
What was the biggest message Von Hildebrand wanted to share with young people today? The beauty of Christianity.
“When you compare the various cultures, in none of them is the dignity or the beauty of being a human person shown so luminously. It’s magnificent.”
And how do we know our mission in life? Von Hildebrand answered, “By going on your knees and say, “Show me Lord, what You want me to do now.” And you will know His answer. Ask Him.”