The Privilege of Being a Woman
Alice von Hildebrand and an insightful brand of feminist spirituality
Before the Vagina Monologues even opened on my Catholic college campus last year, the campus had been buzzing with concern. Fordham University pulled funding because some of the monologues were not in keeping with church teaching, and the students were upset because they felt their freedom of speech was being infringed upon. A group of young seminarians and one female student even protested the play during its run.
As both a Catholic woman and a student at Fordham, I supported the Vagina Monologues because of the strength many women have drawn from it. Though I was hurt by the protesters’ apparent lack of concern for the image of the Church they were projecting, their actions did, however, raise an important question for me: where do I fit into the Church as a woman? Seeking some answers, I checked out a few books on feminism and eventually happened upon Alice von Hildebrand’s The Privilege of Being a Woman.
Though modest in size (a mere 108 pages), The Privilege of Being a Woman , gives an insightful explanation of the beauty of womanhood. I must admit, I was not expecting to actually like this book. I have always considered myself a relatively “liberal” Catholic, being a little uncomfortable with the patriarchal hierarchy of the church, and a strong supporter of women’s ordination. I doubted that von Hildebrand could offer me anything I could agree with.
She opens with an assessment of the prominent feminist Simone de Beauvoir’s perspective on gender that has been ingrained into our culture: women have been oppressed by men in mind and body. De Beauvoir rejects biology’s separation of the two sexes – women’s bodies exist to satisfy men’s cravings, therefore the intricacies of a woman’s body are nothing more than a tool of the male sex, only holding women back from being fully “liberated.” Von Hildebrand agues, however, that when it comes to our biology, women have much to be happy for. She uses the example of the Blessed Mother—whom I have always had a hard time relating–to point out the vast difference between passivity and receptivity. Mary was receptive, but far from being passive; saying “yes” requires thought, action, and a deep commitment. Consider that God chose Mary, a woman, to bear the savior of the world, and did not so much as include Joseph, a man, in the process, or even let him know what was happening. Mary contained within her something the whole world could not contain – Christ. Motherhood calls women to turn to the weak and helpless, and give completely to those in need of help. She says, only a few men are called to the priesthood, but nearly all women are inclined to motherhood. Women are blessed with having two souls within them when pregnant. Men are never allowed this honor.
Beyond the many flaws she exposes in popular feminist theory, the author poses the compelling question: do we really think that the essence of woman can be fully understood and appreciated in a secular point of view; a point of view devoid of God? “As soon as we abandon a secularistic interpretation of the Bible,” she writes, “we can perceive that, from a supernatural point of view, women are actually granted a privileged position in the economy of salvation.” It had never occurred to me before that God created women – every part of women – with a specific purpose in mind. Rather than telling women to “stop being so emotional, and be a man; think scientifically,” von Hildebrand embraces the loving nature of women. She shows that women’s weakness (one cannot deny that women are simply not as strong as men) can touch the hearts of men and inspire the chivalrous impulse to help those who are weaker than them. While some might not like that reasoning, is it so bad to think that our very nature can help men be better people? Some may not like the generalization that women cry more easily but I believe it holds some truth. Is crying really all that bad, or does it mean that women can more easily connect with their hearts? Does not a world where children go hungry, people are tortured, and wars are waged call for tears?
The Privilege of Being a Woman is a great first step to understanding feminism through the eyes of one woman of the church. Questions like “Why would God create two distinct sexes without reason for their differences?” And, “How can we expect to understand women by taking God – the Creator – out of the picture?” continue to resonate with me and cause me to reconsider my own thinking. I still consider myself a feminist but I am no longer the same kind of feminist I used to be. I have been converted to Von Hildebrand’s brand of feminism – one that includes God.