January 31, 2011
This little book packs a wallop. It is 108 pages (118 including the footnotes) of beautiful but challenging insights into the heart, mind, soul, and body of women.

Alice von Hildebrand is well known for her fine philosphical mind which is firmly rooted in her knowledge of, and love for, the Catholic faith. She approaches the subject of this text with philosophy and faith strongly evident. Several of her conclusions were difficult to accept, and I found myself wondering if I found them to be challenging because other conclusions could be drawn, or because my opinions about the relative roles of men and women are not as firmly rooted in Catholic understanding as I would like to think. Much to my dismay, I suspect the latter is true. In either case, this book provided plenty of fodder for reflection, and I hope to tell you enough about it to tempt you to read it yourself and make your own decision.

Von Hildebrand begins by playing devil's advocate, laying out first secular and then Christian arguments against the assertion that being a woman is a privilege. It was rather bitter to read what philosophers, historians, and authors have had to say about women over the years, to be reminded how women have been treated in society.

Fortunately, von Hildebrand doesn't linger over the negative. Part II addresses the arguments for the privilege of being a woman, beginning with these words: "In order to understand the greatness of a woman's mission, we must open our minds and hearts to the message of the supernatural. It is the key that will reveal to us the greatness of femininity." (pg. 15) No surprise then, that feminists get derailed by overlooking (ignoring, denying, defying - take your pick) the spiritual reality of who we are as man and woman. The author explains that men and women were created with equal dignity but original sin has resulted in an inversion of the hierarchy of values. "The world in which we now live is a world whose outlook is so distorted that we absolutize what is relative (money-making, power, success) and relativize what is absolute (truth, moral values, and God). [...] the glorification of strength and the denigration of weakness has become the shallow core of modern thought and feminist belief." (pg. 23) Recognizing the disconnect in feminist thought (probably in all modern secular thinking) helps to put into perspective all the depressing ideas we read in the opening pages: women are only second-class citizens when society ignores God.

The book goes on to explore Catholic understanding of the value of service (a traditional woman's role), and the meaning of weakness. For example, what can be seen as a weakness is a woman's sensitivity. When allowed to tend to self-centredness, sensitivity can make a woman emotional, etc. But when fostered by a life of prayer, a woman's sensitivity strengthens her relationships through empathy, sympathy, receptivity, compassion, and so on. The author quotes from The Story of a Soul: "Ah! Poor women, how they are despised. And yet, many more women than men love God. During Christ's passion, they showed more courage than the apostles for they braved the insults of the soldiers and dared to dry the adorable face of Jesus. For this reason, He allows women to be treated with contempt on earth, since He has chosen it for Himself. In heaven, He will show that His thoughts are not men's thoughts for then the last will be the first." (pg. 57) In the Divine Economy, weakness equals strength for it recognizes the need for God.

Part VI presents an overview of a talk given by Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Carmelite nun and saint) on the differences between man and woman. Stein explained that women value the concrete over the abstract, individuals over universals, the personal over the impersonal, wholes over parts. Men tend to be more abstract, analytical. It is no good to say that one is better than the other, for both are needed. We were created to complement each other; that is why God said it is not good for man to be alone. But there is no denying women are designed for piety, and one of our tasks is to inspire the same in men.

The last portion of the book deals with the mystery of the female body - the spiritual reality revealed by the very hidden nature, the mystery, of our bodies. Von Hildebrand touches on motherhood (physical and spiritual), modesty, sexuality, and purity. These topics more than any that came before challenge the prevailing values we see on tv, in movies, and novels and tabloids, and provide a great deal of food for thought. I'll be rereading this section many times in the months to come.

Any Catholic work dealing with the subject of womanhood must mention Our Lady, and it is with the Blessed Mother that Alice von Hildrebrand concludes this book. We are encouraged to imitate Mary in her virtues, for she "is the one creature who unconditionally accepted her creatureliness with all its limitations and weaknesses, with the trust that the Lord, who has seen the humility of His servant, would accomplish great things in her soul." (pg. 104)

The Privilege of being a woman, by Alice von Hildebrand. Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University,2002.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I'm inspired and challenged just from reading the review. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete

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What is a woman? What does it mean to be feminine? There is softness and hardness, compassion and ferocity. There is contentment and adventure, freedom and service. We're conundrums, especially to ourselves, but we all, in some way, possess beauty, creativity, intuition and love. We were made for love, and we are loved, cellulite and all. Here we aim to show every woman the richness and beauty of her own femininity and explore current issues relating to women in our world. We also wish to share our own experiences - exploring the joys and challenges of stay-at-home moms and single professionals and everyone in between. Welcome! So glad you're here!

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