“We are dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants.” —John of Salsberg
When I read the words of Alice von Hildebrand, I often imagine a tall, looming figure with an overpowering personality whose keen wit and sharp tongue could defeat even the most foreboding enemy. Her words are laden with conviction and knowledge, set forth before the audiences of women (and men) searching—aching to connect to the fullness of who they are in a world that is loud yet unclear amidst society’s woes and limited, utilitarian focus.
I stumbled upon her on YouTube. There she was, speaking in 2010, sitting behind a broad table meant for five, a seemingly frail and aged woman, small in stature. She opened her mouth to speak and wisdom filled the room. Her heart poured into that conference and made clear the words often quoted from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Though she be but little she is fierce.”
Alice was a philosopher, feminist, author, lecturer, and teacher, but before all of this (in fact, what shaped most of her work) came her life as the wife of Dietrich von Hildebrand, the personalist philosopher that even Hitler feared.
“All the work that I’ve done . . . [is] based on what my husband taught me,” she said.
Alice met Dietrich in 1942, and she became his secretary and his student. They married in 1959, two years after the death of his first wife of 45 years. Their love for each other, for the Catholic Church, and for objective truth would enrich their lives and the lives of so many others. She spent her last years translating her husband’s work into English and entrusting this lifelong promotion to the Hildebrand Project in 2015.
When she wasn’t promoting her husband’s work, Alice spent most of her life reminding women of the privilege of femininity and the gift of motherhood. Her most popular work is arguably The Privilege of Being a Woman.
Secularism, materialism, and utilitarianism have so infected our society that men and women fall victim to their sway daily. Alice would say that men were the first victims, falsely accepting the commonplace notion that success is defined by worldly values like money, power, and fame. Then as men commuted from their homes and immediate neighborhoods to pursue “success,” the -isms of the world invaded the hearts of the women as well. We were told that if we didn’t want to be left behind—if we too wanted to be relevant under this definition of success—we needed to pursue it by way of these established values, leaving many women to believe, they must become like men in order to be successful, to have value, and to be seen. Inevitably those occupations considered “feminine,” particularly if they were centered on the home, began to be seen as weak, less meaningful, and of dubious value in the eyes of the world.
The feminism taught by Alice offered a new path under the guidance of our Blessed Virgin Mary, who offered two very striking phrases that shape much of what femininity should model: “Be it done unto me according to thy word” and “Do whatever he tells you.” This new path is built upon the feminine genius of receptivity and invitation. The first phrase reminds us of the full receptivity of Mary and that the fullness of grace shaped her mission. The latter phrase is set in the context of the Wedding at Cana. Mary alerted Jesus to the lack of wine and then she turned to the servants with this phrase. This standalone phrase could be mistaken for an argument for wanton submission but instead it is said by Our Lady, in full awareness of the need of the moment, understanding the way to fulfill the lack, and using this wisdom to invite others into that battlefield – her son and the servants.
Alice invited women to be women, to have their power rooted in their own femininity. She believed that women could be receptive, nurturing, demure, and empathetic while also wielding the dynamism of intellect and culture.
She contributed greatly to philosophy and paved the path for other women to become teachers and lovers of wisdom themselves. In a recent interview with the National Catholic Register, a former student of Alice’s called her “one of those outstanding female figures of Catholic life in the US in the 20th century.” And though she had no children of her own, Alice was the spiritual mother to many young women, including myself.
Though I never had the honor of meeting her—and I do have children, and the busy life that goes with them—the words that she has written and many of her talks have shaped my own understanding of who I am and what I am capable of, much more than I would have imagined without her help. Two particular works have been especially helpful to me: The Privilege of Being a Woman and By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride.
In The Privilege, Alice gives us nine different essays exploring everything from the denigration of women, to the female body, to an exploration of our feelings. It’s a quick read and pertinent to the Christian understanding of femininity—particularly the opening chapters, which present arguments for and against the privilege of being a woman.
By Love Refined is a collection of letters written to a young bride. Lily (as Alice was known to her close friends) penned more than 60 letters to “Julie” during her first year of marriage. I’d suggest every married woman read this brilliant collection of letters. You can take in one a day and double (or triple!) up on the days when you have extra time. Alice tackles everything from what to do when you like things that your husband hates to how to handle the disappointment of the anniversary dinner being cancelled because of unforeseen circumstances.
Beyond these two renown works, Alice was and will continue to be a much-needed female voice in the field of philosophy, bringing to the light the need for a new language of feminism long before Pope St. John Paul II enriched the terminology in his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem. She taught me that women do not need to all but become men in order to be empowered, but that femininity contains and wields a necessary power in and of itself. She also continues to inspire me toward a male/female complementarity that simultaneously honors the male and female differentiation while upholding gender equality. This was not only a thread woven into all of her lectures and talks but also lived out in her marriage to Dietrich.
If you search for Alice’s work on Amazon today, her books have all skyrocketed in price, showing that many are finding her feminine voice echoing into the world even louder in the wake of her death. That voice not only asks us to discover the philosophy of personalism and a rightly ordered new feminism, but it also lightly whispers introductions to some of the greatest thinkers of our time, including Thomas à Kempis, Gertrud von le Fort, Gabriel Marcel, and, most of all, Dietrich Von Hildebrand.
It is amazing to note that this tiny, frail woman seemed to fill every seat on the 5-person table during the talk I mentioned at the start of this article. Her wisdom and strength were not found in her own merit of mind or body but in embracing that aging frailty, the littleness, the so-called “weakness,” and allowing it to be transformed by grace. Like our Lady, Alice (though never bearing children of her own) allowed the figurative womb of her intellect to be filled with the person of Christ, and bore him to the world. His face and heart radiated in all of her work. And, I find joy in knowing that through that womb, I became a child of Alice von Hildebrand.