How Dr. Alice von Hildebrand taught me what it means to be a woman

One night during a Lenten dinner at my childhood parish, I sat spellbound listening to a tiny white-haired woman with a German accent. She was barely visible behind the podium, and I hardly remember what she said — only that I was riveted. After the talk, my mother bought copies of a little book for me and my sisters, and had them signed by the speaker: Dr. Alice von Hildebrand. The title was “The Privilege of Being a Woman.”

A few years later as I hit puberty and began to come to terms with my femininity, I read that little book for the first time. As I open it now — its edges are discolored and soft from use — penciled notes in the margins remind me of the new vision that opened for me as I read. Let’s be real: There’s no way I can summarize the whole book, so go read it; it’s short! In its scant hundred pages, I discovered a profound reality: I could change the world by being a woman.

Von Hildebrand began by speaking to the uncomfortable transition I had made not long before: “Who would choose to have a body which, from the time of puberty on, can be burdensome, can cause discomfort and even severe pain? … In order to understand the greatness of a woman’s mission, we must open our minds and hearts to the message of the supernatural.”

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What is that message? “From a supernatural point of view, women are actually granted a privileged position in the economy of redemption.” The fall of Adam and Eve turned the order of creation upside down, resulting in a terrible abyss between how things are and how they were meant to be. As a race we are inclined to “absolutize what is relative (money-making, power, success) and relativize what is absolute (truth, moral values, and God).” For women, our true mission “is to swim against the tide and, with God’s grace, help restore the proper hierarchy of values.”

So-called “purity culture” has embittered many of us against the idea that we have any moral responsibility toward anyone else, especially men. Von Hildebrand turns that narrative on its head. Rather than force women to be solely culpable for a man’s sins, she makes the radical claim that we are meant to change the world. Because of our feminine genius — receptivity, sensitivity, generosity and maternity, as Pope St. John Paul II says — we are uniquely equipped to be examples of holiness in a way that men and women alike can respect and respond to. And if we fulfill our mission, we have participated in a profound way with God’s will for the salvation of the human race.

Von Hildebrand’s powerfully counter-cultural message stayed with me as I grew up. Every year or two I’d read the little book again, and some angle or another of the immense truth she presented would stick out to me.

When I struggled with feeling weak, she reminded me how vulnerability is a quality that is precious, and she guided me to the Incarnation. Christ, being made small and fragile as a baby and helpless on the cross, “gives to woman an unheard-of dignity.”

If roiling emotions tripped me up, von Hildebrand shared her wisdom: “It is unwarranted to regard women as inferior because feelings play a central role in their lives. If the feelings vibrating in their hearts are noble, appropriate, good, legitimate, sanctioned, and pleasing to God, then they are precious jewels in God’s sight.”

As I moved out of my sheltered teenage years into college, and the interaction between men and women became more concrete than theoretical, I turned back again and again to the little book. If you had asked me at any point, “What does being a woman mean to you?” my answer would probably have been nearly a direct quote from von Hildebrand’s wisdom.

In my first dating relationship, she kept me anchored in purity with the knowledge that “The veil of virginity is a very special female privilege. … [T]he biological make-up of women indicates that their reproductive organs are stamped by sacredness and belong to God in a special sense. Hence, woman’s mission is to be the guardian of purity.”

I discerned my call to the vocation of marriage with the knowledge that “All women, without exception, are called upon to be mothers. … Maternity is the great female charism which corresponds to the charism of priesthood granted to some men.” (Von Hildebrand herself was a spiritual mother to many, though not a biological mother.)

As I began my senior year at Christendom College, our president announced our commencement speaker. I couldn’t believe the workings of the Holy Spirit when I heard the name “Dr. Alice von Hildebrand.” This woman who had been my mentor and guide from a distance would accompany me once more.

Her challenge on that warm spring day in 2015 is one that I have carried with me into marriage, which itself is a choice increasingly marginalized in our culture. “We are in a crossroads,” she said. “Today the mission of women is to become conscious of the beauty and dignity of their function. And by so doing, they will reconquer men [for God]. Until women rediscover the beauty of their mission and stand for life, the world is doomed.”

We never got the chance to speak, but I would have liked to thank her before she died on Jan. 14, 2022. I think she would tell me now to thank her by continuing on the mission she laid out for me when I was a little girl. And so I will do my best to change the world by being a woman.

Rest in peace, dear Dr. Alice von Hildebrand.

Note: The recording of Dr. von Hildebrand’s 2015 commencement address is available here.

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