Authentic Femininity: Alice von Hildebrand’s Unfinished Legacy

John Henry Crosby, president and founder of the Hildebrand Project, discusses the life, legacy and vision of Catholic philosopher Alice von Hildebrand, which the Hildebrand Project will continue to advance.

Catholic philosopher Alice von Hildebrand made many intellectual contributions on the nature of women, motherhood and authentic femininity.
Catholic philosopher Alice von Hildebrand made many intellectual contributions on the nature of women, motherhood and authentic femininity. (photo: Courtesy of Hildebrand Project)

Alice von Hildebrand, a Catholic philosopher and intellectual giant in her own right, passed away Jan. 14 at the age of 98. Von Hildebrand made much of her life’s work engaging future generations with her beloved husband Dietrich von Hildebrand’s philosophy, but she left a powerful legacy of her own testifying to the glory of being a woman and being a mother.

The continuation of both Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand’s work falls to the Hildebrand Project. In this interview with the National Catholic Register, John Henry Crosby, the Hildebrand Project’s president and founder, discusses Alice von Hildebrand’s philosophical vision, the importance of her husband Dietrich in her life, and how the work she pioneered in “authentic femininity” has really only just begun. 

 

Why was the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand so central to Alice von Hildebrand? How is this work understood with Alice's own body of work?

In Dietrich von Hildebrand’s philosophy, Alice found a depth and reverence she had intuitively known to be true and for which she had longed. Hildebrand’s value philosophy, informed by a careful attention to reality, insists that we apprehend and give appropriate response to the values of things themselves — not primarily because it is good for us, but because it is the appropriate response (though it certainly is also and thereby good for us!).

This understanding of value, and our appropriate response to it, informed all of Alice von Hildebrand’s work. Alice would always give truth its due. If that wasn’t popular, so be it. If that meant we needed to change our own minds or challenge our own beliefs, so be it. It was this fierce love of the truth that so endeared her to her students. But it was also the way that she loved them, for despite the many aggressions leveled at her, she never failed to see the value in other people, created in the image and likeness of God, who were themselves, whether they knew it or not, longing for truth.

 

How did Alice von Hildebrand witness to authentic feminism and the feminine genius that St. John Paul II spoke about? What message did she give the world about the true, good and beautiful, especially when it comes to womanhood and motherhood? 

Alice von Hildebrand is known both as a feminist and an anti-feminist; and both in a sense are true. No one more forcefully critiqued the popular feminism of her day than she did. She thought that a feminism that seeks to make women simply “equal” to men obscures the special brilliance of woman and the beauty of the complementarity in which God created men and women. 

Alice von Hildebrand’s feminism was sui generis. It was not a mere reactionary or knee-jerk defense of traditional, but a celebration of the special gifts of women. Like Karol Wojtyła/St. John Paul II, she had a deep appreciation for the special and complementary gifts of the sexes, and the way that shape and reveal us precisely as persons. We are not persons on one side and men or women on the other, but who we are is in part constituted in our sexual differences. 

Her feminism offered an dramatically different vision of woman, one that was not less empowered than popular feminism, but more; but this “power” was specifically feminine power. It was empathetic and receptive and nurturing, but not any less intellectually or culturally rich. To read her work The Privilege of Being a Woman is to step into the world of Shakespeare, Dante, Plato and St. Augustine. Lily took up a unique position that was a shining alternative to an “angry” feminism on one side and a “polite, demure” anti-feminism on the other. 

Her feminism was a deeply Christian one, that saw woman’s gifts as an essential part of God’s divine plan. And, as Lily would surely remind us, it was not until God made woman that he looked upon his work and called it good! 

 

What would you say is the enduring legacy of Alice von Hildebrand? How can we carry it forward today?

Lily spoke of her husband as a “Knight for Truth.” Perhaps, then, she was a lady-in-waiting, serving her King, Christ our Lord, and waiting eagerly to heed his call. Dietrich said to her, before his death, that if anything is untrue in his works, it should be burned. Lily would surely say the same. They were both original philosophers who made real philosophical progress, but they saw themselves only as servants of the truth. In the deepest sense, then, to carry on her legacy is to carry on her love for truth in our lives, to joy and delight in the truth, but also to fearlessly call lies and errors by their name. But more particularly, the work that Lily pioneered in authentic femininity is still only just begun, and this struggle within our culture to reclaim and celebrate the beauty and dignity of women is far, far from over. We can carry that forward by living that truth in our lives, being the best women we can be, and by being the best men we can be. 

I will tell you a little story about Lily. When we were preparing to publish her husband’s work Liturgy and Personality we discussed with her the possibility of translating all of the Latin into English. We thought this might make the work more accessible to modern readers, and that Lily would like this. No! She rather scolded us, and said, “If you make it easy then no one will learn Latin.” We kept the Latin (and added translations, which she somewhat unenthusiastically permitted).

We spoke earlier of St. John Paul II. Another thing Lily and the Great Pontiff had in common is that they called people to a higher standard — it was not merely enough to be decent when one could be good, or to be good when one could be holy.

And lastly, anyone who knew or heard Lily knows she loved her husband Dietrich with a profound and powerful love. She dedicated the last decades of her life to preserving and promoting his legacy. It was a great comfort to her to enable the founding of the Hildebrand Project, and a great comfort to her to see her husband’s books in print again. The Hildebrand Project is the intellectual and literary estate of Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand, and it will carry on her work as well as his. 

For more information about the Hildebrand Project visit: hildebrandproject.org

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