Women at the Head of the Class

Does contemporary culture violate women? If so, how so?

A February conference at the University of Notre Dame, organized by three undergraduate women, examined these questions and looked for solutions — and it did so using the lens of the “New Feminism” conceived by St. Edith Stein and Pope John Paul II. In fact, the event’s very name tips its focus: The Edith Stein Project.

The organizers made it clear they see the old and still prevailing feminism, the one pioneered by Gloria Steinem and the recently deceased Betty Friedan, as one sure violator of women. That brand of feminism, they agreed, was all about asserting and projecting power — and celebrating abortion as a great victory in women’s history.

“I’m grateful to those feminists for the doors they opened for us in terms of women’s rights,” Notre Dame junior Anamaria Scaperlanda Ruiz told the Register. “But their concept of womanhood is divorced from any idea of God or of where our dignity as women stems from.”

“Abortion really hurts women,” Ruiz said, not only directly through the physical, psychological and spiritual trauma to the women who secure abortions, but by putting more pressure on women to make themselves available sexually.

Defining women’s rights in terms of equality with men is itself a form of oppression of women, Ruiz believes. “It’s a mistake to define success only in men’s terms,” she says.

Ruiz and her co-organizers, Caitlin Shaughnessy and Madeleine Ryland, wanted to explore a version of feminism more authentically rooted in the nature and dignity of womanhood — one devoted to valuing all life, male, female, born, unborn, academically accomplished or brain damaged.

This might make it at odds with the feminism of Friedan and Steinem, according to conference presenter Deirdre McQuade, director of planning and information for pro-life activities at the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, but not with what she called the “first wave” feminism of the suffragettes. McQuade, who gave a talk titled “Empathy, dignity and speaking truth to power,” told the Register that the first feminists wanted political rights as a means to make society better through universal public education, prohibition and an end to child labor.

And, while the second wave of feminism was about women achieving positions of power hitherto reserved for men in business, the professions and higher education, the third wave, the new feminism espoused by Edith Stein and Pope John Paul II, she said, would be more like the first wave, “defending the defenseless, speaking for those with no voice.”

No one is more voiceless or vulnerable than the unborn child, said McQuade. What’s more, the unborn children of the poor are the most vulnerable of all.

Lives Fulfilled

The conference dealt with many topics familiar to “second-wave” feminism, such as domestic violence, rape, pornography and the treatment of women migrant workers. Other topics included “Mary, Model for the Working Woman,” given by philosopher Laura Garcia of Boston University; “Bride on the Cross: Transformed in Love According to Edith Stein,” given by Sister Marie Morgan, an Indiana high school teacher; and “Karol Wojtyla’s Philosophy of Love and Self-donation as Vocation of Spousal Love and the Complementarity of Man and Woman,” offered by Dr. Joseph Seifert of Chile’s Pontifical Catholic University.

Some of which may have been a bit too academic for the 270-plus registrants for the conference, mostly from Notre Dame but others from as far afield as Florida and Texas. Commenting on who came and why, presenter Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, a Ph.D. student in economics at Harvard and mother of six, said, “They are not looking for answers about feminism per se. But they are not at peace about their vocation. They wanted to know, ‘How, as a woman, can I be fulfilled?’”

Pakaluk’s talk was titled “Life as a Mother and Student,” and dealt with her own decision to put her academic career on hold when she married a widower with four children. Pakaluk said that undergraduate women, at the conference and elsewhere, have been led to believe that their goal ought to be self-fulfillment, and that they had to choose between motherhood and a professional career to find it. After all, she said, “Most of the women professors they see don’t have children.”

“These are very bright, educated women who been raised to ‘be all that you can be.’ At the same time, being women, many are very drawn to having children,” she added.

“I told them that God gave them their talents not to fulfill themselves but to serve others.” Their task, she advised, was one of discernment — to discover how God wanted them to serve.

Among the rules she worked out for herself to resolve matters of marriage and career was that her husband’s career should take priority. This realization was, paradoxically, actually liberating.

“Women generally want to multitask, while men want to focus all their efforts on a single goal,” she said. So it does no injury to the aspirations of women to avoid the 9-to-5 job. “There has never been a time,” Pakaluk said, “when there have been more opportunities for women to make important contributions outside the home while staying in it.”

Pakaluk cited her own efforts to write a book to help high-school graduates find a Catholic college faithful to Catholic teaching. As well, she tutors at a high school her children attend, has founded a crisis-pregnancy clinic, and sat for several years on a state advisory commission on the status of women, to represent the Catholic and a pro-life position.

Spiritual Order

Already meeting at Notre Dame — having grown from a handful five years to nearly 80 — is a group providing spiritual support for students with eating disorders called A Life Uncommon. At the conference to talk about it was one of its earliest members, graduate Erica Bove. Now in medical school at the University of Vermont and planning to make eating disorders her specialty, Bove believes anorexia and bulimia are spiritual disorders, and that Catholic spirituality can provide a solution.

She says a strong parallel exists between Catholic women who aspired to holiness through extreme fasting and who thereby acquired status and power, and her contemporaries who achieve a kind of “secular salvation” the same way.

“Only today, it’s all about image,” she added. “It is amazing the amount of notice and positive affirmation you get when you lose just 10 pounds, especially from other women. That kind of success can become physically and emotionally addictive.”

At A Life Uncommon, the young women agreed never to comment on their own or each other’s appearance, weight or dimensions.

“We prayed at each meeting for the grace to see ourselves as God sees us,” Bove explained. “And we celebrated each small victory and supported everyone when they have trouble.”

Undiscussed at the conference was the ordination of women.

“That seems to me to be really about power, cloaked in theology,” said Anamarie Ruiz. “The Church does need to more influenced by women,” she added, but not for women’s sake. “Women should have something different to offer the Church.”


Steve Weatherbe writes from

Victoria, British Columbia.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.