Sunday, October 10, 2010

Personalist Feminism

Personalism in a nutshell is a philosophy whose objective is to uncover what defines human persons and how people relate to another. This series of articles on personalism attempts to explore the challenges and the opportunities personalism presents.

Dr. Mary Lemmons is the Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. Dr. Lemmons is also the co-founder of the Sienna Symposium for Personalist Feminism. The other co-founder is Dr. Deborah Savage. True Feminism talks to Professor Lemmons about their project.

SD: What is Personalist feminism?

ML: Personalist feminism is the feminism dedicated to caring for human life from conception to the grave. It is based on the recognition that each and every human being is a person deserving to be loved and cherished according to the Personalistic Norm as expressed by Karol Wojtyla. It is a form of feminism and not humanism because such love requires not only the sensitivity to vulnerabilities so characteristic of women, but also the willingness to do something about it. This kind of activism born of love is a particularly feminine gift. It is maternal in its core. Such maternal caring is a gift that every woman can make—even if never married and a virgin. Maternal caring is the spiritual motherhood whereby a woman achieves her greatest fulfillment both in the home and outside of the home. We are called to bring this gift of maternal caring to all the places where insensitivity rules and human beings are denigrated. If we, women, can witness to men the power and beauty of love, they will rediscover that their own destiny as men lays in a spiritual fatherhood where they also bring good to life.

SD: What role does Metaphysics play in Personalist feminism?

ML: Metaphysics is the philosophy of being and the objectivity of being enables one to achieve truth and goodness. But truth and goodness are achievements of a heart bent on love. Since, then, personalist feminism focuses on loving the human being in all stages of life, personalist feminism is the orientation that enables one to see the truth about the human being and to know that each and every one of us is deserves to be loved—no matter how small or how sick. So from this perspective, personalist feminism plays a role in metaphysical insight and wisdom.

There is yet another connection between metaphysics and personalist feminism, namely, the love required by personalist feminism develops within the heart, a willingness to walk where fear thrives. Love walks one into the disabled person’s school room, into the dying person’s bedroom, into the boardrooms of the powerful and seeks to enhance the lives of the vulnerable. This requires a degree of humility that requires one to take life as it comes and to fight against those who would damn a human life as unworthy to live. Eventually, I believe, this humility opens the heart to the deepest truths of being where one finds the God of love and seeks to be God’s friend. Personalist feminism thus sees metaphysics embodied in the vulnerable who have no one to advocate for them. Finally, the maternal caring characteristic of Personalist feminism requires one to see that invaluable gift men make to the lives of the vulnerable and the need to support men for the good that they do in their own roles. Of course, this means that Personalist feminism sees heterosexuality as a gift both to men and to women because it enables them to see that the meaning of being is to transcend the self in a gift of self to others.

SD: How does Personalist feminism connect to difference feminism?

ML: Difference feminism can be defined in different ways. On the one hand, it could mean that men and women are different from each other in complementary ways--as also held by Personalist Feminism. On the other hand, it could mean that the differences between men and women are so great as to be mutually exclusive or antagonistic; and, this Personalist feminism rejects as being uncaring and a lie about the metaphysics of being human and being sexual.

SD: What writers have played a role in defining Personalist feminism

ML: The writer most influential in shaping Personalist feminism was the personalist Polish philosopher Karol Wojtyla who became Pope John Paul II. He called for a new feminism in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae. He also promoted sexual equality in the home and in the workplace, while urging workplace reform that would allow the woman to harmoniously combine her roles. See, for instance, The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World #23. Also see Michelle Schumacher’s anthology called Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism; and Elizabeth Schlitz. 2007a. “Should Bearing the Child Mean Bearing All the Cost? A Catholic Perspective on the Sacrifices of Motherhood and the Common Good,” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. Vol. 10, #3: 15-33; and also Elizabeth Schlitz. 2007b. “West, MacIntyre and Wojtyła: Pope John Paul II’s Contribution to the Development of a Dependency-Based Theory of Justice,” Journal of Catholic Legal Studies 45 (2007): 369-414.

Since the inspiration for Personalist Feminism is rooted in the personalism of Pope John Paul II, it is not dependent on Catholic theology but on human nature and the reality that one sex bears the children for the human race.

SD: Where can Personalist feminism be studied?

ML: Right now, I know of no place where Personalist Feminism can be extensively studied as such. That may change, since just within the last few weeks, I am starting with Dr. Deborah Savage a pilot program with the St. Paul School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. This pilot program is an interdisciplinary think tank trying to get a handle on all the issues that are involved in being faithful Catholics while advancing sexual equality and Personalist Feminism. We call ourselves the Siena Symposium for Women, Family and the Culture and are looking for funding so that we can develop systematically the insights that give us the confidence to know that women and men are not only equal but need each other to keep the culture alive.


St. Ursula said...


Thanks for this very enlightening interview. So many issues are raised here that merit much discussion.

Wouldn't is be wonderful if the Siena Symposium for Personalist Feminism would implement an online discussion forum so those interested in this area of study, both academic and independent scholars, could come together "virtually" to exchange ideas?

Finally, I was a student of Dr. Lemmons back in the 1980's when she was a young professor. I remember vividly her devotion to Wojtyla's work -- it was groundbreaking at the time as no one else I came across was teaching it. I think it was George Weigel who described Wojtyla's Personalism as a "theological time bomb." I can confirm that when Dr. Hayden (as she was known at the time) gave us this material it did have an effect on my psyche that could accurately be described as an earthquake.

St. Ursula

Savia said...

St. Ursula,

Thanks. Yes, a number of personalist philosophers began their work, and then it was left out for a long time, until Wojtyla took it up again. He also noticed the link between phenomenology and personalism. I know phenomenologists would love this, since they do like Edith Stein. But, I will leave that for another time.

St. Ursula said...


It would be very helpful if you could write a brief post on "Phenomenology 101." I think I mentioned this to you before in an email.

I have to confess, the meaning of Phenomenology hasn't really "clicked" with me yet, even though I have read the Wikipedia entry on it twice, LOL. It would be nice to have it spelled out in plain English at a basic level in the context of the subjects discussed on this blog.

Savia said...

St. Ursula,

Sorry, I know I should be simplifying things. I still have a lot of readings to do. So I will write a post on it in the future. It may take a while.