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The Edith Stein Project,’ organizers redefine feminism

Justin Tardiff | Monday, February 13, 2006

At the closing banquet of “The Edith Stein Project,” Director of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture David Solomon said when Notre Dame students want to address an issue, they immediately jump to the idea that they need to have a conference. With “The Edith Stein Project: Redefining Feminism” conference, however, three Notre Dame students actually carried their idea out to its completion.

Off-campus senior Caitlin Shaughnessy, Howard Hall junior Anamaria Scaperlandia-Ruiz and Cavanaugh junior Medleine Ryland organized the conference, held Friday and Saturday in the McKenna Center for Continuing Education.

The conference discussed attacks on the dignity of women in contemporary culture through abortion, violence against women, rape, pornography and other issues, as well as how women can better understand their vocations in life. It was named in honor of philosopher and Carmelite nun Edith Stein because of her work in the Catholic Woman’s Movement in Germany, her love of philosophy and her death at Auschwitz.

“The Edith Stein Project” featured more than 20 speakers from around the world, addressing topics ranging from female migrant labor to abortion rhetoric and attracting hundreds of registered guests, including students from Dayton and adults from Texas and California.

Josef Seifert, a distinguished professor at the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein in western Europe, made the international trip to speak at the conference about the late Pope John Paul II’s philosophy of love and self-donation. He said he thought the project was impressive, especially having been developed by young people.

“That is why I traveled here from Europe,” Seifert said.

The conference’s formation began simply, with three Notre Dame students – inspired partially by feminist author Gloria Conde’s book, “New Woman” – spending long hours at Coleman-Morse researching ideas and contacting experts on the topics.

But eventually, the framework behind the project grew. Shaughnessy, Scaperlandia-Ruiz Ryland enlisted the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, Notre Dame Right to Life and other groups to sponsor a conference dedicated to redefining feminism.

Shaughnessy said she felt the program was a great success and that the creators achieved what they set out to do.

“There have been a lot of people here, and we are almost at full capacity,” she said. “People are engaging in issues and discussing them with one another.”

Shaughnessy also said the trio received ample outside support when planning the project.

“A lot of people have expressed [that] what we are doing is very important,” she said.

One of the main purposes of the conference was to talk about these issues in the context of women’s dignity and identity, Scaperlandia-Ruiz said.

Scaperlandia-Ruiz also said the organizers’ goal was to “get core at what is being attacked by eating disorders, violence, [et cetera]” rather than just address the problems superficially.

Ryland said she thought Saturday’s discussions especially brought a lot of topics to the table and that it was great to see where people were in agreement and disagreement.

“It was good to see people get to the roots,” she said.

Shaughnessy said she was pleased the conference was a good combination of not only philosophy and theology but also of personal experience and general stories about life. In addition, she said she was appreciative that people had not only attended, but also participated and engaged, in the event.

Notre Dame sophomore and participant Dominic Pepper said he admired the courage of the event organizers for developing the conference.

“It was incredible that three girls got together and in a year had a conference,” he said. “They put hundreds of hours into this, easily.”

The conference’s speakers also had positive reactions to the event.

Erica Bove, one of the numerous speakers at the conference, addressed the spiritual dimension of eating disorders. She said it was wonderful to see so many men exploring the issues of the conference and working to create a better environment for women.

“The connection has been established [between] God’s love for us and the dignity of each person,” she said. “It’s a great framework for looking at women.”

Seifert said the conference aimed to gather people of all groups, academic and nonacademic, dedicated to the goals of commitment to and respect for life, femininity, family and the dignity of women.

Seifert also said the strength of the conference is that it is not specialized.

“It’s not just from one point of view, and it is not just theology [or] philosophy,” he said.

Instead, Seifert said, it represented a wide field composed of mothers, students, professors, lawyers and World Youth Alliance representatives among others.

Seifert praised the personal notes that “one normally does not find in such conferences,” including two women describing their personal experiences with rape and how to cope as well as a personal story about conflicts between marriage and graduate study at Harvard.

Seifert, an expert on the writings of Pope John Paul II, also said there was a correlation between the late pope and the conference – that his encyclicals and travels inspired many of the people in attendance.

“They call themselves members of the Pope John Paul II Generation, creating a culture of Life as opposed to the culture of Death,” he said.