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Conference explores gender, sexuality

Tess Civantos | Friday, February 11, 2011

The annual Edith Stein Project will offer a “counter-cultural” view on gender and sexuality at the largest student-run conference on campus this weekend, said founder Caitlin Shaughnessy Dwyer, a 2006 Notre Dame graduate.

“The Edith Stein Project challenges the assumptions laden in our culture about what freedom is and what women’s dignity is,” she said. “It challenges those assumptions and offers new answers and alternative definitions.”

Claire Gillen, conference chair for the 2011 Edith Stein Project, said the event will offer challenging perspectives.

“We don’t expect many of the people who attend the conference to agree with the speakers on everything,” she said. “We do hope people will engage in respectful dialogue.”

Dwyer was one of the Project’s three original founders, along with Notre Dame graduates Anamaria Scaperlanda-Ruiz and Madeline Ryland. They began planning the conference in 2004 as a response to “The Vagina Monologues,” then being performed on campus. The conference’s inaugural run took place in 2006.

“During my junior year, the discussion surrounding the ‘Monologues’ was very heated and one of the arguments in support of it was that there was nothing else on campus that addressed issues of violence against women,” Dwyer said. “So we wanted to address issues like domestic violence and trafficking, but also issues the ‘Monologues’ did not address.”

Abortion, contraception, eating disorders and pornography are among the issues The Edith Stein Project seeks to tackle. These are not separate subjects, Dwyer said.

“They all [come] from lack of respect for the dignity of the human person and of women in particular,” she said.

Gillen said the conference takes a unique approach to gender issues.

“There isn’t another conference that does what this does,” she said. “I don’t know of any other initiative that attempts to address gender and sexuality in the way that The Edith Stein Project does.”

Additionally, The Edith Stein Project is entirely student-organized.

“It is a big endeavor for students to plan a professional conference,” Dwyer said. “[The first] was definitely an adventure.”

The initial conference was titled “Redefining Feminism,” reflecting the aim of the founders.

“We wanted to look at feminism in a new light and in the perspective of Catholic tradition,” Dwyer said. “What better place to do that than Notre Dame?”

Gillen said while the conference is inspired by Catholic tradition, The Edith Stein Project is open to people from all backgrounds. This year’s conference includes well-known Jewish author Wendy Shalit and Protestant author Gilbert Meilaender.

“The conference really seeks to reach out to people from every walk of life,” Dwyer said. “I hope that it will continue to attract a very diverse audience and keep the conversation going.”

One big change in the conference over the years has been the gradual addition of men’s issues. Dwyer said this conference represents a greater inclusion than ever.

“[We] have made more of an effort to draw men into the conversation.”

While the conference has evolved over the years, human dignity is still a central theme. This is reflected in the 2011 title,

“Irreplaceable You: Vocation, Identity, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The conference theme does not just refer to a religious vocation, Gillen said.

“[It is about] understanding vocation as a personal call which will vary widely from person to person,” she said.

Dwyer said she feels privileged to be involved in this year’s Edith Stein Project.

“It’s awesome to see how people have kept it going,” she said. “I’m honored to be involved in it again this year.”