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March 6, 2002

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Local seminary professor publishes book on women's identity

Sister Prudence Allen releases monumental work, `The Concept of Woman' vol. 2

By Roxanne King

As she lay dying, with labored breath Sister Mary Honora Kroger, R.S.M., offered final words of wisdom to her younger friend Sister Prudence Allen, R.S.M. — "Use the intellect," she urged.

Sister Allen laughed as she recalled her beloved mentor's last words.

"She was an amazing woman — a biochemist," she said.

Sister Allen took her adviser's words to heart. She just released a weighty book (1,161 pages) examining every philosopher's thoughts on sex and gender identity between the years 1250 and 1500. The book "The Concept of Woman: Vol. 2 — The Early Humanist Reformation" continues her earlier widely praised study of women's identity in the history of Western philosophy.

A book signing is scheduled 4-5 p.m. and 7-8 p.m. Tuesday, March 12 at Vehr Theological Library on the John Paul II Center campus, 1300 S. Steele St., Denver. Copies of the $70 volume will be available at a discount of at least 30 percent.

The encyclopedic volumes (the first is 583 pages) are the fruit of 32 years of research, the last four done in Denver, Sister Allen said.

"I started the research before I became a religious sister," she said. "My community has confirmed this as actually part of my vocation. I was willing to give it all up when I became a religious — you have to give everything to your vocation. The community has not only supported me, but worked with me to continue."

In the new book's acknowledgements, Sister Allen thanks her community and many in the Archdiocese of Denver who helped bring it to completion. It is dedicated to Sister Kroger.

A convert, Sister Allen discovered Catholicism as a student at Claremont Graduate University in California, where she earned a doctorate in philosophy. She entered the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., in 1983 and took final vows in 1990.

"It seems like forever because it's my call," the tall, bespectacled nun said with a smile. Describing her vocational summons she added, "I felt drawn to a total gift of self. It's a wonderful discovery."

Philosophy chair at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, Sister Allen completed her newly published book while helping to establish the philosophy department at the 3-year-old institute. A native of Oneida, N.Y., she wrote the first tome "The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C. - A.D. 1250," while a philosophy professor at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. That volume, which was reprinted in 1997, was first published in 1985.

She began her study of women's identity in 1970 while teaching at Concordia.

"I began to think about the fact that some philosophers I had read had the same view of women, but very different views of men," she said. "I thought that would make an interesting article."

After publishing two articles she recognized how neglected the topic was. Funded by a grant, she took a year's sabbatical to write a book.

"I thought I would write the whole philosophy of women in one year," she said with a laugh. "I didn't realize how big it was. By the time I got to October in my sabbatical, I realized it was a huge field that had never been done systematically. I requested another year and got to the year 1250."

Sister Allen's study was supported by grants from Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The grants enabled her to hire translation assistants and to travel to Europe to do research.

The well-written text is reader friendly with informative illustrations and helpful summary charts. It includes material not previously available in English.

"The book is for the intelligent reader who is interested in understanding the history of the concept of woman in relation to man in Western thought," Sister Allen said. "What I discovered is there are three basic theories of women's identity: the unisex view, first articulated by Plato; the polarity view, which argues the male is superior to the female, first articulated by Aristotle; and the complementarity view — that men and women have equal dignity but significant differences. My view is that this is the Christian philosophy compatible with the Christian faith."

Sister Allen's first volume explores the way in which the polarity view came to dominate Western thought by the end of the 13th century. In the second volume she shows the fresh base for complementarity in renaissance humanism.

"In the first volume you have complementarity emerging in the Benedictine monastic tradition with people like Hildegard of Bingen," she said. "Then education shifted from monasteries to universities. The University of Paris becomes the paradigm and Aristotle is required reading. Women were excluded from universities. The Aristotelian argument became dominant: that's why the first volume is called `The Aristotelian Revolution.'

"In the humanist tradition outside the universities were study groups, small schools, and complementarity was resurfacing in humanist communities," she continued. "In this second volume, it starts to become a more dominant view. You start to get a `re-formation' of this view. Men and women begin writing dialogues together. The book ends with complementarity, its reformation — how it starts to change things."

Not covered in the book, which ends with the 15th century, is what happened next: René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, promoted a unisex philosophy.

"After Descartes," Sister Allen explained, "various theories vied for dominance including the traditional polarity, a reverse polarity that argued for women's natural superiority, and a unisex theory based on the Cartesian foundation of a sexless mind."

The 20th century saw a re-emergence of complementarity prompted by Catholic personalism, Sister Allen said. Pope John Paul II has said he was influenced by this philosophy, which was first published underground in Krakow, Poland, when the future pope was a student there.

"In the 20th century Pope John Paul II and Edith Stein build a new foundation for complementarity," Sister Allen said. "It's a great drama, really."

Will there be a third volume about that?

"Maybe. I'm praying about it," she said, adding that she has written about women's identity in the 20th century in journal articles.

Meanwhile, her latest book is garnering rave reviews.

Diana Robin of the University of New Mexico calls it "an original and brilliant work of scholarship."

"This book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the history of sexuality," Robin said. "The broad sweep and range of works, writers, and in-depth textual analyses make Sister Prudence's book essential reading for scholars in comparative European studies, women's history and feminist theory."

Describing the work as "monumental," Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School said, "There is no work to compare with her's in its systematicity, intellectual rigor and scholarly integrity."

The praise is simply icing on the cake for the diligent scholar, who said "the search for truth" impelled her three decades of research.

The long quest has been fulfilling.

"It's a great gift for a scholar-teacher to discover you can add to knowledge," Sister Allen said. "Deep down it's a defense of the Catholic faith as a philosopher."

The professor believes complementarity theory will be the prevailing one on women's identity.

"It will last because it's based on the truth about the human person," she said.

Sister Allen's books "The Concept of Woman" volumes one and two are published by Eerdman's Publishing Company. They can be ordered online at Eerdmans.com and Amazon.com. Her latest work is also available at the Tattered Cover.


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