popular feminism part 4

Hildegard on the other hand lands on the “right” side of MWD. She was the 10th child of noble parents and was promised to the church.[1] She founded two monasteries.[2] She composed, wrote poems, had visions, and was a spiritual leader. One could argue that these roles were not typical or allowed for women of her day, but the primary distinction is that Hildegard was a member of a spiritual community and regarded any of her work as the work of God, not hers. She insisted that she was a, “weak woman” and merely a vessel for God’s voice.[3] I believe it was her situating herself within the rules of what a woman could do which allowed for her to be remembered and revered throughout history. To be clear, I am not saying that Hildegard’s work is any less extraordinary but rather her conformism acted as a conduit for her work in a context where women’s work was not usually preserved.

            How does popular feminism respond to the reception of these two women? Popular feminism uses Hildegard to empower women by Joan Scott’s idea of “add a women and stir.”[4] In classical music culture, the fact that there are very few women within the classical music canon is the injury to women, and searching for “forgotten”  women and bringing visibility to them is the popular feminist answer. We see this through feminist response to their “discovery” of Hildegard. Jennifer Bain discussed the exhaustion from her colleagues in 1991 within the musicology department in hearing about Hildegard.[5] She was warned by her professors that a study on Hildegard might be considered “too trendy” for a thesis topic. [6] It is within this excitement for Hildegard, that I believe she became to be misrepresented. Besides the issue of the “forgotten” woman trope, which we previously discussed, Hildegard has been described as a 12th Century Feminist. In an interview with psychologist Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, she argues that Hildegard would have been an international figure if she were alive in the context of 2014. Chittister went so far as to say, ““She’s clearly the confirmation of Christian feminism. She’s clearly the call to women to be everything they can be, to be the fullness of themselves, without an ounce of fear.”[7] It is clear that Chittister is using the feminism that she sees within Hildegard’s story to empower herself and other women to expand their agency, but how did Hildegard see herself? Marian Bleeke argues that in Hildegard’s writings she did not see herself as an agent, but rather a mouthpiece for God.[8] Bleeke is critiquing the work of Madeline Caviness, a feminist scholar of medieval art. While Caviness argued for the inclusion of Hildegard in the Western art canon, Bleeke argues that instead of doing this, we should use historical figures to challenge the value systems of the canon.[9] While Bleeke is referring to the art world, I would argue that we can pose the same challenge to the musical sphere. Hildegard is one of the very few women that was given a place within the classical music canon, according to Bain, we can see this within the 1996 edition of Grout and and Palisca’s A History of Western Music which featured Hildegard. Bain argues that because this text book is the most widely used textbook throughout the U.S. and Canada, Hildegard’s place within it signals a change within the canon.[10] That was almost three decades ago, what changes have been made to the canon since then? How does Hildegard challenge the value system of the canon other than the fact that she is a woman? I would argue that it is because of her conforming to gender roles, and lack of challenge to the canon which is what allowed her to be included in the canon. Hildegard’s visibility within the popular feminist movement works to empower women by saying, “if she can do it, so can you.” But also seeing Hildegard as a feminist taints her in a light that is not exactly reflective of who she is.

[1] Meconi, Hildegard of Bingen, 3.

[2] Bain, “Was Hildegard Forgotten?” 3.

[3] Meconi, “Hildegard of Bingen,” 2018, 3.

[4] Banet-Weiser, Empowered, 12.

[5] Bain, Hildegard of Bingen, 2.

[6] Bain, Hildegard of Bingen, 1.

[7] Alicia Von Stamwitz. “St. Hildegard of Bingen: 12th-Century Feminist.” St. Anthony Messenger 122, no. 2 (2014): 1.

[8] Marian Bleeke, “Considering Female Agency: Hildegard of Bingen and Francesca Woodman.” Woman’s Art Journal 31, no. 2 (2010): 42.

[9] Bleeke, “Considering Female Agency,” 40.

[10] Bain, Hildegard of Bingen, 6.

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