By Sharon Kinsella
When I was a junior in high school, I sang in the Georgia All-State Chorus. Prestigious and notoriously hard to get in to, All-State Chorus is a weekend of event in which selected singers from across the state travel to Athens, Georgia. During the weekend, singers work with a renowned director and prepare a concert in 1.5 days. Singers are randomly sorted into different choirs, the most coveted of which is the upperclass mixed choir, meaning it has both men’s and women’s voices. To my slight disappointment, I was sorted into the women’s choir.
No matter what choir you are sorted into, this event is very intensive; the singers rehearse all day long. It was toward the end of our first day and we were all really tired. You might find it hard to believe that though singing was energizing, our bodies were aching and stamina was fleeting. When our director asked us to stand and sing, we exhaled a collective groan and made a lethargic and recalcitrant effort to rise to our feet.
Our director, a small, sprightly, and nurturing woman, stopped us. She became angry, a marked departure from the genial disposition she had established. “We OWE it to these composers to stand and sing their music,” she admonished, “they deserve our respect, and their music deserves our respect. The least we can do is stand up when we sing their music. Do you have any idea who our composers are?” We all shook our heads in shame. She informed us about Saint Hildegard of Bingen, composer of the song we were asked to stand and sing.
Born in 1098, Saint Hildegard was a Benedictine abbess who was also a highly respected artist, author, composer, prophet, social activist, philosopher, pharmacist, poet, preacher, mystic, theologian, and polymath. This was in the high middle ages when women, as you might expect, had very limited options. Aside from a handful of powerful queens, regents, and abbesses, most women were either relegated to the domestic sphere as wives or chose to become nuns. Although nunnery often served as a way for women to escape wifery and childbirth, the sphere of the church did not offer a haven of equality.
Take this quote by Pope Innocent III in 1210, for example: "No matter whether the most blessed Virgin Mary stands higher, and is also more illustrious, than all the apostles together, it was still not to her, but to them, that the Lord entrusted the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven." The Church perceived God’s choice to deputize the male apostles, and not Mary, an objectively more exalted figure. With the evangelism of the New Covenant was an assertion of male superiority over women.
That is why Hildegard is such remarkable woman. After becoming a nun, Hildegard was approved by a committee of theologians to write down visions that the church deemed prophetic. She wrote many visionary theological texts, one of which caught the attention of Pope Eugene III. She became counsel and advisor not only to the pope, but to German emperors, statesman, and hundreds of other people who sought her advice. She also traveled throughout Germany, preaching and evangelizing to large groups of people about her religious insights. In Hildegard’s visions she saw the harmony of God’s creation on the place of both men and women in it, a radical view that many of her contemporaries rejected.
She challenged many other authorities and pushed back on policies she did not agree with, and, well, usually won. She also wrote botanical and medicinal texts, including the first one on gynecology. She wrote liturgical musical compositions, a play, poems, and invented an entire constructed language. Pope Benedict named her a doctor of the church, which is a title given to a Saint whose doctrinal writings have special authority, and has only been assigned to four women. She is also considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. Hildegard’s participation in these disciplines revealed her status-quo-challenging beliefs that led her to ignore bans against women and to contribute to the Church’s body of knowledge and interpret scripture.
If you aren’t already convinced of Hildegard’s feminist boss-ness, consider this splendid quote of hers: “Woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman."
As our director finished her lesson, we came to realize that every one of the composers or lyricists of our set of music were remarkable women who defied societal expectations of themselves, challenged authority, and fought against institutional limitations levied upon them. Like Hildegard, they redefined what it meant to be a woman.
After this realization I suddenly found a new pride and empowerment in singing in the women’s choir. I had the opportunity to stand beside 200 other women and breathe life into the hallowed words of women who paved the way for the modern liberties that we take for granted -liberties that they themselves could not enjoy.
Hildegard was a voice for women when they had none, and her influence can still be felt today. She demonstrated the importance of listening to women’s voices and contributed an enormous wealth of knowledge across several disciplines of theology and academia. Contemporary theologian Matthew Fox wrote, "If Hildegard had been a man, she would be well known as one of the greatest artists and intellectuals the world has ever seen." She continues to inspire artists and those with spiritual inclinations.
In just 2010, a community arts center was built in her name in Lincoln, Nebraska on the premise that "God finds us in our humanity...The arts is a path to the innermost reality of man and the world." As a personal influence, Hildegard was integral in the formation of my own identity as a feminist and artist. If this one woman can span 900 years to inspire and empower a choir girl in Athens, GA then I can do my part to recognize and honor her legacy, and inspire future generations of feminists as she has inspired me. In fact, we can all do more to elevate the accomplishments of women, and give them the credit they deserve for changing the world.