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A Visionary for Women’s Rights

Note: This is the 45th profile in a series of 90 stories highlighting individuals who have shaped Notre Dame and/or live the College’s mission of personal, professional and global responsibility.

Sr. Madonna C. Kolbenschlag, H.M., who graduated from Notre Dame College in 1962, was a Catholic nun, author, professor, lecturer, activist and psychologist dedicated to educating and empowering women around the world through her work examining social structures.

In her internationally renowned book, “Kiss Sleeping Beauty Goodbye: Breaking the Spell of Feminine Myths and Models,” which examines the social and psychological situation of contemporary women through the lens of fairy tales, Dr. Kolbenschlag also engaged men: “My conversion to feminism is an unfinished, incomplete experience unless it leads to your liberation,” she wrote. “If I give up my princess ways, will you give up your princedom?”

Through her feminist publications, Dr. Kolbenschlag was committed to breaking ground for women. She did so in other ways as well. She was a scholar of women’s studies, a three-term women’s commissioner for the state of Virginia and an activist in several women’s rights organizations. In 1996, she founded the Women's International Electronic University to educate women throughout the world via the Internet. She considered it the culmination of her life's work.

“Madonna was a visionary,” Sr. Nancy Sylvester, the president of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, told The Plain Dealer after Dr. Kolbenschlag’s death in 2000. “She committed herself to help low-income women everywhere, women who suffered from abuse and Third World women. For me, she was an inspiration. She kept pushing the boundaries to be creative in how we can use the gospel and serve today's world with today's needs.”

Dr. Kolbenschlag was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on Nov. 2, 1935, to Maud Matthews Kolbenschlag and William G. Kolbenschlag. She graduated from Lourdes Academy in Cleveland in 1953 and then joined the Sisters of the Humility of Mary in Villa Maria, Pa. She took her first vows in 1956 and professed her final vows in 1959.

Madonna Kolbenschlag

Kolbenschlag received her bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame College in 1962. She went on to earn both her master’s (1968) and her Ph.D. in literature (1973) from the University of Notre Dame, where she served as professor of American and women studies from 1973 to 1980. She taught such courses as “Women and Men in Literature” and “American Film” at a time when both fields were still in their infancy.

Dr. Kolbenschlag’s work with students served as inspiration for her first book, “Kiss Sleeping Beauty Goodbye,” which was published in 1979 and translated into six languages. The book was pivotal in the feminist movement, Sylvester told The Plain Dealer.

“It was one of the first books for women coming into an understanding of themselves,” Sylvester said. “It really touched a whole variety of women who said, ‘This makes sense. It’s something we need to pay attention to.’”

Dr. Kolbenschlag left the University of Notre Dame in 1980 to pursue a brief career in politics. She served as a legislative assistant and research analyst in the U.S. House of Representatives until 1985. During this time, she was involved in several human rights investigations related to Central America’s social policy.

Overlapping this endeavor was Dr. Kolbenschlag’s senior fellowship at the Woodstock Theological Center, a Jesuit-sponsored research institute at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. While at Georgetown, she served as editor for three volumes: “Between God and Caesar: Priests, Sisters, and Political Office in the United States” (1985), “Authority, Community and Conflict” (1986), and “Women and the Church I” (1987).

In 1986, Dr. Kolbenschlag began coursework towards a second master’s degree, in clinical psychology, at the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif. The university’s flexibility for adult students interested in a second career allowed her to continue working and writing in Washington, D.C. while pursuing her degree.

In 1988, Dr. Kolbenschlag was the first woman to be appointed an Ecumenical Fellow at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. She published her second major work, “Lost in the Land of Oz: Befriending Your Inner Orphan & Heading for Home,” in which she analyzed the social myths of the contemporary age and their effect on religious, political and psychological experiences, in 1989.

That year she also became a member of the West Virginia Women’s Commission. She served on that body until 1997 and contributed to increasing awareness of domestic violence and the need to expand services to victims and to improve enforcement of state laws.

In 1989, Dr. Kolbenschlag also began her internship and clinical training requirements for the Fielding Institute at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va. She remained affiliated with the university in various capacities until her death. In 1993, she received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the Fielding Institute. She later served as a licensed clinical psychologist and research associate at the West Virginia University Health Services Center, as well as a professor of behavioral medicine and psychiatry. In 1999, she joined the university’s Women’s Studies Department as an adjunct professor.

Throughout the 1990s, Dr. Kolbenschlag continued her writing career. In 1996, she published “Eastward Toward Eve: A Geography of Soul,” in which she examined the psychology of gender and culture in society. She received the Mind, Body, Spirit Award of Excellence for this work.

Around this time, Dr. Kolbenschlag became interested in the possibilities of the Internet for educational purposes. She envisioned a way women could reach across the globe to teach each other. Her vision culminated in the founding of the Women’s International Electronic University, a virtual community including mentors and students in over 90 countries.

Throughout Dr. Kolbenschlag’s diverse career, she gave numerous lectures and held various workshops across the U.S. and the world. Her commitment to the empowerment of women in all capacities remained steadfast over the years. She was active in a variety of organizations, including the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER), the American Friends Service Network and the National Conference of Women Religious.

Beginning with her work as an assistant and analyst with the U.S. House of Representatives, Dr. Kolbenschlag became increasingly concerned with the struggle of women in developing countries. While following her passion for women’s economic and social change in Santiago, Chile, she suffered a debilitating stroke and died at the age of 64 on Jan. 29, 2000.

Following her death, Soujourners, a national Christian organization committed to faith in action for social justice, memorialized Dr. Kolbenschlag for her pioneering spirit─not just on behalf of women but for all people: “We knew Kolbenschlag as a teacher who deepened our understanding of the interdependent nature of gender, race and class oppression. She was gentle, funny, beautiful and brilliant.”