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The Virgin Mary and the Feminist Quest

The Virgin Mary and the Feminist Quest

Ann Loades
First published as Ch. 10, in After Eve,
edited by Janet Martin Soskice.
Collins Marshall Pickering 1990
Reproduced on our website with the necessary permissions

Mary the mother of Jesus has been the focus of an extraordinary amount of piety and theology down the centuries, and whatever it is she represents has been and remains central to the vitality of Christianity in many parts of the world. It would be worthwhile to try to understand that quite apart from the phenomenon of feminist theology. Mary is also, inevitably, a focus of discussion in inter-church dialogue - indeed, this particular discussion of my own had its origin in an invitation to me from the Oxford branch of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which requires of its members only that they should be prepared to say or sing the Magnificat, though it is a society unlikely to concern itself with feminism as a post-1960s movement, or with feminist theology. As an ecumenical society it will be unable to avoid that concern indefinitely, so long as women alert to feminist and feminist theological concerns continue to make the effort to participate in Christian institutional structures, or Christian societies. One recent attempt to contribute to ecumenical dialogue, with attention to women and their status in mind, is Pope John Paul II's Sixth Encyclical, Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer) published on 25th March, 1987, to initiate the Marian year which began on Pentecost Sunday, 7th June, 1987, and which concluded on the Feast of Assumption, 15th August, 1988. The Feast, incidentally, survived the Reformation to remain in Oxford University's Calendar, though since it falls in the middle of the long vacation, it is not the focus or occasion of particular celebration, no doubt to the great relief of at least some of the Canons of Christ Church, at once college chapel and diocesan cathedral.

It may be helpful to make a statement about how this present writer sees the enterprise of feminist theology, before turning to my exploration of how Mary is now viewed by a variety of feminist and other theologians, moving along a spectrum from the extremely hostile to the more constructive - none of which falls along strictly denominational lines in any necessary way, so far as one can see. Feminist theologians within the Christian tradition have an argument with that tradition and its values for them in their present culture. If we agree to define feminism at its most minimal as a movement which seeks change for the better in terms of justice for women, it is obvious that a feminist theologian need not be female by sex; and not every female theologian is a feminist theologian. The major feminist theologians at the present time are female, however, because a primary need for women is being expressed in this form of theology, that is, self-reliance in understanding themselves and their relationship to the God they have found to be theirs although mediated to them by a religious tradition which causes some of their problems. They are concerned to use gender analysis to examine the way religious traditions work, the symbolism they use, the characteristics of roles within them, the way religious traditions reflect social assumptions and shape and re-shape those assumptions, and especially the gender-related way in which we talk about divine reality. Theology is itself one such gender-related term, reflecting the unease about the association of the female and the feminine with the godlike. Feminist theologians hope that some of the old stories can be re-told and new ones invented to verbalise God in an inclusively human manner, which takes account of female human beings and what particular societies, including Christian ones, make of the biological differences which render some of us female and some of us male. The languages which mediate divine reality to us have differed depending on their relationship to shifting contexts, and feminist theologians want to imitate the motivation of those who have re-deployed the language, and perhaps even reuse some of the content. The point of the whole endeavour is to try to get us to make an imaginative and moral shift, so that we can come to share a new vision of goodness and be given and gainaccess to it. This is hardly a destructive or unworthy goal, though the route there may be a painful one. For so far as feminist theologians are concerned, it is not just the biblical texts, but centuries of habits of exegesis, ecclesiastical practice and tradition which are now ripe for scrutiny, all alike without immunity of any kind. And this includes the texts and traditions and devotions about Mary.

Feminist theology is young, but women have been engaged in the re-evaluation of texts and traditions for some time. For instance, one Eliza Sharpies in 1832 addressed a meeting, in the course of which she said:

The tyrant God, Necessity, said to the subject man: 'Of the tree of knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat'. Sweet and fair Liberty stepped in ... spurned the order ... of the tyrant. 'She took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat.' Do you not, with one voice exclaim, well done woman! LIBERTY FOR EVER! If that was a fall, sirs, it was a glorious fall, and such a fall as is now wanted ... I will be such an Eve, so bright a picture of liberty. (1)

And twelve years later, in 1844, reformer Emma Martin, who once lectured on 'The Holy Ghost, HER Nature, Offices and Laws' (presumably without the benefit of the Syrian Fathers) remarked, 'I have asked the learned (?) clergy for rational answers to knotty questions . . . they won't (sic) answer them because they are asked by a woman, yet they obtained Christ from the same source. I wonder they did not object to him on that account.' (2)

The doyenne of the movement as a whole is Elizabeth Cady Stanton, veteran of the nineteenth century's anti-slavery campaign as well as of other battles, passionately concerned as she was about women's needs and their expression in society. In her eighties, she and a team of colleagues produced a collection of comments on the parts of the Bible which explicitly refer to women, published in 1895 and 1898 as The Woman's Bible, and in a new paperback edition in 1985. (3)It is convenient to pick up a passage from The Woman's Bible, which represents a not untypical reaction to the 1854 dogma of the 'Immaculate Conception', a dogma not only profoundly troublesome to women, but also, given its long and contentious history, to the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and other Churches, not just Protestant ones but Orthodox too. This will give us a line of connection to the present-day feminist critique. For the dogma states that:

the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, has been, by a special grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, preserved and exempted from every stain of original sin . . (4)

We could cite here as a commentary, as it were, Redemptoris Mater:

In the liturgy the church salutes Mary of Nazareth as the church's own beginning, for in the event of the immaculate conception the church sees projected and anticipated in her most noble member, the saving grace of Easter. (5)

In The Woman's Bible there is a comment from one of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's collaborators, which muddles two doctrines together, but nevertheless manages to make a point about the way in which this doctrine is still 'heard' and 'read' by women no matter what is said to them about what the doctrines are supposed to mean, that is, excluding women's meanings, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's collaborator seems to have written in some desperation from within a context of hopelessly idealised maternalism when she wrote that:

I think that the doctrine of the Virgin birth as something higher, sweeter, nobler than ordinary motherhood, is a slur on all the natural motherhood of the world. I believe that millions of children have been as immaculately conceived, as purely born, as was the Nazarene. Why not? Out of this doctrine, and that which is akin to it, have sprung all the monasteries and nunneries of the world, which have disgraced and distorted and demoralised manhood and womanhood for a thousand years. I place beside the false, monkish, unnatural claim of the Immaculate Conception my mother, who was as holy in her motherhood as was Mary herself.(6)

Leaving aside for the moment the problems raised by Christian asceticism at its awful worst rather than at its splendid best, it is important to be honest about the way in which, as this writer has suggested, doctrines about Mary are consistently assessed by women (even when some kind of theoretical or doctrinal understanding seems to have been achieved) as suggesting the denigration of all other women who are mothers, or even just of all other women, mothers or not. As Edward Schillebeeckx so disastrously exclaimed, 'It is clear that she must be a creature of matchless wonder, this Immaculat and Assumpta, with whom even the most physically and spiritually beautiful women in the world cannot in any way be compared . . .' (7)

Even without expressly defined dogma, in Orthodox tradition we may be invited to 'stand with reverence in the house of our God, and cry aloud: Hail, Queen of the world; hail, Mary, sovereign over all of us; hail, thou who alone art blameless and fair among women . . .' (8)which may prompt a question about what all other women, as distinct from men, are being blamed for. Being first to sin could be part of the answer. And the Te Deum sung at Anglican Matins includes as a reflection on the divine self-emptying, 'When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man / thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb'. Why 'abhor'? Why should any woman's womb and body be thought of as a possible source of abhorrence? Quite apart from the astonishing prurience displayed in devotion to Mary on the part of some of her adherents, (9) not the least remarkable feature of the Christian tradition is the extreme rarity of the sane comment made by the ninth century Ratramnus, attempting to combat beliefs consequent upon the assumption that the womb was impure, when he insisted firstly that no creature was created vile, and so, also, that 'a woman's uterus is not indecent, but honourable'. (10) He lost his argument.

Luther's attitude to women and to the feminine is somewhat complex, including what Jean Bethke Elshtain calls the 'institutional moment' of his masculinisation of theology - his assault on 'mother' church, and his loss of 'a female linked transcendent moment', (11)notwithstanding his personal devotion to Mary.

She is my love, the noble Maid,
Forget her can I never;
Whatever honour men have paid,
My heart she has for ever. (12)

To the present purpose what matters is his defence of the goodness of sexual desire, which led him to comment on Crotus,

who wrote blasphemously about the marriage of priests, declaring that the most holy bishop of Mainz was irritated by no annoyance more than by the stinking, putrid, private parts of women. That godless knave, forgetful of his mother and sister, dares to blaspheme God's creature through whom he was himself born. It would be tolerable if he were to find fault with the behaviour of women, but to defile their creation and nature is most godless. As if I were to ridicule a man's face on account of his nose! For the nose is the latrine of man's head and stands above his mouth! (13)

Not the most helpful analogy in the circumstances, but the general point stands. And for sheer punitive nastiness, there is little to beat the comment made by Suarez in 1584, who wrote of that 'troublesome weariness with which all pregnant women are burdened, she alone did not experience who alone conceived without pleasure'. (14) Another gem from the writings of a seventeenth-century male saint observes that 'It is a subject of humiliation of all the mothers of children of Adam to know that while they are with child, they carry within them an infant . . . who is the enemy of God, the object of his hatred and malediction and the shrine of the demon.' (15) This is at once a 'theological' response to the sheer difficulties of childbearing, from pregnancy, through birth to lactation and weaning, the risks to the mother, and to the high mortality rate common to children apart from those born in privileged societies, as well as being a preface to the assertion of the need for 're-birth' by baptism, normally male-administered. What it may also express to women is the theology of 'God punished women more', which in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hindered the use of anaesthetic and analgesic drugs in childbirth even when these had become comparatively safe and available. Women were not seen as related to the new 'Eve', nor helped to experience birth as she may have done, relatively without pain and distress, a point made by Leonardo Boff, when he suggests that Mary was free not from pain itself, but from the way we have pain. (16)

If Elizabeth Cady Stanton is the doyenne of the nineteenth-century movement in feminist theology, Mary Daly is the doyenne of the twentieth-century one. Mary Daly indeed acknowledges that despite some elements of the tradition, Mary has been for many women their only symbol of hope, not least when they have been on what she calls 'spiritual starvation rations''(17) - which includes those of the Protestant tradition, eliminating not only Mary 'the apostle to the apostles', but Mary the mother of Jesus and such women saints as there were, from view. Before turning to Mary Daly's pungent comments on Mary the mother of Jesus, however, it is worth noticing that she is herself the product of the North American Roman Catholic tradition which by the time of the Second Vatican Council included some of the most formidably well-educated women in the USA. And to illuminate her exasperation with her original Communion, and that of other women with Christian institutions, we could refer to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, (18) and pay some attention to what they do and do not say about women, as about Mary, because apart from one or two distinctively Roman Catholic touches, the documents are not untypical of Christian attitudes to women,

The documents cut Mary down to size. In Leonardo Boff's book, The Maternal Face of God, he summarises various routes into Mariology, the second of which was the one followed by the Council. In the words of Boff s summary, 'Mary never lived in or for herself. Mary was a woman ever at the service of others - of God, of Christ, of redemption, of the Church, of the ultimate meaning of history.' From this perspective, Mary is never to be the subject of a theological consideration of her own, but finds her place in other theological treatises. (19) This feminine non-entity is purportedly rescued from redundancy by the claim that 'Our Lady is the creature who realised to a super-eminent degree whatever values are being discussed or mediated.' The language of perfection is thus largely transferred to the Church, a somewhat problematical move, but as Anne Carr comments in her book Transforming Grace, (20)Mary is still in contrast with 'Eve' - all other women - and it does not take much expertise to discover how they are to be viewed. In some respects the documents of the Council are extremely promising. One of the few explicit references to women indeed regrets that fundamental personal rights are not universally honoured for women, such as the right and freedom to choose a husband, embrace a state of life, or acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those recognised for men. And Pope Paul VI in International Women's Year in 1975 said that what is most urgent is 'to labour everywhere to have discovered, respected and protected the rights and prerogatives of every woman in her life -educational, professional, civic, social, religious - whether single or married'. (21) Paragraph 52 of The Church Today, on 'the nobility of marriage and the family', to its credit affirms that if the life of the family is to flower it needs kindly communion of minds and painstaking co-operation of the parents in the education of their children. But there is no sense that things could be different and indeed better in what follows.

The active presence of the father is highly beneficial to their formation. The children, especially the younger among them, need the care of their mother at home. This domestic role of hers [my emphasis] must be safely preserved, though the legitimate social progress of women should not be underrated on that account.

What the writers miss is the essential active presence of a father to his children, not least to his daughter(s), and the effects on women of their continued restriction to the 'private', as distinct from the public and political, realms, reinforced by suburban housing patterns; not to mention the massive double work burden many of them carry for a very long time, inside their homes in 'unpaid' work, and outside their homes in paid employment, necessary if their families are not to fall into poverty. And in societies where the family is still the economic unit, some 50 per cent of the Third World's food is produced by women, including their work at the heavy agricultural labour involved. How then are women to read not only the documents of the Council, but the words of Redemptons Mater'?

In the light of Mary, the church sees in the face of women the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement.

Women's well-being may well depend upon their finding at least some of these characteristics less than unambiguously praiseworthy. In Section 60 of the Council's assessment of'The Church Today', it is indeed acknowledged that women are now employed in almost every area of life, so that it is deemed appropriate 'that they should be able to assume their full proper role in accordance with their own nature' (my emphasis). Given the peculiar association of women, rather than men, with nature, it seems to be understood that women's nature is both well defined and limiting, though there is an implicit concession to new possibilities in the need for everyone to 'acknowledge and favour the proper and necessary participation of women in cultural life', and other options seem to be indicated in the sentence added during the final drafting to paragraph 9 of the document on the laity, in the section on 'the various fields of the apostolate', pointing out the importance of women's participation in the various fields of the Church's apostolate. Readers are no doubt meant to be reassured by the footnote which draws attention to the point that this is one of the few places in all the council documents where special attention is given to the contribution of women to the mission of the Church, though it was clearly (to whom?) the mind of the Council that they were included 'and eminently so', whenever the general role of the laity was discussed. The note adds that by the time the Council ended, twelve lay and ten 'religious' women were present as 'auditrices', though not of course what Anne Carr records, that no woman was allowed to read a paper before the assembly (cf. 1 Timothy 2.12, presumably), and that attempts were made to try to bar women journalists from attending council masses or receiving communion during its meetings. (22) Real exasperation could be provoked by the closing messages of the Council, messages to men (males) regarded in terms of their diversified contributions to society, with women having a message addressed to them alone, and as is typical in Christianity, with reference to their sexual states.(23) Women are addressed as girls, wives, mothers and widows, as consecrated virgins, and women living alone, though with the acknowledgment that they constitute half of the immense human family, and with the claim that the Church has 'glorified and liberated' them, a claim not without weight, notwithstanding this present reading of the Council's documents. Women are associated with 'the protection of the home', with cradles and deaths (cf. the nativity and crucifixion scenes?). Mothers are exhorted to 'pass on to your sons and daughters the traditions of your fathers' - mothers not having any? Women are invited to reconcile men with life, to guard purity, unselfishness and piety, to aid men to retain courage in their great undertakings, with women's own concern to be particularly with the peace of the world. They are clearly excluded from the address to 'workers' - 'very loved sons', with its sense of unease, mistrust and lack of understanding between the institution and the workers.

It was in response to the Council that one of the most important books in feminist theology appeared in 1968, Mary Daly's The Church and the second sex, and the invitation to write that book was prompted by an article of hers which was published in 1965 when she already had a doctorate in theology from Fribourg University in Switzerland, where she was studying philosophy. Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether were crucial in forming the women's caucus within the American Academy of Religion, at which they both delivered important papers in 1971. Rosemary Radford Ruether's was to appear as 'Misogynism and virginal feminism in the fathers of the church', available with other useful essays in the collection she edited called Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (1974). (24) Mary Daly's much reprinted essay had a deliberately menacing title: 'Theology after the demise of God the Father; a call for the castration of sexist religion', and she was to part company with Christianity in the course of writing Beyond God the Father (1973), now re-issued with an 'Original Reintroduction'. One also needs to read Gyn/E-cology (1978) (25) and Pure Lust (1984) (26), each of which contains devastating attacks on Christianity's core symbolism. Tucked away in a footnote of Beyond God the Father is her assessment of Phyllis Trible's paper of 1973 on 'Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Tradition', on which Mary Daly commented that 'It might be interesting to speculate upon the probable length of a "depatriarchalized Bible". Perhaps there would be enough salvageable material to comprise an interesting pamphlet'. (27) It is relevant to bear this in mind particularly when we attend to her treatment of the story of the Annunciation.

For Mary Daly, Mary is killed by the dogmas about her, killed, though apparently alive, like a dolled-up Christmas tree. She points out that the 1854 definition (which was in the forefront of the attention of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's collaborator's mind) coincides with the first wave of feminism, though it is in fact doubtful that the definition was aimed at feminism. Here is a woman preserved from original sin by the grace of her son not only in advance of his birth but of her own. As Redemptoris Mater puts it, 'together with the Father, the Son has chosen her, entrusting her eternally to the Spirit of holiness . . .'. What she is purified from is her own autonomous being; her psyche is already dismembered; and the story of the Annunciation affirming her need of male acceptance - 'according to thy will' - makes her doubly a victim. She can then function only as a token woman of hope, since she stands over against the incompetence and array of weaknesses ascribed to women in general. So for Mary Daly, the impossible ideal of Virgin/Mother has ultimately a punitive function, since no actual woman can live up to it, throwing all women back into the status of the first Eve, and essentially reinforcing the universality of women's low-caste status. (28) Yet she acknowledges that the Immaculate Conception could be understood as the negation of the myth of feminine evil, foreshadowing the 'Fall into the sacred . . . free from the crippling burden of submersion in the role of the Other,' (29)

This is the convenient point to couple with her opinions of the 1854 dogma Mary Daly's treatment of the 1950 dogma of the Assumption: 'The Immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin, having run the course of her earthly life, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven . . .'. Edward Yarnold SJ has eloquently pointed out the differences, let us say, between the Assumption as painted by Titian and an icon of the Dormition in the Orthodox tradition, maintaining nonetheless that 'Both sides of Christendom believe that Mary was received body and soul into heaven to be reunited with her Son in glory'.(30)Mary Daly has made the point that the dogma could at long last indicate a 'no' to the peculiar association of women with sin and flesh and matter, and it could also, in the immediate post World War II period, remind us of the importance of bodies, even indeed of Jewish ones. Unfortunately, the dogma's promulgation coincided with a backlash against female independence, not wholly understandable as part of the need to re-found families. For Mary Daly, this dogma then annihilates women's earthly presence, and rehabilitates her as defeated, eliminated from public life, saved, once again, by the male. (31) Given her assessment of the male monogender mating of the Trinity, one could see too what she might make of Leonardo BofFs attempts to secure a special relation of the third 'person' of the Trinity with Mary, Boff breaking well out of the constrictions of the Vatican II documents.

Salvation for women by a God manifested contingently as a male was coped with in earlier periods via the analogy of 'male is to female as form is to matter', an analogy no longer defensible, any more than is an assumption associated with it, that 'the first and principal cause of offspring is always in the father', and here Marina Warner's book on Mary is illuminating. She quotes the passage in Aeschylus' Oresteia, where Orestes at his trial cries out in protest, 'And dost thou call me a blood relation of my mother?' Apollo arbitrates with the judgment that 'The so-called offspring is not produced by the mother . . . She is not more than the nurse, as it were, of the newly conceived foetus. It is the male who is the author of its being'. (32) This has been untenable without considerable qualification since the development of embryology from the early nineteenth century onwards (and Boff, to his credit, tries to pay attention to this development), but it still influences doctrines about the ministry as it does doctrines about Mary. So in the Bishop of London's November 1985 newsletter he did his best to elaborate the view that 'in the whole of human instinct and understanding it is the masculine which is associated with giving and the feminine with receiving', a piece of gender construction as intolerable for men as it is dishonest about women, and in the latter is liable to produce some hilarity in those who have become aware of and articulate about their role in securing the well-being of men without any firm expectation that the converse will obtain. In Marian doctrines, we can still see the influence of this theory, which has to do with what a culture thinks reproduction is all about, that is 'the relationship between procreative beliefs and the wider context (world view, cosmology, culture) in which they are found'. (33) Paternity, in Carol Delaney's analysis, has meant 'the primary, essential and creative role' in reproduction, and the meaning of maternity as 'nurture' is epitomised by Mary.

Carol Delaney takes the root meaning of 'virgin birth' (and we may add the dogmas already mentioned) to be a version of folk theories about procreation, the essential implication of which is that a child originates from only one source, and so is entirely consistent with theological monotheism. Her fieldwork in a Turkish Muslim village enabled her to identify an appropriate theory of procreation, which is that 'The male is said to plant the seed and the woman is said to be like a field', so the woman's role is secondary, supportive and nurturant. So she identifies a further analogy, of 'Woman is to Man as the created, natural world is to God', and we connect this again with metaphors from the Orthodox liturgy quoted earlier. First:

Then the power of the Most High overshadowed her that knew not wedlock, so that she might conceive: and he made her fruitful womb as a fertile field for all who long to reap the harvest of salvation, singing: Alleluia! (34)

Second, we find Mary urged by the unborn John in Elizabeth's womb to rejoice as the 'vine with unwithering shoot', 'farm with untainted fruit', 'arable yielding a bountiful stack of pity', 'furbishing a lush pasturage'. (35)

Carol Delaney is surely correct to point out that the knowledge that women are co-engenderers, co-creators, providing half the 'seed' so to speak, half the genetic constitution of the child in addition to pregnancy, birth and suckling, has not yet been encompassed symbolically. Paternity is indeed a cultural construction of a powerful kind, and one cannot simply claim that the meaning of Mary's virginity is that 'the role played by the human race in the Incarnation is simply that of accepting God's gift as a gift and as a grace, and nothing more', (36) yet another gender construction associating receptivity with the feminine and giving with the masculine. Though there is something important to hold on to here for our culture, as Lochman wrote in his comment on how Mr Fix-It is set aside, for humanity in the Incarnation is involved 'in the form not of a primarily creating, controlling, self-assertive, self-glorifying humanity but as a primarily listening, receiving, serving and blessed ("graced") human being', as Mary is impressively described in the Christmas narrative. (37) Redemptoris Mater, however, returns us firmly to gender construction, influenced apparently by a particular school of psychology, when the text says that in Mary's faith, first at the annunciation and then fully at the foot of the cross, 'an interior space was reopened within humanity which the eternal Father can fill "with every spiritual blessing" . . .'.

One needs also to look at another strand in the tradition, which has to do with the point that early Christianity offered women who did not or could not fulfil certain socio-sexual roles a new kind of aspiration, (38) and for them, the virgin Mary was a possible symbol of that discipleship which took overriding priority in their lives. For to be sexually virginal was to be freed from a measure of male domination, to be unexploited and unexploitable, to enjoy a certain sense of transcendence as an element of personhood, so sexual asceticism was not necessarily imposed on women as a kind of constraint. This is an important and neglected possibility in the Protestant tradition. Even Mary Daly acknowledges this, when she writes that the doctrine that Mary was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus, 'by its very absurdity . . . literally screams that biology and abstinence from sexual activity are not the essential dimensions of the symbol of Mary as a virgin ... '. (39) The doctrine may be saying something about female autonomy to women, about the possibility of women's relation to divine reality without male mediation, although there is a further problem about the metaphors used to indicate the divine that would have to be tackled at this as at other points of Christian doctrine. And Mary Daly and others may be mistaken about the possibility of enjoying transcendence and autonomy without the necessity for sexual virginity or chastity, depending on how sexual relationships are construed and function in a particular society. Sarah Maitland's brilliant novel Daughter of Jerusalem (1978) catches this element of virginity beautifully in her initial reflection on Mary, small, dark, devout, probably illiterate, unconventional, of unassailable self-assurance:

Of course her assent is a sexual act, she tried to explain, pushing her hair back under her scarf, and grinding her bare toes into the coarse sand, because it was complete, it was made with the whole of her being. It was an assent to the totality of herself, to a womanhood so vital and empowered that it could break free of biology and submission, any dependence on or need for a masculine sexuality - that furrow in which the crop of women's sex has been held to be rooted. (40)

One extremely important manifestation of this sense of 'womanhood' was that it made the pursuit of learning possible, even if it often meant retreat from the public world into the seclusion of the book-lined cell - not the worst of all fates. Helen Waddell might be approximately a good twentieth-century example, daughter of an Irish Presbyterian missionary family as she was, even though reading the sympathetic biography of her by Dame Felicitas Corrigan may still leave one with a sense of regret for a life not entirely fulfilled. But consider, for example, what is expressed in her translation of a ninth-century lament for a young abbess, a translation made during the bombing raids of September 1941, which makes it all the more poignant:

Thou hast come safe to port,
I still at sea,
The light is on thy head,
Darkness in me.
Pluck thou in heaven's field
Violet and rose
Whilst I strew flowers that will thy vigil keep,
Where thou dost sleep,
Love, in thy last repose. (41)

And we could add to that her translation of an eleventh-century verse about the virgins in the fields of the blessed, the girls illustrated as it were in Fra Angelico's picture of St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventura conversing in Paradise together:

Gertrude, Agnes, Prisca, Cecily,
Lucia, Thekla, Petronel,
Agatha, Barbara, Juliana,
Wandering there in the fresh spring meadows,
Looking for flowers to make them a garland,
Roses red of the Passion,
Lilies and violets for love.(42)

We have forgotten why it was that virginity could signal a vocation, and this forgetfulness has in part to do with its praise by undoubted woman-haters, even making the most generous allowances in the interpretation of the rhetoric of misogyny. For virginity may be associated also with stony asexuality, and the bizarre behaviour which can accompany it, the product of a tradition which deemed women not to be as godlike as men are, approximating to godlikeness only in so far as they approximate to masculinity. When males are taken to be the normative and representative and essentially life-giving expression of the human species, with females as defective, imperfect and merely nuturant human beings, then virginity changes its meaning, and signifies the approximation to an ideal one can never reach. One manifestation of this is the phenomenon of anorexia, the inability to eat, not necessarily a religious or indeed peculiarly Christian phenomenon, but undoubtedly present in those women with a passion for what they took to be moral and spiritual perfection - virility and virtue -an approximation to that image of deity they might be thought not to bear in their own right. The asceticism necessary for the pursuit of their virginal vocation sometimes tipped them into uncontrollable anorexia and so to amenorrhea, not least where they were in rebellion against the dependent forms of Christianity on offer to women. Getting control of her body in asceticism however extreme, retrieves a woman from the sense of helplessness she experiences simply by virtue of being female. It commands attention, and for a time, tremendous energy, as well as the ability to by-pass religious controls, find communion with the deity, and criticise popes and archbishops.

The search for transcendence here can tip women into near or actual half-unconscious destruction as petrified living dead. (43) If, however, we could retrieve the association of 'virgin' with autonomy, but carefully balanced with a sense of co-inherence, and without the abasement of a woman's visual image;(44) and if we could by-pass sugary sweetness and dizzy immobilisation on a pedestal, then Mary might be re-associated with the affirmation and not the negation of what women discover themselves to be, and we might re-connect Mary to present needs as, for example, Rosemary Radford Ruether attempts to do. (45)

She, like Mary Daly, wants female presence acknowledged without fear of real women, a fear not always unjustifiable; she wants the co-ordination of nature and grace recovered for those whose ecclesiastical traditions have lost it - again, arguably expressed in Mary's rapturous assent. Arguing that we cannot remain with a doctrine of salvation mediated by the male alone, she asks for the genuine reciprocity of women and men together in the Churches, an expression of the way in which the female plays a co-operating role in the work of salvation. This could have important consequences outside the Church too, in the support each person gives to the dignity and self-actualisation of the other. We could connect with this ideal of 'reciprocity' a remark of C.S. Lewis's - astonishingly, since he is not frequently associated with perceptive comments about the reciprocity of men and women together, of a kind which women can recognise as being supportive to them. Yet perhaps as a result of his life with Joy Davidman he was to write after her death:

It is arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness and chivalry 'masculine' when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them to describe a man's sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as 'feminine'. But also what poor, warped fragments of humanity most mere men and mere women must be to make the implications of that arrogance plausible. (46)

And it is Lewis, too, who anticipated in a way the appropriation of Mary for 'liberation' theology, writing of Jesus as very much his mother's son, in his Reflections on the Psalms:

There is a fierceness, even a touch of Deborah, mixed with the sweetness in the Magnificat to which most painted Madonnas do little justice; matching the frequent severity of His own sayings. I am sure that the private life of the holy family was, in many senses, 'mild' and 'gentle', but perhaps hardly in the way some hymn writers have in mind. One may suspect, on proper occasions, a certain astringency; and all in what people at Jerusalem regarded as a rough north-country accent. (47)

Rosemary Radford Ruether ties the Magnificat in to the revolutionary spirit of liberation theology (a possibility obliterated for centuries by the practice of having it sung by pre-pubescent boys in skirts and frills) with women above all representing the 'nobodies' made to be persons as a result of the self-emptying of divine power in Jesus. Anne Garr makes Mary herself a symbol of the transformed world for which women hope, edging away from Mary as the impossible double-bind figure identified by Mary Daly. Anne Carr acknowledges that Mary is a Utopian figure, a mystery. 'Her intimate place in the Christian pattern enables us to imagine a healed, reconciled, finally transformed world. While it is God who works human salvation in Christ, and the Spirit who inspires the active response of the Church, it is Mary who is the sign of the final transformation of the world.' (48)

There remain, however, a number of less 'orthodox' possibilities. Marina Warner(49) and Mary Daly (50) both spot something else in Mary which makes her important to women by exhausted imperceptive moralism, and this was something explained, oddly enough, in The Times of 7th February, 1987, by Rabbi Ephraim Gastwirth, though he evidently disapproves of what he describes, preferring, rather, 'the love and fear of a stern father'. For mother, he tells us, has a love which is eternal and her broad arms encompass all her children without distinction. 'Indeed, her love is often stronger for the weak and wayward child, seeking to ensure his survival and to keep him within the family group. The mother's love is unconditional.' The point is that there is a sense in which Mary is as splendidly unconventional as Jesus was, since her loyalty to her own explodes the bounds of strict justice, as Marina Warner makes clear. 'Through her, the whole gay crew of wanton, loving, weak humanity finds its way to paradise.' So Marina Warner quotes the devils who say, 'Heaven's the place for all the riff-raff/ We've got the wheat and God the chaff.' (51) This association of Mary with unconventional love and with self-determination, could relate her back to some less hallowed women, taking a clue from the genealogy of the First Gospel - women such as Ruth, Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba, all specially related to messianic promise,(52) as well as to some of the thoroughly idiosyncratic women of the apostolic tradition. We would recall that Elizabeth's greeting, 'Blessed art thou among women', recalls comparable blessings to both Jael and Judith, before paying close attention also to the woman who wiped Jesus' feet with her hair, to the Syro-Phoenician woman who argues it out with him as does Martha in the Fourth Gospel, the Samaritan woman of the same Gospel, first missionary despite her past, and Mary of Magdala, not that figment of ecclesiastical imagination, a reformed prostitute, but someone healed of 'demonic' illness by Jesus. This 'apostle to the apostles' proclaims the resurrection as did the mother of the Maccabean martyrs, and is followed by Phoebe the deacon, Junia, given apostolic acknowledgment by Paul, and many others. And Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel has made a particularly interesting reassessment of tradition about Mary, (53) pleading for much more honesty about its biblical origins, with the limitations imposed by that origin, and makes us see Mary as a 'living, critical, angry unadapted mother', just as difficult as some of the other people around Jesus, men as well as women. She emphasises that Mary needs to take her place, perhaps a preeminent place, but only one place, among all these other 'sisters'. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel suggests that one of the greatest defects of the tradition, even with the presence of at least some women saints available, has been its monolithic character, the attempt to load into just one symbol much of what women can represent in human life, to men primarily, but with women finding in Mary possibilities for themselves. Feminist theologians who follow Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel's lead will not want Mary confined by ecclesiastical definition however subtle, but want to be able to relate Mary to other women and the multiplicity of vocations and possibilities of their lives now and in the future. So if, and only if, women want to find role models in biblical and non-biblical tradition, Mary may still have something to offer.

Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel made a proposal, 'Becoming human in new community', at the World Council of Churches meeting in Sheffield, in June 1981, 'The community of women and men in the Church', the proceedings of which were edited by Constance Parvey. (54) In her report on the meeting, Constance Parvey drew special attention to the fact that Mary had been singled out as one of the basic paradigms, not least in the section on tradition and traditions. She wrote that Mary is seen as a sharing woman seeking out Elizabeth to tell the news of her pregnancy; as being in the tradition of prophecy; neglected by her son in favour of his mission; and as a disciple journeying in partnership with Jesus along with other women and men. 'Then we witness her profound grief at the death of her child under the judgement of religious and political powers, her faithfulness to follow him to the tomb, and the divine gift bestowed upon her to be a witness of the resurrection of the "flesh of her flesh, the bone of her bone".' Here is no model of submission and subordination, but someone fully living out her partnership with God in the Christ event. (55)

Between the present and the fulfilment of Anne Carr's vision, there are elements here which could be extremely valuable to those who still find their resources in the Christian tradition in relation to the appalling circumstances of their lives, as well as in hope for blessing and flourishing.

This essay represents a stage in exploration and does not attempt to do more than indicate some options. For the present writer, the least that could be said about Mary is that she represents what novelist Robertson Davies suggests in his phrase 'having the body in the soul's keeping', (56) but also, that 'Grace is not faceless', to quote Cornelius Ernst OP. (57) The material drawn on towards the end of the essay, however, would edge us towards meaning for that phrase rather more incarnated in women's lives than theology has so far been prepared to concede.


1. Quoted in B. Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem (Virago, London, 1983), p. 146.

2. Ibid., p. 153.

3. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Woman's Bible (Polygon, Edinburgh, 1985).

4. Cited from K. Rahner, Theological Investigations (Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1961), Vol. 1, p. 201.

5. Redemptoris Mater, as published in Origins: NC Documentary Service, Vol. xvi:43 (9th April, 1987), pp. 745-67.

6. Woman's Bible, p. 114.

7. E. Schillebeeckx, Mary, Mother of the Redemption (Sheed and Ward, London, 1964), p. 172.

8. Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, The Akathistos Hymn (Bocardo Press, Oxford, 1987), p. 17.

9. H. Graef, Mary: a history of doctrine and devotion (Sheed and Ward, London, 1985), p. 245, quoting from the twelfth-century Amadeus of Lausanne: 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, that at his touch your womb may tremble and swell, your spirit rejoice and your womb flower . . .'

10. Ibid., p. 176.

11. J.B. Elshtain, 'Luther Sic - Luther Non', Theology Today, Vol. xliii (July 1986), pp. 155-68, pp. 167-8. And see chapter two of her Meditations on Modern Political Thought: Masculine/Feminine Themes from Luther to Arendt (Praeger, New York, 1986).

12. V. White, Soul and Psyche (Collins London, 1960), p. 134, quoting the translation of another Dominican, Sebastian Bullough. And see M. Thurian, Mary, Mother of the Lord, Figure of the Church (Mowbray, London, 1985/1963) for more material on the Marian theology and devotion of the Reformers.

13. J.B. Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman (Robertson, Oxford, 1981), p. 87.

14. M. Warner, Alone of all her sex (Picador, London, 1985), p. 43.

15. Ibid., p. 57.

16. L. Boff, The maternal face of God (Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1987/1979), p. 148.

17. M. Daly, Beyond God the Father (Women's Press, London, 1986/1973), p. 81f.

18. W.M. Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican II (Chapman, London, 1965).

19. Boff, op. cit., pp. l0f.

20. A. Carr, Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women 's Experience (Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1988), p. 191.

21. Ibid., p. 33.

22. Ibid., p. 30.

23. Abbott, Documents, pp. 732-5.

24. R.R. Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974).

25. M. Daly, Gyn/Ecology (Women's Press, London 1984).

26. M. Daly, Pure Lust (Women's Press, London, 1984).

27. Daly, Beyond God the Father, p. 205.

28. Ibid., pp. 81f.

29. Ibid., p. 86.

30. E.Y. Yarnold, The Assumption, 1980 Assumption Day Lecture for the Parish Church of St Mary and All Saints, Walsingham.

31. Daly, Pure Lust, p. 128.

32. Warner, op. cit., p. 41.

33. C. Delaney, 'The Meaning of Paternity and the Virgin Birth Debate', Man, Vol. xxi:3 (1986), pp. 454-513.

34. Akathistos, p. 19.

35. Ibid., p. 33.

36. J. McHugh, 'The Virginal Conception of Jesus', paper of 25th October, 1985, published for the ESBVM, p. 6.

37. J.M. Lochman, The Faith We Confess: an Ecumenical Dogmatics (Fortress, Philadelphia, 1984), pp. 112-13.

38. R.S. Kraemer, 'The Conversion of Women to Ascetic Forms of Christianity', Signs, Vol. vi:2 (1980), pp. 298-307.

39. Daly, Beyond God the Father, p. 85.

40. S. Maitland, Daughters of Jerusalem (Pavanne, London, 1987), p. 30.

41. Dame F. Corrigan, Helen Waddell: a Biography (Gollancz, London, 1986), p. 317.

42. H. Waddell, The Wandering Scholars (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1954), p. 123.

43. See Chapter 3 of A. Loades, Searching for Lost Coins (SPCK, London, 1987).

44. Ruether, 'Misogynism' etc. as in note 23, p, 166.

45. R.R. Ruether, Mary, the Feminine Face of the Church (SCM, London, 1979); and Chapter 6 of her Sexism and God-talk: towards a Feminist Theology (SCM, London, 1983).

46. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (Faber, London, 1986), p. 43.

47. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (Fontana, London, 1961), p. 13.

48. Carr, Transforming Grace, p. 193.

49. Warner, op. cit. her chapter on 'The Hour of our Death'.

50. Daly, Beyond God the Father, pp. 91-2.

51. Warner, op. cit., p. 325.

52. R.E. Brown, K.P. Donfried, J.A. Fitzmyer and J. Reumann, eds, Mary in the New Testament (Chapman, London, 1978), p. 82; cf. J.C. Anderson, 'Mary's Difference: Gender and Patriarchy in the Birth Narratives''Journal of Religion, Vol. lxvii:2 (April 1987), pp. 183-202.

53. E. Moltmann-Wendel, A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey (SCM, London, 1986), pp. 193f.

54. C.F. Parvey, ed., The Community of Women and Men in the Church (WCC, Geneva, 1983); cf. The Ecumenical Review, Vol. xl:l (January, 1988) for articles developing the community study.

55. Parvey, op. cit., p. 141.

56. R. Davies, The Rebel Angels (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1985), p. 56.

57. C. Ernst, Multiple Echo (Darton, Longman and Todd, London. 1979). p. 124.

Patricia and Charles Vereker gave me hospitality when I wrote the first draft of this paper. I am immensely grateful to them, and to audiences in Oxford, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, Vanderbilt Divinity School, and especially the Faculties of the Lutheran School of Divinity, Chicago, and Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, for their comments. Professor Herbert Anderson arranged for me to read this paper at CTU, at which I had the privilege of meeting Professor Anne Carr, Professor Dianne Bergant and Professor Carolyn Osiek. Without the hospitality Professors Herbert and Phyllis Anderson gave me whilst in Chicago, this paper would not have developed as it has, and my final thanks are specially to them.

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