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Breaking Down Patriarchy - Amy McPhie Allebest EPISODE 5, 29th December 2020
Mary, Mother of God: Women in Early Christianity
00:00:00 01:00:15

Mary, Mother of God: Women in Early Christianity


Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest.

During our last two episodes, Sherrie Crawford and I discussed Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy, and we talked about structural patriarchy in the ancient world, including in the Bible.

Just a couple of days after we recorded those episodes, some dear friends of mine and my husband had their first baby, a little boy. They’re Jewish, and we were invited to the bris. I couldn’t believe the timing - the very week I had talked about circumcision on the podcast, what we had called “the penis covenant,” I was going to witness a “bris,” which is a ritual circumcision and in Hebrew means “covenant.”

I logged onto Zoom- this podcast was recorded during the Covid pandemic so everything is virtual - and saw my friends there with their new baby and their family and their rabbi and my heart was so full I was immediately emotional. I have a deep affinity for Judaism due to having had Jewish friends my whole life and being a guest at many Jewish ceremonies, which are always moving for me. And Sherrie and I studied in Israel for five months during college and took Hebrew language and History of the Jewish people. And of course because of our shared book of scripture I’ve always felt like we’re spiritual cousins, along with all the other sects of Christianity and with Islam, the other “peoples of the book.” But because we had just read Gerda Lerner’s book - Gerda Lerner was also Jewish by the way, and I think part of her project was confronting the male supremacy in her own religious tradition - I had all of the parts of the Bible that excluded women fresh in my mind. And so parts of the bris were really hard for me. It was hard for me that the ceremony was really truly a continuation of the Abraham covenant - which is a special bond between a male Father God and his male prophet, and that man’s son, and that man’s son, and that man’s son, all the way down through the “sons of Israel.” I know that Jewish heritage is traced through the mother, which is lovely (and Christians don’t have that matrilineality) but the covenant with God is through the men, and the token was in the flesh of the male organ, physically, by definition, excluding people who are biologically female. And there is no counterpart for the girls - there’s no ceremony named after a Matriarch where girls are brought into a covenant with a Mother God.  It was really hard for me when they referred to any of the scriptures because all the stories were all about men, written by men, written for men. I felt the way I often feel in my own religious heritage - so completely left out. So completely marginal, in a spectator role, while God does the important stuff with his favorite children, the boys.

But it was also soooo beautiful. The way this family practices Judaism did include the women - the grandma held the baby’s hands while he was circumcised. The baby’s mother and the baby’s father took turns speaking, and by the way, the baby’s mother is one of the most educated, most accomplished, most powerful women I know. And his grandparents, and his aunts and uncles, both men and women, spoke. The gown the baby wore had been worn by grandfathers and uncles, but also his mother and aunt at their naming ceremonies. The blessings and hopes and wishes and desires for peace and strength and joy and renewal were so exquisitely beautiful, and I bawled my eyes out through the whole thing. When the rabbi wrapped our friends and their baby together in a tallit, or prayer shawl, I felt like my heart was going to burst. The love of that mother and father for each other and for their baby, the connection with their ancestors and their faith tradition, the community that they had so generously made me a part of, welcoming that baby into the world… it was so, so beautiful. And it was still so, so hard for me.

I share this because this experience highlighted again how complicated it all is. There is joy tangled up with pain. There is beauty tangled up with hurt. And as I try to untangle those elements of history and religion and human psychology I want to be able to confront difficult and problematic aspects of culture in order to improve life for everyone. But as I identify those problems I don’t want to lose my bearings. I don’t want to become a cynic whose vision is filtered through dark, pessimistic, ill-tempered lenses. And above all, I never, ever want to hurt anyone. I want to keep seeing the beauty and to keep believing the best in people. 

So I guess that’s kind of a declaration of the ethos of this whole project: I want to be honest and critical about systems, but I want to be careful and tender with human beings. And that’s specifically the needle that we will try to thread today as we talk about complexity in religious belief on the next step of our historical timeline. We just left off with the Hebrews and the Greeks in The Creation of Patriarchy, and when we pick up the next book we are going to start with the early church fathers in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, so on this bonus episode my reading partner and I are going to fill in the gap with a few important aspects of early Christianity, focusing especially on the Virgin Mary. This is another topic that is precious to many people, and we will try to be both honest and gentle in our analysis. We’ve gleaned this information from a few different books, rather than just one essential text, and all our sources are published in the show notes on our website, Breaking Down Patriarchy.com. So… let’s get started, and first, I’d like to introduce my reading partner for today, Sophie Allebest. Hi Sophie!

Sophie: Hi!

Amy: You may have noticed from the last name that Sophie and I are related. She is my third daughter, and she is currently in high school. She loves everything having to do with Art, History, Art History, Poetry, and Philosophy... and while our whole family is really into all of those subjects as well, Sophie, you are definitely our resident expert on Art History, and your insights will be really a valuable asset for today’s discussion. So I’m so happy you’re here!

Sophie: Thanks for having me!!

Amy: I like to ask my reading partners what interested them in this podcast project - I know you’ve been hearing about it every day for months - so maybe what interested you in this specific topic.


Ok! Well I was really interested in this topic because it touches on a lot of the subjects that I love most. I get to learn about women’s history, which I learn less about in school. This project gives me a closer connection to the people and especially women who came before me. And in this episode, we’re going to be talking about some of the different ways Mary was depicted in art, and that’s something I love learning about. Art does so much more than look beautiful (which is still important to me!), but it also lends itself to psychological analysis. Looking for the details in the Art and what those details say about the artist’s intentions is really rewarding for me.  Art is really a reflection of the artist and the artist’s environment, so with a painting or a sculpture you get a good idea of the world at the time, and how certain subjects were viewed. And we are obviously going to talk about religion, which is another thing that brings me so much joy to talk about. I find it fascinating to look at what religion comes from in a society and why it formed the way it did, and then ask the question, “what does that say about that society?” and then it’s interesting to see how that exact religion goes on to impact the people and government. Thanks for inviting me, Mom!


Thanks, Sophie - those are such great points. 

Today we are going to talk briefly about 4 concepts.

First, we’ll talk about Christian views on women, as presented in the New Testament of the Bible.

Second, we will talk about the early Christian church and the Virgin Mary.

Third, we will talk about convents and the lives of nuns.

And fourth, we will talk about the Protestant Reformation and its impact on women.

Sound good, Sophie?

Sophie: Sounds good!


OK. The first concept is the figure of Jesus Christ in the Christian Gospels. One book I read on this topic is Christ’s Emancipation of Women in the New Testament, by Lynn Wilson. The thesis of her book is that Jesus’ behaviors and message are very pro-woman and even liberating, especially in the context of gendered oppression in which they lived. She points out that Jesus is a revolutionary figure: In John 4:7 and John 5:30 he initiates conversations with women (which was strongly discouraged at the time), in Luke 10 he includes them publicly as his students and disciples, in the book of Mark he allows a menstruating woman to touch him, which was completely inappropriate and a violation of the social norms and actually quite scandalous, and in Matthew 28 he appears first to women after his resurrection, thus entrusting them with the role of witnesses. Actually as a Catholic friend pointed out to me once, if you define the Christian church as the people who were witnesses of Christ’s divinity, then for those hours after Mary Magdalene saw the resurrected Jesus, and before she told the disciples, Mary Magdalene was the Christian Church. She was the only one who knew. And of course another aspect of the Christian Gospels that elevated women was the fact that a human woman, Mary, was entrusted with being the mother of the Son of God.


Jesus never tells women to "get back home" into their proper place, and all of his teachings are for everyone: everyone is supposed to be “as wise as serpents” (the women too!) and “as gentle as doves” (the men too!). He doesn't say that the men should be strong and the women humble - he says all human beings should be both strong and humble. He doesn't make gendered distinctions.


Right! Exactly!

But then... you have Paul. He is definitely grounded in sexist tradition, and because he never met Jesus and only converted after Jesus died, he never observed how Jesus behaved with women. Maybe that wouldn’t have helped anyway, but he definitely has a different attitude toward women than Jesus did, and maybe it would have helped him to see how radically inclusive Jesus had been.

Here are some thoughts from Paul about women:

  • This is from 1 Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 3-6, in the NIV:

But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off. 

Sophie, will you read the next one?

Sophie: Yes. This is from the book of Ephesians, chapter 5, verses 22-24. 

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 

Sophie: I’m wondering if there is a correlation between churches that emphasize submitting to God, and churches that tell women to submit to men. Do churches that encourage having a more familiar relationship with God, rather than bowing down and submitting,  also have more gender equality?

Amy: What a great question! I think that it makes sense that a world-view that emphasizes hierarchies probably starts with God to men and then passes down the chain. I am thinking of how the word “Islam” means “Submission,” as in “submission to God, and that would be interesting to analyze… I’m also thinking of Buddhism, and how Buddhism doesn’t emphasize submission to an all-powerful deity,  and is more about individual mindfulness, but one of the Buddhist sacred texts I read had a lot of sexist stuff in it, just like every other religious text I’ve ever read too. So maybe we should explore that when we expand the project to other traditions, which I intend to do. What a great question.

And will you read the next one?

Sophie: Yep! It’s First Corinthians, chapter 14, verses 34 to 35. 

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 14:34-35)


Ok, I have to throw in here that one time, years ago, I was sitting in an all-women’s church meeting and the teacher was teaching a lesson on something that got kind of complicated, and there was a pretty lively discussion of a scriptural passage, and a woman behind me got flustered and just called out, “This is too complicated! Let’s just go home and ask our husbands.” I have never forgotten that. 

Ok, last quote from Paul:

This is from 1 Tim. 2:11-15)

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Tim. 2:11-15)

So from these quotes we can see that Paul’s views on women are firmly rooted in the Biblical story of Eve, which we talked about on our last episode. He emphasizes the version of Genesis wherein Eve was formed second after Adam giving her lower status, he emphasizes her sin, and bringing Adam into sin, and he says her only redemption is by bearing children. He assigns all of Eve’s guilt to women in general, and due to that  guilt, he makes rules about what women can and can’t do - they have to cover their heads in shame, wives have to submit to their husbands, in general women have to submit to men and never have authority over a man (not because they should be equal, but because men should in fact have authority over a woman), they can’t speak in church, they should always be quiet and in full submission. All of these opinions and interpretations are a HUGE departure from the teachings of Jesus Christ, and yet they got compiled in the same book of scripture, which millions upon millions of people have regarded as “the word of God,” and think of as God’s law and God’s will.

And actually if you want to read a really great book about what it means to live by the literal words of the Bible as a woman, you should read a book by Rachel Held Evans. It’s called A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master." Evans is herself a believing Christian but she points out some big problems, and she does it in a really smart, really funny way.


Sophie: Ok, now I’ll talk about the early Christian church and the Virgin Mary.

I started by looking on the website “Encyclopedia Britannica,” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/Roman-Catholicism),  and the first thing I found interesting was this sentence: “because of the influence of Plato and Aristotle on those who developed it, Roman Catholic doctrine must be studied philosophically even to understand its theological vocabulary.” It’s good to keep in mind that early Christianity was heavily influenced by the ancient Greeks. That’s really important when we think about how people viewed women.

Yes. And I will never forget this moment in my first quarter of my master’s degree when the professor was talking about the influence of ancient Rome on the early church, and he said that the papacy and the Catholic Church’s hierarchy was organized in the same way that the Roman Empire’s military had been organized. I nearly fell out of my chair. So yes, there were lots of influences on Christianity, and they were all extremely androcentric, patriarchal structures.


Wow, that’s so interesting! 

Ok, so back to the Church history: A basic timeline goes something like this:

According to the Catholic tradition, the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, and it is a continuation of the early Christian community established by the Disciples of Jesus. Catholics believe that Saint Peter was Rome's first bishop - Saint Peter was the one who was appointed to be the head of the Church by Jesus Christ himself and he is always depicted in Art holding keys because he received the keys to the kingdom of heaven from Jesus. After Jesus’ death he ministered in Rome in the first century AD, and so that became the headquarters of the church. And then Saint Peter consecrated Linus as the next bishop - or pope - and that started the unbroken line all the way to the current pope, Pope Francis. By the end of the 2nd century, bishops began congregating in regional synods (which means a church council) to resolve questions about doctrine and policy.

Jesus's apostles gained converts in Jewish communities around the Mediterranean Sea, and over 40 Christian communities had been established by 100. Although most of these were in the Roman Empire, notable Christian communities were also established in Armenia, Iran and along the Indian Malabar Coast. The new religion was most successful in urban areas, spreading first among slaves and people of low social standing, and then among aristocratic women.

I wonder if that’s because of Jesus’ message of elevating the poor and elevating women’s status. Or if it’s because the lives of people who are struggling are really hard and they have a greater need for stories that will comfort them and give meaning to their lives or give them something better to hope for after this life is over. ?

Christians were very badly persecuted for awhile - estimates of the number of Christians who were executed ranges from a few hundred to 50,000. But then Constantine became emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 312, and he attributed his victory to the Christian God. So he issued the Edict of Milan in 313 which legalized Christianity. He held the Council of Nicea in 325, when a group of church leaders - of course all of them men - met together and decided on official church doctrine - and in 380, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire.

There are lots and lots of popes and lots and lots of theologians to talk about, like St. Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine of Hippo, but I think you’re going to talk about their thoughts on women in your next episode, right?

Amy: Yes, exactly

Sophie: Ok, then we will skip them for now and just talk about when Catholics began to pray to Mary. [And this is a meaningful topic for me because I remember walking all around Spain with you when we lived there when I was little, doing kind of a treasure hunt of beautiful Catholic churches and seeing so many different amazing Mary statues, and seeing one of the oldest paintings of the Virgin Mary in Italy last summer.]

Catholics make a distinction between “worship” and “veneration” - they say that they don’t worship Mary, but they venerate her. The word “venerate” comes from Latin and means “adore” or “revere.” So they respect her and try to be like her, but they don’t worship her.

Catholics claim that the roots of their veneration of Mary are found in the Bible, for example, she was of course made the mother of God through a miracle. One quote I found in my research says:

"The Virgin Mary began to cooperate in the plan of salvation, from the moment she gave her consent to the Incarnation of the Son of God".

And then Mary was there all the way through the end of Jesus’ life, and played an important role, according to Catholics. 

“Particularly significant is Mary's presence at the Cross, when she received from her dying Son the charge to be mother to the beloved disciple. Catholics interpret that through that  disciple, Christ is giving care of Mary to all Christians.”


Mary had been venerated since very early - the first image of Mary is a painting of her in the Roman catacombs in the second or third century. Catacombs were underground burial places and tunnels for religion practices. It’s quite realistic and different from the Mary art we will be discussing later. Though it’s kind of hard to make out, Jesus is holding onto Mary as she nurses him, unsurprisingly embodying the mother figure. It’s a very natural painting with human features and a tender feeling. The oldest Marian prayer refers to her as Theotokos, which some interpret as the Mother of God, but I’ve also seen as “God Bearer.” I find that distinction interesting, the use of the word Mother. I can’t tell if the phrase Mother of God or God-Bearer gives her more power or what that says about her identity. Both phrases make her identity completely dependent on her relationship to Jesus. To me, mother implies a softness and God bearer implies strength. But it was finally declared a Dogma in the church that Mary was the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431. This is surprising to me because she had been prayed to and painted for hundreds of years. The first churches dedicated to Mary only start to appear after this event. 

Amy: One thing I think is really interesting is that as the Catholic church emphasized Mary’s role, she literally became known as “the new Eve.” Mary offered an alternative role model for women, rather than Eve, and she offered potential redemption for females as a whole. As 2nd Century cleric Ireneaus comments, “…the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith,” and Saint Jerome echoes in an even more concise slogan, “Death through Eve; life through Mary” (Miller 109). So they saw Eve’s negative acts as being canceled by Mary’s positive ones, almost in a mathematical equation.

Sophie: Yes, that is really interesting!! And this theme is developed in the visual arts as well. One prime example of this is Berthold Furtmeyr’s 1489 work, “Tree of Life and Death Flanked by Eve and Mary Ecclesia.” In this vividly colorful, highly symbolic work, Furtmeyr places the iconic tree in the exact center and invites the viewer to toggle between the highly symmetrical left and right sides. On the right is a nude Eve, flanked by skeletal figures and frozen in the act of accepting a forbidden fruit from the serpent with one hand and seemingly offering another wicked fruit to an unfortunate supplicant. On the left side, in a pose which perfectly mirrors that of Eve, is the chastely clad, halo-bearing figure of Mary, who is surrounded by a crucifix and an angel instead of skulls, and offers to her companions a sacramental wafer rather than the fruit of destruction. Mary’s goodness is presented as the precise antidote to the evil of Eve, counteracting its effects and providing a fresh start and a worthy exemple for women.

And this had a real effect on women’s lives. It really helped women to have a divine mother to look up to. In Miri Rubin’s book Mother of God,  she quotes a young mother named Aude Fauré, from the twelfth century, who wrote that when she was “…troubled by doubts about the eucharist, her body, and life in general, she was comforted and strengthened by reflection on Mary” (Rubin 227). And even men liked having a Heavenly Mother figure to ask for help. Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived in France in the 1100’s, said this: “In dangers, in doubts, in difficulties, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let not her name  depart from your lips, never suffer it to leave your heart. … while invoking her, you shall never lose heart; so long as she is in your mind, you are safe from deception; while she holds your hand, you cannot fall; under her protection you have nothing to fear; if she walks before you, you shall not grow weary; if she shows you favor, you shall reach the goal.” (Rubin 151).

And even beyond balancing out Eve, in Art we start to see lots and lots of different types of Mary Art. I’m going to talk about three major genres that present Mary in a role of importance.

  1. First is probably the most familiar: Mary in the role of the Mother of God. As I mentioned earlier, there are really old paintings that depict Mary and Jesus in very human moments that any mother or child could relate to. But most of the time she is portrayed in a less personal way, and more in the way you might typically think of, dressed in blue with her head bowed, just holding the baby Jesus in her arms. It’s quite rare for Christian artwork to have women as the most prominent figure in the painting, but in this type of work, Mary is always the biggest figure. In fact in some paintings, Mary is equal in size and stature to Joseph! And she sometimes leads the Christ-child by the hand with Joseph following behind. Even in the paintings where it is just Mary and Jesus, as an adult she still clearly holds the most power. It’s continuing a tradition of ancient goddess worship. This way of depicting Mary looks quite similar to sculptures of Isis and Horus in ancient Egypt. 
  2. The second genre is known as the Maria Regina, which in Latin means Mary the Queen (regina means “queen,” and it comes from Latin - in English we have the word “regal”). In lots of paintings and mosaics Mary is shown reigning as the Queen of Heaven, with priests, saints, wise men, and in some paintings even the Pope worshipping at her feet (Warner 108). One of these paintings was done by Diego Velasquez in 1644. The scene is of Mary being crowned by both the Father and Jesus the son, each holding a side of the crown above her head. The three figures form a triangle, but Mary is still the center of the piece. Her blue robes contrast the deep reds worn by the men above her, and she rests her hand over her heart as she looks down. Jacopo di mino Montepulciano (1340-50) and Pietro Perugino’s (1504) both painted this scene with very similar structures. Mary and Jesus sit at the top of the paintings, Jesus being taller as Mary bows her head at him. Several angels and other figures are below and at the sides, praising Jesus and Mary. Her hands are crossed over her chest or held in a prayer-like motion that indicates reverence, gratitude, and humility. Mary looks meek compared to Jesus, and one of the only things that even let’s you know that she is important is the crown above her. This is different from Velasquez’s painting, where Mary is the biggest figure in the picture, the clear focal point. Her head is bowed down instead of at the men/man crowing her. Her posture is regal, her shoulders back and her hand laying over her own heart, almost pointing to herself. This painting would make just as much sense if no men were in the painting. Even though this art depicts Mary being crowned the Queen of Heaven, she is often depicted lowering her head or kneeling at her son’s feet to receive her crown from him, the implication of which is that the crown is both his to give and his to take away. In the Velasquez painting the entire Holy Trinity still presides over the woman, the imposing, bearded figures of God the Father and Jesus Christ bestowing the crown upon her from above. 
  3. And the third genre are hollow medieval statues known as vierges ouvrantes, which is French for “opening virgins.” These are figure of Mary that form an all-encompassing shell - you can think of them kind of like Russian nesting dolls, but there’s a door and if you open it, you see that on the inside there are  carvings and paintings of Church leaders and in some cases even depictions of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. That’s pretty incredible and not exactly the way Mary was presented in the Bible! If you just saw these statues and didn’t know anything about the Bible, you might think the religion had a goddess that ruled over everything. One vierge ouvrante from the year 1300 has large amounts of Gold covering the mary on the outside, and then the majority of the inside as well. Even opened to reveal Jesus sitting with a cross, Mary’s crowned head remains visible. To me, she appears to be to be embodying the mother archetype again, but in a powerful way that is reminiscent of more ancient goddess worship. Her power here is not being shown given to her, it almost looks like it's the opposite of the Coronation images, and this time she is presiding over the people inside, including the men who are above her in most other works. It’s no surprise that those vierges ouvrante statues actually came to be regarded by church authorities as misleading and inappropriate, visually ascribing too much primacy to the mother of God, who was, after all, only a woman.


Right, exactly! But we know that’s not at all the way Mary is depicted in the Bible. 

Nearly all the scriptural verses describing Mary refer to her submission, her dutiful compliance, and her passiveness as the male characters in the story perform the heroic action. When she is first introduced in the Biblical narrative, which as we learned a couple of episodes ago, was written a long time after these events happened, and was written of course by men, we know only that Mary “found favor with God.” That’s not a bad thing of course - if we believe in God, then of course everyone wants to live in a moral, ethical way and achieve our potential and fulfill our destiny, which would lead to God’s favor, right? But I think this phrase that “she found favor with God” can be tricky because it doesn’t mention any of those actions, it doesn’t talk about her personality - and because men have always been in a position of power, women have tended to always want to please men and find favor with men a little too much. So this just feeds that tendency, and sets up that “pleasing” inclination as a virtue that women should aspire to. And then  as the story unfolds we learn that Mary’s role is only to submit and to be passive. She acts as a vessel to facilitate the real work of salvation, which will be performed by her son. 

The only time we hear from Mary in the New Testament is in the book of Luke. And as I say that it reminds me that we only hear Mary’s voice through a male author. There is no “Book of Mary” - we never get to hear from Mary herself. And we now know that the Book of Luke was actually written between the years 80–110, and there is evidence that it was still being revised well into the 2nd century. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Luke#:~:text=The%20most%20probable%20date%20for,well%20into%20the%202nd%20century.) 

So that’s me like quoting something that I heard was said in around the year 1900 or even earlier. Or rather, a man writing down something a woman reportedly said in 1900. But that’s all we have. So here is what the Bible says. Sophie, could you read it?


Sure! This is Luke chapter 1, verse 38 and verses 48 to 49, in the King James Version.


(quote)“And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.    … For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. (end quote)


So here Mary is depicted as an object whose self-worth is derived from the Almighty doing great things to her. She describes herself in debasing terms, being of “low estate,” presumably feeling unworthy of the honor. She takes comfort in the way she is perceived by others: the Lord has regarded her and all generations will call her blessed, and thus her value is not based on an assessment of her own merit, but on the reassuring reflection of approval she receives from male authority and from other people - the “generations that will call her blessed.”

Another point that occurred to me is that Gerda Lerner points out in The Creation of Patriarchy that men have always been the “symbol makers.” And the male authors of Genesis created an Eve whose sin was disobedience to patriarchal authority. So Sophie, like you pointed out, Mary was seen as having an equal weight to balance out the sin of Eve. And in order to do that, she had to be the “perfect woman” in the way that Eve was the “imperfect woman,” which means that if Eve was disobedient then Mary has to be obedient. And she is. So it’s no wonder that the early church fathers made Mary almost a goddess - she’s a goddess who is totally obedient to patriarchal authority, totally passive - she’s silent, she’s beautiful, she’s a mother, and she just gets all the positive qualities projected onto her that the men in control of the religion want her to have. 

Amy: Yes. And here I’ll mention that if listeners are interested in reading more about this, I highly recommend Miri Rubin’s Mother of God, which has tons of information and pictures of Art depicting Mary, and Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. Both are really, really interesting readings of the history of Mariology.

Ok Sophie, why don’t you tell us about convents. When did the church start convents for monks and nuns?

Sophie: Well, nuns were around before convents were. Some women would tell people they were brides of Christ, and in the 300s when monks started their own monasteries, the women joined them. There would often be a monastery and a convent next to each other.

Convents were a big deal for women because they gave them another option other than marriage. And marriage could be  really hard for women back then - girls grew up with the expectation from the Bible that their husbands would “rule over them,” and that they would have children - lots and lots of children - and the Bible says women will give birth  “in sorrow,” and that they would basically do housework all day, every day for the rest of their lives. So for many girls and women, becoming a nun was a very appealing option! Also, for a while in Europe, many families put their daughters in convents because they knew it was their only opportunity to receive an education. Galileo did this with his daughter, and you can read their letters back and forth between him and his daughter in the convent. 

Amy: Yes, I read the book Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love, by Dava Sobel a few years ago. It was really interesting.


Right. So convents became centers of learning for women. In the book Alone of All Her Sex, Marina Warner writes that “…the history of the church is illuminated by saints of genius, who were able, once they had capitulated to the conditions the Church demanded, to assert their ideas and their authority as independent and active women” (Warner 78). Each community had a Mother Superior, and even though the Mother Superior was supervised by men, the nuns did get to live in these little cloisters of sisterhood and they got to have female authority figures. They got to look up to Mary as an idol and a mother figure, they got to study the lives of female saints, they got to commune with other women and they got to receive guidance and direction from abbesses. And I should say that that still happens - I’m speaking in the past tense because I’m thinking about the early church, but this is still the life that’s available to Catholic nuns. 


Yep, that’s true! Remember in Spain we saw lots of nuns all the time, and we were always on the lookout for the convents that sold cookies as fundraisers for their convents because their cookies were really good. Do you remember that?




Ok, I have just two thoughts to wrap up this portion on Catholicism, and again I want to offer these observations gently because I have friends who are Catholic and I have a deep respect for may aspects of the Church, and I’m also jealous that they have a Mother in Heaven figure and so many female saints as spiritual role models. 

Three quick points:

  1. As we talked about, as powerful as it is to have a divine feminine presence that you actually talk about and can talk to within a Christian religion, I do think it’s a problem that she is a role model of subservience and passivity, and that it perpetuates the hierarchy of men above women. 

  1. Second, Marina Warner’s book is called “Alone of All Her Sex” because she is the only woman who is able to be both a mother, which is the prized feature of womanhood within this religious tradition, and also a virgin, which is the other prized feature of womanhood. And obviously being both of those things at the same time is impossible. And that sets up a lot of religious women with an impossible paradox of having to be pure and not sexual on one hand - the virgin, and then sexual on the other hand, in order to please men or to become mothers. And that’s a psychological schism that plagues a lot of women. 

  1. And then the third point is about convents: the education that women could get inside the abbey was wonderful for those women, but that kind of education and that kind of empowerment wasn’t available to everyday women outside the convent. So just like Mary was kind of an exception among women - alone of all her sex, also the nuns were exceptions - they were also alone of their sex. 

I read a book called Women and the Shaping of Catholicism, by Mary Ann Zimmer, and Zimmer saysThe unfortunate reality is that the positive evaluation of the woman, Mary… has not functioned to elevate women as a whole from being identified as temptresses or as the original “Eve”. Women in general continued to be identified with sinful Eve, while Mary became the contrast or exception to all other females. This form of idealization continues to permit the veneration of the heavenly Mary while excusing the control and domination of actual contemporary women   (Zimmer 110). So in other words, since most ordinary women were not virgins, and they couldn’t live in convents, the freedom couldn’t apply to them. 


Ok, I’ll talk about the Protestant Reformation and how that development affected women. In 1517, a Catholic priest, former monk, and doctor of theology, Martin Luther (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Luther)  wrote his famous “95” theses,” which criticized some practices of the Catholic church as being out of line with the original teachings of the Bible, but which he almost certainly did not nail to a church door. His main focus was based on a personal epiphany he had while reading the scriptures that it was faith that saved a person, not their works. He pulled back from all the additions that had been made by the Catholic church and declared that “only scripture,” or sola scriptura, was valid doctrine. 

So…. there go all the saints, including all the female saints. There goes Maria Regina, and the vierges ouvrantes statues

Sophie: Yes, many Protestants reacted so strongly against the Catholic icons that they stormed into Catholic churches all over Europe and destroyed all the Art that depicted Mary and the saints. Remember those churches in england that still had the statues missing, or paintings that had their faces scratched out during the protestant reformation. 


Yes, exactly. And there goes the option of women to go into monasteries.

 And this changed many aspects of daily life for women. There’s a pamphlet from Germany in 1524 - and remember this was right after the invention of the printing press, which made it possible to spread Protestant reading materials all over Europe - that’s how it spread so quickly! - and this pamphlet said “Even the most beloved mother Mary makes herself humble and small, for it is God’s will that honor be given only to God,” (Heming, p. 70) This must have been a really difficult transition for first-generation women converts, who were raised to pray to the Queen of Heaven, and to pray to female saints who looked like them and understood what it was like to be a woman. When Catholic women gave birth, they could pray to the patron saint of childbirth, Saint Margaret, but once they converted to Protestantism they didn’t have that womanly spiritual support anymore. The Protestant John Calvin said that women in childbirth “...groaned and sighed to the Lord and He received those groans as a sign of their obedience.” (Davis, p. 88) 

Sophie: It’s not completely surprising to me that that happened. History goes in cycles over and over. But it’s really devastating to think about the fact that the action of one man was able to take away something so sacred from women. Even if it didn’t impact everyday life (which it did),  I’m sure having female saints to pray to made the women in difficult circumstances feel less alone. Who can they rely on now? And this also is taking the options of education for women away because of the loss of convents. It really shows how powerless these women were. Their powerful symbols of womanhood could be taken away by a man so quickly.


Right, because every single governing structure was male. So they were always dependent. 

BUT!! Here is where a man in power did something that would actually eventually put power into the hands of women themselves.

 With Luther’s emphasis on sola scriptura he set in motion the very thing that would eventually allow everyday women to become educated and think for themselves. Prior to the Protestsant Reformation, most people were illiterate - the only people who received an education were royalty or lawyers, or monks and nuns in monasteries. But Luther wanted every Christian reading the Bible in their own language, including women! And that meant that for the first time, women started learning to read. They started acquiring the vocabulary and critical thinking skills that accompany literacy, and they started forming a personal relationship with God that was less mediated by authority figures, and that led to them having their own opinions and asking their own questions. This brought about a lot of pushback from ministers, but the wheels were really set in motion for women and there was no turning back. So Luther kind of accidentally empowered women to eventually challenge patriarchal systems. In fact I had the thought that it’s kind of like how Luther’s Catholic teachers when he was training to be a monk and then a doctor of theology didn’t know that they were giving him the tools that he would eventually use to critique the Catholic church. Protestantism did that same thing for women.


And there we have it! So Sophie, what is one of your takeaways from today’s discussion?


Though Mary was venerated and respected, it was all because of her ties to powerful men. Her power as a Mother was not about feminie power, but about her giving birth to Jesus. And her virtue was not extended to women as a whole. I hear different points of view about a woman as a person and then women as a class, and if we are interpreting women as a class, Mary’s stature was not elevating women as a group. Just because one disadvantaged person was able to be successful does not mean that people in that same position are suddenly equal. With all of that said, I think Mary can still be a powerful symbol for women. How meaningful it must have been to be able to pray to a woman who shares your experience. Even if her holiness was not enough to help women’s position in society, that doesn’t mean that her existence couldn’t be a very positive thing for Christian women. I’m grateful for the way she impacted Christianity. 

What is one takeaway for you?


I have two main takeaways:

  1. Power structures. I remember doing a research paper on the Jewish community in Rome in the middle ages. They were sometimes free and really flourished, and sometimes their synagogues were burned and they were put in a ghetto and forced to quit their jobs and wear a yellow star. It entirely depended on the pope who was in charge. So there might have been generations of Jewish people who thought “the hard times are over! Everything is better now!” But that sense of well-being was deceiving, because even if it lasted a couple of generations, it could go back to being restrictive at any time. They were totally dependent on the whims of whichever pope was in charge. I thought of that when we talked today about male church leaders telling women whom to identify themselves with, and what their status was, and what they could and couldn’t do. Sometimes things were ok for women - in fact one thing we didn’t even talk about today is the evidence that women officiated in the priesthood in the early church. One book I recommend on that topic is  When Women Were Priests: Women's Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity, by Karen Jo Torjesen. It reminds me of the fact that in Mormonism, women used to be able to give priesthood blessings, and the women’s organizations like the Relief Society used to have a lot more autonomy, but then those things were taken away. That’s why we’re talking about these topics on “Breaking Down Patriarchy” - because these religious power structures excluded - and continue to exclude - most men, and all women. This leaves women at the mercy of men. 

  1. Which leads me to my second point. And that is, if we don’t know what Mary really said, or who she really was, because we only see an image of her that has always been mediated by men, then that gives us a lot of freedom. Remember that part in The Secret Life of Bees with the Black Madonna? Those African American women had their own religious observances based on a statue of a Black Madonna with this very special mystical meaning, and at the end you discover that one of the women just made it up. Sue Monk Kidd promotes that in several of her books - she writes examples of coming up with a spiritual practice that feels authentic and meaningful to you. A man shouldn’t be able to tell a woman that she’s not allowed to pray to the matron saint of childbirth when she’s in labor, or talk to her own Mother in Heaven. 

Sophie, thank you so much for participating in this episode! 

Sophie: Thanks for having me!


Next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy, we will be reading Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to 1870. This book was published in 1993, and it’s the chronological follow-up to her book The Creation of Patriarchy and to our episode today.  This book is exciting because we will finally get to hear women writers in their own words - so many more women writers than anyone hears or learns about! We’re going to highlight several of them, but there are many, many brilliant women writers that we won’t have time to talk about, so if you can get a copy, it’s really worth the time to read. And then join us for the conversation! That’s The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, by Gerda Lerner, next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.

Notes we didn’t get to:

Popular Irish poet wrote the following verse:

I am Eve, the wife of noble Adam; it was I who violated Jesus in the past; it was I who robbed my children of heaven; it is I by right who should have been crucified… It was I who plucked the apple… there would be no hell, there would be no grief, there would be no terror but for me.” (142)


We do not know how many of the women accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake in the next two centuries held similar views. But we do need to notice that there was no transmission of such ideas from one generation to another or from one locality to another. Each visionary, “crazy” woman, wrestling with the deep questions of the theological definition of humanness that eliminated her from God’s design, played out her local limited role and vanished. There are only traces left of women asserting their full equality as human beings and searching to find the proper form of expression for such notions, longings and intuitions. (92)

Within the heretical sects of the 12th to 15th centuries women assumed public roles as teachers, preachers, proselytizers and martyrs, but we have no record of their actual words. (99)

From the first establishment of Quakerism, women, in their Women’s Meetings and through a Board of Women Elders, gave religious and moral guidance to female Friends. Quaker women were generally better educated than their female contemporaries and had a tradition of public speaking and religious leadership. They took active roles in establishing QUaker churches; they were ministers, preachers, missionaries on several continents. Many of them suffered imprisonment and even death for their religious convictions, sucha s Mary Dyer in Boston in 1660. ...Quaker beliefs: God made all human beings equal by implanting the Indwelling Spirit in everyone. (100)