Is She a Great Symbol for Women's Power?
For my first blog, I was tempted to write a longer essay, about the bible's great women being implicit feminists, starting with Eve in the garden of Eden. I have this idea that Eve, the first woman, already embodied feminist attitudes -- which God hastened to punish.
But I will write about Eve another time. With all her enormous resonance in culture, Eve is not an official icon. But Mary is the icon, culturally, mystically, liturgically. And dare I say it, sexually too?
Yes, because icons have gender, and where there is gender, there is a sexual connotation.
The mother of Jesus became an icon a long time ago, and in many ways her icon is more powerful and haunting inside our psyche than the icon of her famed son.
Everyone knows something about Mary of Nazareth, though what people know, is it really knowledge, cognitively speaking? I'll leave that to the readers; but people do think that they know about Mary of Nazareth. Icons as physical objects are remote and stiff, and yet, the persons they portray are held close inside us – as intimate characters of our imagination. We transfer to Mary, to Jesus, to the apostles, etc, a trove of personal beliefs, emotions and attitudes. We treat them as live people, whom we know, who are like us, who live with us -- even though we could never meet Mary, Joseph, Jesus, or any other iconic heroes, unless we witnessed an apparition.
Inside our psyches, we view the icons as humanized individuals, after whom we model our attitudes.
What kind of Mary of Nazareth do we carry inside us?
There is the belief that Mary was a kindly, most wonderfully maternal woman, that she was pure, and that she was generous, and... obedient. Specifically about "obedient," all of us know something about that happening when the angel appeared to Mary, announcing her that she was chosen to carry a miraculous baby. It was God's plan that she should carry that baby. "Thy will be done," Mary answered God, through the intercession of the angel.
That briefest passage in the gospels was viewed as proof of Mary's unquestioning obedience, and it was used as a social directive for women to be obedient in general, and specifically towards men.
A great writer and feminist, a Frenchwoman, her name is Simone de Beauvoir, wrote that Mary of Nazareth represents the direst case of a woman being submitted to male rule. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, Mary of Nazareth is the most extreme example of a woman surrendering to a man and to male authority, because she is the one mother in Western history who is kneeling at the feet of her own son.
Beauvoir, author of the feminist classic The Second Sex, was not the first or last author to portray Mary as passive, submissive, and probably the worst possible example of how to assert herself, to billions of women around the world.
Beauvoir saw Mary through her own experience as a little girl: from age seven to age fourteen, Beauvoir was educated in a very rigorous catholic school. That little girl had to kneel every day in prayer, in front of the icon of Christ, as all the other girls in that girls' school. Young and independent-minded, and questioning why she was made to kneel, Beauvoir felt that Mary represented all females forced to kneel in front of a male icon, in a male-dominated church, in a male-dominated world.
Hats off to Beauvoir, she made an important point about how Mary shouldn't be seen.
In fact, the actual Mary of Nazareth was a girl who didn't live to see her son iconized as the official messiah, or herself being turned into the immaculate virgin. Nor was Mary, during her own life, a worshipper of icons – Jewish-born and Jewish-practicing, Mary of Nazareth would have rejected icons as graven images. Jesus himself, a Jewish man and possibly a rabbi, would have disapproved of icons too, including one based on his own image.
Yet why is the notion of Mary being passive and submissive so familiar?
Because that is what church iconology tried to establish.
As she spoke out the famous "Thy will be done," Mary burnished her image as being given a command to which she answered yes.
And yet... is this who Mary is, in the minds of women raised Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant?
I say no. In her real life, the historic Mary was a rebel. And in the minds of women, Mary was always an image of strength. An attentive rereading of the gospels can establish with equal certainness that she was clever, strong-minded, a survivor, a leader, a woman capable to weather hardship, to withhold her dignity in ambiguous and dangerous situations (pregnancy out of wedlock, to quote the most obvious), and to maneuver complex situations, including the announcement by the angel, in her own favor.
She was a super-woman. Against the notion that super-womanhood is defined by kindliness, sweetness, motherliness, gentleness, and other "soft" qualitiesonly, I shall claim that super-womanhood is resilient, un-frightened, hopeful, optimistic, independent-minded, and filled with healthy curiosity. All attributes which we find in the women of today, in their most autonomous stances, in their willingness to do without men rather than be the annex of men, and in their need for motherhood, but not for the bonds of marriage unless that marriage is for equal partners.
It seems to me, it's time that we look at Mary the non-submissive, the strong and daringly questioning, both of God and of the holy writ.
I posit that women always saw Mary as strong and as her own woman, despite "thy will be done." I posit that the gospels themselves, re-read with a free mind, offer evidence of a different Mary, a superwoman encouraging what later was to be called feminism.
Mary was a template for feminism, is my theory.
I hope this a theme that interests women readers, and all readers. I shall come back with proof, from historic events, from art, and from the gospels even.
The author of this essay wrote the historic novel Girl Mary, just published by Simon&Schuster, New York
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