Mary: Feminist Perspectives

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MARY: FEMINIST PERSPECTIVES

The Virgin Mary has been a central figure in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity since the time of the early church. Although Marian devotion often has been aligned with papal power and Catholic imperialism, Mary also has been a focal point for popular devotional practices, legends, and folklore in Catholic culture, including those which express women's concerns with childbirth, motherhood, marriage, and religious life. Mary is a complex topic for feminist analysis, since the priorities and perspectives of a Western-educated feminist are likely to be different from those of a poor, illiterate Catholic woman, for whom the Virgin Mary nevertheless may be a potent source of inspiration and consolation.

Feminist Perspectives

The most common feminist critique of the Marian tradition focuses on the association between Mary and Eve, which is perceived as a destructive form of dualism that informs Christian concepts of womanhood. As the new Eve, Mary has been represented as the faithful, obedient virgin who brought life to the human race through her motherhood of Christ, whereas Eve has signified the disobedient virgin, the sexual temptress who brought death to the human race by eating the forbidden fruit and enticing Adam to eat it.

In parallel with the denigration of female sexuality in Eve's association with temptation, sin, and death, Mary's virginal motherhood is seen by feminist critics as representing an impossible ideal for women. The Christian understanding of female virtue has been constructed to a large extent around the contrast between Mary's virginal obedience, passivity, and modesty before God and Eve's disobedience, sexual incontinence, and susceptibility to temptation. This contrast has been exacerbated in the Roman Catholic tradition by the valuing of celibacy over marriage; as a result women have been identified with Eve as posing the ultimate threat to the spiritual and moral well-being of the celibate male.

Contemporary Writings on Mary

Although there is a long tradition of women's writings on Mary, contemporary feminist interpretations must be understood in the context of the Second Vatican Council (19621965). The question of Mary's place in the church generated some of the most heated debates in Vatican II (at which no women were present), and the council's teachings on Mary eventually were incorporated into Chapter 8 of the document on the church, Lumen Gentium. Although Lumen Gentium emphasizes the unique dignity and privilege of Mary in her role as Mother of God, it also portrays her as the model of Christian discipleship and prayer.

After Vatican II, Catholic interest in Mary declined dramatically, and thus it is not surprising that she attracted relatively little attention from early feminist theologians. Those who did write about Mary tended to follow the trend of Vatican II, emphasizing her biblical persona as the poor woman of Nazareth and an exemplary disciple rather than her transcendent mystical significance as the Mother of God or her cultic role in popular devotions and feasts (Ruether, 1993). Feminist liberationist theologians saw Mary as a source of inspiration for the struggles of the poor and the oppressed, identifying her with the words of the Magnificat attributed to her in Luke's gospel (1:4655). The Brazilian theologians Ivone Gebara and María Clara Bingemer (1989) proposed a feminist liberationist understanding of Mary that seeks to reconcile her human significance as Mary of Nazareth and her transcendent universality as the Mother of God.

Alongside these liberal and liberationist perspectives, some feminist thinkers have attempted to reclaim Mary's significance as the unacknowledged goddess of the Christian tradition (Baring and Cashford, 1993). From this perspective, the early church only partially defeated the goddess religions of the ancient world. Those religions were subsumed and incorporated into Christianity in the status and devotion accorded to the Virgin Mary while being divested of their potent matriarchal significance in the context of a patriarchal religious culture.

This is one of the ideas explored by Marina Warner (2000) in her feminist analysis of the development of Marian devotion and doctrine. Warner presents the Marian tradition as historically significant but anachronistic in terms of the aspirations, values, and questions of contemporary secular society, although in more recent editions of her work she has modified this stance by acknowledging the enduring capacity of Mary to meet the religious need for a mother goddess figure. Others, such as Charlene Spretnak (2004), offer a more positive affirmation of the need to recognize Mary's potential in terms of a maternal feminine divine presence in the Catholic tradition. Spretnak criticizes the Second Vatican Council for divesting the Marian tradition of much of its power and argues for the rediscovery of Marian devotion as an important aspect of feminist spirituality.

Mary is also a significant figure in the writings of the psycholinguistic theorists Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. For Irigaray she represents the missing feminine dimension of the Incarnation. Irigaray (1991) argues that the fertile, corporeal, and maternal aspects of the Christian story have been neglected in favor of a life-denying religion based on the patriarchal and sacrificial relationship between a Father God and his crucified Son. Kristeva (1987), drawing on the insights of psychoanalysis, sees the cult of the Virgin Mary as contributing to the sublimation rather than the repression of the maternal relationship in Catholic Christianity, including its associations with the body, desire, and death.

These theoretical insights have informed feminist Mariology, particularly in the work of Tina Beattie (2002). A different critical perspective is offered by Sarah Jane Boss (2000). Drawing on the critical theory of the Frankfurt school in her reading of the Marian tradition, Boss argues that the increasing trend toward the domination of nature and the female body is reflected in changing attitudes toward the Virgin Mary in Western culture.

As a visible and ubiquitous symbol of maternal femininity in the Christian tradition the Virgin Mary is a vast cultural presence and historical influence whose significance has not been recognized fully by many secular feminists. The traditions, theories, and practices that surround her are too diverse and enigmatic to lend themselves to a straightforward feminist analysis or theory. However, it is hard to see how any feminist approach to questions of religion, history, and ethics in Western culture can ignore the extent to which the Marian tradition has shaped attitudes toward women in ways that extend beyond the doctrinal beliefs and devotional practices of Catholic Christianity.

See Also

Asceticism; Celibacy; Eve; Feminine Sacrality; Feminism, article on French Feminists on Religion; Feminist Theology, article on Christian Feminist Theology; Goddess Worship, overview article; Liberation Theology; Spirituality; Virgin Goddess; Virginity.

Bibliography

Baring, Anne, and Jules Cashford. The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London and New York, 1993. In this extensive study of goddess religions the authors argue that Eve and Mary are the repressed goddess figures of the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Beattie, Tina. God's Mother, Eve's Advocate: A Marian Narrative of Women's Salvation. London and New York, 2002. Beattie engages with French psycholinguistic theory in her reading of the Marian tradition. By comparing the symbolic significance of Eve and Mary in patristic theology with their representation in recent Catholic writings, she argues for the transformation of Marian symbolism through a feminist engagement with the beliefs of the early Church.

Boss, Sarah Jane. Empress and Handmaid: Nature and Gender in the Cult of the Virgin Mary. London and New York, 2000. This analysis of the development of the Marian tradition draws on both theology and sociology. In light of the critical theory of the Frankfurt school and its critique of domination, the author argues that changing attitudes toward nature and the female body in Western culture are reflected in Marian doctrine and devotion.

Gebara, Ivone, and María Clara Bingemer. Mary: Mother of God, Mother of the Poor. Tunbridge Wells, U.K., 1989. These Brazilian theologians draw on the insights of feminist and liberationist theologies to offer a Mariology that encompasses both the human dimension of Mary as a woman in history and the transcendent significance of Mary as a universal symbol of liberation and redemption.

Irigaray, Luce. Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche. New York, 1991. The last chapter of this book, "Epistle to the Last Christians," offers the author's most sustained engagement with the Marian tradition, although references to the Virgin Mary are scattered widely throughout her work.

Johnston, Elizabeth A. Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. London and New York, 2003. The author rejects the iconic status of Mary in order to emphasize her humanity as a woman who struggles in solidarity with other women.

Kristeva, Julia. "Stabat Mater." In Tales of Love. New York, 1987 (first published in 1983). This lyrical essay, written as two sides of a dialogue, explores the relationship between the maternal body and Marian doctrine and devotion.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk. London: 1992 (first published in 1983). Chapter 6, "Mariology as Symbolic Ecclesiology: Repression or Liberation?" proposes a feminist liberationist Mariology based on the identification of Mary with the church.

Spretnak, Charlene. Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-Emergence in the Modern Church. Basingstoke, U.K., 2004. The author criticizes the Second Vatican Council for its minimalist approach to Mary and advocates a rediscovery of Marian devotion and mysticism as a potent expression of feminist spirituality.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. London, 2000 (first published in 1976). This scholarly and wide-ranging evaluation of the Marian tradition remains one of the most influential feminist critiques.

Tina Beattie (2005)