Ten or twelve years ago, here in Chicago, I was on an archdiocesan committee and was duly invited to an afternoon Christmas reception at the Cardinal’s mansion.

There was a guy there who was one of those fight-picking conservatives.  You know what I mean, someone who, no matter the topic, feels he has every answer to every question and wants to bring it out like a sledgehammer to slam anyone with an opposing view into the dirt.

Twice, this guy tried to bait me into an argument about the status of women in the Catholic Church.  (Yeah, I know, what status?)  As a member of a church that excludes women from the priesthood and keeps lay women from leadership roles and power positions and treats religious sisters as inconsequential or heretical, I knew there was nothing to argue.  Like all things human, the Church is greatly flawed, and perhaps its biggest sin is its refusal to give full equality to women.

So, no, I didn’t want to debate the guy.  But, on his second attempt, he tried a different approach.

“You probably think women aren’t treated fairly by the church, right?  Well, you’re wrong,” he said.

And, then turning to his right, he lifted his arms like a TV game show with a fancy car as a big prize and pointed to a huge painting of the Virgin Mary in the style of Bartolomé Murillo, and said, “Ta-da!”


“The model of her sex”

Many times throughout my reading of Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary by Marina Warner, published in 1976, I thought of that moment.

It was as if this guy was a stand-in for all the Popes, theologians and all the other males who have determined church orthodoxy over the centuries.  Here, here’s Mary, he was saying. She has been honored, praised, revered and cherished by Christians more than any human being except Jesus.  How could anyone complain about the Church’s treatment of women when Mary had such an exalted stature?

Yet, as Warner’s book shows in deeply researched detail, that’s the problem.

Mary, Warner writes, is “the Church’s female paragon and the ideal of the feminine personified” and “the model of her sex.”  Yet, after a 2,000-year evolution of the official Church thinking about Mary, Mary is far and away like no other woman who ever existed.

Indeed, except for Jesus, she was the only human born without sin.

She remained a virgin when Jesus was conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit.

She suffered no labor pains during his birth.

She never engaged in sexual intercourse.

She lived her life without sin.

Her body was assumed into heaven.

And — this is still being debated — she may never have died.

Cannot help but fall short

Mary is seen by Church leaders as almost super-natural, the most perfect of beings — except, of course, Jesus — and, with a paragon like that, every other woman cannot help but fall short.

For instance, Mary is virgin and mother, at the same time, all the time. Warner writes:

At one level, the purpose of woman and her fulfilment is seen to be motherhood, but at another the teleological argument is cut across by a major reservation, expressed succinctly in Canon Ten of the Council of Trent’s twenty-fourth session: “virginity and celibacy are better and more blessed than the bond of matrimony.”

It’s good to be a mother as Mary is.  It’s better to be a virgin as Mary is.  No woman can be both — except Mary.  Yet, women are caught being pulled in two directions.

But, unlike the myth of the incarnate God, the myth of the Virgin Mother is translated into moral exhortation. Mary establishes the child as the destiny of woman, but escapes the sexual intercourse necessary for all other women to fulfill this destiny.



“A central theme in history”

It’s been nearly half a century since Warner, then a 29-year-old historian, published

Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, and the book is still controversial.

Critics have complained about its tone and have nitpicked some of her interpretations. Yet, the assertion that she makes in her prologue is as true today as it was five decades ago.

Whether we regard the Virgin Mary as the most sublime and beautiful image in man’s struggle towards the good and the pure, or the most pitiable production of innocence and superstition, she represents a central theme in the history of western attitudes to women. 

She is one of the few female figures to have attained the status of myth — a myth that for nearly two thousand years has coursed through our culture, as spirited and often as imperceptible as an underground stream.


“Female subjugation”

In fact, one might argue that the ideas about Mary have shaped human culture, at least, in the West, more than those about any other female, except maybe Eve. And, in a deep way, everything said about Mary has been put forward as a counterbalance to everything about Eve.

If Eve has been seen as the cause of the Fall — she “tricked” Adam into eating the fruit and disobeying God — Mary is seen as a kind of savior since she made it possible for Jesus to come into the world and be the actual Savior.

Warner writes that, in Christianity, “the restraint of lower ‘animal’ passions was a further necessary sign of man’s superiority to the beasts.”  As a result, Mary was turned “into an effective instrument of asceticism and female subjugation.”

Warner quotes Henry Adams who noted:

“The study of Our Lady…leads directly back to Eve, and lays bare the whole subject of sex.”


“Diminish her likeness”

In writing Alone of All Her Sex, Warner played an important role on the religious side of second-wave feminism, the women’s liberation movement challenging the place of women in society, inequalities and gender norms.

Her book was a ground-breaking look at how women in the Church have been undercut because of the praise heaped on Mary. Or, maybe better put, how the praises heaped on Mary are symptoms of how women as seen in the Church as second-class members.

Indeed, in many ways, Mary was praised because she wasn’t a “woman,” at least, not the sort of woman who would have sexual feelings and would engage in sexual intercourse and would have to deal with painful labor to give birth to a child.

Warner writes at one point that “every facet of the Virgin” has been “systematically developed to diminish, not increase, her likeness to the female condition.”  And she goes one:

Her freedom from sex, painful delivery, age, death, and all sin exalted her ipso facto above ordinary women and showed them up as inferior.


For another half century and more

As I read Alone of All Her Sex, I realized how much my own ideas about women in the Church had been influenced by writers and thinkers who had been influenced by Warner.

One of the book’s most important contributions is Warner’s examination of how the ideas about Mary came into being, particularly in light of the lack of much mention of her in the Gospels.  Many are rooted in writings that were never included in the canon of the Church as well as in legends.  Still more are based on logic — on what “should” be the case, given some doctrine, such as the sinlessness of Jesus.

Alone of All Her Sex is not to sort of book that will poison the faith of a believer.  Faith operates in its own realm, and spirituality grows where it finds nourishment.

It is, however, the sort of book that will help Catholics and non-Catholics understand how the Church doctrines about Mary have influenced and been influenced by male perceptions of women over the past twenty centuries.

It’s a wonderfully rich book, and its influence will continue for a long time.


Patrick T. Reardon


Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is https://patricktreardon.com/.

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