What Is It About the Virgin Mary that Enrages Feminists?

And whose model of womanhood leads to happiness

“Why do so many women today appear to be unhappy?” That was the question I addressed a while ago. There I suggested that if women today are unhappy, it may be because they have not found suitable answers to the question, “What do women want?” and to the more important question, “What do women need?”

I ended my last column by saying, “The shining and lived answer to those questions is found in Mary, Virgin and Mother.” Let’s look at that suggestion — one that would have been unexceptional a few generations ago, but is now problematic even within some Catholic circles, and typically scorned by large segments of secular feminism. Surprisingly, there are startling parallels between the Catholic diffidence regarding Mary and the outright rejection of her by some secular feminists.

The sticking point is Mary’s traditional titles as Virgin and Mother. Virginity as a term of praise, and even an ideal, has fallen upon hard times, even in some environments self-identified as “Catholic.” Why? Let’s be frank — in the contemporary Western world, we’ve all been immersed for 50+ years in the culture of “Everybody’s doing it!” (Here, of course, “it” refers to sex apart from marriage.) Saying that Mary-as-Virgin is a key to restoring the happiness God intends for women would be a hard sell in these circles. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Some years ago, Sarah Hinlicky wrote a delightful essay proving that she had wisdom beyond her years: “Subversive Virginity.” (She later penned a fine essay on masculine virginity.) There she summarizes the view of secular feminism on sexuality, a view that has taken hold within some self-identified Catholic individuals and communities:

  According to received feminist wisdom, sexuality is to be understood through the twin concepts of power and choice. It’s not a matter of anything so banally biological as producing children, or even the more elevated notion of creating intimacy and trust. Sometimes it seems like sex isn’t even supposed to be fun. The purpose of female sexuality is to assert power over hapless men, for control, revenge, self-centered pleasure, or forcing a commitment. A woman who declines to express herself in sexual activity, then, has fallen prey to a male-dominated society that wishes to prevent women from becoming powerful. By contrast, it is said, a woman who does become sexually active discovers her power over men and exercises it, supposedly to her personal enhancement.

In other words, female sexual expression is an act of personal and political power. Virginity, on this view, is a witless and feckless failure to exercise that power. Hinlicky’s response to that assertion is incisive:

  [N]o one can claim control over a virgin. Virginity is not a matter of asserting power in order to manipulate. It is a refusal to exploit or be exploited. That is real, and responsible, power. … There is an undeniable appeal in virginity, something that eludes the resentful feminist’s contemptuous label of ‘prude.’ A virgin woman is an unattainable object of desire, and it is precisely her unattainability that increases her desirability. Feminism has told a lie in defense of its own promiscuity, namely, that there is no sexual power to be found in virginity. On the contrary, virgin sexuality has extraordinary and unusual power. There’s no second-guessing a virgin’s motives: her strength comes from a source beyond her transitory whims. It is sexuality dedicated to hope, to the future, to marital love, to children, and to God. Her virginity is, at the same time, a statement of her mature independence from men. It allows a woman to become a whole person in her own right, without needing a man either to revolt against or to complete what she lacks. It is very simple, really: no matter how wonderful, charming, handsome, intelligent, thoughtful, rich, or persuasive he is, he simply cannot have her. A virgin is perfectly unpossessable.

Hinlicky makes clear that the virgin is nobody’s fool, nobody’s toy and nobody’s possession. She is secure in her identity and integrity. Above all, she has the genuine power and inarguable freedom to declare “Yes” or “No.” Mary-as-Virgin is the exemplar of that freedom. Her “Yes” to the divine invitation, her “Fiat!” to the call of the Holy Spirit is the highest and most vivid illustration of the freedom of the virgin. Hers is a free, powerful and uniquely-sought-after “Yes.”  

That freedom to answer God’s call is oh so much greater than the thoughtless jumping onto the bandwagon of “But everybody’s doing it!” The “Yes” spoken to the angel Gabriel by the Virgin Mary is the model of the interior freedom necessary to give a full and genuine “Yes” to Divine Providence. The “Yes” to God that can flow only from such an interior freedom, a hallmark of the self-possessed Virgin, is an essential element in the restoration to women of the happiness God intends for them. Mary’s Virginal freedom, her independence from whim and trend, enabled her to become uniquely fruitful as the Mother.

Motherhood is also a hard sell these days, as Jonathan Last reminds us in his disturbing book, “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting.” In most environments self-identified as Catholic, one will not hear any mention of “generous parenthood” or “heroic parenthood.” In most diocesan marriage preparation programs that I am aware of, there is little or no discussion of the “grave reasons” justifying the spacing of children or decision to have no more children, through natural family planning. And many surveys have indicated that self-identified Catholics contracept and abort at the same rates as their non-Catholic counterparts. Fertility in general, and female fertility in particular, is treated as a kind of disease, or at least an unfortunate condition that must be prevented and perhaps even ultimately blocked.

This should not be surprising. A culture that does not value the interior freedom of virginity is not likely to honor the lavish generosity made necessary by fruitful motherhood. In rejecting both virginity and motherhood, both the pseudo-Catholic culture and the secular culture reject woman’s deep and vivid charism, which is a capacity for self-donation, that feminine genius of “the gift of self” that Saint John Paul extolled throughout Mulieris Dignitatem. Spurning Mary as the Icon-of-the-Virgin and Mary as the Icon-of-the-Mother, is it any wonder that our culture is filled with so many unhappy women?  What can be done?

John Senior, in his sublime “The Restoration of Christian Culture,” says that we must relearn from the Virgin Mother “the language of love.” It is a language rooted in the freedom of the Virgin and comes to fullest expression in the fruitfulness of the Mother. Its premier articulation is Mary’s “Fiat!” to her God-given identity as a woman. How shall we as Catholics re-center God’s wisdom revealed through Mary, the most blessed among women? A detailed answer to that question would be vast, but I think we can confidently identify a few starting points.

Luke 2:19 depicts Mary “pondering these things in her heart.” We would do well to ponder as she pondered and what she pondered by refreshing our commitment to the Rosary. We would also do well to review again and pray along with great Marian art—especially paintings from the medieval and renaissance masters, as well as the icons of the Byzantine Church. Finally, we would surely be wise to re-immerse ourselves in the Church’s theological reflections about Mary, so as to come to love her ourselves as the Church has always loved her. Father Gaitley’s “33 Days to Morning Glory” would be a simple and sound place to start.

The human vocation is to love as God loves — so says Saint Ignatius Loyola in his famed “Contemplatio.” Human unhappiness is but a symptom of the human failure to love. The feminine genius of self-gift, so frequently lauded by Saint John Paul, finds its perfect expression in Mary, who is Virgin-and-Mother — the woman who is most free and most fruitful. The restoration to women of the happiness intended for them by God can only be found in imitation of Mary.

When I write next, I will speak of Lent—its promise and its peril. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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