Tuesday, April 24, 2012

From Mary Magdalene To Mary Haynes: The 2000-Year-Old War On Women And Religion's Role In It.

"A woman's compromised the day's she's born."
- Miriam "Vanities" Aarons, in Clare Booth Luce's The Women

Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, but early Christian men seldom failed to realize it when trying to put women "in their place." It was St. Paul who nailed it in his letter to the Corinthians when he basically told women to shut up in church and to wear head coverings. And even though the early church had women deacons (and brave women who sometimes saved male Christian ass), the ensuing orthodox Christians knew a good thing when they saw it in making women like Mary Magdalene prostitutes and other women child-bearing chattel as meek (and virginal) as Mary the mother of Jesus.

For putting women up on a pedestal or down on a bed in a brothel was the best way to keep them out of the middle - and equal with men.

Of course, there have been matriarchal societies throughout history* and different attitudes towards women: e.g. in ancient Greece, the concept of a wife was quite different since a woman was taken in as the man's "sister" and subsequently became a more integral part of his family. But let's face it, the Western Civilization built upon Judeo-Christian standards has always compromised women.Women as equals to men is a very recent construct.

A construct most people, especially the Christian Right, still cannot countenance. The latest denunciation of Catholic nuns' endeavors in social justice have been denounced by Benedict XVI not only because he is trying to placate America's Christian Right, but also because as the mainstay of patriarchal Roman Catholicism, the pope must keep nuns (women) in their place. They, after all, have not been against certain issues which women should be against:

WASHINGTON (RNS) -- The Vatican has launched a crackdown on the umbrella group that represents most of America's 55,000 Catholic nuns, saying that the group was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women's ordination.


Mary Magdalene was compromised. Lucretia Borgia was compromised.** Eleanor of Aquitaine was compromised. Even Eleanor Roosevelt was compromised.*** With the exception of a celebratory few in entertainment and politics, American women have always been compromised. Religious organizations like the SBC have always seen to that. 

And sometimes it takes a strong dose of the truth to tell America's women that they are still compromised.

Every time I see The Women (screenplay by Anita Loos), I marvel at the innate intelligence of women: sure, women aren't REALLY that catty, vicious or vain, but the sophistication of the movie is remarkable - simply because women really have had to survive under the cloak of self-made machismo men have imagined. In a sense, The Women is a wake up call to women everywhere: you're compromised, all right, but you've been able to deal with being compromised for two millenium through an intelligence that belies men. Underneath the facade of "Park Avenue Playgirls" lies a will to survive no man can match.  

"This is today. Steven and I are equals. We gave ourselfves to each other of our own free will for life. And to compromise that is wrong. Shockingly wrong! 
That's what Mary Haynes thought. Although God is never mentioned in The Women, the presence of religion and imposed mores is pervasive and substantial: it allowed Mary to think that "morality" included a kind equality. But she comes to a rude awakening later when, in Reno, Miriam tells her the truth. Then the very end of The Women shakes us to the core with the ultimate truth: women are still compromised. When the question of self-respect (in going back to her wayward husband) is brought to the fore, Mary responds:

"Pride is something a woman in love 
can't afford."****

So there's always been, in a sense, a war on women by a society formulated by religion, and maybe when women counterattack the the primal causes of doctrine and the clergy, they can finally receive the one thing that has eluded them for the last two thousand years: respect. 

*The most recent being the matriarchal society of the Filipines.
** Her father, Pope Alexander VI used both her and her brother Cesare as political pawns. The portrait of Lucretia as a poisoning fem fatale was both fictitious and unjustified.
*** Eleanor's lack of beauty compromised her from day one: in a letter to his mother, Sara Delano, FDR actually apologized for it. Unflattering cartoons were used against her, hiding the fact that she was a superb stateswoman. 

****Gay men like me have always looked to strong or beleaguered women for inspiration and support. At the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, a showing of The Women, Mildred Pierce, or Auntie Mame guarantees a packed house overflowing with notepads at the ready. Even the camp classic Valley of the Dolls exudes a kind of female machismo. What they sense most, however, is the fact that women are compromised - retrained - in their lives by society, an aspect many formerly closeted gays know all too well.