Queens in the nineteen sixties had almost as many Catholic high schools as bakeries. Towards the spring of the year, the approach of Senior Proms meant big business for the local merchants. There was one store--which girls in my school were urged to patronize--that had a special section devoted to what were called "Mary-like gowns." The Mary-like gown was an invention of nuns and a coalition of sodalists, and its intent, I think, was to make prom dresses as much like habits as possible. We used to go and try the dresses on for a laugh. They were unbelievably ugly. The yardage of material could have dressed even an Irish family for a year. Nobody I or my friends ever talked to would wear them. We always figured that people who bought prom dresses like that were going to the prom with their cousins. For the purpose of them was to conceal the body, to underplay as much as possible, the natural allure of young female flesh.
In my day, Mary was a stick to beat smart girls with. Her example was held up constantly: an example of silence, of subordination, of the pleasure of taking the back seat. With the kind of smile they would give to the behavior of Margaret the wife in "Father Knows Best," they talked about the one assertion of Mary's recorded in the Gospel: her request at the wedding feast at Cana. It was noted that she didn't ask her son directly for anything; she merely said: "They have no wine." Making him think it was his decision. Not suggesting it was her idea, no, nothing like that. Then disappearing, once again, into the background, into silence.
For women like me, it was necessary to reject that image of Mary in order to hold onto the fragile hope of intellectual achievement, independence of identity, sexual fulfillment. Yet we were offered no alternative to this Marian image; hence, we were denied a potent female image whose application was universal. There were a few saints one could, in desperation, turn to: Theresa of Avila, who was reported to have a fresh mouth (If this is the way you treat your friends, Lord, what do you do to your enemies? Henny Youngman in Carmel. Who wouldn't like her?), talked back to bishops, reformed her order, had visions whose power and authenticity were unassailable. But any saint, however celebrated, is venerated out of choice, only by some. The appeal of Mary is that devotion to her is universal, ancient. And she is the mother of God.
Women who were independent and intelligent rejected the Virgin Mary in favor of her son in the way that some feminists, particularly in the beginning of the movement, felt it necessary to radically reject those things that were associated exclusively with the female: dresses, make-up, domestic work, relations with men, children. But life has changed. The most interesting and sophisticated thought by feminists now sees that in rejecting those things that were traditionally thought of as female, we are going with the male system of values that rates them as inferior. What we are doing now is trying to salvage the valuable things that the past ascribed to females, and to say that, if they are valuable, why reserve them to only 53 percent of the human race? It is this impulse to re-examine and to understand in a deeper way the history of women, female genius, female work, often anonymous, hidden, uncredited, to look for new values that are not simply male values dressed for success, that is leading women back to Mary.
But there is still a problem. Most of what we know about Mary we know from men. Much of the thought about her has been poisoned by misogyny, and a hatred of the body, particularly female sexuality. The Fathers did not like women-- and in setting Mary apart from the rest of the female sex what they were saying was that she was only acceptable because she did not share the corruption that was inevitably attached to the female condition. In an ancient and popular symmetry, the image of Mary as the second Eve has been present in Marian thought from earliest times. In talking about Eve, the early writers gave vent to their disgust for sex, and for female sexuality in general. Consider Tertullian. "Do you not realize, Eve, that it is you? The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. Guiltily, you must bear its hardships. You are the devil's gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force."