If I were to actually say out loud, “A lot of the women saints were probably mentally ill,” many Catholics would get angry with me.
I can anticipate this reaction because, while we all know we’re not supposed to stigmatize mental illness, “crazy” is one of the things women are constantly accused of being, even if it’s also one of the things women are not allowed to be. And holy women, the women we’re told are our role models, can’t have been ill, or dirty, or otherwise unpleasant.
The representations of women saints that the institutional Church gives us too often have little resemblance to the actual, historical lives of these women. They were often difficult or bizarre, and many of them went to great lengths to avoid marriage, family, and domesticity. Some probably did suffer from mental illness. But in the hands of a patriarchal religion’s hierarchy, these qualities tend to be downplayed. To be a real woman, an acceptable woman, we apparently must transcend the messy realities of our lives.
Kaya Oakes’s new book, The Defiant Middle: How Women Claim Life’s In-Betweens to Remake the World, critically examines the situation of being a woman in a culture and a Church that makes such demands on us. Much of it is dedicated to showing why, for women, simply living on our own terms, let alone remaking the world, can feel hopeless. That’s one reason this book is so powerful and so important: it refuses to ignore the many ways women’s lives often feel impossible, not least for Catholic women. Oakes is up front about the fact that religion has often made our lives worse. “To understand how women defy expectations,” she writes, “religion is not a bad place to start, but its history is littered with the corpses of women who were the victims of religious men who damaged and killed women in the name of God.”
The central theme of Oakes’s book is how women today can look to their medieval forerunners such as Hildegard von Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and Joan of Arc as “mentors.” For Catholic women who’ve had these saints used against them to show why they aren’t holy, modest, humble, quiet, and obedient enough, it comes as a relief to view these women not as our judges but as our allies. Such an approach offers a powerful reminder of why some of us hold on to religion despite everything. As Oakes writes, “What religion offered was less a message of personal salvation and more a message that none of us, no matter how sick, angry, filthy, or unwanted, is truly alone. What faith gave me was a reminder that the ordinary world…is still charged with grace.”
Oakes shows us how this grace worked in the lives of holy women—even holy madwomen—and gave them the strength to be disruptive in a world that tried to put them in boxes and deny their access to the divine. She connects their experiences to the lives of women making a difference in the contemporary world. Take, for example, Joan of Arc, from whom Oakes draws a line to young women activists such as Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai. Or the story of St. Euphrosyne, “who transformed herself into a monk named Smaragdus and lived for thirty-eight years in the monastery as a man, never discovered until they died,” in which Oakes finds encouragement for queer and trans activists who push back against the policing of who is or is not a “real woman.”
None of this amounts to a fashionable, facile reduction of these complex women to “badass role models.” Being a defiant woman often means being a vulnerable woman. It can mean being harassed, denigrated, depersonalized, assaulted, violated, tortured, and burned to death. For young girls it can mean being hypersexualized; for older women it can mean being erased or held to impossible expectations. It can mean suffering bitter loneliness.
Oakes also leads the reader through the different categories, or spaces, that women are often punished for failing to fit into: Young, Old, Crazy, Barren, Butch/Femme/Other, Angry, Alone. Measured according to these terms, we are perpetually both too much and not enough. “Women are expected to be fertile (otherwise your body is dismissed as a barren wasteland), but not too fertile (otherwise you’re burdening society). Self-sacrificing, but not selfless,” Oakes writes. “Women can cry picturesquely on occasion, but clinical depression and anxiety have to be brushed aside or sublimated, because we are always expected to be doing something for someone. We should love and accept our imperfect bodies but still not gain weight or ‘let ourselves go.’” Oakes often draws from her own experiences in these spaces—as a woman in academia, in a religious community, in family life, and in the world of reproductive health, all of which are noisy with prescriptions about how we are supposed to be, or not be. As I read her book, I felt as though I had been holding my breath for ages and was finally allowed to release it. I felt “seen.”
The Defiant Middle specifically addresses the experiences of women on the margins or in “liminal spaces”—women who do not fit in. Which is to say, all women, eventually. I admit that when I first started reading the book, I sometimes thought to myself, “What about the women who do fit in? What about the women who seem to effortlessly embody the patriarchy’s ideals?” That’s not how it works, though. One way or another, “does not fit in” is true of all women in cultures that demand that we conform to impossible norms. Some of us may be more obvious misfits than others. But all of us must contend with a world that demands us to be “both/and” while punishing us for being either too much or not enough.
Women also experience being invisible, especially as we age out of youth, fertility, and sexiness—as Oakes describes it, “the steady erasure of our sexual selves becoming a larger erasure of our very identities.” Is this erasure akin to the superpower of invisibility? Or is it more like annihilation? This is one of the challenges women who are approaching the defiant years of middle age must negotiate, and Oakes is truthful about how much of this we do in solitude. But as she also emphasizes, there is a solitude, as we can learn from the women mystics, that is different from bitter loneliness, a solitude where we find ourselves “broken open by sickness and depression and anxiety and meeting everyone’s needs.” Out of that loneliness women are able to walk into a new space and begin to put themselves together again.
This is a book for all women, but I think especially for women who feel caught in between and pulled in different directions, who are trying to sort out our anger and craziness and deal with a culture that expects the impossible of us. Oakes puts into words what many of us struggle to articulate, or try to keep from screaming out loud. The powers try to tell us, “You can’t say that. You can’t be that.” But, as Oakes demonstrates, women have been saying and being what they were told they couldn’t for centuries before. “The quest to change sexist ways of thinking can feel Sisyphean, a lifetime of teaching and explaining and pushing back,” Oakes writes. “And yet, we keep showing up, and we keep trying.”
The Defiant Middle
How Women Claim Life’s In-Betweens to Remake the World
$26.99 | 200 pp.