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.”
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