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The Virgin Mary is No Wonder Woman

by John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This article appears as a resource on The Center for Progressive Christianity web site, copyright 2001 and used by permission. Additional resources and information about The Center may be found at http://www.tcpc.org/.


Charles Moulton, who did his most creative work under the pseudonym of William Molton Marstan, will never be canonized as a saint of the church. Yet when the judgment of history is in, I suspect that Charles Moulton will be credited with having done more to bring about the emancipation of women than did that figure that the Christian tradition has named the Virgin Mary. I certainly do not mean to offend the sensitivities of those who have been taught to revere the Virgin as the ideal of womanhood, but I do intend to examine the effects on woman of the figure of the Virgin when compared with the creation of Charles Moulton.

Who was Charles Moulton? His name is not a household word but his creation is. Moulton is the man who in 1941 launched the career of a comic strip character who was know as Wonder Woman. Moulton was a psychologist. He was also the inventor of the lie detector. In an autobiographical note in the Wonder Women Archives Vol. 2, he describes himself as "an early feminist," who believed that "a woman's rightful place was as a world leader, not servant or helpmate."

Sharlene Azan, a staff reporter for the Toronto Star described Wonder Woman in a feature story in that paper, as the "hero of my adolescence," who "helped me imagine myself out of a life where being a good girl meant being quite and obedient." Wonder Woman countered this definition which was imposed on most young girls by their mothers, teachers and the social order as a whole. Wonder Woman encouraged self-confidence, not passivity. Her message to her female followers was a single one: "Girls you can do the same thing." It was a banner no one else was flying in the forties and even in the fifties where home economics rather than physics was thought to be the proper elective for female students.

When Ms Magazine, the brain child of Gloria Steinem, hit the news stands with its first issue in 1971, the cover featured the picture of Wonder Woman who had by now become the patron saint, if you will, of the feminist movement. Gloria Steinem said of her, "she symbolized many of the values of the women's culture that feminists are now trying to introduce to the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women, sisterhood and mutual support among women." The impact of Wonder Woman on women over the last 50 years is hard to measure. In some sense there is no mythic comic strip character who has replaced her for girls and young teens today. But that does not strike me as a problem, because mythic roles are not necessary if those women who had their imaginations raised by Wonder Woman simply went out and did it…which they certainly did. They are today the Ruth Bader Ginsburgs, the Sandra Day O'Connors, the Margaret Thatchers, the Diane Feinsteins, the Elizabeth Doles and Hilary Clintons. They are also that host of young women who have crashed through the glass ceilings in business, education, law, science and finance. I look at my own four daughters for documentation. One is a managing director of a major Southern Bank, one is an attorney, one has a PhD in Physics from Stanford and one is a Captain in the U.S. States Marine Corps, the second woman ever to pilot the attack helicopter known as the Cobra. Fantasy role models are not necessary when you have real life ones. That is what Wonder Woman helped to produce.

Compare and contrast for a moment the freeing empowering influence of Wonder Woman with what women have historically received from the Virgin Mary. Mary's power was never direct, it was always quite secondary, like girls, it was said, were supposed to be. The Virgin Mary's power was that of intercession, a kind of "divine pillow talk." She was so pure and so gentle that she was thought to be able to move with her requests the father God or the judging Son Jesus, both of whom had the real power.

Mary's pilgrimage into western mythology was a slow one. She is never mentioned in all the writings of the Apostle Paul, the earliest creator of material that came to be included in the New Testament. Paul, who wrote between 49-64 C.E., had no interest in Jesus' origins. His only references to Jesus' family came when he said that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law." He asserted that "according to the flesh," Jesus was descended from the House of David. Paul also made reference to Jesus' brother, a man named James. No divine origin here, no miraculous birth, no virgin mother.

The pattern was continued in Mark, the earliest Gospel, written between 70-75 C.E. or 40 to 45 years after the earthly life of Jesus came to an end. Once more there is no story here of a miraculous birth. There are, however, two references to Jesus' mother, but neither is flattering. She appears in this first Gospel to be embarrassed by Jesus, to think him "beside himself" and Mark says that she went with Jesus' four brothers, James, Joses, Judas and Simon, and his two sisters to "take Jesus away" [see Mark 3 and 6]. That is hardly the behavior one would expect from a woman who had been visited by an angel and who had been told that she was to be the Virgin Mother of the Son of God.

The Virgin story entered the Christian tradition in the early 9th decade gospel of Matthew, some 55 years after the death of Jesus. It was repeated in the late 9th or early 10th decade gospel of Luke, and then it disappeared in favor of the concept of Jesus' divine pre-existence in the 10th decade Gospel of John. The mythology of Mary, however, was destined to expand in the development of Christian history.

By the early years of the 2nd century the idea of the Virgin as the ideal woman began to grow. First, it was said of her that she was a virgin mother. Next, she became a permanent virgin, making it necessary to transform the biblically mentioned brothers and sisters of Jesus into half-siblings or cousins. Next the church fathers claimed for her the status of being a postpartum virgin which caused the hierarchy of the church to go through intellectual gymnastics to prove that the hymen of the Virgin Mary had not been ruptured even during Jesus' birth. Tales circulated that perhaps Jesus was born out of his mother's ear! Then someone found a text in Ezekiel [see Chapter 44:1] which suggested that when "the gates of the city were closed only the Lord could go in and out." Without either shame or apology that verse, written about 800 years before the birth of Jesus, was said to demonstrate that Jesus could be born without disturbing the gates of his mother's womb.

Next in the 19th century the Virgin was declared to be immaculately conceived. Even her own birth was now said to have been miraculous. The stain of human sin found in the myth of the fall of humanity (in the Garden of Eden) was not allowed to touch her. Finally in the 20th century, literally at the dawn of the space age, Mary was proclaimed to have bodily ascended into heaven. This new doctrine was based on the fact that no one knew her place of burial. The reason, the Church's leadership suggested, was that she had never died.

Is this a feminine role model that today's young women will or should follow? Hardly. Yes, Mary was a woman, but she was both de-sexed and de-humanized by a condescending and patriarchal hierarchy before she was finally said to have been lifted into God. The clear message of Mary was that both the body and the sexuality of a woman were evil. The ideal woman was not a flesh and blood woman, she was portrayed as sweet, passive, docile, compliant, obedient, virginal, and unreal, hardly the qualities that would empower younger females today to break out of their stereotypical expectations. Mary's call was a call to obedience, a call to conformity. It was not a call into being. The Virgin Mary's chief problem was that far from being a woman who could inspire real women to new heights, she was a construct of a male world. She was the kind of woman the defining males of the time, who were overwhelmingly the ordained clergy, wanted women to be. When the priesthood of the church became open to celibate males only, they wanted a woman who would not threaten their virtuous calling. A perpetual virgin was the perfect answer.

The result of this history is that the Christian Church today is still one of the most sexist institutions in Western civilization. The patriarchal man wants purity in his wife, as well as a mother for his children. The Virgin Mother filled that need, but she was hardly an ideal woman. What man wants to be married to a permanent virgin? We need to remember that the world that proclaimed the Virgin Mary to be the ideal woman treated all women as second class citizens. Today, one cannot help but note that in the nations of the Western world that most honor the Virgin Mary, the status of woman remains very low. She has not been an asset in the quest for the emancipation of women. If I were holding before my daughters or my granddaughters a model for their lives and my choices were the Virgin Mary and Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman would win hands down.

If the goal of organized religion is to call all people into the fullness of their humanity, as I believe it is, then perhaps church leaders ought to look at those they hold up as role models. Both Wonder Woman and the Virgin Mary are mythological figures. The church does not like to admit that ,but it is true. Neither woman, as we have come to know them, ever lived in history. Only one of them pretends to be historical, the other freely admits she is not. But Wonder Woman has done more to break the culturally imposed boundaries on women than the Virgin Mary ever did. Wonder Woman has shaped, freed, called and transformed the limits for more women since her birth in 1941 than the Virgin Mary has done in 2000 years. If it were possible to do so I would nominate her for sainthood.

Charles Moulton, in the name of my four daughters and my two granddaughters, I, a bishop of the Episcopal Church for 26 years, wish to thank you.


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