Dorothy Dohen’s Reclamation of Virginity

by Debra Campbell

Debra Campbell is Dana faculty fellow and assistant professor of religion at Colby College in Waterville, Main.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 20-27, 1988, p. 667. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The Catholic church’s admonitions to young women to preserve their virginity at all costs consisted chiefly, at least in the past, of dramatic warnings, what one might call “spiritual terrorism,” in that all Catholic girls should be willing to die to preserve their virginity, because Catholic educators told them so and because the alternative was unthinkable. A new appreciation of virginity informed by church history and feminist theology is needed.

On January 3, 1984, Dorothy Dohen, noted Catholic journalist and sociologist of religion, died of cancer. Dohen was one of a small cadre of exceptional laywomen who helped to transform the consciousness of American Catholics during the decade prior to Vatican II. Textbooks in Catholic history have not yet acknowledged her contributions, but then, neither have they noticed most of the lay constituency whose spiritual experiences Dohen struggled to understand and articulate. In her obituary in the June 1, 1984, issue of Commonweal, Joseph Fitzpatrick, S.J., professor emeritus of sociology at Fordham University (where Dohen had received her Ph.D.), mentioned among her achievements and deepest commitments her chosen vocation of virginity. Fitzpatrick did not linger over this very personal aspect of Dohen’s life, but the fact that he mentioned it, however briefly, is significant.

After her death, as in her life, Dohen raises important questions concerning women’s spiritual status and the Catholic community’s perception of women. Harvard sociologist David Riesman acknowledged this in a letter to the editors of Commonweal (August 10, 1984) in response to Dohen’s obituary. He devoted one third of his letter to Dohen’s virginity, and used the occasion to protest young women’s changing assessment of virginity. Riesman affirmed:

Dorothy Dohen had something to say to the young women who today are often ashamed of their virginity, some of whom take refuge in a form of defensive lesbianism, discovering no legitimate way they can defend themselves against the importuning of aggressive (and also vulnerable) men.

It would take a long time to explicate the problems with Riesman’s remarks, from his suggestion that lesbians are really reticent virgins in disguise, to his inference that we should somehow allow for the vulnerability of men who force themselves sexually upon women, to the implications that today’s young women are the first to feel uncomfortable or impatient with their virginity. Nevertheless, his comments show why it is worthwhile to examine the meaning and significance of Dohen’s chosen vocation of virginity.

Dohen was raised on the customary sermons on chastity delivered to all-female audiences at Catholic missions and (later) retreats, homilies that all sounded a bit like the exemplar in The Mission Book (Catholic Publication Society, 1870) :

Innocence, young Christian maidens, is the most precious treasure you have on earth, and you ought to prefer death to losing it. In order therefore, that you may not lose it, fly from every danger, even the most remote, which could rob you of it. In every danger which you cannot avoid, fight like Christian heroines for the preservation of your purity; employ every possible means to guard it unstained, not only before man, but also in the eyes of God, and of your own conscience [pp. 460-61].

The church’s endorsement of virginity extended beyond such formal appeals and into policy decisions pertaining to female sexuality. Nineteenth-century Sisters of Charity found little support for their work with "delinquent girls" from powerful ecclesiastics like New York Archbishop John Hughes, who sincerely believed it impossible to rehabilitate a woman once she had relinquished "the glory of her womanhood." Early in the 20th century, a former midwife was unable to enter the Daughters of Charity either in England or in France because the heads of that order were convinced that detailed knowledge of the female reproductive system was "dangerous to the chastity, of the consecrated virgin" (Mary Ewens, The Role of the Nurse in Nineteenth Century America [Ayer, 1984]. p. 104).

During the first half of this century. Catholic educators refined their teaching on virginity so that it had at least two major components: a practical "hands off’ approach bolstered by examples from the saints, notably St. Maria Goretti, and a healthy dose of Mariology. It was impossible for a girl to attend a parochial or convent school at any time during the six decades prior to Vatican II and not learn about Maria Goretti, who constitute the core curriculum in moral theology for Catholic girls during this period. Goretti was an 11-year-old Italian girl who died in 1902 of stab wounds inflicted by a would-be rapist armed with a stiletto. She was canonized in 1950, only 48 years after her death -- a speedy transaction, in part because Pius XII made it an important priority. In 1947, when Goretti was beatified, the pontiff declared her a "model and protector" of young girls trapped in a "cruel and degraded world," and gave thanks for "the little maid Maria who sanctified the opening of the century with her innocent blood."

Maria Goretti suffered another type of abuse after her canonization. A whole industry of Maria Goretti paraphernalia proliferated: books, holy cards and statues geared to the grade-school and high-school markets. The piece de resistance was a recorded dramatization of her rape, replete with heavy breathing, plaintive cries, groans and the like. In this way the institutional church successfully, if unwittingly, exploited the sexual assault of a little girl, and spiritually terrorized Catholic females of the baby-boom generation. (One can only be grateful that Goretti’s popularity declined before the age of videos.) The Maria Goretti hype drove home the message that all Catholic girls should be willing to die to preserve their virginity, because Catholic educators told them so and because the alternative was unthinkable.

Thus it appears that the church’s admonitions to young women to preserve their virginity at all costs consisted chiefly, at least in the past, of dramatic warnings: what one might call "spiritual terrorism" -- ranging from alarming, realistic renditions of Maria Goretti’s suffering to more pedestrian prescriptions pertaining to patent leather shoes. The second component of the church’s teaching on virginity, the Virgin Mary herself, complicates the picture. As Marina Warner’s classic Alone of All Her Sex (Vintage, 1983) makes clear, there is no one way to present Mary: equally diversified are Mary’s "uses" by different constituencies within and without the church. Novelist Mary Gordon, a perceptive interpreter of Catholic women’s experience, affirms that Mary’s submissive obedience has become "a stick to beat smart girls" ("Coming to Terms with Mary," Commonweal, January 15, 1982) Warner painfully recalls her own adolescent realization that the symbol of Mary as a model of chastity actually denigrates women and humanity, an understanding that transformed her perception of the church.

The Virgin Mary remains the church’s major theological justification for emphasizing virginity as an ideal. The Word made flesh needed a spotless vessel. Mary’s virginity, as well as her Immaculate Conception, qualified her to be the mother of the incarnate Savior. All women, as daughters of Mary, are thus called to emulate her total submission to the will of God, including her virginity. Young women have been trained to venerate Mary and to ask her help in following her example. The imitation of Mary presents problems, however. One might try to remain chaste; young people of both genders have been enjoined by the church to do so. One might even succeed in remaining chaste, in preserving one’s virginity. Still, as feminist theologians have frequently pointed out, one can remain a virgin for all the wrong reasons. As Mary Daly explained in Beyond God the Father (Beacon, 1973) , some Christians have used the Virgin Mary to enforce a narrow biological definition of the ideal of virginity: Mary has been raised up as a model simply because of what she does not do sexually. This latter perspective has been the thrust of the Maria Goretti sighs and screams school of Catholic social ethics.

Daly’s and Dohen’s interpretations of virginity are compatible with Augustine’s position. All three hold that virginity is a virtue for those mature women who deliberately choose it for the proper reasons. Augustine, Daly and Dohen might differ, however, on what reasons are proper. In her book Pure Lust (Beacon, 1984) , Daly reclaims, on behalf of womankind, a meaning of "virgin" that she considers more authentic than the customary one, based on what a virgin "does not do sexually." According to Daly, a virgin is a woman who has never been captured or subdued. Virgins are, in Daly’s words, "the proud Prudes who prance through the Realms of Pure Lust fiercely [focusing] our Fury, firing! inspiring ourselves and each other with renewed commitment to the cause of women and all Elemental beings" (p. 262) Daly’s definition suggests a strong element of women’s will and refusal to accept an identity or an experience imposed from without. Compared to this, the Maria Goretti model appears rather arbitrary, impersonal, shallow, even wimpy.

Dohen’s views on virginity bear some affinity to those of Augustine and Daly. but they are grounded in her own experience as an American Catholic laywoman at mid-century. She came of age during the American Catholic Church’s golden era of lay activism and initiative of the quarter-century prior to Vatican II. She became involved in two Catholic Action movements imported from Europe: the Grail, dominated by strong, visionary, single women who sought to convert the world to a new vision of Christ-centered humanity; and the Young Catholic Workers, who envisioned the transformation of the workplace and ultimately society according to a Christian vision emerging out of the experience of individual workers. As editor of the lay Catholic journal Integrity (1952-56) , Dohen worked hard to articulate the Christian (Catholic) vision so that it reflected people’s changing needs. Meanwhile, she engaged in a private struggle to define her own vocation as a consecrated virgin.

In order to see Dohen’ s struggle in its proper context, one must acknowledge the single laywoman’s position in the Catholic Church during the ‘40s and ‘50s. Essentially, Catholic women had two vocational options, each with its own rules and spirituality. The first, the celibate life in a religious order, was a movement of organized, ecclesiastically sanctioned virginity. The second track required marriage and motherhood (of many children) The single woman, presumably, was merely in transition between girlhood and one of these established tracks.

Upon this orderly, ecclesiastically manageable scene burst the lay activists of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, including Dohen and her colleagues in the Grail movement. A core group of activist laywomen gravitated toward a vocation of personally chosen, individually implemented virginity -- what one might call "free-lance" virginity. For Dohen, a sensitive observer and interpreter of Catholic life in the U.S., the choice of "free-lance virginity" was far more full of trials than one might think; adherents battled not sexual temptations so much as inner struggles with the church’s expectations of women to follow one of the two established vocational tracks. As a single woman in the modern Catholic Church, Dohen recognized the Catholic community’s ambivalence toward single women, and forthrightly addressed it. "The single woman," she asserted, ". . . has a bad enough time in America anyway since Kinsey and his associates thought they had discovered that if she has preserved her chastity she is in an abnormal condition." Dohen elaborates:

Single Catholic women are told by one pamphlet writer that they are not missing anything. There is nothing to sex anyhow; no reason why anyone should want it or feel frustrated without it. In fact, the priest-author goes on to declare, single women should be glad they are not married since spiritually they are well-circumstanced. and have -- even -- a slight edge on salvation. The single woman might well be confused by all of this, especially if she heard the Sister President say at the time of her graduation from college that if she remained single she was selfish. No Catholic woman should choose to remain single: she must either go in the convent or get married. Who is right? Father X or Sister Y? It is especially disconcerting since, as usual, they both quote from Saint Paul! [Women in Wonderland (Sheed & Ward, 1960) , p. 6].

Because she had to work out for herself the problem of being a laywoman claiming a personal vocation of virginity, Dohen could articulate clearly the difference between the vocation of consecrated virginity and the situation of singleness. She called for a halt to the "unnecessary mystification of virginity" and challenged the popular position that virginity was always inherently more holy than marriage. She maintained that "consecrated virginity [was] as far removed from bachelorhood as it [was] from marriage." She insisted that it would be "disastrous" for a single woman to make a vow of chastity simply because she was unwed and thereby forbidden by the church to engage in sexual relations ("Virginity is More Than Singleness," Catholic World, September, 1960) Like Augustine, Dohen asserted that intentionality is crucial to the vocation of the consecrated virgin. Unlike the propagators of the Maria Goretti model, who enjoined girls to embrace virginity for its own sake out of deference to ecclesiastical authority, Dohen affirmed that the consecrated virgin freely chooses to sacrifice marriage, which she called "the greatest natural means to holiness and the source of the greatest human love" for the sake of "something else" (Vocation to Love [Sheed & Ward, 1950], p. 56) In her writings, that "something else" appears to include the spiritual status of a "bride of Christ," lonely confrontations with God and, above all, the freedom and detachment necessary to serve God in the world. Recalling the lives of the consecrated virgins who lived during the few centuries prior to the emergence of structured religious orders, Dohen claimed for herself an ancient precedent for the life of freedom and union with God.

Free from the lesser entanglements of husband and children, the "free-lance virgin" could experience a special sense of spiritual power. This kind of virginity cannot be homogenized and packaged for popular consumption. Like contemporary feminist spirituality, Dohen’s chosen vocation of virginity was grounded in her own experience as a woman and in her own autonomous will. It was simultaneously the product and part of the process of her own liberation from external ecclesiastical and spiritual controls. In an article with the prosaic title "Answers for Single Women" (Ave Maria, December 14, 1957) , Dohen conveys the sense of liberation she felt when she founded her own spirituality on her virginity:

Single means one, and one is an individual. I am an individual, not everyone in general.. . . I can’t expect general answers to my individual situation.

I’m not going to find my personal answer spelled out in a book. And I am mature enough at this point to know that there aren’t any pat solutions to really tough problems for any human beings -- married or single.

I have to accept myself as I am -- not the ideal me but the real me. . . . perhaps love is the only answer I’ll ever get, and all I can ask is that God will help me to understand it [p. 14].

In Dohen’s humble, very personal statement of faith in her own spiritual autonomy, we see some of the seeds of the feminist movement that would burst forth within the U.S. Catholic community during the late ‘60s. No one could predict the fruit these seeds would produce. During the decade between the late ‘50s and Humanae Vitae, vast numbers of Catholic women made their own decisions to act, not expecting pat answers spelled out with catechetical clarity. Like Dohen, they felt mature enough to decide for themselves. Somehow, in the midst’ of this process, the hierarchy lost control of these women’s minds (and bodies) Maria Goretti was no longer relevant. And in the midst of this transition, virginity lost its meaning for a large segment of Catholic women. Those who still cherish it do so more quietly than even the low-key Dorothy Dohen. And yet there is something in Dohen’s virginity that remains arresting. The consensus between Augustine, Mary Daly and Dorothy Dohen, minimal though it may be, should make us pause and wonder if a positive creative approach to virginity as a calling can be recovered.