National Geographic recently published an article about Mary, the mother of Jesus, describing her as the world’s most influential woman. Certainly she is a powerful figure, capturing the imaginations of millions and an icon to many of devotion, faith, strength and purity. I am aware, of course, that since we know so little about her, historically speaking, it could be argued that much of what people admire about her could be attributed to projections of their own hopes and aspirations. Still, I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. After all, it is what we all do with our heroes and our gods. So today, on International Women’s Day, whether or not we have the historically correct picture of her, I want to hold Mary (or common interpretations of her) up as an icon of a (note, not the) type of womanhood worth celebrating. Not a popular choice from somebody who professes to be a feminist, I know, but hear me out.
Much of what passes for modern feminism saddens me. It saddens me because in a commendable attempt to empower women, we have tried – for lack of a better term – to “masculate” them. We believe that if women replace their dresses with loose-fitting pants, cut their hair and join the military, somehow they have been empowered. When Scarlett Johannsen is dressed up in spandex and given a katana, or when Keira Knightley rides bareback on a horse and handles a longbow with ease, the widespread consensus is that somehow this is a telling blow against the patriarchy. The truth, however, is that the statement made in so doing is that only traditionally masculine activities are truly empowering. If a woman can outdrink a man and belch louder, only then can we accept that women are equal to men. But femininity is still viewed as inferior and weak.
Maybe that is the root of the problem: the assumption that in order to be equally valuable, we have to be the same. If we truly wish to empower those who are marginalised by societal structures – like women, black people, gay people – we have to stop insisting that they conform to the established norms in order to be accepted. True empowerment would be to accept and celebrate people for who they are, not for the degree to which they resemble us (I speak as a white, heterosexual male, so the “us” is not meant to divide, but to speak to the groups who have been privileged by being labelled “normal” by society). Being different is not inherently problematic.
I cannot address racism by denying that some people are black and pretending not to see colour. That is to imply that difference is bad. I cannot address homophobia by insisting that deep down we all have the same attractions. I cannot fight sexism by trying to turn women into men. If I want to fight racism in South Africa, I must celebrate Zulu or Sepedi or Afrikaans cultures in all their uniqueness. I cannot pretend we are all the same. I must respect and value the differences, not distance myself from them.
Unfortunately, that is what I think that much of what passes for modern feminism does. In an effort to denounce problematic patriarchal assumptions, it rejects all forms of femininity. I have seen too many young women – ardent in their striving for equality – being encouraged to reject marriage, children, any attempt to emphasise beauty. I think that is sad. Being seen as a sex-object is definitely not empowering, but celebrating beauty can be. Being a mother is a natural and beautiful thing, not at all disempowering if a woman chooses it. And devotion and love are not demeaning qualities, either in men or in women. Why these virtues should be actively discouraged in a world that needs them so desperately is beyond me. In myriad ways, women are different from men. True feminism recognises that this is okay. It is not necessarily a trick of society, to be denied at all costs. Like anybody else, a woman should be free to choose to wear a dress or to wear pants, free to choose to be a parent, free to of her appearance. Women deserve to be entitled to respect for being women instead of respect won by being more like men. In striving for equality, we should beware of striving for sameness.
So – no impudence intended – I hail Mary as an icon of a type of womanhood to be celebrated. It was she who bore with equanimity and pride the scorn and derision that must have been directed her way during her pregnancy, as she was not yet married. She was, according to the angel Gabriel at the annunciation, a woman “full of grace”. When all Jesus’ friends had fled out of fear, it was Mary who stayed by the cross. She was in no way inferior to Joseph, she was – aside from God’s – nobody’s servant. She was strong, gracious, undeniably independent, and has – over the centuries – acquired a host of other positive attributes. But she was – is still – undeniably feminine, and certainly no less for that.
To all the remarkable women in my life, I honour you today. I value your contributions in shaping me into a man I can often be proud of. I value you for the different perspectives you show me, both of my world and of myself. I cherish all the ways in which you make my life richer. You are all a blessing to me. Thank you, with all my heart.