Mary as foil to Eve
The New Testament often reworks and mirrors the Old Testament stories for thematic emphasis. In this way, Mary is presented as a foil to Eve. In the Garden of Eden, Eve disobeys God and eats the forbidden fruit. In the Gospels, Mary, "the handmaid of the Lord," says yes to God to give birth to Jesus. Eve disobeys God because she is tempted by a serpent. And what is a serpent but a penis? So Eve gets duped by a penis, whereas Mary remains a virgin and has a baby. The church also maintains that Mary remains a virgin for life, but we'll get to that later. Finally, Adam can't resist his hot wife and also eats the forbidden fruit, thereby giving us all Original Sin. Adam screws it up for the rest of us, and Jesus, fruit of Mary's womb, fixes it. Mary and Jesus are presented as restorative agents after Eve and Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
Mary as feminine ideal
A traditional hymn sung at Friday evening shabat services in Judaism is "Eschet Chayil," or a Woman of Valor, from Proverbs 31. I'd like to point out some relevant lines from the King James Bible:
Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.The men sing this song in praise of their wives, for without the wives, the households would fall apart. A virtuous woman is a God-fearing woman who takes care of all things domestic and who treats her husband well. Textile arts, for example, fall under the domestic skill set of the ideal woman. Tools involved in the ancient art of turning loose fiber into usable thread include a spindle to twist the fiber, a distaff to hold unspun fiber, and a niddy-noddy to skein and measure the spun yarn. Various works of art depict Mary with these spinning tools. For example, one stained glass window at the Old Swedes Church in Wilmington, Delaware, shows the Holy Family and their respective trades:
The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.
She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.
[. . .]
She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.
[. . .]
Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.
For the moment, I won't dwell on the creepy anatomical proportions of little Jesus and the creepiness that little Jesus is carrying a carpenter's T-square so large it looks like a cross. Let's focus, rather, on Mary, who is spinning yarn on a low-whorl drop spindle, drawing the unspun fiber from the distaff behind her.
Here's another example of Mary and yarn, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci called Madonna of the Yarnwinder:
Geez, what is up with showing little Jesus holding cross-like objects? Creepy foreshadowing, man! You don't see paintings of little Louis XIV playing with a toy guillotine, do you?
Anyway, that thing that little Jesus is holding is a niddy-noddy. I've made a PVC niddy-noddy to skein and measure my handspun yarn. I suppose it would sound silly to call the painting Madonna of the Niddy-Noddy, but that's what I'll do from now on. The presence of a spindle, distaff, and niddy-noddy in these artworks shows that Mary is an ideal woman of valor, a God-fearing woman who does a lot of domestic stuff like spinning yarn.
Repressing women through the ages
While fiber arts like spinning and knitting are no longer among the mandatory domestic skills of the ideal woman, the domestic expectations of a woman today include cooking, cleaning, ironing, maybe some occasional sewing. The word "housewife" encompasses these skills and also carries a negative connotation of a lack of marketable intelligence or expertise. This domestic ideal probably accounts for today's persistent wage differential between the genders. After all, Eve was created from Adam's rib, symbolizing women as subservient to men. Eve is a hyper-sexual character in the Garden of Eden story, and her actions result in expulsion from the Garden. Mary, however, is praised for her perpetual virginity. Taken together, it sounds like female sexuality is a bad thing. Indeed, the church emphasizes Mary's role as mother rather than wife. Consequently, the church denies Joseph sex for eternity! I find it hard to believe that a married couple of fine, upstanding Jews such as Mary and Joseph would not regularly be fruitful and multiply.
Through the stories of Eve and Mary, society's take-home messages seem to include women's subservience to men, the elevation of a domestic ideal, and the denouncing of female sexuality.
Well, that's depressing.
Relation to current events
Some days ago I linked to a BBC news article on an Iranian cleric who claims that earthquakes are caused by immodestly dressed women. That's right; a religious leader blames natural disasters on female sexuality. Science blogger Jen McCreight decided to test the cleric's hypothesis with Boobquake! On Monday, April 26, 2010, McCreight encouraged women to dress immodestly to see if all those boobs could produce an earthquake. McCreight checked the USGS website for seismic activity of the day and compared it to historic data. Results: women dressing immodestly did not produce a statistically significant increase in seismic activity. Yay, boobs!
There was quite the feminist backlash against Boobquake, saying that dressing immodestly simply objectifies women in the eyes of chauvinistic men. Greta Christina of Carnal Nation wrote a fantastic feminist defense of Boobquake that slams those other feminists as sexist.
Blaming women when our sexual expression gets handled poorly is an old and ugly game. Feminists ought not to be playing it.
Yeah, that game is so old that it dates back to Genesis.