I decided it was too ambitious to set myself a summer project these holidays. The summer’s looking crazy and we’ve a fair bit of reading and prep to do for next semester’s cross-cultural study at St Andrew’s Hall. That hasn’t stopped me dipping into one or two interesting feminist books though!
I ordered Mother Goose, Mother Jones, Mommie Dearest: Biblical Mothers and their Children for the Ridley library when I was thinking about pursuing the idea of mother in the Bible for my MDiv project and have only just now had the time to read it.
It’s a collection of essays exploring the concept of motherhood in the Bible via a comparative analysis with mothers in pop culture – everything from Mother Goose to The Simpsons! It’s written from a religious studies point of view which limits its usefulness – rather than seeing the Bible as transformative of culture, it sees it as a product of its culture, preserving the status quo.
It would be too encompassing to consider every mother in the Bible but I wondered whether there was an ideology at work here that biased the sample. There’s no chapter about the matriarchs for example. In one essay, they’re briefly compared with Manoah’s wife in that, like her, they’re defined by their sons. They’re also contrasted with her in that she, a virtuous character, is unnamed and remains relatively minor while they – conniving, scheming lot that they are – are named and given centre stage, at least momentarily. The author then attempts to argue that only questionable women are profiled while positive portrayals of women remain in the background. Of course, that only works if you omit Deborah from the discussion of motherhood, which this also book conveniently does.
There is, however, a very interesting discussion of Mary. Arguing that to elevate her beyond ordinary personhood denies the incarnation, she is portrayed as a woman who ‘in the midst of very human struggles, manages to navigate subversively through cultural norms that sought to constrain her.’ In particular, it is suggested that this could be an empowering paradigm in an African context where women are so often left vulnerable because of HIV/AIDS or sexual violence. The discussion doesn’t deal at all with Mary at the foot of Jesus’ cross which is disappointing but its re-casting of Mary as an empowerment figure for African women is an intriguing one.
One interesting tension that exists between the authors of the essays is the extent to which motherhood ought to define women. Ann Kaplan is approvingly quoted arguing that only once women are no longer defined (solely) by motherhood can they be free. However, the chapter on the Mother Archetype as seeking justice seems to define mother according to their desire to care for their own children, at times, at the cost of their own well-being. On one hand, there’s a sense that motherhood confines women to patriarchal schemas; on the other, there’s admiration for the courage of mothers within that.
One essay looks at Marge Simpson and notes that although she holds to feminist ideals herself, she is also the backbone of a traditional patriarchal family. I suspect many women can identify with that contradiction and it’s one that’s evident even in this feminist treatment of the topic as well.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.