20 December 2022, The Tablet

Many more women must have been involved in the birth and life of Jesus than we are told in the Gospels. So where are they all?

There are few women in the Gospel narratives. Where are the women? They have been quite deliberately excluded.

Many more women must have been involved in the birth and life of Jesus than we are told in the Gospels. So where are they all?

How to put women back into the picture, starting with the crib, this Christmas.
File pic of a Christmas scene at Riverdale Farm; Toronto from CanadaDesign Pics Inc / Alamy.

Because it’s an anniversary, there have been lots of pictures from Vatican II in the press recently, including even a Tablet cover. I look at the photographs from the second Vatican Council, of the participants assembled in the Sistine and in St Peter’s and I feel chilled. Like many religious occasions, even in different religions and in different countries, the pictures show only men, lots and lots of them, all preparing to discuss and rule about matters which involve all human beings, half of which are women. Where are the women?

I was recently reading about John Calvin settling in Geneva as part of the Reformation and altering the way things were run to the way he wanted. According to the author, one crucial difference made by Calvin was to add another layer of authority over the townspeople, not just the clerical ranks from before, with archbishops, bishops and priests, but different titles and, crucially, including a further tier of elders. There were still no women involved. The rules being imposed, however, of course applied to them. It’s not just Catholics who have this history, but some Churches have moved on more quickly than others.

We are more aware of what is called “the optics” nowadays, especially in the political sphere. Most modern pictures of European political gatherings try to ensure that at least a couple of women are included, but this is still not true in some parts of the world, and many men do not even seem to notice. I say “men” rather than “people” there, because women do notice. They may feel that this is normal, understandable, predictable; but not many would think it justified. The number imbalance is at best embarrassing, and often looks like tokenism. Where are the women?

We are so used to this that it requires a little effort at first to notice the glaring gap. Once you start asking the question, though, it makes you think. I started doing it with pictures of the Last Supper. I’ve been present at meals like that, not so much in Britain but in central Europe, where all the men are at the table and the women are not visible. They may be in the kitchen, or getting the beds ready, or tidying up, or taking care of the children, but quite a lot of them will be devoted to dishing up, bringing food out to the table and carrying away the leftovers (some of which the women will eat, but the best bits will usually be saved for the men the next day). I once read a suggestion that the empty side of the table was there for those of us looking at the picture, but I now mentally fill it with women. Jesus would not have minded women being at the table; he defends a woman’s right to be in the room on the same terms as the rest of the disciples (Mary of Bethany). 

Surely the point of the first two chapters of Genesis is that you actually need both men and women. In Genesis 1, God simply creates them both at once, and both in his image. In Genesis 2, the story is altered and expanded to add weight to the point. I think we can assume that a man wrote it down originally. God starts by creating a man alone and then realises that he needs a companion, and eventually gives him one, not like any other created thing but like himself and therefore in God’s image, whom he joyfully accepts as his equal. We have balance and harmony, co-operation and unity. It is only later that things go wrong. Everything is out of joint when the balance is lost.

I was thinking where are the women again as I worked through the planning for the Advent and Christmas music, and realised again how skewed our picture is of what was going on. We obviously know that the first Christmas probably didn’t look anything like our ideas of it on Christmas cards or in cribs. Our Christmas is a Victorian construct, our ideas of the crib scene (including Mary’s golden tresses) shaped by hundreds of years of European paintings, and that’s fine so long as we stay aware of how accidental most of our ideas are, and how the substance is what matters. But even if we concentrate on what the Gospel narratives tell us, we still risk getting the wrong idea, because the accounts are incomplete. They are coloured by the assumptions of the men who wrote them down, and two thousand years later, there are now lots of accretions and assumptions, again mostly by men. The women have not been included (in all senses).

To start with, Mary and Joseph won’t have set out on their own to go to Bethlehem, even if the Roman census could have been better timed. It won’t have been a big group; Bethlehem was only a small place, so it’s not necessarily like when a large group goes up to Jerusalem twelve years later and Jesus gets left behind, because the children are all running about together instead of staying within their own families. But I doubt they would be alone, because travelling was hazardous in all circumstances, even if Mary had not been heavily pregnant. Imagine what St Anne would have said at the planning stage. She would probably have insisted on coming too if she were able, or sending a couple of aunties, given Mary’s youth and inexperience. We don’t know whether St Anne was still alive, but my point is that even if she had been, we would not know; she is not mentioned in any of the Gospels.

By now Mary is maybe eight months pregnant (it’s unclear how long they stay in Bethlehem before the baby is born), and I am sure that Joseph was not thinking that he could handle assisting at the birth all on his own. He was not a paramedic, a first-aider or any sort of farmer; he was a carpenter. He had no option on pre-natal classes. He will have concentrated on making a cradle for the baby once born, or maybe a stool for Mary so that she didn’t have to stand up to work. Birthing was women’s work. We forget how recent has been the turnround of expectations in this area. I relied upon my wonderful husband when I was in labour, but my mother wouldn’t have dreamed of letting my father in, she told me, even though he was a doctor who adored babies and midwifery (he also enjoyed woodwork and made a cradle for my babies). And with Mary and Joseph, we’re talking a long time ago, and in a very different culture. Where are the women missing from the account? They were surely there.

If you look at the pictures of the Nativity, Mary is nearly always the only woman in sight. I’m not talking about the simple Jesus, Mary and Joseph group, but the ones with more people. I don’t count the angels, even though they wear skirts. The shepherds and the Magi are men. The innkeeper is a man. Herod’s soldiers are men. The high priests and the scribes are all men. Where are the women? In the Gospel narratives of the birth there is a single reference to “Rachel mourning for her children” (Mtt 2.18), a quotation, the fulfilment of a prophecy, to stand for all the women whose babies are killed by Herod’s men, but not a single woman comes on stage as it were (you can see why the morality plays do this differently, just humanising the story).

When the plays do start, and become a precious part of the celebration of Christmas, probably around the thirteenth century, there are female characters. But I glean from a French account of the crib ceremonies in Rouen, quoted in the Preface to the Oxford Book of Carols, that this doesn’t mean more women: “Two priests of the first rank wearing dalmatics will represent the midwives and stand by the crib.” It is a jolt to realise that naturally Mary will have been played by an altar boy (think Shakespeare in Love, which is set a couple of centuries later). No women in the sanctuary, of course; in Durham Cathedral there is still a line in the actual nave which women were not meant to go beyond, and it’s not very far in. No wonder there are so few women in the Gospel narratives. Where are the women? They have been quite deliberately excluded.

We are left only with myth and apocryphal gospel narratives, which have additional characters who behave in ways meant to point a moral. In the Gospel of James (and other pious myths), we have a midwife for Mary and a person called Salome who doubts the virgin birth and has her hand miraculously burnt off and then restored once she recognises the baby as the King of Israel (and I’m irresistibly reminded of all the hand-lopping and cyborg-recreating in Star Wars). But of course there must have been women around in any sort of inn, even if the innkeeper was unmarried (highly unlikely). The women were there, but they aren’t in the text and they tend not to be in the pictures. When they do appear, though, it’s charming: the midwife can be bathing the baby, or sometimes even making dropscones on a griddle for Our Lady. I am delighted to see that post-partum toast has such an illustrious history.

It’s the same with crib figures. We are lucky enough to have a shepherdess among our figures for one of our cribs; it’s African and she is Maasai, dressed in red with a striking necklace. I have seen little German crib shepherdesses, and of course in the Provençal tradition with the santons, there are female as well as male village figures. This is more like real life, but most of us are limited to the standard crib figures and none of them is female except Mary. Where are the women? 

It’s not just the birth accounts. Jesus is careful to include women in his parables and sayings, often alternating male and female characters, as in the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent, with the two men followed by the two women; but women are few in the narrative, usually appearing only because they are directly dealing with the Lord himself (Mary and Martha, the woman at the well, Peter’s mother-in-law, the anointing woman and so on). They are rarely mentioned in the Passion narratives, but when they are, it’s worth paying close attention to what is said: there are “many” women and they have been with the group for a long time (cf. Mark 15.40, Luke 23.49, Mtt 27.55). 

Let’s try putting some women back into the picture this Christmas. Add some extra figures to the crib, and don’t worry too much about scale. A clothes peg wrapped in a coloured handkerchief, with a face drawn on, will do, and might be fun to make. A lot of families (surely it’s not just us) have extra sheep, or the odd dragon or dinosaur swelling the ranks around the crib. Let’s add some female figures to represent what is, after all, the majority of the people in the pews, if not in the hierarchy. Let’s not just “value the contribution of women to the Church” (synodal Working Document); let’s try and make women more visible in every area of Church life, especially where our children can see them. Where are the women? Right in front of you.

What do you think?


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User comments (1)

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 06/05/2014 22:43:30

Easter Rite Catholics, the Orthodox, Protestants, Jews and Muslims all support married clergy.

Is it only Latin Rite Catholics who find the possibility of doing so such a shock to their religious sensibilities?

LR Catholics need to face the fact that being cheap isn't going to cut it anymore.

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