Mary: The Unachievable “Ideal Woman”

“Well, that’s serious Catholics for you.  All women should be both virgins and mothers if at all possible.”  In this line of dialogue, fictional character Nate Spencer echoes something that confused me from the time I was old enough (about 11) to understand what being a virgin meant and put that together with the gospels.

In mass and in hymns, Mary was often referred to as “ever virgin.”  My parents and religion teachers told me Jesus had no brothers and sisters because Mary stayed a virgin her whole life.  I couldn’t find anything in the New Testament that supported these claims.  To the contrary, the gospels of Mark and Luke refer to Jesus’ brothers.  Mark 3:31-35; Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19-21.  The gospels of Mark and John don’t state at all that Mary was a virgin.  And the Gospel of Matthew says that Joseph married Mary, despite her being pregnant, because he was told by an angel that her child was begotten of the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph “did not know her till she brought forth her firstborn son.”  Matthew 1:25.  This suggested to me that Mary did have sex with Joseph after Jesus’ birth.  This interpretation made sense to me, as I thought the point of Mary being a virgin was to show Joseph was not Jesus’ father, but rather was conceived in a divine way.  If that were true, it didn’t matter if Mary had sex later or not.  (Apparently, I was already preparing for a career as an appellate lawyer where I would parse out words and argue various meanings.)

The Catholic Church insisting Mary remained a virgin forever strikes me as having many potential ill effects for women.  For one, “virgin” is often paired with “pure,” suggesting sex is impure.  Also, Mary is held up as the ideal woman and, as Nate Spencer notes, she is both a virgin and a mother.  A nearly impossible ideal for a real human woman to achieve, even if she wanted to.  So women begin the Christian Bible by literally leading men into sin (Eve) and end with the unachievable “ideal” woman (Mary).  Not only are women bad to begin with, there is no hope of redemption.

And why should a human woman want to be both a virgin and a mother?  To venerate this version of Mary is to deny women’s sexuality, as well as to deny the deep emotional connection with another  human being that can accompany a sexual relationship.  Plus, this vision underscores that a woman’s value and purpose can be only one thing – to be a mother.  For those who either cannot or choose not to fulfill this role, there is nothing left.  And for Mary, if in fact she lived and was both virgin and mother, what was her life like?  The New Testament tells us little, other than that Joseph stood by her after an angel spoke to him.  At least one passage suggests Jesus himself regarded her role as his mother as not that important.  When a woman praises to Jesus “the womb that bore thee,” he says, “ ‘Rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.’ ”.   Luke 11:27-28.  Only one gospel even mentions Mary being there when Jesus was crucified.  According to Catholic dogma, Mary was assumed bodily into heaven for her troubles, rather than dying, but that appears nowhere in the Bible.

And so I wonder, what might happen if a real young woman today found herself in Mary’s situation, a pregnant virgin.  Who would believe her?  How would she react, especially if no angel from on high showed up to explain it all?  And would people who were traditionally religious be more or less apt to believe her?

Lisa M. Lilly

Author of The Awakening

How will Tara Spencer deal with her sudden, mysterious pregnancy?  And what will that mean for the world?