I was inspired today by a picture I came across on Facebook, and looked up in the British Public Library. The picture is from a 13th century manuscript and it depicts the Virgin Mary. However, it’s unlike another picture I have seen of the Virgin. Usually, she is depicted as a vessel on Christ (she’s pregnant, or he’s sitting on her), as a follower of Christ, mourning Christ, or being approached by the arch-angel Gabriel. She is always pious, but never aggressive. I love this picture (see above), because it shows Mary playing a more assertive role. There she is, the much beloved Virgin Mary, punching the devil in the face.
The illustration was done by William de Brailes, a British Early Gothic manuscript illuminator. Just think, in 1240 AD, the middle ages, a woman was depicted physically fighting the devil. I always hear people saying that there aren’t enough strong female role models for our daughters. If this 13th century man captured one, why don’t we have more today? Why don’t we revel in the feisty side of our fellow woman?
My mother raised my sister and I to be strong willed, determined leaders. She would often say things like “Don’t be a sheep,” and “If everyone else jumps off a bridge, be the person to find a better path and lead the way.” I never sat in a class room, a board room, a client meeting – any place, really – where I thought I was inferior or less intelligent than the men in the room. I was an equal and knew my opinion was worth hearing. I also wouldn’t back down from an argument if I knew I was right. There was no deferring to others. And I was not meek about stating my opinion.
What’s strange is that my mother felt she failed to raise my sister and I properly. She would say “My daughters are like men.” This was not a compliment. She disliked the fact that neither of us were meek, compliant women. We would speak our minds and not do it in a self-deprecating way. We didn’t (and still don’t) apologize for our opinions, and would not stand back to listen to others because we knew our value. My mother loved me, but didn’t see admirable traits until I married and started a family. It was only then that she felt she could relate to me.
I like to think that I am raising my daughter the same way my mother raised me. At 12, she experienced sexism in the classroom. Her teacher thought advanced science was too hard for a girl (she had a 97 average). When he would manage to compliment her, it would be by saying things like she was “on par with the top boys in the class.” The teacher tried to put my daughter in her “place”, despite her being a top student in the class. I complained to the school, but was told “That’s just the way he is, he doesn’t mean it.” Due to health issues, I couldn’t deal with this matter the way I would have liked (see the above picture). But the issue was not dropped at home. My girl knows her worth, and can often be heard saying, “I’m a sassy, independent woman who don’t need no man.”
When I write my mysteries, I try to portray assertive female characters. Sadly, I’ve met with some push back from female critics. I’ve been told that my female characters’ personalities are too aggressive and not nurturing enough; the characters think and behave more like men than women. I’m beginning to understand why a lot of female authors write from the male perspective. Women outside of the traditional role are not believable; despite the realistic portrayal.
Take Ghostbusters (2016), for example. The movie didn’t do as well an anticipated, and it got a lot of negative reviews. I loved it. My sister loved it. My daughter loved it. My sons and husband loved it. Why? As my daughter said, “I saw myself in each of the ghostbusters. They were all real women.” Each was smart, funny, and assertive. They were attractive, too, but not in a traditional Hollywood sore of way; they came in different shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. They had a mission, but that mission was not a traditionally feminine one. Each woman could be a friend of mine. The only sexy airhead in the film (I like to call the damsel in distress) was Kevin.
There are few women in my circle or friends who fall into the category of true nurturers (the ones who do are lovely women who I adore and admire, but they are unique). Most of my friends are like me: feminine, but not in a traditional way. I have girlfriends who are/were cops. One friend would walk the beat in the Bronx; she would talk about how she never left a shift without getting into a fight after someone took a swing at her. I have friends who are doctors and surgeons; they don’t apologize for making life and death decisions or wait for a male colleague to do it for them.
I think more women are like the Virgin Mary punching the devil. Intelligent, opinionated, and willing to take matters into their own hands when necessary. We’re not meek bystanders waiting for direction or protection.