Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Thoughts on Pope Joan

I finished reading Pope Joan last night, and passed it along to Laurie tonight (which is Tootie's copy, by the way). Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

The role of women in society, and education of women. I was most struck by the realization that over 1150 years after this story takes place (which is in the 9th century), the treatment of women hasn't changed much. In many parts of the world, a woman is still mere chattel, bought and sold. Women are refused basic human rights, prevented from being educated, and have no control over their own destinies. They are raped, mutilated, enslaved and trafficked, with no availability of justice. Sadly, this is accomplished under a banner of religious piety. While women of Joan's time were denied basic human rights because they were "daughters of Eve," other religions today twist their own dogma to support the oppression of women.

More subtle discrimination. Even though girls in America are compulsorily educated through grade 12, there are punishments against rape and domestic abuse, and equal rights laws, sexual discrimination in America is still rampant. Ours is really the first generation of women to be raised by our parents and teachers to believe that we can be whatever we want to be, we aren't restricted to certain professions, or even just staying home and birthing babies, but we are still far from being equal members of society.

The legal profession in particular is still struggling with equality for women. I worked at a firm years ago that was very discriminatory towards women, even openly so. The managing partner refused to even consider female applicants for associate positions. Only one woman attorney worked there. The same problems exist in business. Even in places where women are employed in large numbers, even in management positions, they can still be excluded from networking opportunities, which are often male-centric in design. (How would men feel if every business networking opportunity involved trips to the salon for a mani/pedi/facial?) Is it any wonder that even though women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, that only two Fortune 500 companies have a woman as a CEO or president? 90 of the 500 companies don't have any women corporate officers. Even still, this is a dramatic improvement from the past, when women weren't represented at all in higher positions in the corporate world. We've never had a woman U.S. president, but we have a record number of women in the 110th Congress (86 total, 16 Senate, 70 House), and we now have a female Speaker of the House (the first ever).

I think though, that this will get better with time, so long as we do not disenfranchise ourselves from our rightful place in society. We have to involve ourselves in politics, in policy-making, and absolutely we must vote. We have to continue to educate ourselves, beyond what degrees we've earned in college, and not back down from expecting to be treated as equals.

(Now stepping back off the feminist soapbox.)

On the historical possibilities. My husband, the self-designated Catholic historian, is of the opinion that the female pope story is as likely to be true as the story about the Loch Ness Monster. There is no direct evidence to support the notion that a female pope exists, or even that there was a Pope John between Leo and Benedict in 853. However, there is about as much evidence pointing to a female pope as there is to support stories of many of the Catholic saints. The difference is that the Church considers the saints' stories to be canon, and the female pope story to be fabrication. Was there a female pope? I think it's a possibility, but not probable. Women certainly have disguised themselves as men, throughout history, and even in modern day, in order to lead lives from which they would otherwise be excluded. Could a woman have hidden her identity for so long, been greatly educated, and won enough support from important people to be elected Pope? I think it's entirely possible. Again, just not likely. (However, more likely than the existence of prehistoric sea monsters.)

On the moral of the story. If the story is indeed only a legend, is the moral of the story that a woman is as good as a man? (To be able to pass as one and ascend to the papacy.) Or is it that if a woman were allowed to be pope, that she'd louse it up by having sex and getting knocked up? (Not that plenty of male popes didn't fornicate and produce illegitimate children. Pope Clement II is even thought to have died due to the treatment of a venereal disease.)

Overall, I liked the book. I thought it was an engaging story, and well-researched regarding details of medieval society, including medicine and the Church. The only criticism I can make is that I think the author went a little overboard on crediting Joan with the advent of modern medicine and engineering, although I do appreciate the references to these ideas that surfaced at the time (including dipping the bread into the wine, rather than drinking from the cup in times of plague outbreak). "Some ideas are dangerous" is certainly true though. So is "thinking women are dangerous." Indeed we are!

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