The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers Who Have Been Written Out of Christianity’s Early History by A. Mar
I. From Silk Robes to Hairshirts
When Jerome, the Catholic priest and scholar, arrived in Rome in the middle of the fourth century, he discovered a circle of noblewomen living in elaborate homes on the Aventine Hill who were nothing like their neighbors.
They’d given up their silk clothes and pearl earrings, the hairstyles and rouge and musk, even bathing, as signs of vanity, and were now wearing coarse robes made of goat’s hair. They stayed almost entirely in their houses, fasting and praying, discussing Scripture; in secret, they might visit a nearby basilica or martyr’s tomb.
They never allowed themselves to rest on couches or cushions of any kind, and at night they slept on thin mats on the floor— though they hardly slept, spending those hours, instead, crying and praying.
Most importantly, these women—some of them widows, some only recently of marrying age, all converts to Christianity—had each taken a vow of chastity.
…Many of the female leaders of Christianity—in the Catholic Church in particular, with its 1.25 billion followers around the world—are barred from being fully ordained and are closely overseen by men. But this was not always the case. Scores of early Christian women—like Marcella, the desert-dwelling Susan, or the scholars Melania and Paula— embraced radical lives, helping the young religion fan out across the Roman Empire and beyond.
From the beginning, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth comprised a movement that was extreme, countercultural—a revolution that embraced both men and women, even social outcasts and slaves.
In those first centuries, while the religion was still defining itself as an institution, many devout women flouted cultural convention and chose Jesus himself—not bishops and bureaucrats—as their personal guide.
These women had permission to live beyond their gender as the leaders and patrons of local congregations, as preachers and ecstatic prophets and tough ascetics.
They defied Roman family laws and rejected their sexuality. They walked the streets, spreading the gospel. They taught themselves Hebrew, analyzed Scripture, corresponded with other Christian leaders. They were aristocrats who seized control of their money and funneled it into the movement, building monasteries and helping prisoners and the poor.
Christianity took shape with the support of these female leaders and mystics and activists. But what we have left of them now are only the remembrances of a handful of men.
II. Rebel Virgins
It started with the virgins.
In the first two centuries of Christianity, many of the cultures in which it took hold had stubborn gender roles— but these roles weren’t as hardline as you might think.
Women had long been the managers of their households, and since followers of the new movement met in private, in intimate “house churches,” women often became the natural leaders of the congregation.
Christian women and men alike could become full-fledged ministers.
In the apostle Paul’s letter to the early congregation he founded in Corinth, he suggested that women should not teach or even speak aloud in church—but in his letter to the Romans, he also name-checked 28 prominent leaders in the Roman Christian community, 10 of whom were women. (A woman, the minister Phoebe, was Paul’s entree into that community.)
Eventually, in some areas, there were even female bishops. This was back when the church was still a social movement, not yet a political powerhouse, and women were drawn to the possibilities it cracked open for them—as preachers, prophets, and patrons.
That said, laws passed by Augustus just before the start of the Common Era still required all upper-class men to marry and all women to procreate, in a return to Roman family values that were largely political myth.
Women could only become financially independent—or, simply, independent—if they’d been divorced or widowed or given birth to a minimum of three children. To escape this system, some upper-class women went so far as to register as prostitutes in order to have free rein with their own money.
It is in this environment that Christian women began to use the vow of chastity as both an act of devotion and an excellent legal loophole. Virginity became a movement, the ultimate hack. As a consecrated virgin, a woman suddenly became free of many of the empire’s gender laws, free to preach and to lead in their community, free to model themselves after the apostles.
The majority of the virgins were women in the cities who formed their own network of house churches.
They flaunted their independence from men, refusing to hide away or to veil themselves, rubbing their ethical superiority in married couples’ faces.
They dressed to make a statement, sometimes adopting men’s clothing and hairstyles (some sheared their heads entirely), and preached in the streets in drag. Women of all social strata, in a move that evokes the late-1960s hippie exodus from the American suburbs, were abandoning their parents and husbands and homes to follow Christian prophets who claimed to offer a starker, truer interpretation of the gospel, and a chaste life as equals alongside equally devout men. Together, they would transcend the mundane world.
This life outside of social convention would not last. Toward the end of the third century, the emperor Diocletian ordered widespread attacks on chaste Christian women. All partner-less women who refused to marry were to be raped or prostituted. 1,000 widows were martyred in Antioch; 2,000 virgins were martyred in Ancyra.
At the same time, women’s place within the once exceptionally open movement began to contract.
As Christianity expanded outward into the political realm, growing into an ambitious institution that aimed to harden its doctrine and practices, a decision was made: Women would no longer minister, prophesy, or baptize, and in the name of consistency, many of their stories would not be preserved.
Church rank-and-file began to insist that women should not be ordained, should not baptize others, and should not teach the gospel—arguments that for the first 200 years had not been made, at least not on any meaningful scale. Few of these early female leaders would remain a part of the church’s history.
(Link): How the Sexual Revolution Ruined Friendship – Also: If Christians Truly Believed in Celibacy and Virginity, they would stop adhering to certain sexual and gender stereotypes that work against both
(Link): Weak Argument Against Celibacy / Virginity / Sexual Purity by the Anti Sexual Purity Gestapo – Sexual Compatibility or Incompatibility – (ie, Taking Human Beings For Test Spins – Humans As Sexual Commodities) (Part 2)
(Link): Why Christians Need To Stress Spiritual Family Over the Nuclear Family – People with no flesh and blood relations including Muslims who Convert to Christianity – Also: First World, White, Rich People Problems