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Strong women: hitting the streets

By David Wallace

Jewish and Christian traditions alike praise the strong woman, a colossus of work and ingenuity who, according to Proverbs 31, rises early and prepares food, plants vineyards, conveyances land, feeds the poor, manufactures and sells linen garments, weaves tapestries, and speaks wisdom. The most authentic setting for hearing and indeed experiencing all this today, in Jewish tradition, is the seder meal and its accompanying prayers. In Christian tradition the Biblical strength of a mulier fortis, the term used by Jerome’s Vulgate, dilutes in translation: the ‘capable woman’ of the New Jerusalem and New English Bibles suggests a domesticated sub-heroine from Barbara Pym rather than the awe-inspiring woman of Proverbs 31. But the strong woman of earlier Christian tradition certainly inspired awe and no little fear in the hearts of men. And so men evolved a social compact: that such a woman might realize the full measure of her ingenuity and industry, but only within the seclusion of a home, or house of religion: o marito o muro, as the Italian proverb has it (choose either a husband, or a wall). This compact lingers. The White House, showcasing its private space to the western world, demands that the First Lady be primarily seen (however well educated) as cookie-baker-in-chief. And who knows what Kate Middleton and Samantha Cameron, products of Marlborough College educations, really think? The places now enfolding them—Clarence House and 10 Downing Street—form a social and psychic structure known to women of earlier times as clausura, or enclosure. The attempt to escape enclosure, while yet retaining its suggestively charismatic powers, exercised the minds of some brilliant strong women of earlier times.

Mary Ward, born in 1585, grew up Catholic in Yorkshire country houses that were often run by women (with the men being pursued as Recusants). At twenty-one, just as many of her relatives were being arrested as Gunpowder Plotters, she crossed to the Spanish Netherlands to begin a new life as an enclosed nun, a Poor Clare. It was only through embracing enclosure that a Catholic woman might develop the life and devotional habits associated with sanctity and religious authority. And yet it occurred to Mary Ward, slowly but surely, that the poor benefited little from her way of life: particularly the Catholic poor of England, often living and dying in places that no priest dare visit. And so she elaborated an apostolate of the streets for women, based upon the Jesuit rule. Freed from the restrictions of enclosure, but sustaining the spirituality and religious discipline nurtured by all-female community, women might attend to the immediate needs of the poor. Mary Ward traveled (mostly walked) as far south as Naples and as far east as Bratislava, to the very edge of Turkish domains; houses were founded, and thousands of young girls educated. Some Catholic clergy, however, were scandalized by reports of ‘Galloping Hussies’ or ‘chattering hussies’, ‘Amazons’ or ‘Apostolic Viragos’. The notion of women traveling freely, rather than observing strict enclosure, shocked southern European men: the kind of men found in the papal curia. Mary Ward was summoned to Rome and kept under close surveillance. Her movement was savagely suppressed by papal bull in 1631; she eventually returned to Yorkshire and died in 1645, with her movement a bankrupt ruin.

Mary Ward’s movement survived in attenuated form, although it was not permissible to mention her as its founder until 1909. It proved most vigorous in Germany, where the women were known as the ‘English Ladies,’ and along the sea-lanes of the British Empire. In 1944 a member of the Loreto branch in India was moved, like her founder, to develop an apostolate of the streets for a nation in crisis; she was able to leave her convent in Calcutta, four years later, once Rome had given permission. On 19 December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed Mary Ward ‘Venerable’ (the first step to sainthood) and then, in London on 17 September 2010, commended ‘her pioneering vision of apostolic life for women’. This seems surprising, from a conservative pope: but he is a northern, rather than southern, European; and he was educated as a boy in Germany by ‘the English Ladies.’

Forms of enclosure for women have shifted since premodern times, although the family seems perennial (given disproportionate sharing of domestic labour). Schoolrooms and university lecture halls might also be seen as contemporary forms of enclosure, since feminine energies expended here rarely carry to a wider public sphere: corporate boardrooms and the inner circles of parliamentary or congressional democracy are still not, fundamentally, women-friendly. The first crucial trick in escaping enclosure, for premodern and modern women alike, is to depart with charismatic authority (as nurtured by feminized private space) intact. The second is to escape to somewhere. Contemporary Catholic women, as descendants of Mary Ward, might step out of current restrictions to enter the closed circles of masculine Catholic power. The virtues accompanying them as strong women will make the Church a saner and safer place for all women, men, and (especially) children. Different women might enter other closed circles: we might, for example, ask Hillary Clinton ‘why, when so many leathery old men lust for powers of Senate or Presidency, will you not aspire to the highest office, being content (so you say) to return to your family?’ Run, Hillary, run: ‘strength and honor are her clothing; she shall rejoice in time to come’ (Proverbs 31.25).

David Wallace is Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the author of Strong Women: Life, Text, and Territory, 1347-1645. He is currently editing, also for OUP, what will be the first literary history of Europe, 1348-1418.

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