This year in my pondering of Mary’s Song I have had two companions along the way. My first companion has been another handmaid or, rather, many of them, in the shape of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; this time revisited in a powerful drama series created for television which incorporates Atwood’s book then extends it. In the dystopian world of Gilead, a highly religious patriarchy has been set up where the Bible is quoted tirelessly as the thread that knits together and mandates a unique way of life.
Women are divided into three classes—wives; Marthas, who perform the household tasks like cooking; and Handmaids—fertile young women assigned to a household and given a name based on that of their commander. Each commander impregnates his Handmaid against her will via a monthly ceremony. All this is justified by the argument that birth rates are so low and that this is due in large measure to the failure of women to know their place in the patriarchy and to fulfil their God given role of reproduction. No woman is allowed to read or dissent from the regime. Punishments include losing a finger or eye or tongue.
It is a tough watch, as all dystopian versions of Christianity are. Adding insult to injury, my favourite craft (and possibly the only skill for which I am an Olympic hopeful) comes in for criticism in one episode when a highly capable commander’s wife complains that she hates knitting. It was almost enough to cause me to put down my needles and throw the ball of wool at the screen. (For you fellow knitting fans who just cheered—it was a Christmas baby hat. I knew you would want to know. Keep knitting live!)
My other companion of some 10 years has been Josephine Butler, the English nineteenth-century Christian reformer. Butler’s use of the Bible in her arguments with church and state was the subject of my doctoral research and became and remains a great source of inspiration and joy. Butler was convinced that Jesus requires an absolutely equal standard of morality from everyone—male and female. In her time, it was expected that men would “sow some wild oats.” Women, however, were shamed and shunned for the smallest breaches of propriety. Men who frequented brothels or kept mistresses were excused for their behaviour, retaining positions of power and influence. In contrast, the women they used were permanently expelled from society with no opportunity for restoration. Butler pointed out the inconsistency, drawing on Christ’s words––“let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Prodigal sons were welcomed back when they repented, she observed, so why not prodigal daughters?”
If Mary had lived in the Victorian world, Butler asks, would she too have been cast out by a church and society quick to accuse and shun immoral women?