Throughout history, inspired by religions’ stories of their irrefutable inferiority as Eve’s daughters, women have attempted to transcend the weakness of being female by “becoming male.” This strategy has its historical and theological roots in the concept of progress, defined by Philo: “Progress is nothing else than the giving up of the female gender by changing into the male since the female is material, passive, corporeal, and sense-perceptible, while the male is active, rational, incorporeal, and more akin to mind and thought.”
In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, a woman’s salvation is linked to her willingness “to make herself male:” “Simon Peter said to the disciples ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ But Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
“Becoming male” was accomplished through virginity, martyrdom, or severe asceticism. By rejecting both their sexual and reproductive capacities, women virgins, martyrs, and ascetics transcended the weakness of being female, a weakness clearly located in the female body. They were acknowledged for taking on a manly mentality, for being a man in everything but body. They were praised for surpassing the limitations of their sex and for performing manly deeds like a man.
My study of this phenomenon led me to Palladius’ Medieval Sourcebook (350 AD) in which he praises women for transcending the weakness and sensuality of being female and tells the story of Alexandra. Her story moved me to write this poem, an indictment of patriarchy on her behalf.
The final recourse is suicide
by many women throughout the ages.
The ultimate choice to transcend
of being female.
The way out of it all, the final relinquishment,
to die in one dramatic moment
of courage and willfulness
or to slowly disappear
under layers of fat,
in a drug-induced stupor,
or in the vagueness of an unformed life.
Palladius traveled through Egypt in the fourth century
to gather anecdotal tales of holy women and men.
He records the story of Alexandra.
A maidservant named Alexandra left the city and immured herself in a tomb. She received the necessities of life through a window, and for ten years never looked a woman or man in the face.
When asked why she lives in a tomb, she said, ”A man was distracted in mind because of me, and rather than scandalize a soul made in the image of God, I betook myself alive to a tomb, lest I seem to cause him suffering or reject him.”
When asked how she perseveres, never seeing anyone, and battling against weariness, she said: “From early dawn to the ninth hour I pray while spinning flax. The rest of the time I go over in my mind the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs. Then I wait patiently for my end with good hope.”
In the tenth year, after calling her name and receiving no answer, we broke open the door, entered, and found her dead.
Some women are murdered
by the words absorbed into their life stream.
Like the steady drip of an IV inserted at birth
the words of the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs
are responsible for Alexandra’s death.
Their words held her body
responsible for the distraction of men.
Their words slowly poisoned her
as they praised her virtue
for successfully surpassing the weakness of being female.
May she rest in peace.
Patricia Lynn Reilly celebrates the inspirational arts as founder of Imagine a Woman International, featuring personal and professional enrichment programs and resources. Patricia is also committed to the visual arts as founder of Open Window Gallery, featuring Beginner’s Eye Workshops and Patricia’s photography.