Radicalizing Cathedrals Way Before Pussy Riot: Meet The Top 10 Feminist Saints

(Disclaimer: I’m atheist-ish, but my mom is Catholic and I was baptized Lutheran, so I’ve got that going for me.)

Since Pope Francis was inaugurated in March, he’s been up to a lot of liberal shenanigans. He thinks homophobia and debates over abortion are a waste of time and is showing by example how love and humility are at the core of what it means to be Christian, from washing the feet of women to turning down the papal apartment. Four for you, Pope Francis. You go, Pope Francis.

But long before the current pope shocked the world by not being a terrible person, there have been saints who exemplified what it means to be a good Christian. Unsurprisingly, many female saints had to fight against extremely limiting gender norms and sexist traditions in order to fully dedicate themselves to their beliefs. As the pope tweeted recently, “Saints are people who belong fully to God. They are not afraid of being mocked, misunderstood or marginalized.” So the next time you’re in a cathedral, take a moment to light a candle for these saints who have gone down in history for giving the patriarchy the finger.

(listed in chronological order)

1. Mary, Mother of Jesus 1st century, Patron Saint of Artificial Insemination (I’m probably going to hell for that.)

While many female saints are celebrated simply for their virginity, Mary’s case is a bit more interesting. Unlike all other humans, who are considered sinful from conception, Mary was “immaculately conceived.” This is kind of a big deal. She was born free from sin. It’s almost like Mary is proof that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being female. Not to mention that she is a kick-ass example of how “virginity” is a completely arbitrary concept.

"I'm the queen of heaven, nbd." from the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert van Eyck

“I’m the queen of heaven, nbd.” from the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert van Eyck

2. Quiteria 5th century, Patron Saint of Pussy Riot

There is a lot of dispute about the details of Quiteria’s life, but legend has it that her mother was so ashamed of having no sons that she ordered a maid to drown her 9 infant daughters. However, the maid let the girls live, and they grew up to fight against the Roman Empire and their father, who wanted to marry them off to Roman officers. After refusing to marry and escaping imprisonment, Quiteria continued to battle against Rome with her sisters until she was captured and beheaded.

3. Apollinaria/Dorotheus of Egypt 408-450, Patron Saint of Gender Nonconformity

Wanting to avoid marriage, Apollinaria was allowed to go on a pilgrimage instead. While away from home, Apollinaria went into hiding, donned monk’s clothing and lived an ascetic life, eventually joining a monastery. Apollinaria lived from then on as Dorotheus, only once revealing their former identity to their family in order to heal their sister. Unsurprisingly, accounts of Dorotheus’ life don’t mention their preferred pronouns.

4. Clare of Assisi 1194-1253, Patron Saint of Social Workers

Another young woman interested more in religious life than marriage, Clare ran away from home, cut off all her hair, and joined a convent. Soon joined by her sister Agnes and other women, she became the leader of her own order within the Franciscan tradition, commonly referred to as the Poor Clares. As an abbess, she was known for her dedication to poverty, and she wrote to various abbots and even the pope in defense of her Rule of Life, the oldest monastic rule written by a woman.

5. Julian of Norwich 1342-1416, Patron Saint of Cat Owners

Not technically recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, Julian is known in the Anglican and Lutheran traditions for her theological writings. She argued that God is both mother and father and that Jesus had both motherly and fatherly characteristics, paving the way for modern feminist theologies. She also had a really close relationship with her cat.

This is a real book, I swear.

This is a real book, I swear.

6. Catherine of Siena 1347-1380, Patron Saint of Hilary Clinton

Aware from a young age that she wasn’t the marrying type, Catherine cut off her hair and fasted to rebel against her parents’ wishes. Surprisingly, she did not join a convent, instead becoming actively involved in politics. She gained an impressive following and was widely respected in both political and religious circles. The letters that she wrote to politicians called for peaceful agreements among the states of Tuscany, and she regularly corresponded with the pope. Some have argued that it was Catherine’s letters that inspired him to return the papacy to Rome. On top of all that, her theological work was so influential that she was named a Doctor of the Church in 1970, one of only 4 women to have ever received this honor.

Catherine, you're probably going to want a mirror to do that. Painting by Alessandro Franchi

Catherine, you’re probably going to want a mirror to do that. Painting by Alessandro Franchi

7. Wilgefortis 15th century, Patron Saint of Body Hair

According to legend, Wilgefortis’ father tried to marry the teenager off to a pagan king (a disturbingly common turn of events for the women on this list). Wanting nothing to do with the arranged marriage, Wilgefortis took a vow of chastity and prayed to become ugly, and lo and behold, she grew a beard! That ended the engagement, but to further prove the evil of the patriarchy, Wilgefortis’ father crucified her. Moral of the story: I wish I could grow facial hair to ward off creeps.

8. Joan of Arc 1412 – 1431, Patron Saint of Lesbians

Joan of Arc is arguably the most famous gender-bending saint. At a time when most of Northern France was under foreign control, she donned a suit of armor and helped lead French forces to victory. Her military exploits seem minor, though, when you consider that she went to court dressed as a man, gained the trust of the king, and convinced Church officials that she was not a witch. The English, though, did not believe that her visions were real, and they burnt her at the stake for heresy and sorcery.

Vive la France et les lesbiennes! Painting by Jules Lenepveu

Vive la France et les lesbiennes! Painting by Jules Lenepveu

9. Maria Goretti 1890-1902, Patron Saint of Survivors

Maria’s story is certainly the most tragic on this list. When she was only 12, an older boy tried to rape her, and when she resisted, he stabbed her. She died from her wounds, and her attacker was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The only bright side to this story is that Maria appeared to him in a dream years later, making him realize what a terrible person he had been. He repented and asked for Maria’s mother’s forgiveness after completing his prison sentence.

10. Edith Stein 1891-1942, Patron Saint of Women in Academia

If you study philosophy, you’ve probably come across Stein’s work. She collaborated with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and completed her doctorate summa cum laude. Because she was a woman, her application to be promoted from a teaching assistant to a full professor were rejected. After being baptized in 1922, she gave up working with Husserl to devote herself to Catholic teaching positions and religious scholarship. Born Jewish, her life was at risk as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, but undiscouraged, she spoke out against the regime’s antisemitism in a letter to the pope. Sadly, Stein was eventually arrested and killed in Auschwitz.

Stein thinks you should finish your dissertation.] via [http://saints.sqpn.com/saint-teresa-benedicta-of-the-cross/

Stein thinks you should finish your dissertation.
via saints.sqpn.com

Catholic readers, who are your favorite saints?

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42 Comments

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      Yeah. So as another non-Catholic, here’s how it’s been described to me. Mary’s parents did it the old-fashioned way, yes, but God made it so that her conception was sinless. That way she was born “clean” enough to bear his child. So Jesus was conceived through, I don’t know, divine intervention I guess, but it could only happen in Mary because God made sure her conception was “immaculate” (ie clean and pure). Otherwise she would’ve had original sin, too. That way both Jesus and his mom were free from sin.

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      You’re both right! You see boys and girls, the Virgin Mary is the only person that was conceived without sin. Everyone else is born with “original sin” because of Eve’s transgressions in the Garden of Eden. This is why babies are baptised, the water is washing away original sin. This is also the reason that, until a few decades ago, babies that died before they were baptised were said to go to limbo.

      So the Virgin Mary, conceived without sin, gave birth to Jesus Christ as a virgin but the Immaculate Conception actually refers to how Mary herself was conceived.

      As a recovering Irish Catholic, I know my doctrinal mumbo jumbo quite well!

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    I’m just amazed by how many people keep talking about how great Pope Francis is. In his first apostolic exhortation published a couple of days ago he said that if you think the Catholic Church is homophobic, you’ve been corrupted by our materialist postmodern lifestyle and you need to learn “critical thinking skills”.

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      As a Catholic, I’ve learned to set my standards pretty low as far as the hierarchy not being shitty about gay people goes. Pope Francis is the first pope to push back against the modern church’s trend to get really caught up in “family issues” (read: abortion, contraception, and gay marriage) and ignore the work Jesus actually told us to do. So no, he’s definitely not perfect. The Church has a really long way to go. But it’s a start, and I was starting to thing we might not even get that.

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      Pope Francis comes from the Jesuit way of thinking, which means his doctrine is mostly about love and reasoning. Considering that Jesuits are the left wing within the Catholic church and they were even being kicked out of different countries not even a century ago, the fact that we have someone from the Society as a Pope is a BIG deal. Sure, he won’t change the Church in just a short amount of time, but he has quickly addressed some issues that the Church has been quite shy about talking/changing before.
      Personally, Jesuit priests have made my family respect my being gay and defended me against them, even telling my parents that they should be proud to have a member of their family living so honestly. It’s a very unusual thing to hear when you are expecting Holy Water being thrown at you, you know?

      I really liked this article, especially since it started with Mary, Mother of Jesus. It has always been curious to me how Joseph’s fatherly role just goes automatically to second plane in Jesus’ life and how He only seeks His Mother.

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    I think I’m partially named after Catherine of Siena (her and my mothers grandmother or something). It’s either her or Catherine of Alexandria, I’m not sure which. I think I’ll be named after Catherine of Siena if that’s alright with everyone.
    Although apparently (according to wikipedia) Catherine of Alexandria was one of the saints who appeared to Joan of Arc and counselled her, so she’d be fine as well I suppose :)

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    The religious studies nerd in me is feeling out so hard over this!! I want to make a zine of badass lady saints now. Also, I’m just gonna add praying to St. Wilgefortis to my nightly prayers because I too have mad facial hair and learning about how she used hers too fend off creepy jerky men makes me see the power with which I have been bestowed.

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    St. Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s three patron saints! You wanna talk about a radically feminist saint, that was her.
    She was a contemporary of St. Patrick and was ordained as a bishop according to several different accounts (which the Roman Catholic Church likes to ignore, but she was functionally a bishop). She started and ran the first abbeys and convents in Ireland, was considered an advisor for religious and political leaders, made opportunities for independence available for women through her work with the abbeys and schools she established, and there’s even an account of her giving herbal abortions to young women who needed them.
    I’m not Catholic, but I went to a Catholic high school for several years, and one of my favorite moments was turning in a ten page research paper on her that just went against every bit of doctrine about women in Catholicism that our teacher had been telling us. I actually have a necklace with her on it that I’ve worn almost daily for years.

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      St Brigid is a badass. It is most likely the pagan origins that make for her coolness. First of February was always the best in school cos the Brigid stories feature ALL THE MIRACLES (or, as they are when you’re five- basically magic)and we would get to make St Brigid’s crosses in school which are actually really cute and don’t look entirely like crosses.

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    Everything about this list makes my queer Catholic heart so happy!!! These bad-ass woman all serve as a reminder that God isn’t interested in respecting the trappings of the patriarchy or maintaining the status quo.

    Also, Hildegard von Bingen not being on this list is a crying shame. She’s kind of my hero, and I’m super sad I didn’t know her when I was being confirmed or I’d have taken her name. Author, mystic, scientist, abbess, preacher, philosopher, theologian and, my personal favorite, the first known female composer in the western tradition. What’s not to love?

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    This list is wonderful! I only wish I’d had it when I’d been confirmed all those years ago (though my confirmation saint is pretty cool – St. Kateri Tekakwitha). I always find it refreshing to learn about female figures in the Church.
    Also, I LOVE the titles of the saints!!

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    This list is so amazing. Especially the commentary on Mary!

    Personally, I’m a huge fan of St. Genevieve. Even though there’s no record of her ever actually cutting all her hair off, she did save Paris/the people who lived there a bunch of times.

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    Joan of Arc was my confirmation saint. I also wrote a high school research paper on her which I think is lost to the computer gods (shame). Now I study greco-roman theology and I wish I could get my hands on that paper, because it’s probably hilarious/touching/embarrassing in a way none of my graduate school papers quite are (they’re embarrassing but probably not particularly sweet…).

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      I did some more research, and the sainthood of Mary is sort of weird. She predates a lot of the official processes that normally happen when a saint is canonized, so it’s almost like she was treated as a saint without being recognized as one by the church. But more importantly, the Catholic Church views Mary as the Queen of Heaven and as having a completely unique status, one that is higher than all other saints. That’s why the title commonly used is the Blessed Virgin Mary, not Saint Mary.

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      Yeah, I was trying to figure this one out too. Mary is sort of held in higher regard in Catholicism i.e. praying the rosary, asking Mary for intercessions and stuff. Also there are holy days of obligation for her which seems like higher standing than a regular saint’s feast day i.e. Assumption August 15th and Immaculate Conception December 8th. I feel like there possibly was more of them but they’re not holy days of obligation (i.e. you’re supposed to go to mass) I have this vague recollection of a “woohoo don’t have to go to mass for that one anymore” moment at some point in my childhood. It must have been pretty early on, by age 12 I was pretty much questioning all of it, so this must have been before that.

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    I have two favourite saints: one is the Virgin Mary (because my grandmother is named after her, and she taught me a more woman-oriented way to pray), the other is Theresia of Avila (mostly because the marble statue Bernini made of her: she looks like she’s having the best orgasm ever)

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    Also, I love this cos I now know where my auntie’s confirmation name (Maria Gorretti) came from. I had thought until now it was another one of those “You don’t have a Mary in your name yet. You should take it as a Confirmation name” deals. My big sister got totally bullied into doing that with hers and hates that she got stuck with Mary, so when my turn came I was prepared-
    6th Class Teacher: What Confirmation name are you taking?
    12 Year old Shirley: (smug grin)Eileen-Marie
    6th Class Teacher: *grits teeth*
    12 year old Shirley: *mic drop*

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    Did anyone else go to Catholic school and have to go to school dressed up for All Saints day?

    All I remember is that 8 year old me was really jealous of the girl who got to be Joan of Arc with all her armor etc.
    Instead, I got to walk around with a placemat on my head.

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