As we head, again, into the season of attacks on reproductive rights, here in Albuquerque and across the nation, I wonder how many of them stem, unconsciously, from the familiar version of the Annunciation. This is still a largely Judeo-Christian culture, although with more, healthy infusions from other countries and other religions, and so I can’t dismiss that icon of the submissive virgin who told God, “Let it be with me according to your will” (Luke 1:38) although pregnancy for a betrothed virgin who had not yet “known a man” put her in serious jeopardy.
The Virgin in the Annunciation in my childhood bedroom is properly submissive; the drooping leaves on the lily, symbol of purity, that Gabriel is holding are interpreted to mean her complete surrender to the will of God.
But I have seen other Renaissance paintings that show something more complex on the young girl’s face, a hesitation, even a shrinking away, as she hears her fate. The beautiful Annunciation in an Initial M in the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shows that hesitation and shrinking.
In Hebrew, Mary, or Miriam, means “slave,” and this is what is being demanded of Mary by a god who, curiously, behaves as the pagan gods were thought to do; they descended in various forms to rape mortal women, producing the half-sacred male the pagan world knew so well.
In the Yeats poem, “Leda and The Swan,” the rape is specific:
A sudden blow, the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast…
In the Gospel story, there can be no hint of the rape the pagan gods carried out. Even in a culture as tolerant of violence as ours is, it might be hard to persuade people to accept God as rapist.There is no risk, as long as Mary’s abject surrender can be assumed; the bizarre perpetuation of her virginity, physical and spiritual, after Jesus’ birth adds the necessary touch: Mary must be wholly innocent of any human reaction to the encounter, which may be why, in Hebrew, her name also means “Unknown.”
How does all this speculation relate to the hordes that will descend on our few remaining women’s health care clinics, that as part of their professional duty to their women clients’ wellbeing, still perform abortions?
If the story of the Annunciation, like many from scripture, seems to symbolize moral behavior, we women have no more right to abstain from childbirth than we do from the “great wings beating still” of our lovers—or such smaller wings as they may possess. And if we do not own the right to say no, we do not own the right to end the resulting pregnancy.
It all depends on how we view female compliance. If we are stirred by screen images of politicos’ wives (no matter how dastardly the candidate may be) gazing up adoringly at “their man” if we are secretly excited by tales of rape and wonder (as one of my young relatives, herself a beautiful girl) does if there really is such a thing as domestic abuse (she has been persuaded that most of the cases that come to trial are brought by women trying to get even with their innocent men), then we will carry that notion into action and decision and polemic, indefinitely.
Phyllis Schlafly died Monday, having caused a lot of comment when she rode to the rescue of the so-called “Right to Life” movement several decades ago. At ninety-one, she was still going strong as “the sweetheart of the conservative movement” that has fought vigorously against choice; one of their early victories was to succeed in labeling their opponents pro-abortion when we have always been, only, pro-choice.
Endorsing the Trumpster, Schlafly called him, “The only hope to defeat the kingmakers.” Returning the compliment, the Trumpster toasted her recently as a “champion for women.”
Schlafly was hardly a drooping lily. She was a successful businesswoman who traveled the country making well-paid anti-choice speeches and whipping up support for her cause. To call her a “champion for women” depends on a definition of women as servants, if not slaves, of a male power that may be called father, husband, boyfriend—or even god.
The Trumpster benefits from another fact of our society, as Schlafly did: he was born on the wrong side of the tracks. As Garrison Keillor describes, uproariously, in his column last week, the candidate’s truest thirst is to be accepted in Manhattan. He was born in Queens, raised in Queens, and will always have the earmarks of a Queens boy: “You are in the old tradition of locker room ranting and big honkers in the steam room, sitting naked, talking man talk, griping about the goons and ginks and lousy workmanship and the uppity broads and the great lays and how you vanquished your enemies at the bank.”
There are a lot of white men, big honkers or not, sitting in that steam room. Their female versions are perhaps cultivating lilies and practicing submission, although that is a little harder to imagine.
But it is what the honkers expect. Controlling our choices in all areas of our lives is the honker dream.