National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version

Spring 2007


Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council 8:1, Spring/Summer 2007. Copyright © 2007 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


This paper identifies and discusses several examples of Marian paradoxes to better understand how constructions of Mary as the primary model of feminine religiosity affected Roman Catholic immigrant women. Such paradoxes include Mary’s perpetual virginity juxtaposed with earthly women’s commitment to family (and the sexual relationship implicit in marriage) and the classist elements inherent in the True Womanhood model related to Mary. The four cardinal virtues of the nineteenth-century American model of True Womanhood—piety, purity, submission, and domesticity—parallel nicely those emphasized in the figure of Mary. For this paper, I shall focus on the virtue of purity particularly as related to Mary’s virginity.

I contend that Mary as a model of feminine religiosity is ultimately incompatible with the paradigm of True Womanhood. Because she contrasts so strongly with earthly women for whom she is alleged to be an ideal model, she over-fulfills the requirements of True Womanhood in ways that other women could never achieve, even if they are expected and strive to do so. This project examines the problematic correlation of the Virgin Mary with the True Womanhood model of the nineteenth century as the two affected Roman Catholic immigrant women; thus, it explores the implications of Mary as incompatible with the paradigm of True Womanhood and of Mary as a paradoxical model of feminine religiosity in general, especially given that men and women respond differently to her.

The nineteenth century is an appropriate, even necessary context within which to examine Mary as a paradoxical model of feminine religiosity because the True Womanhood model emerged during the nineteenth century in the U.S., Mary was declared the patron saint of the U.S. in 1854, and Catholic immigration to North America was prolific during this time. Immigrant Catholic women sought to conform to the cultural norms of their new setting. In doing so, many connected the True Womanhood model with Mary, but this equation was not without its challenges. Although discussing the twentieth century, the historian Jaroslav Pelikan sums up why it is necessary to consider the effects of the intersection between the more secular, cultural model and the religious model of Mary: “Just when the twentieth century was beginning, it was traditionally held that ‘in Mary, we see in the little that is told of her what a true woman ought to be,’ [and] the twentieth century’s dramatic upsurge of interest in the question of exactly ‘what a true woman ought to be’ has likewise been unable to ignore her.”