Saints, goddesses and dolls: Baylor professors fill gaps in women’s stories

Dr. Lenore Wright’s work highlights forgotten women’s voice and delves into female characters across all time periods. Photo courtesy of Henry Wright

By Caitlyn Beebe | Reporter

From the birth of the Christian church to Barbie, women’s stories span across all of history — and the research of two Baylor professors is starting to fill in the gaps.

Dr. Beth Allison Barr, the James Vardaman Endowed Professor of History, explored how the role of women in the church has developed throughout history in her book titled “The Making of Biblical Womanhood.”

Despite the patriarchal impulses of the culture around them, Barr said women played an important role in the ancient world and the early church.

“We learn a lot about the church fathers, but what we don’t learn about are the church mothers,” Barr said. “And there’s just as many women running around in early monasticism who are influential in the beginning of the church.”

For example, Barr said St. Marcella, a fourth-century Roman woman, collected biblical manuscripts and taught women how to read biblical languages. St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible relied on this collection and labor, Barr said.

Additionally, Barr said historical evidence suggests women served as presbyters, bishops and deaconesses throughout the sixth century, and it wasn’t until the central Middle Ages that clerical roles became more male-dominated. Even after then, Barr said women never stopped filling clerical roles.

For instance, Barr said St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German abbess, wrote poetry, influenced leading bishops and advised the pope.

“She emphasizes the … idea that both women and men are made in the image of God and that both women and men complement each other,” Barr said.

Barr said these women’s stories tended to be left out when history textbooks were written in the 19th century, because the modern education system began to form when women had little legal or public power.

“History is written primarily by men, for men and about men, and women’s voices are left out of it,” Barr said. “We’re still trying to correct that today. We also see nonwhite voices left out of these histories as well.”

Dr. Lenore Wright, the director for the Academy for Teaching and Learning, analyzed motherhood archetypes using religious, mythological and pop culture figures in her work titled “Athena to Barbie.” Wright said she wanted to explore how these archetypes can be used to reinforce or disrupt norms of femininity.

Wright said the Virgin Mary represents the womb as a spiritual space, and some traditions view her as a mediator who stands in solidarity with those who pray to or through her.

“There are moments where she’s given a lot of agency,” Wright said. “Some scholars read her as making a rational choice and assenting to give birth to the Christ-child.”

Conversely, Wright said Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, represents the womb as a political space.

“[Athena’s] origin story is so fascinating,” Wright said. “She’s born out of the head of Zeus, so the male imagination creates Athena, and she never gives birth herself. She gives birth to the state.”

Wright said Athena is a symbol for professional women fighting for equal recognition in the public sphere, as society often stigmatizes professional women who aren’t mothers.

“Unless you’ve birthed a child and reared a child, there’s always some question about your legitimacy,” Wright said.

Wright said Venus represents the womb as an erotic space, but she said Venus is often oversimplified. Wright said Venus held the ability to calm violence and bring societal unity.

“Really, her purpose — at least in Roman mythology — was to help bring together men and women,” Wright said.

Meanwhile, Wright said Barbie represents the womb as a material space.

“She should be subversive in a way because she’s not a mother figure,” Wright said.

Wright noted that Barbie appears in several occupations and doesn’t marry or have children. Although contemporary artists have used Barbie to disrupt ideals about femininity, Wright said Barbie retains some of those standards.

“The packaging and the wrapping of Barbie still conforms to feminine ideals and normalization,” Wright said, “She’s not subversive because people look at her and think, ‘Well, she presents as if she could be married and have children.'”

Both Barr and Wright continue to write about gender issues that span history.

Barr is working on two more books about how the role of women in ministry has changed over time.

“As a historian, what I’m attempting to do is to show people that their belief about this is actually not rooted in the Bible, that it’s actually rooted in historical changes,” Barr said.

Wright is authoring a scholarly article relating Barbie to the writings of St. Augustine. She is also working on a companion to “Athena to Barbie” that will analyze masculine archetypes.

“It’s good for all of us just to think together and talk together about, not just feminist thought, but the status of women [and] gender,” Wright said. “Let’s not just give ourselves over to these cultural forces that I do think run the risk of impoverishing who and what we are.”