Women and Christianity: representations and practices

III. The Construction of the Christian Female Identity

No society views gender difference as a accepted fact. This means first of all that the boy and the girl should acquire the behaviour and know-how, which are deemed proper for their sex. This also means that they must satisfy a certain number of ritual prescriptions, which are symbolic rather than pragmatic: it is useful for a man who lives in a "hunter-gatherer" society to learn to hunt; however, it is useless for him to be scarified. Nevertheless, in many societies, in order for the boy to become a man, it is deemed necessary that he endures this ritual. Similar rituals (in the sense that they produce a symbolic differentiation between the sexes) also exist in Christian societies.

1. From Birth to Marriage: the Female Path in the Christian Tradition

The social construction of sexual differences starts as early as birth. In the Christian world, the first public ritual to be accomplished is the Christening. This ritual is not only a way to integrate the new born into the religious community, and thus into society as a whole (the latter having until recently been identified with the former), but also an act of imposing a personal and sexual identity: the new-born receives his/her name (which the English appropriately call a Christian name), and most first names are, in our culture, gender differentiated. In Catholic Europe, a second religious ritual played, especially from the 17th century, an important part in the construction of sexual identity, especially for women: the First Communion.

From the First Communion to the Solemn Communion

The history of the sacrament of the first communion in France has been written by a group of historians led by Jean Delumeau (1987). Until the 12th century in the Western Church, and until today in the Eastern Church, communion immediately follows Christening: the new-born baby’s lips are wetted with sacred wine. In 1215, the Latran Synod decided to grant communion only to children who had reached "the discretionary age" between 12 and 14. Until the end of the 16th century, no ceremony was established to celebrate the event: it was a private act with no special liturgy accompanying it. During the 17th century, however, the First Communion progressively became a public ritual, a solemn ceremony which is undertaken by all the members of a same age group at the same time. The peak of this ritual was in the 19th century:

"The new breath of life introduced by the Tridentine Reform - and for the Protestants, the reorganisation of the cult after the clandestinity of the years 1685-1787 -, the growing attention given to the child at all levels of society, and the general rising of standards of living, combined their effects to develop a liturgy which extended beyond the framework of the Church or the Temple and became a significant event in family life and even a true rite of passage (for this idea, see A. Van Gennep, 1981). From the First Communion, one could sit at the high table, one could serve oneself food, one could seasonally migrate with a family member. Boys were allowed to wear long trousers and girls were allowed to wear their hair in a bun and start to work on their marriage-gift". (J. Delumeau, 1987: 12)

The significance of the first communion in French Catholicism was very relevant to its social meaning: to symbolise the passage from childhood into youth. In 1910, Pope Pie X allowed children to take their communion as early as the "age of reason", at the age of seven years. The French Clergy decided then to distinguish between a First Communion, i.e. "private Communion" which is celebrated discretely and a "Solemn Communion", taking place between the ages of 12 and14. This second ceremony had no theological basis, and was therefore replaced since the 1960’s by a "profession of faith". Nevertheless, the fact that the Solemn communion was institutionalised shows that society felt the need to sanctify the end of childhood by a religious act.

A ritual for girls

The first communion and the solemn communion however did not have the same meaning for girls and boys:

"On the female side, secular or religious women of the Enlightenment mentioned the first communion much more than their male colleagues. In boys’ colleges, the festive side of the ritual was toned down and the ceremony presented as a much more internalised and intellectual affair. On the other hand, women’s convents welcomed guests for the sole purpose of preparing them for their first communion. For that reason, the future Mme Roland decided to spend a year at the Notre-Dame Congregation and experienced the ceremony "in a bath of tears and celestial love". This emotional aspect was aimed to stress the feminine side of the celebration". (J. Delumeau, op.cit. :11).

At the Abbaye-aux-Bois, a Parisian monastery respected among the wealthy classes in the18th century, the group of guests who were preparing to take their communion was called "the White Class" (M. Sonnet, 1987:125). It is also known that from the 19th century, girls wore white for their communion, while boys wore a dark suit - their first adult suit - on which they wore a white arm-band. Thus the ritual is trying to symbolise is the purity required from the communiants, especially from the female participants who are dressed up all in white. As only girls are made to wear exclusively white, it is maybe because the communion takes place at puberty. Mentstration, as we will discussed later on, is deemed unclean explicitly in Judaism and Islam, and implicitly in Christianity. Is not making the female communants wear white a way of fighting this uncleanness?

The fact that girls’ purity is highly valued is linked with the growing importance, since the Counter Reformation, of the cult of the Immaculate Conception: the eternal Virgin Mary would also be the only woman to be exempted from the effects of the original sin, (which for Christians affects all men since Adam and Eve’s fall), thus the only woman who would be absolutely pure. Not surprisingly, doctrinaire Spanish artists of the Golden Century recommended that the Virgin Mary should be represented as a young girl dressed in white. This is how she appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, in Lourdes in 1858, four years after the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pie IX. 

Undoubtedly, if female communants were dressed in white it was to make them living embodiments of the Virgin. To be like Mary was indeed for the Church the ideal of the Christian woman, an ideal only attainable if one is devoted to the holy life. This suggests that the particular attention paid to the preparation of the girls for the first communion and the emphasis on the emotional aspect of the custom aimed at promoting the religious vocation amongst them.

The valorisation of the girls’ Communion in this respect has to be looked at as a way for the Church to reclaim its power since the 19th century: the French Revolution had led to the secularisation of political and social life, which in turn undermined the power of the Church. The Church tried to win back some of its power by addressing women which the Napoleon Civil Code legally put in a perpetual minority state (C. Langlois, 1991:305). Not surprisingly a feminisation of Catholicism took place at this time: as early as the 1830s, the number of female church goers exceeded that of the men; from 1850, the Church had more nuns than priests or monks. (C. Langlois, op. cit.: 240, 293).

To become a nun is to retain one’s "whiteness" which love and then marriage are deemed to stain. No society however can afford to see all its female population retaining their virginity as everyone needs wives and mothers. However, the custom of the First Communion along with its ceremonial dress symbolically satisfies the Church’s requirement for eternal purity. The fact that some of the ceremony is dedicated to the Virgin supports this idea. For example, female communants offered the Virgin their flower tiaras singing: "take my tiara, I’m giving it to you. In Heaven you will give it back, won’t you". It is difficult to see the meaning this song could take for a boy. However, it is clear that girls conferred on the Virgin the symbol of purity threatened by the imminent approach of puberty, thus allowing themselves to preserve this purity.

There are other signs of the extent of the pressure of the church on women to preserve their purity by remaining virginal. As J. Delumeau pointed out, the first communion marked the moment when girls started their dowry, that is to say "mark it". The word "mark" meant both to write with red thread their initials on their bedding, but also to have their periods: to "mark" one’s dowry was to inscribe one’s identity as a young girl (Y. Verider, 1979, ch. IV). However, in "good families" girls did not "mark" their dowry, but embroidered their initials using white thread. More difficult than cross stitching, embroidery was taught in religious boarding schools for girls from wealthy backgrounds or in the "work-rooms" which the catholic Church started to establish from the 17th century in order to train the less wealthy. Before the introduction of secular schools, girls were taught basic reading and writing skills, a religious education and a "vocation suitable for their sex" - sewing, embroidery work or lace work. Once the Schools of the Republic were introduced, girls would go to these religious establishments during the holidays to learn under the yoke of the nuns "white embroidery". This would allow them to embroider their dowry, and thus to perpetuate their identity as a young female Christian: to be an immaculate virgin (A. Fine, 1984 and M. Albert-Llorca, 1995).

The popularisation at the beginning of the century of the white wedding and the fate of the wedding dress follows the same logic. Marriage is the last act in the life of a young woman, the last moment thus where she can show that she is a virgin. However, this virginity does not completely disappear after the wedding day: the wedding dress is carefully preserved. In Spain and Italy, it is common for the young bride to offer it to the Virgin. In some small towns of the Pyrenees it is custom to dress up the village statue of the Virgin with one of the wedding dresses of the newly weds of the area. Just like the ceremony of consecration to the Virgin, such a custom makes the Mother of Christ the safe keeper of a virginity which in effect disappears with marriage; thus both the ideal of purity imposed by the Church and the necessity for the young woman to become a wife and mother are reconciled.

If men from the 19th century to the 1960s were so willing to accept the emphasis on the purity of young women which is expressed in the First Communion and then in the "white wedding", if they were so willing to send their girls to boarding-schools or work-rooms so as to embroider their dowry, it was not always to make nuns out of them. Undoubtedly, men most often wanted to protect them against "bad company" so as to retain their virginity until wedding day. Nevertheless, it remains true that the Church as well as secular society also agreed that girls more than boys should receive a religious education. C. Langlois points out that in 1876, religious communities taught "six out of ten girls; in comparison monks taught three out of ten boys at the same date" (loc. cit.: 293). It is very likely that the Church wanted thus to consolidate its influence on society; as for the laymen, it is very likely that by sending girls to a religious school they wanted to turn them into faithful and submissive "good wives".

Nowadays, girls and boys are taught in the same schools. However, everywhere in Europe - whether Protestant or Catholic - women are more religious than men (see statistic tables 1a and 1b). This suggests that the socialisation of boys and girls is quite differentiated.

2. Women more Religious than Men

The statistics tables, drawn by P. Brechon (1997), are the results of the European Values Study of 1990. First researched in 1981, this transnational study aims at offering reference points documented with figures on the development of European values. The tables selected only retain data on religion: declaration of membership to a Church, frequency of Sunday practice, and intensity of religious feeling (which doesn’t necessarily mean the acceptance of dogmas and cult practices of one specific Church).

These data show the gap in the degree of religiosity between women and men. This gap does not considerably vary with the Faith (protestant or catholic); neither does it follow the North/South regional divide, which corresponds in some respects to the different faith. The tables do show that the practice and to a certain extent the religious feeling are considerably more significant in the Catholic countries of Southern Europe (Italy, Spain, Portugal) than in the Nordic Lutheran countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland) - Ireland being doubly the exception. Largely Catholic, it is also the European country where the rate of religious practice is the highest: historically, Catholic Ireland has defined itself by its opposition to Great Britain, which is mainly Anglican or Protestant. This North/South division however does not effect the gender dichotomy: Spanish women are much more numerous than their Norwegian or Swedish colleagues in taking part in religious offices, but the percentage between men and women practicing is equal in the three countries (Spain: 56%; Norway: 57%; Sweden: 55.5%).

The most widely accepted explanation by the sociologists of religions is to link the degree of religiosity of men and women with their type of socialisation. Thus, fieldwork done in the Nancy area by A. Delestre (cited by R. Campich, 1998:330) show that a particularly close relationship exists between grand-mothers and grand-daughters: religion is passed on in part thanks to this relationship. P. Brechon (1998: 310-311) proposes to correlate the importance of female religiosity to the importance attached, in their socialisation, to "intimacy and interiority". Indeed, a study carried out by INSEE in France in 1987-1988 about young people’s leisure reveals that "girls practice much more indoor leisure activities, providing intimate ways of self expression (to write for pleasure, telephone, read books...) whereas boys are much more inclined to go to cafes and prefer physical activities outside of the home". This orientation towards an inner culture may certainly favour religiosity.

One can ask if this sexual dichotomy is destined to survive or if it is just a vestige of societies strongly differentiated by gender. It is difficult, with our level of knowledge, to answer this question with precision. European studies show that the gender dichotomy in the religious field diminishes or tends to disappear in the younger generations, and as cultural levels and women’s professional activity rise. The gap in the level of religiosity between working men and working women is very small (see M. Steggerda, 1993, R. Campiche, 1996, P. Brechon, 1998 and Table 2). We can thus deduct that it is bound to disappear along with the homogenisation of the status of the sexes. However this is far from having been achieved: we know that the sharing of house work within the home - including families with working women – essentially follows traditional patterns. It is down to women in particular to look after children. Moreover, studies on the practice of the prayers conducted in Switzerland by R. Campiche (1996: 86-89) suggest that the "interiorisation of the role of the mother" can promote a religious ethos. 

Finally, R. Campiche emphasizes that women taking part in the movement of reconstructing religion, which characterizes the contemporary period, seem to be more numerous than men. Young male town-dwellers are among the minority of Swiss who define themselves as agnostic, whereas young women tend to be among the "religious but non Christian". According to R. Campiche, this choice has to do with the progress of women’s autonomy: to define oneself as a "religious but non Christian" is to refuse to blindly accept Christian tradition and seek to build one’s own religion from other sources (1996: 89). 

"Agnostics" and "religious but non Christian" however make up a minority today. The majority of European women remain faithful to the traditional Christian faiths. Ironically, we can note that at the same time they have been carefully excluded, until recently, from the highest positions in European churches. The reasons for this exclusion are an excellent way of illustrating Christian concepts of "female nature".