(Photo from the Ancient Origins website)
In her 2013 novel/memoir, The Ridiculous Idea of Never Seeing You Again (La ridícula idea de no volver a verte), rock-star Spanish author Rosa Montero tells of a legend of a 9th-century woman, Juana (Joan), who had passed for years as a monk, made a name for her/himself, and then became pope. Juana had spent years traveling with another monk, who presumably was the father of the baby to whom Juana would give birth while occupying the highest holy office in the land. Montero writes (translation mine): “The legend says that she proved herself to be a well-qualified and prudent pope. But, Juana ended up pregnant, with the aforementioned man of the cloth as father, and, one day, as she traversed the city in a solemn papal procession, Juana went into premature labor and gave birth right there in front of the people of the city. Imagine the scene: the golden crown, the staff, the silk, the subdued brocade cloth soaked with blood and splattered with lowly bits of placenta. It is said that the people, enraged and horrified, leapt on top of the woman pope, tied her to the feet of a horse, and dragged and stoned her for several miles before killing her.”
This one story, so powerful in its possibilities, speaks to contemporary gender issues. There’s the unevolved Catholic Church, welcoming women to leadership neither in the 9th century nor now; there’s the Catholic Church, still relying on the piety of its women parishioners to advance its patriarchal agenda; there’s the brilliant woman having to dress as a man to enact her brilliance; there’s the transvestite/transgender element for the monk couple, who cannot openly express their love and attraction for one another; there’s placenta, exposed to the world in all its silky power; there’s a baby, left alone while its mother is murdered; there’s a mother, who must be shamed, harmed, and killed for her supposed transgression, and there’s the age-old story of a woman being taught her place. There is a blending of religion and government. There is reproductive choice and subsequent retribution. There is justice, in all its patriarchal glory. There is a return to “normalcy,” with the men in charge.
Montero concludes the recounting of the Pope Juana legend with the papal protocol supposedly established after Juana’s murder (translation mine): The youngest prelate “had to tap the presumptive pope’s genitals under the seat and then call out, ‘Habet!,’ or ‘He’s got them!’ At that point, the cardinals in attendance would answer, ‘Deo Gratias!’, I suppose full of relief and rejoicing that the new Peter was another Pater.” I know it’s Fathers’ Day season and all here in the United States, but of course it bears mentioning that the Pater-Peter-Father-Pope inherits his rightly place as head of household, decision-maker, public figure, with all freedoms and rights properly accorded to him. That’s patriarchy—we have confirmed you have balls, and now you shall have everything else.
I want to return to the characterization of the legendary Pope Juana as “well-qualified and prudent.” When, in 1991, the well-qualified and prudent lawyer Anita Hill testified in Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings regarding the sexual harassment she had experienced while she worked for him, she was maligned and scorned, and eventually ignored. (*See this 5-9-19 opinion piece by Anita Hill in which she again advocates in smart, specific, and determined ways for putting an end to sexual violence.)
In 2011, Thomas’ wife made an imprudent early-morning phone call to encourage Hill to stop her activism, and this year (2019), Hill received other ill-advised calls from Democratic presidential hopeful and current frontrunner Joe Biden, who step by little campaign-advised step, kept trying to take the nation’s temperature to assume as little guilt for his role in the 1991 hearings as possible. Joe is too busy preparing for his “Habet!”moment to understand and acknowledge the role he played in allowing Thomas to occupy the Bench for so long. Note, too, that David Leonhardt in this The New York Times opinion piece (1-13-19), encourages Biden to “Run, Joe, Run,” as he exhorts Biden to run for office because “your populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation” and because “you are not afraid of losing.”
The anti-reproductive rights Roman Catholic presence on the Bench—Thomas for almost 28 years and now Kavanaugh for too many months—sets the tone for the entire nation, from Alabama to Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and to Ohio. The religiously motivated and conservatively empowered pater familias confirms the might of the testicles and the decreased body autonomy for those with other parts in play.