Christian women trying to balance their own ambitions and needs with those of family and colleagues may discover in Stephanie Golden's new book, Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice, something they have always suspected: how deeply embedded in their tradition is the idea that a "good woman is a sacrificing one."
Golden, an independent scholar and writer, begins with an incident from her own work with the homeless. While working at a shelter run by five nuns, she watched a fellow volunteer persuade the sisters to give up one after another of their very limited pleasures—in order to "become one" with the women they served. Already living in the shelter and dressing in donated clothing, the nuns reached farther, to fast on fruit and water so their poorer friends could have more food, and to give up both vacations and friends outside their little community. On the brink of cutting off contact with their families as well, the nuns came to their senses, rejected the influence of the volunteer who had so aggressively recommended these measures, and asked him to leave. Some were so shaken by the experience of having been forced to choose between altruism and mental health that they left the shelter permanently.
With this parable in mind, Golden examines the genesis and growth of the idea that women are peculiarly responsible for others' happiness. The word sacrifice simply means to make sacred, but the practice of sacrifice in the ancient world, a usually communal act in which material goods were set aside and offered to a deity, may have had a variety of purposes. Its central one was to unify communities and maintain their connection with divinity, but other purposes may have included creating a reciprocal obligation on the part of the god and expiating sin.
IN THE MODERN ERA, sacrifice has come to be understood as internal and symbolic, a "self-giving" to God or others. Western women largely owe to Christianity the form sacrifice has taken in their lives. Jesus' obedience to God's call cost him his life, and his sacrifice, understood by later Christians to atone for their sins, came to be associated with the suffering he experienced. Says Golden: "the suffering that Jesus underwent during his sacrifice came itself to be seen as a sacrificial offering." The desire to identify with Christ the sufferer and the idea of suffering as atonement resulted in the belief that suffering was valuable in itself, even good.
Thus when the church fathers began to vilify women as temptresses to evil, or at least "weak vessels," it was a short step to suggesting they might redeem themselves, and by extension others, through suffering. Religious women of the Middle Ages—for example Catherine of Siena, who began fasting as a child and died as a young woman of chronic undernourishment—may also have acquired a measure of power through their asceticism, the only power, perhaps, available to them. Suffering was said to facilitate direct, mystical knowledge of God, rendering a priestly intermediary unnecessary. After death, suffering might qualify a woman for sainthood.
Fortified by Freudian theories about masochism in women, the idea is alive and kicking that women only mature when they forego self-interest. As her book's title suggests, Golden returns often to Hans Christian Anderson's story "The Little Mermaid." We are cautioned to remember how, for love, the little mermaid gives up her tail. Not only can she never again live in the element she was born to, but she must also walk in pain for the rest of her life.
Golden points out the many ways in which self-sacrifice still compromises women's physical and mental health. Obsessive refusal to eat has translated in our time to anorexia, what Golden calls a "disappearing act," fueled by our culture's equation of thinness and sexiness. Mothers feel that flaws in their children are results of their failure to sacrifice enough. Women who have been coerced into caretaking can choose to see themselves only as nurturers rather than feel the pain of having been taken advantage of, and can in turn begin to coerce those they care for.
Slaying the Mermaid ultimately returns to the original use of sacrifice: to unify communities and establish connections with God. Golden suggests that sacrifice that feels authentic on the inside is really an exercising of personal power—not power over others, but power "for ourselves" and "with others," power that feels like "the sap rising up the stem," plentiful enough to share. She gives examples of women who live this way. One is Maude Callen, who at mid-century single-handedly provided health care for thousands in rural South Carolina. However Golden, in this weakest part of her book, fails to tell us enough about how the strong and sacrificial women she offers as examples feel "on the inside."
Christian women may understand intellectually that their lives inside and outside church will benefit when they choose wholeness, authenticity, and independence. But they might also like to spend some time considering or rethinking why they sometimes don't make these choices. Golden's book was for me a good place to start.
Jo Ann Heydron, a poet and fiction writer, lived in California when this article appeared. Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice, by Stephanie Golden, is available from Harmony Books.