“Bearing Witness in Her Body”
A Review of
Women Martyrs in Early Christianity.
by Gail Streete.
Reviewed by Kate A.K. Blakely.
Women Martyrs in Early Christianity.
Paperback: WJK Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
The female martyr has her own place both alongside and apart from her male counterparts. She stands in history alongside Paul as Thecla, and with her sister martyr, as in two female victims of the Columbine massacre, Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott. Streete adds to these accounts the less easily appropriated martyrdom stories of female suicide attackers, which she proposes to examine in light of the same lens she uses with more traditional accounts, like those of Perpetua and Thecla. Streete notes the often conflicting responses of readers to stories of martyrdom. Some see these stories as attestations to ancient appreciation for unique female power and testimony. Others are not so complimentary, noting the pressures placed upon females to become “male,” or to epitomize certain characteristics, like chastity. Writes Streete, “because the model is ambiguous, so is its appropriation” (11). Streete’s focus in Redeemed Bodies is two-fold: 1) to demonstrate that the lens of gender is a valid one through which to view and evaluate martyrdom, and 2) to illuminate the complexity and ambiguity of Christian interpretation of martyrdom.
The martyr eschews legal and social standards specifically because of prior religious convictions. This inappropriate action of refusing to submit to standards is subversive. When such subversive actions lead to torture and martyrdom, Streete proposes, the martyr’s bodies (alongside their speeches) serve as the voice of witness. Martyrological literatures imbues the death itself with meaning through the body of the martyr. Streete then argues that the bodies of martyred women signify and signified something meaningful about power, both as symbols of gender and more generally of physicality, as both subject and object of powerful actions. Streete argues that, seen in tandem with Platonic and Aristotelian anthropologies, the female body was something that was to be doubly controlled, as both physical (contrary to the eternal spiritual) and passionate (contrary to the desired rationality).
Using the ideas of “virilization” and “refeminization,” Streete outlines how female martyrs’ witness was particularly inappropriate. Males who functioned more often than females in the public sphere had more natural opportunity to critique the powers that be. Thus when females participated in the social commentary of martyrdom, they belied the expectations for their sex, demonstrating andreas, or courage, beyond the norm, and consequently becoming “virilized.” Some writers then refeminized their heroines, emphasizing their female bodies and roles, as mother, daughter, or wife, even though these roles were usually rejected by the martyrs themselves (Thecla refuses to be married; Perpetua gives up her infant son and refuses mercy for his sake, instead guiding the soldier’s sword to her throat).
Streete discusses more closely the ideas of female nakedness and chastity or celibacy. After all her adventures (including dressing as a male, preaching, and refusing the sexual advances of several men), Thecla is eventually closed up in a rock, which seems to clearly symbolize permanent divine protection of her chastity. As such, Thecla becomes “a model for female ascetic piety” (102). Tertullian almost completely condemns her. Streete’s excurses on Augustine suggests that he struggled with how to appropriate the example of female martyrs like Perpetua and Felicitas, concluding that these examples are “more to admired or wondered at than imitated” (72). In other words, as Streete concludes, the idea of a female transcending her “natural” limitations as a martyr was so profoundly disturbing that later commentators had to either re-narrate the stories and refeminize the female martyrs (by rescuing them by the male Savior, for example), or by radicalizing their example (i.e. Augustine). This kind of narration and re-narration both differs from and is similar to how modern martyrological accounts proceed.
In her concluding chapter, Streete attempts to answer the question of “Why Martyrs Matter?” (Click to see other recent attempts to tackle this question, ed.) Drawing upon her experiences as a professor, Streete details how students have typically reacted negatively to the stories of Perpetua and Felicitas. Students conclude that between denying religious faith and death, faithful people had to choose martyrdom. In the case of Perpetua, however, her maternal role should have trumped her “selfish” and “suicidal” decision to be martyred. Streete compares and contrasts the “martyrdom” of Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott from the Columbine shootings of 1999 with that of Perpetua, Felicitas, and Thecla. While the historicity of the connection between their shooting and their faith is more than questionable, Streete determines that the mythos that grew up almost overnight surrounding their supposed responses of faith is noteworthy. She posits that it is precisely because these two girls were virginal and young that they have been claimed as modern martyrs. However, after the events of September 11, 2001, American religious enthusiasm for “martyrdom” accounts slowed considerably. Female suicide attackers generate “horrified speculation and interest in the motives that would allow them” to participate in such attacks. Females’ roles and identities had to be re-narrated before they could participate fully in jihad. Streete then emphasizes, “Once again, writing about women who become designated as ‘martyrs’ focuses on societal roles and familial relationships, especially on gender, and sometimes on body” (114). Female suicide attackers frequently attest their desires to protect and proclaim their own desires for modesty and sexual purity, which is seen as being fully expressed in suicide attacks. Streete concludes, “Women martyrs in all cases must renounce their social identity as women only to have that identity emphasized as they are ironically exalted for becoming more than women in death” (121).
Streete has illustrated just how much material there is to cover, as well as the great deal of variety even amongst the stories surrounding each individual martyr. This itself is a notable point, and one which Streete does well to stress. Streete presents the stories in a somewhat narrative fashion, dealing with several topics in each story. That she takes all the varieties into account is good, but her conclusions tend to become jumbled amongst all the details and references. A more topical arrangement might have made for a clearer read, particularly in her chapters on ancient female martyrs. Additionally, some of Streete’s assumptions about ancient societal thinking regarding gender are less nuanced than other research might indicate, particularly concerning women’s roles in the public sphere. Had she been more nuanced, she probably could have presented her case even more strongly.
Streete’s final chapter is quite compelling. It reads well in light of the points that Streete makes regarding ancient accounts of female martyrdom, which makes her comparisons apt and enlightening. The book remains on the shorter side, which makes Streete’s brevity, particularly in the final chapter, actually somewhat disappointing. It is precisely because she has demonstrated the complexity of the issue and brought such keen insight to bear that she could have written a great deal more. As such, the book strikes me as the beginning of the conversation and certainly not the conclusion. Perhaps that was Streete’s point, in which case she has done quite well in signaling the way ahead for future discussion.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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