“How are your children?” asked a colleague. Due to the pandemic, we hadn’t seen each other in person for a long time.
I stared at him. “I have no children,” I reminded him. “I’m actually writing a book about being childless.”
“Oh,” he said. “I wonder why I thought you had them.”
I’ve never met Kaya Oakes, but I wanted to tell her about this conversation right away. It shows their point of view so clearly that childless women are constantly being outed with supposedly safe questions.
The defiant middle it’s not just about childless women, although the topic is one of my favorite chapters. In the book’s introduction, Oakes describes how she entered middle age searching for middle-aged women in books, television, and movies. She found that most of them did one of several things: “Screaming, crying, throwing their cell phones, frowning in a locker room, getting divorced, getting cancer, arguing with their kids, arguing with their parents, or always embarrassed again. ” Thankfully, she looked beyond these stereotypes and focused on marginalized women defiantly engaging in other activities as they move from the edge to the center.
Oakes encourages women to see themselves as medieval rather than middle-aged. She divides the women she has examined into seven categories: young, old, crazy, sterile, butch / femme / other, angry, and alone. Each chapter contains examples ancient and contemporary, as well as intense, sometimes snappy, anecdotes and wisdom from Oakes’ life experience, including her own hysterectomy and gradual aging. “In my experience,” she writes, “physical deterioration is more like a car that you keep driving because you can’t afford to replace it.”
While some of the women featured on these pages include luminaries such as Joan of Arc and Mary, the mother of Jesus, Oakes also includes lesser-known members of the defiant center. She writes about Pauli Murray in her chapter “Butch / Femme / Other”, Sarah Bishop in “Alone” and Saint Dymphna in “Crazy”.
After introducing Dymphna to readers, Oakes asks, “Why did the Church Fathers decide that an incest victim would be a good patron for those struggling with anxiety, depression, and everything else related to mental health?” Then she answered hers Question and reflect the church’s discomfort with the sexuality of women and their love for women as victims. Oakes takes this further in the course of the chapter by showing that women writers are too often portrayed as victims, and cites the example of Sylvia Plath. “The problem wasn’t Plath herself or her writing,” Oakes claims. “This is how we were taught to talk about her, who always focused on her depression and the fact that she died by suicide.”
As a pastor, I was particularly grateful for the chapter on so-called angry women. My parishioners often seem ashamed of their anger because they think they are somehow unfaithful. Oakes speaks of the anger of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic labor movement and heroine of many. While Day’s anger makes sense to me, I hadn’t read much about that aspect of her before. Oakes notes that Days “anger is often taken out of control to focus on her holiness.” I hope to read these pages again as I preach about anger to point out how anger can be associated with holiness as opposed to an emotion that needs to be overcome.
My favorite chapter, titled “Barren,” has lines that made me laugh, like, “Oh, you’re not on the toddler bacchanal either? You must also be sterile. Huzza! Pull up a chair ”and a reference to Mary Magdalene as the patron saint of mansplaining. Oakes highlights inspiring examples of Biblical women without children like Esther and Thecla.
She reminds her readers that “we have to stop defining these women by the idea that their life is a constant state of absence.” (I am tempted to send this book to my colleague who has asked about my children. ) Oakes further reminds us that Jesus and Paul had no children either, “but the Church Fathers don’t bother about it, they probably think they were” so busy they wouldn’t have been good at changing diapers. “
In a chapter titled “Alone,” Oakes points out that while we tend to romanticize male recluses, women drawn to similar lives have historically been viewed with suspicion. I’ve heard how alienating the church can be to singles, so I spent extra time on this chapter learning that the church isn’t the only difficult place for lonely women. You need to prepare to travel alone and face aggression to do so, and even going to dinner or the movies by yourself can be challenging.
Oakes himself often sounds angry, but that appealed to me as a reader rather than alienated me. It closes with a “manifesto” in which she points out how many women’s stories have been lost in history and yet women have survived. She writes about female whistleblowers and what it cost them. She highlights the way religious institutions have been held accountable for women. She ends the book with questions to encourage the reader to ponder. And that brooding itself can be the beginning of the kind of defiance Oakes calls for.