When it comes to my family, I’ve always felt different. One of my earliest memories from when I was really young was being told that I felt things too passionately—that I felt too much. What was never said but was implied was that I felt dissent too much, too often, too vocally. It made people uncomfortable. It made my family uncomfortable. When it came to understanding my faith/religious path, my family and I started diverging early on, never really meeting again—at least not for now.
When I was about five, I remember asking why women could not be priests. My mother brushed it aside and said we could be nuns. She was blind to the inherent misogyny behind the same Church that so many of her female family members had built (we come from a long line of nuns and Jesuits). I thought maybe someday I could be a woman priest. I would change it all. I would be Pope Joan.
When I was thirteen, I started noticing the wealth involved in the Roman Catholic Church, the opulence of the lived Catholic life. When I asked my parents why the Church did not lead in example and live in poverty using its wealth to actively live the gospel, I was told, “ This wealth is a gift to humanity. It is there for all of us, a patrimony to those who open their hearts.” I wasn’t talking about art, I was talking about the RCC’s gold assets—valued in the billions —but it didn’t matter. I’ve seen my family donate to Church building funds my entire life—buildings that were then sold off to pay for the Church’s offenses later on. Still, I thought if I became more involved, with the “right kind of Catholics”, I would be able to change the Church from within.
When I was 25. I walked away from the RCC all together. The culture of secrecy and abuse surrounding the child abuse scandals, along with the day-to-day misogyny the Church encourages became too much for me to shoulder. When I told my family that my loved ones and I had been involved with a Catholic youth group that had abuse at its core and that the Church had failed to do anything about it, my family defended the Church. They defended my abusers. They still do. Every Sunday that they sit in those pews and deny what happened to all of us, they say to the Church that what they did and continue to do is ok.
I’ve often wondered what has allowed me, from an early age, to question authority. What allowed me to accept that I was “different” and that it was ok to stray from my traditions if those traditions did not make me comfortable as a person or if they inflicted harm on others? Why me and not my family? Why am I alone on this island? I study children’s literature and religion, mostly feminist theology. One of the most interesting things I have noticed in my studies within children’s literature is that we are very much formed by what we read as children. As I have gone back through the books that I read and re-read as a child, I have found a blueprint for the woman I have become, all within the books that sat in my faded pink bedroom from my youth. Recently I was shocked to see how forward-thinking and feminist the icons of my childhood were and how much who they are continues to mold me even today. There are shades of feminist theology, liberation theology, and just plain awesomeness on all of the pages of my favorite books—like tiny badges of honor letting me know that I have been who I am all along—I just didn’t know it. They are also reminders that I was never alone.
I thought I would share some of my favorite characters and quotes from my childhood books, in hopes that you will do the same. It would be nice to see who inspired you at a young age and who helped mold you before we all ran into our feminist mothers later on in life. The women in these books are almost like family to me, so I introduce them with pride:
Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables (Series), L.M. Montgomery
Does she really need introduction? Most of us have read and reread this redhead’s story, but it was only recently that I stumbled across this exchange again and it warmed my heart.
“Why can’t women be ministers, Marilla? I asked Mrs. Lynde that and she was shocked and said it would be a scandalous thing. She said there might be female ministers in the States and she believed there was, but thank goodness we hadn’t got to that stage in Canada yet and she hoped we never would. But I don’t see why. I think women would make splendid ministers. When there is a social to be got up or a church tea or anything else to raise money the women have to turn to and do the work. I’m sure Mrs. Lynde can pray every bit as well as Superintendent Bell and I’ve no doubt she could preach too with a little practice.” Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables
I see so many of my loved family members in this small quote, having given their lives to a Church who does not recognize their ministry or potential…
I should also mention that Anne’s love of learning and books is only matched by one other lit girl, and she is on this list…
Juniper, Wise Child (Series), Monica Furlong
This series is incredibly special. Monica Furlong was a Catholic theologian and unfortunately for us only wrote this one set of children’s books. I love them. They introduced me to the world of Dorans (witches), the goddess, the problems with Augustine and more—all at the age of ten! These books are a treasure and a must read for any feminist of any age. It is hard to even pick my favorite quotes.
When Wise Child asks Juniper, (her mentor, a Doran) why the local priest hates her so much, this is her response:
“Why does he hate you so?”
“I think he misunderstands. He thinks I am working against the new religion, but it is not so. I love and revere Jesus as he does—how could one not? But in the new religion they think that nature, especially in the human body, must be fought and conquered—they seem to fear and distrust matter itself, although in the Mass it is bread and wine that is used to show how spirit and matter are one. They think that those like the dorans, who love and cherish nature, must be fought and conquered too. Jesus did not tell them this—it is all of their own invention because they fear nature, their own and that of others. “Juniper, Wise Child
Hermione, Harry Potter (Series), J.K. Rowling
It is no secret that I love this series. While it has issues from a feminist perspective, Hermione is not one of them. Many things stand out to me about Hermione: a) her willingness to accept that she is different from everyone she grew up with and that it is good to accept her difference b) her relentless love of learning. The wizarding world owes her their lives 100x over and its because she is smart and constantly learning and never afraid to be herself and c) her constant desire to better the world around her—as evidence by her relentless quest to fight for house elf rights in the series. While most wizards are blind to the plight of those they have always seen as “inferior”, Hermione never gives up fighting for house elves. While a minor storyline in the books, it defines who she is—and it is vital to my generation. There isn’t a kid anywhere really (well—unless they were the book burning type–and even they snuck a copy or two) that hasn’t read Harry Potter and grown up hoping they could be like Hermione.
“You know, house-elves get a very raw deal! It’s slavery, that’s what it is! That Mr. Crouch made her go up to the top of the stadium, and she was terrified, and he’s got her bewitched so she can’t even run when they start trampling tents? Why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?” Hermione, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Hermione doesn’t wait for change. She becomes the change. She doesn’t wait for her elders to change their tune about house elves or their status as persons deserving dignity (this resonates so much in our world today). She embodies the bravery that being a Gryffindor is all about.
So, your turn! Who are you literary heroes? Who are your literary sisters, mothers, grandmothers? Who was your companion if you ever felt alone on this journey?
Martha Cecilia Ovadia is an Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Student in Feminist Theology and Children’s Literature at Claremont Graduate University. She holds a MA in Religion, Ethics and Culture, focusing on Catholic Sexual Ethics and a BA in Religious Studies. She has written extensively on Revisionist Catholic Theology and has dedicated quite a bit of her studies to her very special interest: Harry Potter. Her proposed dissertation is on feminist writers and emerging young adult dystopian literature. She currently works with academic journals in the publishing industry in Los Angeles. When she is not working on her dissertation or editing journals, she can be found working on her debut novel or cuddling her two ferocious Pomeranians.