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Child rearing and ‘freedom’. How child boundaries can get parents into knots

Child in walking harness, image © Marilyn Barbone, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Child in walking harness, image © Marilyn Barbone, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Earlier this month, the press reproduced a shocking image: a CAT scan of a suitcase stopped at the border of a Spanish territory in North Africa, revealing a very distressed 8-year-old boy curled up in an agonising foetal position: his parents were trying to smuggle him across.

It got me thinking about the lengths (or should that be limits?) that parents go to to try to secure the long-term wellbeing of their offspring: about the irony of mothers and fathers buying the many parental accoutrements of constriction currently in use – buying them at a not insignificant financial and sometimes emotional and ethical cost – yet aiming them at their children’s ultimate freedom and good.

Cards on the table: I’m not a parent. But I’m a multiple aunt and godmother, and have worked with children and young people and their parents for much of my life; so I’m still allowed to observe, I hope, on parenting and its challenges.

The story of the child harness, or child reins, is an interesting one. ‘Leading strings’ may date back to the 17th century Netherlands as devices of tied rope used more to help teach children to walk than as restraints. Rubens and other painters feature them in their art through to the 19th century; but it was urban growth from late that century and the increasing dangers from motorised traffic into the 20th that prompted their more widespread use, especially in towns, to keep children close at hand and safe. (I’m 60, my sister and brother in their 50s: we were trotted around on child reins when we were small.) And yet harnesses then fell out of fashion – only to come back somewhat into common use more recently. But why? According to social historians, it was 1993 and the horror of the Jamie Bulger case that caused another pendulum swing. (Jamie was the toddler abducted by two older children from a shopping centre where he’d been taken by his mother, and brutally murdered on a railway line in Liverpool.)

The harness’s changing patterns of use is what really makes this historical cameo fascinating. As child-rearing historians and experts point out, ‘The history of child-rearing practices [is] characterized by radical vacillations between a positive and nurturing concept and a negative and suppressive perspective’ (History of Child-Rearing Practices:

‘In antiquity, adults regarded children as troublesome animals; and until two centuries ago, children were treated much like pets and were used and abused even unto death…. The nineteenth century saw an idealizing attitude emerge that made raising a child less a process of conquering its will than training it, guiding it into proper paths, and socializing it to become a useful member of the nation…. More recently, the “helping” mode of child rearing began. Here the parent is encouraged to let the child’s physiological and psychological needs as they emerge determine what guidance and assistance is to be given.’ (Child Rearing in the Past,

Parents have to be honest with themselves, I guess: to admit that the ups and downs in modishness of all the different types of child restraint they can resort to are a reality not only because of parental desires for the best for their children but also driven by their own concerns and fears – furthermore, the researchers say, very much by their experiences of how they themselves were raised.

Some have studied the influence of parenting experts on all this, too. According to Ann Hulbert, author of the 2003 book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, f’rinstance, every single prominent parenting ‘expert’ from the 20th century has a background of either reverence for or reaction against their own parents, subjective experiences which have imbued their iron-clad theories about what is ‘right’ for children, however much they may claim that they’re based on scientific ‘fact’. The same must be true of many lay parents among us.

Of course there are micro-cultures of parenting fashion, too. Until recently I lived in a cohousing community (see my post: This progressive housing estate encapsulated for me the two ends of the current parenting spectrum. Some parent neighbours, many influenced by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, let their offspring roam free around the (only partially enclosed) neighbourhood, unchastised if they climbed on shared windowsills, or railings overhanging vertiginous drops (it’s a very steep site); if they jumped from one piece of communal furniture to another; or if they got up and shouted, sang, danced, played and obscured the audience’s view during communal musical and dramatic performances. These parents believe (I hope I represent their views aright) that children should be allowed to discover their own limits, dangers and self-discipline. (In what may seem a contradiction of this stance, some even practice ‘co-sleeping’ with their children until they’re as old as 7 or 8, not wishing to oblige them to have their own bedrooms until they state their own readiness for one.) Other neighbours parent in the more traditional mode, imposing rules and limits and their own ideas about discipline. For those of us childless on the estate, or whose children had grown and migrated elsewhere, watching these child-rearing tugs of war and sometimes feeling we wished to intervene in the public communal spaces was a tense – and not always spectator – sport.

Apart from the child harness, there are masses of other restraining (and/or secure and reassuring, depending on your point of view) devices and methods that can cause much controversy: the baby sling; the baby bouncer; the baby monitor; the child seat; changing physical restraint practices in schools and secure units; parental locks on the computer; the playpen.

Ah yes, the playpen – in the US often called the kiddie enclosure. Many parents still use them, but many equally have qualms. Its origins may be the ‘naughty cage’. This was a piece of Victorian equipment used in some schools to segregate the badly behaved from the rest in large and busy classrooms. I encountered one of these, wooden, with sturdy bars – treasured as an amusing artefact for the foyer, I hasten to add – known as the ‘naughty boys’ cage’ – in a UK primary school where I once worked. Strangely at odds with his progressive work, even Joseph Lancaster, a 19th century educational pioneer, avoided such punishments as beating children in favour of suspending the naughtiest of the naughty in a cage from his classroom ceiling (

As for the playpen (in places now rebranded the Pack’n’Play® or the playard – play-yard), parents’ arguments pro are: it sets young children helpful boundaries; its reachable balustrades even encourage them to stand and take their first few steps; it can be filled with exciting stimuli (toys, mobiles, playmats, musical instruments); it bars young ‘uns from the harm of plug sockets, stoves, fires, stairs, open windows, pets, other potentially aggressive, jealous children; it allows the parent uninterrupted time to do chores that may also be dangerous or frightening (ironing, cooking, hoovering). Arguments con are: child-proofing your home (plug protectors, stair gates, fire guards) is a better solution, more closely mimicking the open spaces of the real world, but in a safe, navigable way; and that such devices as the playpen are the first compromise to good parenting. According to Penelope Leach’s Your Baby and Child, ‘babies who spend hours confined in cribs or playpens, with few toys and minimal adult attention, are very slow in learning to reach out and get hold of things and that means they are also slow in discovering what can be done with things’. And Mavis Klein’s The Psychodynamic Counseling Primer claims that ‘children of about seven or eight… who were, as infants, regularly confined in playpens, are less competent at reading and writing than those who were not'; and John Rosemond, in New Parent Power!, that ‘children who spend lots of time confined in cribs or playpens suffered delayed speed and are less coordinated’.

I can’t find research studies or data to back up these pronouncements; however, many parents these days express guilt about the possible anaesthetising effects of their regular usage of the modern-day virtual equivalents of the playpen – the TV, computer gadgets and mobiles, and the DVD – in order to soft-touch-immobilise their offspring, keeping them supposedly ‘safe’ from harm.

Coming back to fads and fashions. We’re filling our materialistic world with artefacts, huge numbers of them aimed at ‘securing’ our children for their own good. In many societies, these items quickly become ‘must-haves': not only to upstage fellow parents but to prove to others that one’s parenting is research-responsive, and sometimes, to legally comply. Health and Safety and parenting advice continually shift however over, e.g., the designs of buggy/pram that are ‘best’ for baby (forward-facing, backward-facing, low, higher up). Re: car seating alone, in UN countries parents must graduate their child through rearward-facing/combination seats (rearward/backward-facing) to forward-facing seats to high-backed seats to booster cushions of changing weights, sizes and specifications.

Unless you’ve been in a playpen yourself with an oversized child’s cycle helmet over your head for the last couple of decades, it can’t have escaped your notice that spending on children’s things generally has skyrocketed. In 2012, first-time UK parents-to-be were spending £100 on toys; the status symbol of the pram/pushchair/buggy now accounts for 30% of all spending on baby/nursery products; in 2011, nearly 20% of parents had bought a TV for their baby’s bedroom. Strikingly, a 2013 survey put UK average spending on toys per child each year since 2009 at around $450, topping even US spending (followed by France, then Germany, then Russia, Italy and Spain)!!!( Such trends are not so much due to peer pressure, parenting guru Frank Furedi argues, as the fact that increasingly parents regard their children, and their treatment of them, as a reflection of who they, the parents, are – not helped by the further fact that governments and political parties frame children’s development more and more as a commentary on parental accomplishment. ‘That kind of [public] pressure erodes the line between mother and father and child, financially and emotionally,’ Furedi says. (

A thought-provoking question: what d’you consider the most notable parental boundary for children in this day and age, certainly in more wealthy cultures? My answer: you could say, the physical bounds of the bedroom. Here, maybe, is the new-form cusp of the conflict between children’s impulsions to freedom and any constraints that adults set them. On Saturday 16 May, the UK’s Daily Telegraph Magazine featured six photographers’ images of their children in their rooms (in Brazil, the Netherlands, California, London….) The piece was glossed by such parental comments as ‘They spend a lot of time playing together in here – otherwise they would take over the whole house‘ (my italics); ‘The colour of Ella’s room has changed many times…. I haven’t looked [at it] carefully in a while‘ (again, my italics); ‘Gus redecorates his room several times a year.’

What strikes me (and I know I’m far from the first to remark on this) is an impression of an exponential increase in children’s autonomy but also, potentially, of their isolation within the family household. Further, having computers and TVs in their rooms at once frees children and potentially holds them captive – even though partly in an adult effort to secure them from more harm ‘on the outside’. Meanwhile, once children are inside these private, self-designed spaces, how much do their parents remember to keep in touch with how their little ones are developing: to track and notice what is really going on?

There’s an age-old undercurrent even to these trends that intrigues me. Look at what some would call less developed societies and we’re sharply reminded that even now, multitudes of adults regard children as ‘other’, as not the same as them. The Arunta of central Australia and the Eskimos of the sub-Arctic regard children as the bearers of spirits of ancient Aborigines and Eskimo relatives respectively. Some African communities fear malignant witchcraft or Ndoki, believing it targets children particularly, either in the womb or the early years, often invading its objects through infected food; the result: traumatising child exorcisms, or even child trafficking and ritual child sacrifice.

I can’t help thinking that even in the so-called developed world we have a two-faced attitude to childhood: that young people are simultaneously little projections of ourselves, of our desires, of what we’d like to be, and on the second hand ‘other’, untarnished, unknowable and unknown – and part of us would like them to stay that way.

Expressed in child-friendly language, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child upholds children’s right to ‘a safe place to live'; ‘a clean and safe environment'; ‘to find out things'; ‘to privacy'; ‘to protection'; ‘to play and rest’. It also states that ‘No one is allowed to punish you in a cruel or harmful way,’ ‘You have the right to find out things,’ and that ‘You have the right to get information that is important to your well-being…. Adults should make sure that the information you are getting is not harmful.’

So what do children think about all this themselves? A 2010 Irish survey of 6 to 17-year-olds discovered that, across this span, although wide, children appreciated that:

‘- Parents represent important figures of authority and control… the monitoring and checking of children’s activities and whereabouts, enforcing limits and boundaries, and disciplining….
– Rules were necessary in order to protect children from harm and to promote their well-being…. Avoidance of risk and safety issues were highlighted in children’s narratives.
– Parental monitoring of children’s behaviour and whereabouts was facilitated largely through talking, asking questions and via mobile phones….
– Older children emphasised the need for their right to privacy to be balanced with parents’ right to monitor and regulate their activities….’

(From Children’s Perspectives on Parenting Styles and Discipline: A Developmental Approach, published in the National Children’s Research Strategy Series:

From the above – and again, this isn’t an earth-shattering thought – what seems required far more with children when negotiating the knotty problem of boundaries is cross-generational communication – as found above from children themselves, who valued ‘talking, and asking questions’. But the question remains, what to do when children are as yet too young, or immature, to engage?

Take swaddling. From times of yore newborns were tightly bound so that they had no ability to move at all. Held thus, they could be hung on a peg, laid on a shelf or put in a receptacle of the parent’s choice and convenience. (There were reasons given for this: that babies’ limbs were not yet fully ‘set’, and they might also damage themselves or others by thrashing about.) Rendered almost totally passive, their hearts would slow down, they would sleep more and be more generally withdrawn. After nine months, the infant was kept docile by underfeeding and purging; when of crawling age, as crawling was seen as the demeaning behaviour of animals they were held in restraints or stocks until they were old enough to walk. It was only in the late 1700s and into the 18th century that other ideas about child rearing emerged.

And yet, and yet…. In the late 1960s my much younger brother slept in a kind of zip-up sleeping bag, designed to keep him from throwing off the bedclothes in his cot; and now, today, swaddling is almost popular again, albeit in a looser, more temporarily used and humane form. Parents report that their babies are ‘happy’ sleeping, and sleep more deeply, in so-called swaddle pods, their legs and arms folded far away inside. Certainly, the enthusiasts declare, they can no longer scratch themselves or poke their fingers in their eyes. Without being able to question their infants, or include them as part of some longitudinal study into childhood development, the doubt of course remains: how will we ever know what is ‘good’ for these swaddled ones for sure?

The fashionable swaddle pod.

The fashionable swaddle pod.

What can we do about our ageist language? Paula Coston muses

Our texts are steeped in age-based prejudice and cliché. Image copyright Roman Globa, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Our texts are steeped in age-based prejudice and cliché. Image copyright Roman Globa, courtesy of Shutterstock.

A few weeks ago my mother got a copy in the mail of a medical specialist’s letter, also sent to her doctor. It read ‘Jean is a sprightly lady of 83…’. My mum chortled, sure she’d received a compliment, delighted with the metaphorical pat on the back; on further reflection, my characterful mater wasn’t so sure about it. Last year, my father was in the throes of a large-scale, no-holds-barred party that he’d organised with his usual panache when he suddenly collapsed with a condition that occasionally recurs but which the paramedics couldn’t rectify on this occasion without taking him to hospital. As I walked beside his gurney to his little treatment room, the doctor asked, ‘Mr X, how young are you?’ ’85 and a half,’ he answered humorously and proudly. Again, he chuckled at what he perceived to be a compliment. But were these, really? I think of other well-meaning phrases that aim to praise or flatter older people: ‘spry’, ‘sharp as a tack’, ‘independent’, ‘still going strong’, ‘perfectly compos mentis’. We’d never use them of someone aged 20, or even 40. So aren’t they actually patronage in thin disguise?

There’s a wonderfully militant website for older women which points out such subtle iniquitous wrinkles in common parlance: The Old Women’s Project at Certainly for older women, condescending phrases such as ‘little old lady’, ‘you lovely ladies’ and even ‘you girls’ trip off the tongues of too many far too often. Truth is, older people are rounded, unique individuals, some frail or needy or ill, many stout and hearty and strong-willed and maybe far from ‘ladylike’, ‘lovely’ or ‘girlish’, and with years of experience ahead of them, let alone decades behind them.

Of course the semantics of age and ageing is a touchy and subjective topic, clouded in confusion by the fact that across cultures and generations, acceptable usage changes. Just as ‘homosexual’ and ‘queer’ were over the years superseded by ‘gay’ (which now seems to default in certain contexts to a preference for ‘queer’ again), so such labels as ‘older people’ are currently ‘in’ while ‘the elderly’, at least in my book, isn’t, being a kind of distancing mechanism, ascribing a kind of otherness to the older ones among us – along with arbitrary groupings such as ‘the over-80s’, ‘the over-90s’ etc, so often alighted on by politicians when contriving their seemingly equally arbitrarily ring-fenced health and social care initiatives (and personally I detest the US predilection for ‘senior citizens’, ‘elders’ and ‘seniors’). Also, the boundaries of the definition ‘older’ keep on shifting: apparently last month Austrian researchers informed us that now, ‘old age’ (whatever that is) doesn’t officially begin until our 74th year.

We all have to navigate speaking in this slippery shorthand of age, and thus often get it wrong: I’m saying ‘all’ not to exonerate myself. ‘Describe her/him: I can’t remember who you mean,’ someone will say, and the reply will probably be along the lines of, ‘S/he’s about mid-50s, tall, short grey hair, smiley’, etc. etc. Invariably the age tag comes first (only trumped by the colour tag – ‘Well, she’s black, 80 or so’, etc. etc.). Now I’m not arguing for political-correctness-gone-mad here – of course we should state the bleedin’ obvious first, e.g. ‘He’s Asian, got one leg’ – but why the laziness of age labels so often first off the bat?

Sorry, media, but journalists and their ilk are the pits at this linguistic sloth and cliché. ‘Rescuers pulled a 101-year-old man alive from the rubble of his home a week after the Nepal earthquake.’…. ‘FRAIL MOBSTER IN FRAME FOR £330M ART HEIST: The FBI is focusing its investigation on an unlikely figure: a wheezing, 79-year-old former mobster…’…. ‘Dave Watson, 55, is … unemployed due to health reasons.’….’MORE EVIDENCE AGAINST ROLF HARRIS: The 85-year-old was handed a six-year jail term last year…’…. ‘Ben E. King, the soul and R&B singer best known for Stand By Me, has died aged 76,’…. ‘The bestselling crime writer Ruth Rendell… has died aged 85.’…. ‘As someone who got married lateish – in my forties -….’….’ Of course [my italics], 64-ish … is when a man starts to feel vulnerable…’.

Surely the media should lead the way in more sophisticated verbal constructions that remind us that age is just a number, not a constraining descriptor or an infallible predictor, not a narrow channel into absurd and unfair generalisations? We ‘aged something-or-others’ or ‘over-whatevers’ are a mixed and uncategorisable bunch, with no desire for shoddy brief journalistic wordage that may serve only to bring to mind those repellent, stereotyping road signs you see near care and residential homes, black silhouettes of hunched, frail figures (‘frail': there’s another ageist word) toiling along, prodding their weary way with walking sticks.

Commercial interests and advertising steep our textual environment with age-averse messages, which we inevitably soak up. These can be blatant. Witness the brand names: Nivea Cellular Anti-Age skin range; the cosmetic manufacturer Simple’s Age-Resisting Eye and Night Cream; Clarins’ Restorative [my italics] Day Cream (do we all need, and want, to be ‘restored’ – and from what?)…. Marketing blurbs can also brainwash us with more covert and, on the face of it, positive signals: a recliner chair is brought to you by HSL, the ‘comfort [my italics] specialists’ (do all older people want to be comforted, or comfortable?); Specsavers tell us that ‘Life begins at 60 [So does a 25% discount, the ad goes on]’ (implying, then, that some other life ends at 59?); Dogs Trust promises ‘complete peace of mind’ (are we all stressed out? Do we even want peace of mind, to me an anodyne and unadventurous concept?); Clarins enables you to ‘look as young as you feel’ (but that, of course, assumes you want to). Then there are the euphemisms: older people are ‘mature’ and, ‘at y/our time of life’, ‘deserve’ treats, luxury and that dreadful word, ‘support’. Other wordings seem to imply that all older people have limited and housebound horizons: ‘We understand how proud you are of your home’ (Stannah Stairlifts); a residential home will ‘take care of the everyday chores’ (are they chores? And/or, do we all do the ‘chores’ every day, martyrs to our own routines?). Yes, in their contexts some of these phrases may appropriately hit their target audiences; but what I’m saying is that these tropes surely gradually, insidiously, permeate societal consciousness, becoming more and more often used without a moment’s thought.

But wait: our ageist verbiage is not just tinted with prejudice and preconception against the older. I hate the American ‘senior’ and ‘elder’ not so much of themselves, implying, as they do, wisdom and experience, but because they also suggest a counterpart ‘junior’, with its connotations of ‘inferior’. Call me an idealist, but I’m not looking for ageist favouritism at the expense of those who are younger: just a level field.

Younger people suffer from our ageist language too. Image copyright Chaloemphan, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Younger people suffer from our ageist language too. Image copyright Chaloemphan, courtesy of Shutterstock.

For me, the sphere that crystallises the pervasiveness of the problem is the job market. Despite legislation against open ageism, job ads persist with phraseology such as ‘We will help foster your development in this exciting post,’ ‘Training will be provided,’ ‘We are seeking someone who will be with us for the long haul.’ Hmph, I think when I read these: they don’t want someone with my age and experience; they’re looking to save money on someone young, naïve and cheap. But there’s similar discrimination against the young: ‘Graduate required’ can be read as code for older, as can be ‘Must have at least x years’ experience.’

So what to do? It’s a far greater problem than a few people can handle, and of course only reflects the ageism in society at large. But I’d suggest three things:

– If someone condescends to you, or an older person of your acquaintance, about your/their age, don’t smile and succumb to the flattery, but pause and regard the interlocutor with a quizzical expression – or, if you can be tactful about it, question or rebut what you’ve just heard: ‘Why don’t you just ask how old I am, as you would anyone else?'; or, ‘But you’re looking good for your age too.’
– Collect examples of journalistic shorthand (‘Martha, aged 59′) and complain to the relevant media outlet.
– Audit your own speech a little. Try at least a day of fasting from such expressions as ‘the elderly’, ‘anti-ageing’ and the saccharin ‘peace of mind’.

My everyday singlism diary (with apologies to Laura Bates)


By Ognjen Tubic

By Ognjen Tubic

Everyone knows about the everyday sexism project, yes? Started by feminist Laura Bates, it’s become a worldwide phenomenon: women (and men) can log in to the site and register their daily encounters with sexism in all its insidious and subtle (and less subtle) forms ( It’s spawned a book, as well.

As regular punters to this blogsite know, I’m a long-term single: not by choice, but now mostly happy – more than happy – with that state. Singlism is a term to my knowledge coined by the wonderful Dr Bella DePaulo for discrimination against, and blindness to, the state of singledom in society (see f’rinstance her article at

The trouble with the term single is that there are so many permutations in its definition. For governments and collectors of statistics, it too often means simply unmarried: an antiquated view that fails to recognise marriage’s decline as an institution, anyway in the west, in favour of so many other household and relationship variations: couples who live apart; single parents, i.e. living with children, not a partner; the widowed; the separated; unmarried couples and groups who live together, whether in a sexual relationship or not; I could go on…. So many overlapping groups to be marginalised by governments, organisations, the media and – well, just us!

In tribute to Laura Bates, I decided to keep a singlism diary for a couple of weeks. And here are some of my encounters:

13 April: I listen to a debate between two women on BBC Radio 4 about whether her marriage to Bill privileges Hillary Clinton in her campaign for Presidential nomination. Is she sailing in on her husband’s coat-tails? Will that help? Hearteningly, they argue over whether reliance on one’s marriage, its use as a tool for success, is a good message to send, particularly to young women and girls?

From 13 to 24 April: I lie back and enjoy BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime, Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy. In the very first episode, setting the scene of an upmarket Chelsea bookshop, the author describes the older clientele of wealthy women who love to buy fiction there by such novelists as Anita Brookner about the difficult lives of cultured spinsters, [I paraphrase] ‘even though these female purchasers are married or widowed, and far from that state themselves’. I enjoy this perceptive irony immensely.

14 April: I receive an email, ‘Dear Miss Paula Coston’, clearly using a template. Why this societal persistence with badging women, any women, with our marital status in a way that men are not? (I write about this elsewhere:

14 April: With the UK national elections looming (7 May), David Cameron, head of the Conservative Party and current Prime Minister (for those of you abroad who may not know), launches the Conservative manifesto. A piece about it on Sky News bears the strapline ‘DC offers families [my italics] a “good life”‘. The document is stuffed with references to ‘(hard)-working families’. When this emphasis is picked up by satirists and commentators in the media, it interests me to note that the bias they mock is ‘working’ and ‘hard-working': what about the unemployed?, they merely jest, overlooking the singles slight entirely.

15 April: Ed Milliband launches Labour’s, the UK major opposition party’s, manifesto. Encouragingly, of its several major themes or parts, one is ‘A better future for women'; but sadly, after stating the first aim as tackling women’s low pay, the rest concern more parental (my italics) support with childcare; ensuring that support for families (my italics) reflects modern life, e.g. possibly transferring unpaid leave to grandparents; and more help for families (my italics) ‘to spend more time with a new baby’.

Over the days: I scan the manifesto of each party as it comes out for references to single people. After all, let’s look at the facts. In 2013 in the UK there were 26.4 million households, of which 29% consisted of only one person; out of a current population of some 60 million there were nearly 1.9 million lone parents with dependent children (now of course, the figures for both are higher)(Office for National Statistics: Similarly in the US, Women’s Voices Women Vote (WVWV) has identified that single, separated, divorced and widowed women – 53 million unmarried, one out of every two women being unmarried in America – are one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the country (

BTW, too, in the UK, the US and many other developed countries, more women than men live in lone-occupied households; women live longer than men, thus proving a greater health and social care burden on the state than men; and more women than men get burdened with the care of elderly parents and other relatives, often with little or no special financial or NHS/social care support, or support and understanding from their employers. None the less, this problem of an ageing, lone-living population in the end transcends the gender divide: the growing health and social care burden will fall on the state, and thus on us all (see the Ageing without Children website:

17 April: There’s a trailer on BBC Radio 4 for a new late-night satire show, the Vote Now! Show, based on, and featuring the same team who create, the popular Radio 4 Now! Show. The trailer states that research apparently shows that mums and dads, parents with children, vote more than singles do – hence all the calculated references by our campaigning politicians to ‘hard-working families‘. (The joke in the trailer goes that parents only vote more because even a trip out to a polling station at night makes a nice break from the kids). But that gets me wondering: is that really true? And – certainly according to WVWV – in 2010, unmarried American women (we can agree, can’t we, not the only women who are ‘single’?) made up 25.2% of the voting-eligible population but only 23.6% of the electorate (39% of unmarried women weren’t even registered to vote). It seems logical that women in the broader definition of single would make up an even more telling percentage of the non-voting population than this. And yet, the most this UK election’s manifestos of the main parties do that might just possibly help the ageing single population is to promise to ‘integrate the UK health service and social care’, or ‘health and social care budgets’, whatever that vague promise might mean.

Still, given the figures about singles, perhaps especially single women, not voting, I’m worried that we’re not helping: that in elections and the way governments cater for us, we may be bringing some of this neglect onto ourselves.

13 to 24 April: I eat, of course, during this period. So I start looking at how singles’ food needs are catered for, in supermarkets in particular. It’s almost a truism that most ready meals and ready packaged foods are sized (and priced accordingly) for at least two people, if not more. On top of that, there’s the prevalence of ‘buy one, get one free’ and ‘three for the price of two’ type offers, all aimed at larger households than the lone dweller. I research uncooked meatballs: 10 or 12 in every pack; sausages: 8 or 10. You can go to the butcher’s/meat counter, of course, and – for a loaded price – buy just the quantity you want; or you can take a large pack home, split it and freeze the rest, and eat the same darn thing for days over a period, if that’s your bag.

But let’s be fair: more supermarkets and online suppliers are offering meals for one, particularly frozen (personally, not an option that I’d ever like to take up). A quick survey:

– Marks and Spencer: no online meals for 1.
– Aldi: 3 frozen ready meals for 1, out of a much vaster selection aimed at more diners than that.
– Wiltshire Farm Foods: 22 frozen ‘mini meals’, as they call them.
– Sainsbury’s: 204 meals that they badge as for 1, but these include many burgers, pies and hot dogs etc: arguably not healthy balanced meals, with a range of wholesome ingredients – alongside those Innocent ‘pots’ which, although delicious and healthy, are priced exorbitantly, IMHO.
– Waitrose: 6 online frozen meals that they label ‘mini’.
– Tesco: cheats, and badges nothing as a meal for 1, the only indicator being a lesser weight than a meal for 2, printed on the packaging.
– Iceland: 29 frozen meals for 1.

What’s going on here though is even more interesting than an apparent growth in the meals-for-1 market. Study the type of meals generally offered, and you’re bound to see what I mean. Spaghetti Bolognese, sausage and mash, chicken stew with dumplings, chicken dinner, beef lasagne, toad in the hole: largely, the menu’s traditional, if not conservative and positively old-fashioned. The people who make and market this stuff seem to me to see a sad, lonely elderly, decrepit person with an unadventurous appetite and little or no life experience, sitting there in a haze of longing for the past. As proclaimed proudly and unashamedly above, single people are a far more diverse, lively, busy, experienced and discerning group than that. Oh hell.

23 April: I hear George Osborne, our Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, on Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘People are working very hard to support their families‘ (my italics); ‘Yesterday the Prime Minister announced free child care for working families‘ – having learnt nothing from satirical commentary over the last couple of weeks, still banging on the same family drum.

24 April: An estate agent rings me at work: ‘Is that Mrs Coston (my italics)?’ Still the assumed, and unnecessary, and wrong, honorific.

I suppose that some signs of recognition of singlism are positive in media and culture. But…. Despite the dearth of political policies for singles, after two weeks of keeping this diary, I do know one thing: we singles had better get out and vote in droves, in the UK, the US, everywhere, if we can ever hope to change attitudes to us, or, indeed, anything.

Paula Coston praises writers and artists who give older women their due

Goya, 'Until death', from the 'Witches and old women' album, late 18th to early 19th century.

Francisco Goya, from his ‘Witches and old women’ album, late 18th to early 19th century.

Goya, 'Women jumping', from his 'Witches and old women' album, late 18th to early 19th century.

Fancisco Goya, ‘Women jumping’, from his ‘Witches and old women’ album, late 18th to early 19th century.

OK, so most of us recognise that the demographic is changing: that the older generation is beginning to overtake the younger by a considerable margin. But that’s ‘recognise’ in theory. Certainly in the media, advertising and the arts, the consciousness lag, the large-scale head-burying in the sand is unjust and majorly irritating. Meanwhile in literature and art the caricaturing, stereotyping, pigeonholing and sidelining of older people persists.

An article in the New York Times on 26 January 2014, and the piece it provoked the next day in The Huffington Post by novelist Holly Robinson, bear me out. The original text, Writer of a Certain Age, reported novelist Fay Weldon’s advice to her creative writing students to avoid the ‘mistake’ of writing a book with a main character in her 50s: ‘mistake’ because agents and publishers probably wouldn’t touch it. Holly Robinson’s agent agreed emphatically when Robinson proposed a novel with a main female character approaching her 60s. But this isn’t just about the negative views towards older age of agents and publishers: although more women buy books than men, most purchasers are younger than 45. The audience too, you see. ( The problem doesn’t just stem from the wilful blindness of a few professions but of society at large.

As an older woman I’ve combed modern fiction, poetry, paintings and more for a sensitive and nuanced attention to my stage and state of life. And the good news is that slowly, slowly, the situation is changing. Here, f’rinstance, are a few recent examples of novels with a rounded, authentic, older female protagonist:

– Hilary Boyd: Thursdays in the Park; Tangled Lives; When You Walked Back into My Life;Solstice, co-written with Barbara Roddam (Boyd specialises in the possibility of romantic relationships for older women, but – sadly, in my view – has got labelled with the ugly term ‘grannylit’).
– Sheila Hancock, Miss Carter’s War (inspired by seeing an older woman in a shop being ignored).
– Stewart O’Nan, Emily, Alone.
– Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge.
– There’s also my own attempt of course: On the Far Side, There’s a Boy (

In 2010, just before Mothers’ Day, Carol Ann Duffy commissioned poets to write with sensitivity about age and ageing. The results are wonderful, for instance Gillian Clarke’s poem Blue Hydrangeas, September:

‘You found them, lovely, silky, dangerous,
their lapis lazulis, their indigoes
tide-marked and freckled with the rose
of death, beautiful in decline.
I touch my mother’s skin. Touch mine.’

Other poems are Old Flame by Linda Chase; What I Regret by Nina Cassian; Mrs Baldwin by Fleur Adcock; Ageing by Ruth Fainlight; and many more. You can even hear some being read if you follow this link:

Then there are a burgeoning number of films in a trend towards foregrounding older characters that arguably started with Mama Mia: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel… (though these border on cliché here and there, not to mention the obligatory comedy and happy ending).

So how do we get more of all this? By commenting on and reviewing such literature etc. enthusiastically when it comes out, obvs. And with the internet, there’s the scope for mass evangelising. Some of this can come from older writers and artists, can’t it, since they know whereof they speak? Hence it’s great to see the website Bloom,

‘a literary site devoted to highlighting, profiling, reviewing and interviewing authors whose first major work was published when they were age 40 or older. Bloom is also a community of artists and readers who believe that “late” is a relative term, not an absolute one, and who are interested in bringing to attention a wide variety of artistic paths – challenging any narrow, prevailing ideas about the pacing and timing of creative fruition. If someone is labeled a “late bloomer”, the question Bloom poses is, “Late” according to whom?’ (

Note that Bloom is for readers as well as creators, so even if we’re not arty, we should use it, and support it to the hilt. (Not that older creative types should feel some sense of obligation, or constriction, to focus on their own generation – any more than younger types should stick to a youthful agenda. Think Mary Wesley, who began writing adult fiction at the age of 71, but whose palette was broad and deep.)

Internet articles are more and more celebrating older women artists and their work. Age shall not wither her by Emine Saner in 2008 spotlights Paula Rego, Gillian Ayres, Ana Maria Pacheco Maria Lassnig, then 89 (who, like me, never married or had children) and Natalie d’Arbeloff. d’Arbeloff, guest editor of the piece, argues that

’emotional involvement in itself undeniably soaks up art-making energy for many female artists, and can divert it….I wanted to know how those who are the exception managed to focus their creative elan consistently and continuously throughout a long career’ [my italics]

– which is what the feature examines (

Jackie Wullschlager’s In praise of older women (2010) claims that

‘now old age among female artists and writers is the new chic….In the 21st century, creative women in their eighties and nineties such as Louise Bourgeois…, Leonora Carrington… and Diana Athill… emerged from the tunnel of obscure middle-age to become glamorous if not household, at least drawing-room names.’

She also cites Bridget Riley (now 84); recently deceased Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell and Alice Neel; and Yayoi Kisama, in her eighties and living in a Tokyo mental hospital. This is an insightful piece, highlighting how the fact that the ‘male-dominated highways’ of the art world are still catching up with feminist thought at all is one reason for the marginalisation of younger, as well as older, female artists – hence the older ones’ ‘late blooming’. I love Wullschlager’s description of one of Lassnig’s artworks, a naked and frank self-portrait aged 86

‘holding two guns, one pointing at her head, the other at the viewer – the uncompromising stare challenging us to underestimate the emotional life of old age’.

Wullschlager asks:

Will these be the grandes dames of mid-21st century art? The belated triumphs of Bourgeois, Rego and Kusama show that the tortoise is as likely to win as the hare.’

It would be great if she were right.

Lest we become sexist about this, male creatives can be enlightened and nuanced about older women, too. One of the best on the subject of Us (IMHO) dates back a while. The fantastic exhibition of Francisco Goya’s album, these days titled The Witches and Old Women, is on at the Courtauld Gallery, London until 25 May this year. Goya doesn’t just move beyond the stereotypes (witch, hag, harridan, sex-starved madwoman, old maid, harpie, repulsive crone, spiteful bitch, obscene lustress, overdue corpse): he treats and overturns them. A classic example of this is Until death.

At first glance, a decaying, over-prettified woman seems to be preening herself in her finery before a looking glass, rightly whispered about by the sneering dandies in the background. But look again and there’s something kinder and more generous than this about it: Goya seems to understand her need to enhance her looks, empathises with her desire to maintain appearances. And the onlookers – apart from the sympathetic or thoughtful maid – seem, well, a bit nasty themselves. The sketch is multi-layered: it’s also about the indomitable spirit of old age.

In this album and others, there are cartoons (in the original sense of the word) of two old women pulling each other by the hair and tumbling together as if into an abyss (They descend quarrelling); but equally, of a merrymaking older couple, man and woman, laughing and rising up in blank space, as if on an updraught of happiness (They ascend joyfully). Old age brings rages, Goya seems to tell us – and, perhaps more unexpectedly, energy and strength; but joy and pleasure too.

There are also sweet, touching, dare I say almost inspirational, images: the devotion and stoicism of an old woman totally absorbed and hunched in prayer in She won’t get up till she’s finished her prayers; Content with her lot, a toothless old woman dancing playfully on her own shadow to the accompaniment of castanets – yes, old age can bring fun, even ecstacy; and an almost algebraic equation of equalised power with Expressive of double strength, a sketch of an old woman struggling forcefully with a man on the ground. Then there are the ones at the top of this piece, of course: the first, a tender portrait of an old lady examining herself in the mirror, quite untroubled by her ancient looks – a neat, more reassuring companion to Until death.

Goya excels at titles. I’m tempted to see him almost as the earliest blogger in the way that he combines his words with images. There’s Old women fight too. I especially like his Just can’t go on at the age of 98, a depiction of an ancient (man or woman, it’s hard to say), bowed over and hobbling along painfully on two sticks. The point is that s/he IS going on, and will. Funniest title-image coupling is perhaps Showing off? Remember your age, in which an old man is careering helplessly and headfirst down the stairs. Goya reminds us here, figuratively as well as metaphorically, that we’ll all, both women and men, be levelled to a new plane by old age.

If Goya could do it in the 1790s, there must be more bloggers, writers, artists of all kinds who can dissect oncoming age in witty, wonderful and sensitive, nuanced ways – and people who will encourage them and champion them when they do.

Jocasta? Complex? You’re telling me, says Paula Coston – and lends her voice to trying to redeem her

'Lemminkainen's mother on the banks of the River Tuonela reviving her son'. by Akeseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897. So is the doting mother unconsciously incestuous, anguished and dangerous...

‘Lemminkainen’s mother on the banks of the River Tuonela reviving her son’ by Akeseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897. So is the doting mother unconsciously incestuous, potentially anguished, or anguishing, and dangerous…

... or supportive, inspirational and life-enhancing? (Mother and son Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr)

… or supportive, inspirational and life-enhancing? (Mother and son Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr)

I give in. Among you my faithful readers (or even the casual ones), it’s my blog piece on the Jocasta complex that so many of you turn to – maybe, even, return to – on a daily basis ( (Please, if you have a moment, do comment here. Is it because your name’s Jocasta? You’re considering the name for a child? You’re a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist or counsellor? You’ve been told you have the complex? You think you have it? You think your mother has it? You think your mother-in-law-to-be has it? Pray, do tell.)

Anyhoo, bowing to my public, here’s a second post on the same theme.

Most of you will know of the mythical Greek hero Oedipus; Jocasta was his ma, the woman who fell in love with him not knowing (according to many accounts) that he was her long-lost son. We can thank (?) Sigmund Freud for the concept of the Oedipus complex: a son’s wariness or fear of, even hatred of, certainly sense of competition with, his father (in the myth of course, Oedipus kills him).

It’s the lesser-known American psychology Professor and psychoanalyst Matthew Besdine who gave the Jocasta complex its name:

‘The Jocasta complex is as significant as the Oedipus complex. One constant factor in the lives of geniuses is Jocasta mothering. The salient features of the personality of the genius are an unresolved Oedipus, fear of love, an underlying sense of guilt, strong masochistic trends, a significant homosexual component, paranoid trends, extraordinary egocentricity, exorbitant striving for recognition, and overall narcissism.’ (The Jocasta Complex, Mothering, and Genius, 1968)

This from Besdine’s abstract for the book, though he does go on to qualify – thank goodness: ‘These impressions are presented tentatively and need further study and confirmation.’ Another of his works, The Unknown Michaelangelo, 1986, contains a series of biographies of famously creative men whom he considered victims of the complex.

Before we react too violently against MB, let’s remember that he originally coined the term in the context of his studies of male genius, however misguided you may feel he is in his conclusions even about that. He was no feminist, or at least, not primarily interested in the female side of his invented equation. Andrew Brink summarises MB’s outlook in Obsession and Culture – A Study of Sexual Obsession in Modern Fiction, 1996:

‘[For him, male] genius is a function of the kind and intensity of mothering: the social benefits of creative art are bought at a high price in feelings of ambiguity about sexual orientation. The exclusive favor of sons by their mothers that leads to a sense of special creative powers Besdine likens to the gardener’s technique of “debudding” to promote exceptionally vigorous growth.’

The word ’emasculation’ immediately springs to mind.

Over time, variant tropes of this notion have seeped into cultures around the world. A letter by E. Wellisch of the Child Guidance Clinic, Bexleyheath, UK in the British Medical Journal, 12 April 1952 warned of an increased danger of ‘a break-through of unconscious incestuous tendencies’ towards their adopted sons in adoptive mothers, especially if the marital relationship of the woman and her partner was unsteady. How pervasive is this fear of irreparable damage by the mother figure, bang right up to now. It’s there in the phrase ‘mummy’s boy’ or ‘mama’s boy’, often laughingly and thoughtlessly tossed off; and it’s there in the stereotype of the Jewish mother (‘You never call! You never write!’) and her ambitions in particular for her sons (doctor, lawyer). It’s there in the reluctance of men to own up to a close connection with their mothers, as William Sutcliffe wrote in The Sunday Times:

‘Men are more likely to confess to a predilection for pornography than admit to a close relationship with their mother…. Confessing to your friends that you sometimes call your mum for a chat is something few do. Even though a man’s mother is likely to be the second most important woman in his life, even though he may have deep feelings of love for her, this is a relationship about which men are sheepish, secretive and often outright embarrassed.’

It’s also lurking in commentary such as this by Paul MacInnes:

‘To stand outside the realm of maternal comfort, to stand foursquare with the woman [he means, girlfriend or wife] who quite often calls him a “certifiable prat” to his face, that’s the true sign of a successful man.’ (7 March 2013 in the Guardian ‘Are you a mummy’s boy? It’s time to cut the apron strings':

Of course he’s right that men need to form other healthy, loving relationships than with their mothers; but it’s the ease with which his commentary falls into the mummy’s boy shorthand that bothers me: ‘apron strings’, ‘unconditional love’, ‘dear old mum’ – and the one who ‘cooks their food for them’. Are all deeply loving, even doting, mothers like that?

Besdine took things too far, in his homophobic tendencies etc., on male genius and its downsides. Look deeper, and the Jocasta so-called ‘complex’ gets, er, complex and really interesting: close son mothering does have important functions and positives that need to be more widely known.

Take killer whales, f’rinstance (I’ve talked about them elsewhere). In a Daily Mail article, Dr Dan Franks of the Department of Biology, University of York was quoted as saying:

‘The need for mothers to care for their sons into adulthood explains why killer whales have evolved the longest post-reproductive lifespan of any non-human animal.’

Killer whale mothers live close to their sons throughout their lifespans; and, the article goes on to explain, theory predicts that to have the best chance of spreading their genes, mothers need to focus their efforts on their sons.(

Women have started reclaiming the Jocasta so-called ‘complex’ for women, from a female, and totally other, viewpoint. In 2012, journalist Kate Stone Lombardi published The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger. Her research suggested that close mother-son bonds led to many emotional and mental benefits, without any of the negatives that concerned Besdine:

‘Women who marry men who are close to their mothers are quite happy with the communication in the relationship and the more romantic aspects…[as long as the mother-son relationship is a] healthy adult closeness…. Guys who have [good] communication skills, which is one of the things they tend to learn from their moms, do very well [at work].’


‘Boys who aren’t firmly attached to their moms go on in later life to have behaviour problems. They’re more destructive, they’re more aggressive…. Guys who are closer to their moms [are] less depressed, … less anxious, right through to the high school years.'(

Men too are helping, trying to rework notions of masculinity around male-female relationships, including relationships with mothers. I especially like the blogs of Martin Robb about the positive maternal influence on the development of young male identities:

Perhaps many feminists’ immediate reaction to discussion of the Jocasta complex is to try to reverse the imbalance, to cast any semblance we have to Jocasta not as destructive but as superwoman, supporting, moulding and nurturing her son in purely beneficial, enlightened ways. But isn’t that to risk becoming Besdine: to risk casting the son as passive and malleable as putty? i.e. an imbalance in another, equally potentially harmful, direction?

Dr Paula Hyman, in her questioning of the pervasive Jewish mother stereotype and her attempts to combat it (, has hit the nail on the head, though. Constructs such as ‘complexes’ easily insinuate themselves into our thinking, becoming deep-rooted stereotypes under the influence of history (e.g. the Jews’ patterns of family life in Europe), religion (e.g. Judaism), and iconic thinkers, who can transform the cultural landscape so dramatically (e.g. Sigmund Freud: an atheist, but, as he explored in his work, by family upbringing a Jew).

Mother-son stereotypes and constructs go far, far back, to the myths that may imbue us without our knowing, tangling and knotting our attitudes and values. J. Bruce Evans (July 2007) argues that our interpretations of and responses to the relationship are steeped in four particular mother-son ‘myths': those of Chronos, Oedipus, Attis and Jesus. He points out that in the first three, the mother is in the foreground of the tale; in the latter, the Virgin Mary has receded to some degree.

With such strong mother figures – strong in relation to their sons – embedded in our primeval psyches, it’ll be a hard battle for future generations to re-mould our perceptions of mother-son dynamics; to re-shape them – where it’s justified – as more male-female balanced, and at the same time positive for the women in the equation.

Why female religious leaders are so NOW

Wandering female sage, India, c.1906 (Image in public domain, including in the U.S.)

Wandering female sage, India, c.1906 (Image in the public domain, including in the U.S.)

The theme of 2015’s International Women’s Day on 8 March was ‘Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It!’

Now although I’m not religious, I don’t have anything against anyone who is, just so long as they try to do good with it, not harm (which is rather what I thought religion was for, after all). And I’m emphatically pro female empowerment, ergo female leaders; at least, female ‘leaders’ in their own way (see my recent post ‘Women leaders: PC puzzles, if women “lead from behind”, how can we be seen?':

Recently Libby Lane became the Church of England’s first female bishop ( In the midst of the celebrations there was an outburst from some old fogey in the congregation; and still, only some 20 or so Anglican women bishops do their work around the world. Why the slow progress, the opposition? Some say that women can’t even be priests: that for them, even priesthood seems an ‘authority’ that Scripture doesn’t reflect. As for bishops, the reactionary camp believes that it’s theologically impossible for women bishops to ordain priests, and that in any case Scripture requires male headship in the Church; more, that women’s ordination puts a brake on any hopes of unity with Roman Catholics.

But, surprise surprise (not), the non-canonical Christian texts, apocryphal or gnostic gospels, so-called, i.e. the ones rejected by the male-dominated ancient Church, give women greater prominence. In one narrative, actually titled the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene), Christ says,

‘Mary Magdalene and John… will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries in the Ineffable. And they will be on my right and on my left. And I am they, and they are I.’

In another, Christ asks his mother Mary, Martha, Salome and Mary Magdalene to answer his questions about scripture; when Peter objects to the female participation, Jesus corrects him and urges Martha to continue. In the so-called ‘First Apocalypse of James’, James asks,’Who are the seven women who have been your disciples?'; Jesus reveals four to be ‘Salome and Mariam and Martha and Arsinoe’.

Mary Magdalene was actually titled ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ by Hippolytus, bishop of Rome c. 170-235, according to Thimmes.

Even within the Biblical canon, female disciples feature widely, as in this account in James of Christ’s wide-roaming ministry:

‘And the twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.’

In my last post I argued that history, the long tradition, across a whole gamut of cultures, of female high priesthood, was too pervasive to be ignored. The female presence in the non-canonical scriptures – texts sidelined by a largely patriarchal Church – often is.

But if Christianity is trying to repress us even in present times, in other religions today we women won’t so easily be kept down. In the Americas, the religious tradition of Santeria (a derogatory term suggesting ‘deviancy’ from Roman Catholicism), originated in the Caribbean, and recognises priests and priestesses equally. Some of its rituals revolve around three thrones that represent respectively the seats of the religion’s kings, warrior gods and (my italics) queens.

On 4 March 2007, a humble 21-year-old village girl was ordained as the only, not to mention youngest, female High Priestess of Hindu Dharma, the traditional belief system on the island of Bali. This, because despite a previous total lack of interest in things spiritual she suddenly began to have out-of-body and near-death experiences, claimed to have received divine instruction, and was able to speak the mantras in Sanskrit and other ancient languages, perform the sacred hand movements known as mudras and to undertake other sophisticated religious rites – almost overnight.

In the neo-pagan religion of Wicca, there’s a long legacy of female oracles, enchantresses and prophets, led by a high priestess. Some Wiccan high priestesses initiate secondary high priestesses for regional covens; the iconography occasionally illustrates them with symbols or artefacts specifically representing, separately, male and female energy. However, in a move towards democracy, many covens today reject the concept of one high priestess in favour of seeing each woman member as the priestess of her own religious development.

A 2010 online piece reported that in Pune, India, more than 20 women from all Hindu castes were currently enrolled in a one-year priesthood course, most of them ‘housewives’, aged 40-65.(Needless to say, many Indian men have strongly resisted this move.) (

Perhaps most surprising and heartening of all given the extremist/conservative religious stereotypes of Islam currently prevailing in much western culture, in Los Angeles M. Hasna Maznavi, a Muslim woman, recently started the first all-female mosque as part of a

‘modest, multi-faith center, where Muslim women and women of other faiths joined together for a Jumu’ah, a congregational prayer Muslims hold every Friday, and a Khutbah, a public sermon….

‘And unlike most U.S. mosques that have a male imam, or leader, a woman led the traditional prayer and gave the sermon.’ (

How shaming if Christianity were to lag behind all these other religious strands.

Online and off, claims are multiplying that the 21st century should and/or will be the Female Century: see for instance UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet’s address in 2011 at the Lincoln Center, New York (, and men too: Tom Brokaw in Lean In in 2013 (

As far as female religious leaders go, it would be good to agree with them that a new feminine era is, or should be, almost here. I can’t do better than quote Priestesses, Power, and Politics again:

‘All over the world women are mounting powerful challenges to masculine domination of religious institutions. Catholic and Hindu and Buddhist women are campaigning for full female ordination in their traditions. Muslim feminists are asserting their right to interpret the Quran and hadiths. The daughters of Sarah are demanding to be counted as Jews (literally) in the minyan and rabbinate, and for women’s right to lead services at the Western Wall of the ancient temple of Jerusalem….

‘The burgeoning pagan and feminist spirituality movements are laying new foundations of Goddess veneration and female spiritual leadership. American Indian women are reclaiming the right to sit at the powwow drum, and sistahs of the African diaspora have retaken the conga and djembe for their own. Lucumi priestesses are reinvigorating female power in the orisa traditions of west Africa, and breaking down gender barriers to initiation as prestigious diviners….’ (

Wouldn’t it be great – not to mention interesting – if the time for female leadership, religious and otherwise, really was almost here?

Why women can be priests – and bishops (according to Paula Coston)

Snake priestess, priestess of fertility with dominion over nature, in Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Greece; from Knossos, New Palace Period (1600 BC)

Snake priestess, priestess of fertility with dominion over nature, in Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Greece; from Knossos, New Palace Period (1600 BC)

There are absolutely no unreconstructed patriarchists reading this blog (at least, I hope not). So the arguments for women bishops and priests (I’m talking especially, but not exclusively, in Christian practice) are obvious to all of you, yes? Still, I’m going to spell out some of them, just in case.

For starters, there have been women priests since earliest times. Statues of Greek priestesses have survived from the fourth century or earlier. From the Archaic to the Hellenistic Periods, if she was of good birth and had financial resources a woman could be a priestess. The priestess of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis and of Athena Polias at Athens (the latter a lifetime, inherited role for a married woman) were so respected that important events were dated according to their names.

Fascinating if useless fact: Greek priestesses held special temple keys, bent twice, at right-angles. They also prayed, poured libations, and took part in animal sacrifices and religious processions. Some wore white, some purple. They enjoyed economic advantages, legal benefits, social prestige, front row seats at competitions, and on occasion freedom from taxation, the right to own property, and special access to the Delphic Oracle. Unlike most women, they were accorded public burial. (Fascinating, saddening and highly relevant fact: Although in the early Christian Church – according to many, though not all – there were women elders/presbyters, deacons, deaconnesses and prophetesses, it was the coming of Christianity, from the Synod of Laodikeia in the mid-fourth century, that gradually eroded the status of women.)(See the summary of Joan Breton Connelly’s book Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, at The concept of priestess blurred into that of goddess, and vice-versa, the illustration to this post being one such case.

Study ancient Egypt, and many high-class women of the Old Kingdom were priestesses of Hathor. At the enactment of the so-called Mysteries, women played the goddesses Nephthys and Isis. In the 6th century BC, Queen Ahmose Nerfertari became the Second God’s Servant of Amun, a title she later swapped for ‘Wife’ or ‘Adoratrice’ of the God. In the 23rd Dynasty, the Chantresses at Karnak were equal in power to the High Priest. Between 779 and 749 BC Shepenwepet I, a celibate God’s Wife, lived in Thebes and devoted herself completely to the Karnak temples and cults, receiving all the estates and property due to a High Priest – a kind of female Pope. If you were the God’s Wife of Amun, you held exalted office, especially during later Pharonic periods (

Then there’s ancient Rome. In accounts of Roman women’s religious status, chroniclers differ, in a covert tug of war between two feminist/egalitarian stances. So one side,, complains that

‘The Romans had an official state cult of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, of domesticity and continuity of family and state. The head… was the pontifex maximus. Under him there was a college of pontiffs. There is no feminine form of the word pontifex. Women were excluded from the highest office in Roman religion.’

But the Wikipedia entry (yes, I’m that superficial) celebrates that

‘Women priests played a prominent and crucial role in the official religion of Rome…. The six women of the college of Vestals were Rome’s only “full-time professional clergy”. [They] possessed unique religious distinction, public status and privileges, [and it was also] possible for them to amass “considerable wealth”.’

Elisabeth M. Tetlow at concedes that some Roman cults admitted only women (there was even a cult of Virile Fortune, reserved for prostitutes); but, she declares, ‘Even [these] were frequently used by the male authorities to reinforce the subordinate role of women.’

When we know that Christian hierarchies and power bases have come down to us through an ancient Roman filter, the limitations on womanly roles within the modern-day Church, especially as leaders, begin to make illuminating sense.

Yet women leaders from history have often been spiritual leaders, too: prophets and priestesses. Veleda, head of the Bructerii tribe in the lower Rhine valley, who led a rebellion against the Roman Empire, was a seer. In England, Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) of the Celtic Iceni people, not only led them in valiant, ferocious battle but performed divination ceremonies prior to fighting, appealing to the goddess Andraste for good fortune. The seventh-century Dahia al-Kahina, known as ‘the priestess’, was the woman who roused Tunisia against the Arab conquest of North Africa. (From Priestesses, Power and Politics at

As the centuries roll on, across the globe high-status female spiritual figures continually feature. How about Joan of Arc, who led the liberation of France (1430)? The ‘old’ women (according to Spanish colonisers) who were discovered by the explorers conducting most religious ceremonies in the Philippines (16th century)? The wu or female shamans whose thousands of shrines were destroyed by a mandarin (in China, during the Han dynasty)? The Beguines, the Free Spirit heretics, the Spanish ‘blessed’ and ‘illuminated’ women? The Indian temple dancers, whose children were named and inherited matrilineally to manifest the high esteem in which they were held? The youthful Toypurina, a visionary who inspired her Indian people to overturn the mission system in southern California (1780s)? The Chumash, who built shrines and conducted rituals in preparation for the Santa Barbara rebellion (1824)?

Priestesses, Power, and Politics reports erosion, though: a ‘male takeover of women’s rites and mysteries’ up to the present day that slanted religious practice and hierarchies as far afield as Australia, Melanesia, the Amazon basin, Tierra del Fuego, Kenya, Sierra Leone and more, beside the Mediterranean basin, tarring female religious figures as barbaric and inferior. (Much of women’s spiritual leadership ‘burrowed underground’ into white, not just black, witchcraft and folk religion, and religions – labelled by many as ‘cults’ – that often engage in drumming, spiritual dancing and various forms of communion with nature.)

Yet today, the high priestess remains a figure of power (political, religious, societal, artistic) as well as more unconscious potency. In cultures throughout the world she casts a metaphorical spell, not just in the Way Back When but in the Here, Right Now. The ‘Upright High Priestess’ in the Tarot cards, still widely used,

‘is also known as Persepheno, Isis, the Corn Maiden and Artemis. She sits at the gate before the great Mystery, as indicated by the Tree of Life in the background…. [She] represents wisdom, serenity, knowledge and understanding…. For a male especially, the … card indicates that he must learn of his “anima” or female side, or he will fail to grow.’ (

Tellingly, the card was originally named La Papessa, ‘The Popess’. And in Protestant European countries after the religious Reformation, it bore depictions of ‘Pope Joan’ of legend (Joan was supposedly elected to the papacy in male disguise, being uncovered as a man only when she gave birth).

OK, OK, I hear you cry: we get it. So there’s a history of religious women as priest-leaders and leader-priests, a stubborn thread of spiritual anima, as opposed to animus, from time immemorial, that refuses to be broken.

But what other arguments could I possibly turn out? Well, dear readers, in my next post I’ll bring more arguments on.


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