Skip to content

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.

Some men gender-swap by female masking. Women don’t seem to feel the same urge in reverse. Interesting…

Masking as female and male at an ondel-ondel performance, Jakarta.

Masking as female and male at an ondel-ondel performance, Jakarta.

There’s a subculture of men who mask themselves, envelop themselves, in latex from top to toe, wigs and all, as women. Many know them as ‘living dolls'; much of their networking is online (for some of their networks, see Last year the UK’s station Channel 4 put out a TV programme about them (, and there’s been further coverage at and The aim for most of these men is not to feel beautiful in a new skin (after all, some go for a hag-like look, or, if not that, definitely don’t attempt some beautiful ideal). More, they seem to be intent on occupying another, opposite, persona: female therefore opposite, but frequently very different in character as well.

‘Persona’, along with the words ‘person’ and ‘personality’, actually comes from the Latin word for mask. We all adopt a variety of personae for different people and situations, of course. At its simplest and most superficial, a persona is an attempt to make a good impression in social situations; at its more complex and far-reaching, it can be ‘mistaken, even by ourselves, for our true nature’ (

‘Masks are an impeccable metaphor for the personae that encircle our souls.’ So declares a blog piece on female masked performances, ‘The Masks of the Goddess’, at by Lauren Raine. Our chosen personae, this ignorant non-student of Carl Jung gathers, according to Jung mimic, echo, a set of eternal archetypes: common character types that have imbued our cultural and spiritual evolution since we emerged from the primordial slime.

Psychologist Stephen Larsen tells us:

‘The primary function of the mask is to unite the indwelling wearer (and the observer) with a mythic being, or as Jung would say, “an archetypal power”.’

If you’re the academic type, there’s a fascinating study of the mask as archetype in classical Greek drama, Italy’s traditional Commedia dell’Arte and Japan’s oldstyle Noh theatre – among other things ( Other cultures show similar archetypal mask usage, e.g. the ondel-ondel performance pictured above.

Sod all this theory and trying to sound intellectual. Have you ever worn a mask? Think back. The experience is unforgettable: you feel safe, invincible, invisible, even; and – maybe most strikingly – able, if you want to, to interact with the world and with people in a way uncharacteristic of your ‘typical’ self.

Yet male and female masks, whether representing archetypes or otherwise, contrast drastically, give clearly distinct gender messages. However ‘archetypal’ and generic they may seem, we instantly recognise a visual sexual difference. (Maybe we even seek it out?)

Could we ever mistake this mask for female?

Could we ever mistake this mask for female?

... or this mask for male?

… or this mask for male?

And yet, a blog that studies and advises on beauty and the face makes some interesting claims:

‘The “Mask” by all accounts is a distinctively female configuration [my italics]. The male face seems to be a particular variation of this female “Mask”….

The “complete” male variation from the “Mask” would be a combination of:

1]. The specific age variation with regard to the Mask.

2]. The typical male variation from the (female) Mask.

and 3]. The particular ethnic variation from the archetypal Mask….

The essential Phi Mask (i.e. the geometric ideal “beautiful” image of humanness) is actually that of a woman. The male image is a variation on that mathematical female image.

Developmentally all human faces begin as essentially feminine – even if genetically male. Through multiple exposures to testosterone the genetic male face gradually transforms into the male configuration. But again, male faces essentially start out physically as female.’ (

Back to female masking. As far as I can establish, women don’t do male masking. Is the above one reason for that difference? Are living doll men instinctively trying to reclaim something of the feminine look they subconsciously sense they had in some hidden ideal past? Yet according to Lauren Raine in her writings on goddess masks, arts, spirituality and healing in the arts and myth: ‘Women and [my italics] men exploring mythology may choose to work with an archetype.’

So how come women so rarely, if ever, choose to wear male masks? More to the point, why? After all, Raine reports that both have in common that, in performance situations, they ‘work with an archetype… sometimes to call back something they feel has been lost’.

Maybe it’s what they feel that they’ve lost that distinguishes the sexes. For men, maybe it’s a closeness to the feminine. The earliest initiators of the living doll movement tell of finding inspiration from the ’70s and ’80s TV series Mission Impossible, in which several of the female actors masked and unmasked themselves with a magical sweep of one arm over their heads.

Dana Lesley (Anne Warren) disguises herself as Mioshi Kellem (Lisa Lu) to re-enact the latter's murder in 'Mission Impossible': 'Butterfly'. To achieve this visual trickery, they cut between the two actresses at the moments of masking/unmasking.

Dana Lesley (Anne Warren) disguises herself as Mioshi Kellem (Lisa Lu) to re-enact the latter’s murder in ‘Mission Impossible': ‘Butterfly’. To achieve this visual trickery, they cut between the two actresses at the moments of masking/unmasking.

Something of this is about a seemingly miraculous transformation – could it be, almost healing? The Channel 4 film shows the masked men staring at their female selves in mirrors, revolving and mesmerised, almost in awe. Even though many men who dress as living dolls keep that part of their lives secret, some have a background of loneliness, and/or of difficulty in getting or keeping girlfriends. During the Channel 4 programme on living dolls, one interviewee, Robert, enthuses of her female alter ego, ‘She’s amazing. And she’s all mine!’ So maybe this is partly about the possession of a relationship that’s not possible otherwise; or maybe it’s an extreme step out of a lonely, shy self into another self entirely (what could be more extreme than adopting the other gender?).

For women, according to Raine, at least in the context of more staged ‘performance’, it’s very different. In donning a mask to play a part, women are still finding themselves ‘drawn to [that] figure because it affords them an opportunity to explore something they believe they do not know’. But in our case, the female case, it seems more a matter of exploring female archetypes where we sense a missing connection. Raine cites examples: ‘Turquoise’, who discovered a ‘joyful opportunity to reconnect with the “instinctual woman”‘ by dancing the part of Artemis; and another, who in enacting the myth of Inanna’s descent to meet her dark twin Ereshkigal, found she could explore the ‘underground’ of her own psyche.

The moral of this piece may sound as if it should be that men really are from Mars and women from Venus. But you know they say that we’re entering the millennium of the Goddess, an era where the female’s in the ascendant? I can’t help wondering if this brief gendered squint at masking only reveals that (sorry, men!) women really are ‘further along’, just a smidgeon more evolved. (Alternatively – sorry, sisters! – are living doll men more evolved in their willingness to transition from their gender to the other?)

Women leaders: PC puzzles, if women lead ‘from behind’, how can we be seen?

Fated to be overshadowed?

Fated to be overshadowed?,

According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Neptune raped Caenis, the daughter of Elatus and Hippea. She was so traumatised that she asked to be changed into a man so that she could never be raped again. Contrite, Neptune granted her wish: she became Caeneus.

You could almost take this as an allegory for one of the problems of attaining ‘true’ female ‘leadership’. A slew of media articles, some by women in the public eye, portray us as emulating men to be successful at work, and urge us not to: read IMF chief Christine Lagarde’s interview for the BBC (; UK Home Secretary Theresa May’s speech at the launch of a new female mentoring scheme (; Rachel Bowden’s ‘Do women need to act like men to be successful managers?’ (; Maria Shriver’s NBC interview with Barbara Annis, a gender intelligence expert and the Chair Emeritus of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard Kennedy School, ‘You Do You: Why Women in Leadership Should Just Be Themselves’ (

According to Bowden, a study of leadership and management in the UK’s National Health Service found that ‘women in senior positions tend to behave as they think men behave…. The findings also apply to labs and research departments.’ Yet according to Annis, ‘successful female leadership is about women who have broken the glass ceiling by being themselves, rather than those who have made strides by adopting male behaviors.’

My own working life has been something of an object lesson in what women – at least this one woman – might mean by ‘leadership’ anyway. I started out from University with some compulsion to ‘climb the ladder’ in book publishing, and did that, racking up in turn roles as an editorial assistant, an editor, an editorial manager and then an editorial director. It was only after some 14 years that I realised that in part, I was trying to shadow my father’s stellar career as a ‘captain of industry’ – and that once at ‘the top’, I didn’t really enjoy it. I reviewed my skills set, and the aspects of work that I most thrived on. I discovered that they were rooted in coaching others and bringing on a team; I changed direction, re-training ‘from the bottom’ as a learning support assistant then a teacher in primary classrooms. Once more, though, partly through ambition, partly through luck and opportunity, I ‘rose’ to become an educational consultant and researcher and writer in the field. Yet eventually, with the benefit of this further experience, I suppose, I realised that I’d most like to ‘work backstage’, helping others through administrative work. And this time, now, I do feel satisfied and genuinely fulfilled. I believe that I help others, being given ample opportunity to contribute ideas and to build something at work as part of a team, while undertaking fulfilling spare-time activities such as mentoring: I have no desire to re-climb the greasy pole; and yet, according to the male success model, what I do, I hope in my terms successfully, is nothing like ‘leadership’.

This is where it gets complicated. According to Jean Lau Chin, Bernice Lott, Joy Rice and Janis Sanchez-Hucles (eds.), Women and Leadership: Transforming Visions and Diverse Voice (2007), many studies have actually shown little or no gender difference in the leadership roles and styles of managers, supervisors, officers, department heads and coaches. And yet most workplaces are hierarchical in structure, a structure which is generally acknowledged to be masculine and patriarchal – with many women confessing that they feel uncomfortable being identified as a ‘leader’ at the head of such a vertical structure. Thus Amanda Sinclair reports in her paper Not just ‘adding women in': Women re-making leadership, 2013:

‘Highly visible and effective women in public life have been designated as something other than leader, such as “community activist” or “pioneer”…. Many women are sceptical about the term leadership – they don’t want to be labelled a leader because of what it connotes: the out-front loner, or the tough, stoic hero.’ (

Another problem lies in that, within our male, hierarchical workplace structures, there are pervasive misperceptions and stereotypes about how men and women operate. See for instance articles such as 4 Skills that Give Women a Sustainable Advantage Over Men by Glenn Llopis in Forbes. Women’s e-news reports hard scientific evidence that contradicts these generalisations: ‘Men are not inherently less empathetic than women, nor are women more people-oriented, democratic, caring managers.’ (

Yet workplace assumptions about male-female characteristics, strengths and weaknesses are deep-rooted, and again, are found irrefutably in studies. Thus males and females are perceived and treated differently:

‘When male leaders act forcefully, they are applauded, not critiqued for any lack of niceness and friendliness…. But forceful female leaders may be met with hostile reactions for failing to be more feminine…. When a woman and a man work together in a team, credit for the team’s success is far more often given to the male team member. A woman’s performance must be at the top 20th percentile, and in many cases in the top 10th percentile, to be viewed on par with the average man’s performance.’

Jean Lau Chin et al confirm:

‘Women in Western culture (particularly those who are White and middle class)… are expected to manifest certain qualities in their thinking and action. These are communal qualities…, and include friendliness, kindness, and unselfishness. These are distinguished from the … qualities assigned to “masculinity” and men, such as assertiveness and instrumental competence…. When working as leaders or managers, women (and men) are expected to behave… on the basis of their gender alone. Thus it is anticipated that a woman leader will be more “relationship centred, nurturing, and sensitive” than a man…. These beliefs, however, do not match the actual behavior of women and men….’

These beliefs may not be founded in reality, but what is certain is that there are some aspects of much female culture that contradict, and conflict with, the hierarchical structure of most organisations. As Pluribus ( puts it:

‘Men live in hierarchical structures…. Women prefer flatter structures which promote better communication, understanding and friendship…. A very important rule in the female culture is that the power in interpersonal relationships is shared and always kept “dead-even”…. The girls who tried to be the boss of other girls as children quickly learned that this behaviour damaged friendships. Consequently, when adult women enter a hierarchical arena they usually attempt to share power equally or to flatten the hierarchy. As a result, women often negotiate differences, seeking “win-win” solutions, focusing on what is fair for all instead of winning.’

(Text based on the work of Dr Pat Heim, especially such videos and publications as The Invisible Rules: Men, Women and Teams: see

Others agree, in fact seeing hierarchical structures as most effective only in emergency situations (C.D.R. Norton, Gender and Communication – Finding Common Ground in The Leadership News, Spring 1998: Sadly, most workplaces aren’t flexible enough to change between flatter and more hierarchical structures when needed. And with only one-eighth of women on top company boards in the UK, and women earning 55% less than their male counterparts, and gaining one-fifth of the bonuses, in the field of finance alone, as recently as 2012 (, there’s no chance that any such structural innovations will come soon. Yet even in hierarchical companies, research shows that if there are three or more women in ‘top’ jobs, they achieve a better bottom line Womens e-news).

So what can we under-recognised, even disenfranchised, working women do to improve things for ourselves in the workplace, to make ourselves more visible, maybe even regarded as leaders in new terms? Jean Lau Chin et al hint at some suggestions:

– ‘When a feminist manager contributes to the growth of group members, fosters their interactions and connections, this must not be done invisibly, as is expected to be the feminine way, but clearly and openly [my italics] (Actually, Chin et al are quoting Joyce K. Fletcher and Katrin Käufer, Shared Leadership: Paradox and Possibility in C.L.Pearce and J. A. Conger, Shared Leadership: Reframing the Hows and Whys of Leadership (2003)).

– ‘Empowerment’ is also seen as a key attribute of women as leaders if they are, in their leadership terms, to become visible and recognised. Chin et al explain what ‘empowerment’ means: ‘[This] style… encourages competition not between individuals but between work units [my italics], promotes open discussion and democratic participation, shares resources, and helps subordinates grow and do their best by empowering, not exploiting, them.’

– Chin et al are looking particularly at feminist leadership, so they also urge: ‘Feminist leaders [must] also “make waves”…. A feminist leader must advocate for policies that support child care and family obligations, adequate access to health care, pensions, and other employee-friendly benefits.’ also suggest that women as leaders should help with:

– Mitigation of group think and excessive risk taking.

– Creating gender balanced teams.

Finally, a lot of writing and research suggests that there are two main leadership styles – transactional and transformational -, the latter being regarded as more conducive to female success. (Chin et al describe it as ‘motivating others to perform beyond their expectations by setting a personal example of high standards, providing support, and encouraging creativity’ – although Fletcher and Käufer caution that this style has still ‘been developed primarily by non-feminist men, still present the leader in “heroic” terms, and are focused on individuals rather than groups’.) I’d suggest that leadership styles need to be viewed as far more diverse and fluid than this – otherwise we risk once more stereotyping our colleagues, potentially, and most dangerously perhaps, by gendering their approaches. suggests that there are at least four leadership modes, and that even then, we women (as well as men) may travel between them. They are described as ‘relational leadership’, which takes a stance of intuition; ‘performance leadership’, which takes a stance of truth; ‘strategic leadership’, which takes a stance of perspective; and ‘visionary leadership’, which assumes a stance of vision and purpose. Perhaps it would help us if we focused more on our leadership styles, recognising them in ourselves, discussing them openly in the workplace, and adapting them as we need them, than in perceiving our performance as primarily ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ in style.

Maybe all those hierarchical structures (apart from in all-women workplaces, of course) still need changing; but perhaps the ideas above can be a start.

Views of singles, not least by singles: PC says, we’ve a heap of work to do on attitudes

Not so puzzling, divergent perceptions of single men and women, are they? Image by njaj/Courtesy of

Divergent perceptions of single men and women: not that puzzling, but a shame, none the less. Image by njaj/Courtesy of

About 29% of UK households are occupied today by one person. It was a mere ten years ago that the words ‘spinster’ and ‘bachelor’, with their outdated negative, stereotyping undertones, were cut from marriage certificates. A study at the time however warned that there seemed to be a persistent ‘ideology of marriage and family that is widely embraced and infrequently questioned’ (B.M. DePaulo and W.L. Morris, ‘Singles in society and in science, in Psychological Inquiry, 16, 2005, quoted in J. Hertel, A. Schűtz, B.M. DePaulo, W.L. Morris and T.S. Stucke, ‘She’s single, so what? How are singles perceived compared with people who are married?’, in Zeitschrift fűr Familienforschung, 19, 2007)( J. Hertel et al agreed in 2007 that

‘Singleness is often regarded as a transitional state between romantic relationships. It is seen as a period of living and not as a form of living.’ (B. Kupper, Are singles different from others? A comparison between singles and couples, 2002.)

And yet, and yet. Women who have never been married tend to enjoy better health than other women; ‘younger and middle-aged single women tend to have high general ability scores, are highly educated, and have high-status occupations… In general, never married people report satisfaction in terms of friendships, general health, standard of living, and finances….The majority of never married individuals are socially active, with friends, neighbors, and relatives, as well as dating partners.’ (OK, so there’s a biggish proviso here – apart from the fact that these findings are marriage-based, as so often: single men have a harder time: in health, socially and romantically; and the never married, especially women, tend to experience more problems later in life, especially when their caregiving needs grow.) (”&gt).

And yet, and yet, too, society is undergoing a momentous shift in the variety, the status and the degrees of permanence/commitment of different kinds of relationship and family/community networks, accelerating us far beyond the aptness of such attitudes. ‘Singlehood’ takes very many, variegated forms: it’s now a constricting term. While national and international statistics collection often still uses the antiquated definition of singles as ‘the unmarried’, in reality ‘singledom’ now encompasses too those in a couple who live regularly apart; the separated; widows and widowers; single parents (lone mothers, one could argue, having become ‘the weakest link in the embattled welfare state’ (; ‘uncoupled’ people who are creating ‘families’, or other living arrangements, together; people living solo who treat their pets almost as ‘partners'; even – in some circumstances – gays living in a stable union but unable to attain full ‘married’ status; and more.

In her Atlantic article All the Single Ladies (2011)(, Kate Bolick recognises the importance of the work of the social historian Stephanie Coontz and her landmark 1990s book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. There, Coontz demonstrates that throughout history, our views of the legal contract of marriage between a man and a woman have always been in flux. Janelle Nanos’s ‘”Spinster” and the Stigma of Being Single’ in Boston Magazine, January 2012 ( points out that one important factor in our prejudice towards marriage and against singledom from the late nineteenth century, given the large-scale loss of male lives in the North American Civil War and in the two World Wars, has been a recurring pattern of societal concern about having ‘too many women’ for the state to support without, as it were, ‘male breadwinners’ help’. In some cohorts, in some countries, this remains a thematic refrain (‘Across the country [the UK in June 2014], … when it comes to those aged 35-64, [there are] more single women – 271,000 – than men who are unattached': ‘Unattached': now there’s an unpleasant term.

Another influence against singledom was the thinking of the Freudian era, which ‘stigmatized singles and deemed them abnormal (marriage [was] elevated and the only “normal” path to intimacy)’. It could be argued that in the 70s and 80s there was a more positive image of singles as young and attractive, loving to have fun; but since then, we seem to have regressed into more traditional values (S. Hradil, ‘From admiration to pity: Changes in how singles are perceived and the re-emergence of traditional values’, in Zeitschrift fűr Familienforschung, 16, 2003).

All this, and yet, when interviewed by Bolick in 2011, Stephanie Coontz had to admit that things have irreversibly moved on:

‘We are … in the midst of an extraordinary sea change…. When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.’

For a start, Bolick points out, we keep putting marriage off: the average marriage age is rising (at least, in the US and the UK). We’re also marrying less in the first place. Furthermore, women (and men) no longer have to marry to procreate; and parenthood is no longer seen as ‘compulsory’, either.

Yet society, modern culture, still obsesses on marriage, or certainly coupledom, as the Golden Ideal. Even Kate Bolick slips into writing of her ‘chances’ of finding a mate and having children. Not just statistics collection, but qualitative research, historical and sociological, is biased: revolving around marriage/coupledom or its lack but also being gender-unbalanced. For instance, studies of widows increased in volume from the 1970s to now, while studies of widowers are much more sparse, and have tended to consider them in the context of their re-marriage: a reflection, experts argue, of our patriarchal values (Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, reviewed in Reviews in History, 2015:

Our linguistic usage is sexist, as well as biased around singledom, and that doesn’t help. From being a term of respect for women who chose a trade in spinning wool over marriage, ‘spinster’ has become deeply pejorative, on a par with the phrase ‘old maid’, i.e. someone to be pitied for being unmarried/uncoupled. It’s a word now thankfully little used; though it’s been proudly reclaimed for the blog The Modern Spinster with its really contemporary, illuminating posts ( Telling, isn’t it, that the equivalent male word ‘bachelor’ was at first glamourised in the early twentieth century (‘bachelor pad’, ‘gay bachelor’) then more or less abandoned – sooner than ‘spinster’? There’s a (less noticed) gender inequality between ‘widow’ and ‘widower’, ‘widow’ being more negative in associations than the male equivalent, and also more often tagged to the dead man’s name (‘Bill Smith’s widow’). Of course, there are historical reasons for all this: men were the primary breadwinners in earlier centuries, so their loss – according to societal economic values – was in the past noted more keenly.

The marriage/parenthood ideal naturally permeates the media, too. News outlets commonly report ‘Widow robbed’ or ‘Mother of two killed in car crash’, labelling women in a facile way that they’d never do with men. ( Then of course, everywhere we read ‘light, fun’ journalistic pieces that perpetuate societal notions of the single as merely undergoing a period devoid of the ideal state of existence, coupledom. See for instance ’10 Types of 30-Year-Old Single Guys’ (, and ‘The 10 Types of Single Women Over the Age of 30′ (a nasty piece, not only singlist but misogynistic, with a further distasteful edge of ageism, at Disturbingly, it’s written by a man who’s self-professedly the ‘finest dating and romance coach on the West Coast’ who ‘has been helping single women past their “best served by” date [OMG! My exclamation] to find love since 2003′).

Hertel et al‘s study ‘She’s single, so what?’ of 2007, interviewing 267 Germans, single and coupled, male and female, and of many ages up to 50, thus showed – unsurprisingly – that

‘married people are generally still seen more positively than singles. Singles were seen as more lonely, less warm and caring than married people….It is the men who are more negative in their views of targets who are single. Men think that single people are less sophisticated and sociable than married people…. Perhaps the perception of singles as less [warm and caring]/nurturant corresponds to the actual likelihood of having children, [as] married people are more likely to have children than single people are. Yet, that difference is narrowing….’

Anyhoo, we probably all know that society at large is prejudiced against singles. Although – of course! – a shedload of ‘singles’ (however defined) have high self-esteem and positive attitudes to their own singlehood, what interests me, what saddens me more, is some of their attitudes to ‘other’ singles: to singles in certain groups, or singles in general. There’s an insightful Hons thesis by Kimberly McErlean (2012), ‘Examining Conceptions of Singlehood among Older Ever-Singles’ (i.e. what she calls ‘the voluntary and involuntary stable categories of singlehood’)( Single women felt that their singledom was perceived more negatively than men’s, divorcees sensing themselves to be slightly higher in the singledom pecking order ‘because someone had found them attractive once'; while single males found themselves regarded as an oddity or a rarity, rather than being so defined by their status in relation to marriage or non-marriage. Singles can thus be reluctant to identify themselves in pieces on singlehood in the media: see Janelle Nanos’s piece, cited above, for instance.

According to Hertel at al, it wasn’t just older couples who judged singles ‘especially more harshly than they judged marrieds': it was also YOUNGER SINGLES. What a shame.

This is a hard one to tease out, because the same study (remember, undertaken with singles and couples, of a range of ages) explains that

‘Women – especially younger women – think single people are more sophisticated and sociable than married people. Younger men disagree…. Men … are more negative in their views of targets who are single. Men think that single people are less sophisticated and sociable than married people…. Coupled perceivers sometimes rate singles as more sophisticated and sociable than marrieds, but only if they are young or the targets they are rating are young.’

So, perhaps the researchers’ most important observation is that

‘There is a positive trend in the way singles are perceived, but only with respect to young singles…. Apparently, being young, flexible, and independent is regarded as positive, being old and still without a partner as negative.’

Even singles who regard themselves as in the ‘dating pool’ reflect these prejudices. Dating research from a large online agency, OKCupid, is full of sobering stuff about the age distortion in the self-perceptions of men, in particular, looking for love: compared with women seeking male partners, they’re heavily biased against women older than them

Singlism – including self-singlism – is gender-biased and ageist, too, it turns out.

Looks like there’s one heck of a lot of work on attitudes to do. We could start by forming some kind of gender-blind, age-blind Singles Organisation to promote our cause and advertise all the new forms of ‘singlehood’. (I personally can’t find one.) Alternatively, we could all support and follow the work of experts in the field such as Dr Bella DePaulo ( (It was she who coined the term ‘singlism’ – used here – for all forms of prejudice against singledom; I admire her work tremendously).

I dedicate this post to her.

How can I combat my fears of ageing? Paula Coston makes some New Year resolutions

Uhde, Old woman with a pitcher, 19th century

Uhde, Old woman with a pitcher, 19th century

Old Gambian woman by Ferdinand Reus, 2008

Old Gambian woman by Ferdinand Reus, 2008

School of Fiamminga, copy of a Rubens portrait of an old woman, 17th century

School of Fiamminga, copy of a Rubens portrait of an old woman, 17th century

Nepali woman, Ghyaru

Nepali woman, Ghyaru

‘Anne M’. Egg tempera on panel by Benita Stoney. Image removed; permission for reproduction was never granted. I express my apologies to the artist and to the copyright holder.

If I’m honest, in my case it’s more a horror than a fear; not so much of ageing in its superficial, visible forms – the spotting and wrinkling of skin, brow ploughed with now permanent frown lines, sagging breasts and stomach and buttocks, the morphing into horn of the toe- and fingernails, head hair dulling and threading itself with white and grey while hair elsewhere on the body thins to a few poor strands (though, heaven knows, these are hard enough to accept as my replacement outward shape) – as the internal sensations of dwindling and reduction. It’s like a kind of encroaching claustrophobia.

For me, this has multiple sources. First there’s the striking onset of a sense of my near-invisibility: in shops and at markets, at multi-generational gatherings, out walking, so often, almost everywhere, increasingly noting a marked new lack of eye contact or a simple exchange of words with others who are younger. Second, this year I’ve been ill. Some experts claim that the realisation of an ageing future often pounces on women around the menopause, but I seem to have dodged that bullet: for me it’s been triggered by my illnesses this year, and the sudden awareness that this month, January 2015, is the month of my 60th birthday. (Yes, yes, I know that a number shouldn’t matter. But none of these emotions are obedient to reason.)

Needless to say there are innumerable articles and accounts of research about all this, many online. See for instance;;;;;; and

My ailments seem to have affected my sight, and so my reading and writing ability, core to my most beloved and essential everyday activities (and I’m beginning to notice a slight deterioration in my hearing, too). So ‘Encountering the ageing body in modernity: fear, vulnerability and “contamination”’ by Charles Howarth in the Journal for Cultural Research, Vol. 18, 2013 ( strikes a particular chord with me:

‘The fear of ageing becomes embodied within the encounter with the ageing body. Specifically, the fear is vulnerability: within the encounter, the youthful self is forced into the recognition of his/her own vulnerability. Modernity requires that this be disavowed.’

The unexpected intensification of a sense of my own vulnerability, a dramatic loss of confidence, especially in my faculties of sight and hearing, is a hard thing to accommodate in my previous sense of self. This trepidation reminds me of the wonderful work of Dr Brené Brown, the Texan guru who spends much of her working life inspiring others with courage enough to show and share their fears as an essential step in making vital human connections ( One of her key messages is the clear distinction between weakness and expressing vulnerability, which is, ultimately, strength.

Another aspect of my deterioration seems to be more obvious and common lapses in short-term memory: remembering number sequences that I’ve just been given, for instance; while yet a further factor in the onset of my sudden sense of shrinkage and reduction came when, earlier this year, my contribution to a radio documentary was drastically cut without forewarning, while that of three other (younger) women was given much more airspace in the programme. This seemingly ageist decision on a channel largely listened to by the over-50s was somehow another blow to my self-esteem.

Probably for most of us, our responses to ageing are complex: much more than a cultural reflex of self-revulsion at failing some contemporary standard of beauty and youthful-looking perfection. And self-help books such as Marie de Hennezel’s The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting: Ageing without growing old (2012) are simplistic and facile, almost completely overlooking as this book does the often great mental and emotional impediment to rising above debilitating illnesses and disabilities in older age.

Given our complicated reactions to the ageing process, there seem to be no easy solutions to help the older person – at least in western culture – to feel better about it; some ‘experts’ just urge contented acceptance. There’s no such thing. The truth is that ideally, of course, we need to change our entire ageist culture, including the way we absorb and perpetuate its messages ourselves without even thinking. That won’t happen easily or quickly: sadly, I’ll probably be dead before such transformation happens.

You can’t change your mindset just like that – and it seems unjust that we ageing ones should be expected to without societal collaboration and initiatives. None the less, research has shown that those who have a positive view of ageing actually stay healthier, which can be no bad thing, certainly for me. So here are some steps I’m going to take this year towards my own personal, inner, more positive morphing. Call them my New Year resolutions:

– I’m going to pursue the practice of mindfulness that I started just before Christmas, through a course. It helped me tremendously to be more accepting of the present moment and my present state, as well as to appreciate those many parts of myself that are not in discomfort or pain (;

– ‘Why we fear ageing more than we should’ ( points out, strikingly to me, that we can focus too much on our memory impairments when ‘most of our lives are anticipation'; so I’m ensuring that my diary is in part an anticipation diary, highlighting which events I’m especially looking forward to (I know there’s a bit of a contradiction with the mindfulness thing above, but what the hey).

– See the portraits of older women above? I’ve printed out these, and others, and displayed them on a visual board close to the space where I write. By close scrutiny and regular appreciation, I’m hoping they’ll teach me how to look differently in the mirror at my own changing face and body: to see them as a fascinating map, like each of the images reproduced here: a living, metamorphosing narrative of all my happy, and more harrowing, experiences.

– My local TV news, just before Christmas, featured an item about an 11-year-old girl who advertised in her town paper for a much older friend. She gained a woman in her sixties without children or close relations of her own who gradually became an honorary member of her family. In the past, I’ve pen-palled a child in Sri Lanka through a charity (an experience that later inspired my recent novel: and I’ve also been a ‘guardian’ to an international student here in the UK who needed somewhere to stay over the English school holidays. I’m about to start mentoring a young person, between the ages of 16 and 25, who has chosen to be mentored: helped and supported with applying for jobs, cv writing, interview techniques and maybe more personal problems and issues, too. Who knows? I might even follow that local young girl’s example and advertise for a young friend in some local family. Research shows that older people’s mental and emotional wellbeing can benefit tremendously from sustaining links with people considerably younger than themselves – and, more cynically, but no less realistically, we older folks – especially those without children and grandchildren – may need such friends to help and support us in the future (See the Ageing Without Children website:

Happy New Year, everyone (of course, remember it can be your New Year any day). And good luck with all your own resolutions.

Old woman with child by Ernst Karl Georg Zimmermann, 1901 {{US-Public Domain}}

Old woman with child by Ernst Karl Georg Zimmermann, 1901 {{US-Public Domain}}

The Christmas manger is for motherhood – but watery vessels speak to all womanhood, PC finds

Jesus in the manger

Images of the Christian nativity can be alienating for women who are involuntary non-mothers like me. It’s not just the representations of the doting Mary with the Christ child on her knee, or leaning over the baby in his manger in a radiant pool of light: somehow it’s that manger artefact itself, framing the act of successful reproduction, encapsulating the infant in a hold of safety, suggesting completion of something that we can’t achieve: maternal fulfilment, beside divine.

Centuries of art have sentimentalised and idealised the object of the manger: the original concept of an impoverished, if not humiliating, improvised cradle – smelly and rough and probably cold – has often been replaced in paintings and sculptures and stained windows and Christmas cards with a wooden crib more like a modern-day aspirational handcrafted cot, filled with straw that looks positively fluffy and inviting.

This was the reality:

Stone manger as Jesus bed

That this hard stone trough is a chilling foreshadow of Christ’s tomb or coffin (just as the magis’ gift of myrrh, traditionally used for dressing and mummifying a dead body, is an ironic presentiment of his crucifixion) is a symbolic nuance generally lost to contemporary consciousness.

Turning from the manger, there are many stories, biblical, mythical and traditional, of babies placed in other kinds of container. The infant Moses was famously set adrift in a basket among the bullrushes of the Nile. Historians have noticed that this tale bears striking similarities to an old Babylonian myth about a great King called Sargon who was discovered as a baby in a basket in a river. Maybe, since the Jews were captured by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and held in exile in Babylon (modern Iraq), they used this ancient detail to spice up their Moses heritage.

Moses floating in the water

In ‘The King’s True Children’ from The Beautiful Blue Jay and Other Tales of India edited by John W. Spellman (1967), jealous older wives send the youngest queen’s two babies down the river, where they are rescued and raised by a fisherman and his wife. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Antigonus abandons the royal baby Perdita (meaning ‘lost’), along with some precious tokens, on the Bohemian coast.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm tell another story, ‘Changelings in the Water’. A peasant fathers a killcrop (changeling) that sucks its mother and five wet nurses dry. The peasant is advised to take the child on a pilgrimage in praise of the Virgin Mary and have him weighed at his destination. He puts the boy in a pack basket and sets out, carrying it on his back.

He’s about to cross over a stream on a bridge when he hears a shout from the water: ‘Killcrop! Killcrop!’
The child in the basket has never spoken before, but suddenly answers: ‘Ho! Ho!’
The devil in the water asks: ‘Where are you going?’
The killcrop says, ‘I am going to Heckelstadt to our Dear Lady, and have myself weighed, that I might thrive.’

When the peasant hears that the changeling can talk, he becomes angry and throws him, together with the basket, into the water. The changeling and the devil cry out ‘Ho! Ho! Ha!’ and frolick, then disappear.

‘Hans Dumb’ is another German tale. A king’s daughter has a baby whose father is unknown. During a church ritual to nominate a suitable, fine father, a small, crooked, simple hunchbacked lad called Hans Dumb manages to claim paternity. The king is so horrified that he has his daughter, the child and Hans Dumb placed in a cask and launched into the sea.

Children of Qu Blondine & Princess Brunette picked up by a Corsair from  the tale Princess Belle-Etoile illus W Crane

The picture above, by Walter Crane, illustrates the story ‘Princess Belle-Etoile’, and shows the children of Queen Blondine and Princess Brunette, cast adrift in a small boat, being picked up by a Corsair.

So why do these images of children in boats and baskets and casks, cast adrift, capture me in a way that infant-in-manger doesn’t? Well, first they are in some sense ‘lost’, as all children are lost to me. And yet they are, simultaneously, safe. They are contained, securely afloat. The image of the infant wrapped and enclosed, surrounded by water, mimics the embryo in the womb, floating protected in the amniotic fluid: an image of hope and expectation, certainly for mothers, untainted by the whiff of impending doom that surrounds the manger and the prophecy of crucifixion and death implicit in some of the magis’ gifts.

Also, if both mothers and non-mothers were honest, many of them would admit to feelings of fear, inadequacy and uncertainty about the thought, the responsibility, of having children (I’ve posted elsewhere about my personal ambivalence: The images of setting children adrift, images of precariousness and danger and threat, perhaps answer to such feelings. And yet, and yet: ultimately, most of the children in these tales are rescued by someone, either returning – amid jubilation and reconciliation – to their parents or being taken on to some new, much happier life. For all of us who have not just lost the chance of children, but lost children (through the different, ultimately dominant views of our partners about not having children; through miscarriage, termination, cot death or other kinds of bereavement) can maybe take comfort from these happy resolutions – kind of shadow lives of the children that we may never have had (I’ve posted on ‘Shadow lives’ too:

Forget the Christmas manger: whether we are mothers or not, perhaps all female kind can feel a sense of union in womanhood, a feeling sisterhood, around such images and tales.

Single bells, single bells: PC ponders whether we should celebrate singledom more

Single bells

China celebrates a Singles Day. It started at various universities in Nanjing during the 1990s, the annual date decided on being 11 November (the eleventh month) – four ‘one’ digits, needless to say. At first only young men marked it, but now women, too; and its initial spirit of commiseration and desperation to couple up has become more balanced with positive and affirmative events – including shopping, of course (this is China, after all). For breakfast, singles eat four youtiao (deep-fried dough sticks) representing the four one digits in ‘11.11’ and one baozi (steamed stuffed bun) representing the full point in the middle.

Singles Days have been tried in the UK too, usually on or close to Valentine’s Day: 13 February, say. The fourth of the BBC TV series The Apprentice followed the largely hapless would-be business partners for Sir Alan Suger designing and pitching a range of greetings cards for the occasion, to a mixed reception from commercial card retailers such as Clintons.

In Japan, a company called Cera Travel has started up to market solo weddings. The two-day package includes dress fittings, bouquet selection, bridal hair and make-up and – extremely questionably, IMHO, if your aim is to flaunt your self-reliance and self-sufficiency – a stand-in man for a photo shoot (

Maybe the trend is spreading. This year, The Huffington Post reported that an English woman, Grace Gelder, had married herself quite happily as the consummation of six years of singledom – and cited two similar cases, a woman in North Dakota and a Taiwanese self-bride ( In the USA, the UK and Australasia, some now have break-up parties – the cricketer Shane Warne, for instance, on his headlined split from fiancée Liz Hurley this year.

Probably within most cultures of the world there are self-contradictory attitudes to singledom. On Chinese Singles Day, while on the one hand it’s a date of celebration, there are also blind date events and it’s regarded as a perfect time to marry and throw off the ‘burden’/’stigma’ of solo living. Japanese commerce may sponsor self-marriage, but the same country also now bemoans the phenomenon of ‘parasite singles': all because in 2012, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 48.9% of single Japanese between the ages of 20 and 34 were still living with their parents – an estimated 13.4 million. A figure still rising.

In many regions of the globe, the singledom trend is clear to see. In the UK, for instance, more and more women choose to live alone: 4.1 million in 2012; many of these are younger than one might assume ( There are few statistical breakdowns of this status (unmarrieds; women with a partner living elsewhere; widows; and single mothers, for instance); but we know from the Office for National Statistics that single people occupy some 29% of all UK households, a figure that’s rising.

The growth of this change and social-commercial reinvention almost persuades me that it’s the celebration of marriage and coupledom that’s odd – or going to seem more so, before too long. Why celebrate that we ‘have’ or ‘belong to’ one other person? Do personal commitment to, and love for, one individual need to be marked in any other way than privately? Now that a religious sense of obligation to try to procreate, and the need to have private promises somehow endorsed by Church and/or state, are dwindling in societies like ours, shouldn’t moving in together – or other mutual arrangements – be enough?

Some episodes on the latest UK series of ITV’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! – have also got me thinking. On the TV show, hardened politician-turned-jungle-softie Edwina Currie came to verbal blows first with ex-Playboy mansion TV reality show ‘personality’ Kendra Wilkinson then with TV/radio presenter and model Melanie Sykes. Their debate revolved around living and surviving as a single woman, making her own choices. Edwina argued fiercely for collaboration and interdependency, meaning especially with men; the other two stressed the need for women to be self-sufficient and independent, again meaning especially of men.

Surely each side was right: coupledom, where it exists, shouldn’t be about ownership of another and dependency but about giving and sharing while maintaining a sense of integrity and self. The words of the poet Khalil Gibran from On Marriage are often criticised as a choice of wedding ceremony reading, I don’t know why. They seem to me to express this balance perfectly:

‘Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. […]

‘And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.’

Given these seismic social shifts, wouldn’t it be great if in western culture we began to give festive recognition to more, and other, life landmarks, initiations and transitions than marriage, including celebrations that promote a sense of beauty, creativity, giftedness, wisdom/experience and individuality in the single self?

The onset of menstruation, for instance. In Southern Indian regions, girls are given feasts, money and gifts and adorned in new clothes. Japanese families traditionally commemorate a daughter’s first period by eating red rice and beans. Aboriginal Australians ritually bathe and apply beautiful body paint to young women at the onset of menstruation. In North America, Apache Indians hold five-day ceremonies attended by hundreds of people who dance and chant to honour the young woman. During these ceremonies, the girl ascends to almost divine status, embodying the Apache goddess, Changing Woman. The young woman lays her hands on the other participants, bestowing curative energy to her tribe. The ritual culminates with the exchange of gifts inaugurating her relationship with her godmother, who will help guide her into adulthood. Importantly for me, this isn’t just – or even mostly – about women becoming fertile and able to bear children. Many of these societies view menstruation itself as beneficial and powerful, and the blood actually sacred, some feeling that it has healing powers, or that it connects women to the earth, the moon and the cycles of nature. Some Native American cultures believe that menstruation naturally cleanses women, so that they do not need to detoxify in ritual sweat lodges as men do.

In many cultures, the menopause is revered and celebrated as a time of the onset of great wisdom that can be given and shared. So it was good to see that, unusually in ‘our’ western culture, in September 2012 a North American movement organised Hot Flash Mobs, spontaneous mass dance events undertaken by menopausal women in New York, LA, San Francisco, Arkansas and the UK to mark National Menopause Awareness Month (

But if more of us are single, we need a stronger sense of belonging and of social contribution, so we should celebrate communal events and landmarks, too. I live in a cohousing project, which I’ve posted about elsewhere ( When someone new joins this wonderful living organism, with its combination of private and public spaces occupied by some 70+ of us, they’re given a warm, welcoming meal to celebrate their arrival; and – if they would like it – a farewell meal or celebration that is just as caring, to mark the next stage of our lives somewhere else.

Ultimately we’re all alone, and yet no [wo]man is an island. My ideal, and the way of the future, is surely a combination of personal and truly social, communal celebrations.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 185 other followers