The Valiant Woman

The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture

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Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    The University of North Carolina Press
    , April
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For some perspective on The Valiant Woman, a fascinating account of the Virgin Mary in nineteenth-century American popular culture, I call attention to a story that Isabel Wilkerson tells in The Warmth of Other Suns (Vintage, 2010), her award-winning chronicle of African-Americans migrating north in the twentieth century. At a gathering of white upper-class ladies in Alabama in the 1950’s, the hostess found herself the target of group shaming when one of the guests commented cattily on a statue of the Virgin Mary in her living room. Assuring the ladies that she was not Catholic but Methodist, the hostess explained she only had the statue because she liked it. Afterwards, she “took the statuette of Mary that she liked so much and put it away for good. She could not afford even the appearance of having stepped outside the bounds of her caste” (34). The complex cultural history that Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez brings to light in The Valiant Woman underlies the experience of this twentieth-century Methodist and her Mary statue.

Americans today have serious cultural amnesia when it comes to their nation’s history of anti-Catholicism. My students are stunned to learn that twentieth-century Catholics, as well as Blacks and Jews, suffered violence at the hands of the virulently Protestant Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless, as deep-seated as it was, Protestant-Catholic antagonism in America was not monolithic. The Valiant Woman shows that in the second half of the nineteenth century the Virgin Mary bridged the cultural abyss between Protestants and Catholics in unexpected ways. In fact, Catholic high Mariology influenced nineteenth-century American discourse on the social role of women in Protestant and Catholic circles alike, buttressing the agendas of both conservatives and progressives, “especially as Americans were grappling with anxieties caused by shifting gender expectations and economic change” (6). With a sensibility informed by gender studies and cultural history, Alvarez variously considers nineteenth-century newspapers, religious tracts, art criticism, popular novels, and prints to untangle the complex reality of such paradoxes as a Protestant-Catholic Virgin Mary, and the Virgin as paradigm for both the domestic “Angel in the House” and early female social activists.

In the first of five chapters, Alvarez analyzes Americans’ reception of the 1854 papal declaration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary to illustrate the divide between immigrant Catholics and “native” Protestants at mid-century. Protestants attacked the new doctrine as an unbiblical stratagem to shore up papal authority—thus casting doubts on Catholic loyalty to the United States—and as the outrageous elevation of a woman over Jesus. Ethnically diverse Catholic communities, however, came together to defend their Heavenly Patroness. Newspaper editorials that outlined Protestant objections to the Immaculate Conception also struggled over the proper attitude toward Mary, questioning whether she was a model for all Christians or just for women, whether she was a transcendent figure or human disciple, whether she was a parent or follower of Christ (38). This concern sets the stage for the rest of the book. As Alvarez points out, thanks to the heightened awareness of Marian themes, rather than rejecting Mary, “Protestants contested and claimed Mary, particularly as a way of buttressing Christian norms for women and mothers” (38).

Chapter 2 considers how feminine characteristics encoded in the Immaculate Conception—especially purity and, paradoxically, ideal maternity—crossed confessional lines and figured in the public debate about suitable roles for women. Against the widespread assumption among literary scholars that Protestants were drawn to the secularized ideal of the “Angel in the House” as an alternative to the Catholic Madonna, Alvarez suggests that the two figures reinforced each other. For example, as cultural literacy became a measure of middle class—Protestant—gentility and moral sensitivity, kindergarten handbooks encouraged teachers to place religious high art, especially images of the Madonna, on their classroom walls. Protestant travel writers regularly expressed discomfort with Catholic theology but set discomfort aside to extol the Virgin’s nobility, intellect, maternal tenderness, and serenity in the works of masters like Raphael, Titian, and Murillo. Alvarez observes that this is the period when Protestant “maternalist” groups began to argue that on the basis of their role as mothers, women deserved more social and political power (75).

The following chapters narrow the focus to explore the ramifications of the first two. Chapter 3 rehabilitates the Protestant art historian and early feminist Anna Jameson, the most prominent art critic of her time. Jameson decoupled Mary from Catholic dogma and promoted her—not only as the inspirational emblem of womanhood but also as a liberatory figure. Bestsellers such as Jameson’s 1852 work, Legends of the Madonna, commended Madonna of specific artists to Americans “mitigating American Protestant iconoclasm and advancing Mary’s figure as a symbolic site for reimagining womanhood, maternity and domesticity” (87). Chapter 4 examines a pair of unexpectedly progressive Marian novels: Adrift (1887) by Anna Dorsey, a Catholic, and Mary: Queen of the House of David and Mother of Jesus (1888) by Alexander Stewart Walsh, a Baptist minister. In both novels, despite the usual sectarian apologetics, the Virgin Mary provided a framework for endorsing the “social value of women’s ethical perspectives” (144). In chapter 5 Alvarez focuses on the contested rhetoric of queenship, a favorite late-nineteenth-century metaphor for exalted feminine domesticity, but one that also suggested “authority and autonomous selfhood” (186). Alvarez claims that “queenship rhetoric was drawn—to a greater degree than is often understood, from Marian motifs and images” (148). In a veritable parade of queens (many of them illustrated)—Queen Victoria, Mary Regina Coeli, the queen in John Ruskin’s “Of Queen’s Gardens,” Currier and Ives’ highly lucrative series of generic Queen prints (i.e., Queen of Love and Beauty)—Alvarez shows that queenship rhetoric “was used both to resist and promote legal and cultural reforms” (186).

The Valiant Woman demonstrates that “Mary’s ability to suggest and contain multiple, conflicted meanings facilitated a shift in public consciousness of the boundaries of a woman’s authority and meaning of her life and work” (186). By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the era of overlapping, if not shared, perspectives on Mary had come to an end. As American Catholics gained both economic and social ground, Protestants effectively abandoned the Virgin Mary—except for the fundamentalists whose Virgin Mary they explicitly framed to reject her Catholic qualities. Unfortunately for the Alabama hostess in Wilkerson’s story, she was living in the 1950’s and not the 1880’s when her Mary statue could have remained proudly on the mantel rather than being hidden away in shame.

I would note one criticism of this well-researched and argued book. The reader might erroneously suppose from The Valiant Woman’s subject matter that converging language about the Virgin Mary necessarily coincided with rapprochement between Protestant and Catholic Americans. The truth is that the rhetoric overlapped, but the communities remained resolutely separate, uninterested in reaching out to each other. It is telling, in this regard, that the two authors of the Mary novels remained unaware of each other’s work (117).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary-Joan Leith is professor and chair of the department of religious studies at Stonehill College, Easton, Massachusetts.

Date of Review: 
May 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez’s research and teaching interests include American religious history, religion and gender, and cultural studies. She received her Ph.D. in History of Christianity from the University of Chicago, Divinity School. Her book, The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, explores Marian imagery and the female ideal in American popular culture. She’s at work on various projects including an edited reader entitled Religion in Philadelphia (Temple Press) and a new book examining gendered rhetoric in anti-Catholic propaganda. She teaches in the Department of Religion and the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University.


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