The Forgotten Women of the Nativity

Painting of the birth of Mary
The Birth of Mary

Last month, I unpacked my nativity set with my toddler son, handling the smooth olivewood figures carved in Bethlehem for purchase by eager Christian tourists. We named the figures as we put them in the tableau on top of the piano and then stood back to admire the scene. Mary was surrounded by five men, but her gaze took in only her baby. 

The overwhelming male-ness of the nativity scene felt jarring. For millennia and across many cultures, including in the days of Jesus, birth was an exclusively female event: a laboring woman was attended by midwives and female family members. Only after the groans of productive agony had ceased and the blood and afterbirth were cleaned up were men permitted to enter. There is little reason to suppose Jesus’ birth was any different.

One of the many problems with men being in charge of written and oral histories through the centuries is that not only do women and their lives and contributions get erased, but that things that are unique to the female experience don’t get recorded, whether because they are viewed as distasteful, as inconsequential, or because men are ignorant of them. Matthew and Luke mention Jesus’ birth in a sentence or less, glossing over the messy and vital work of women with a euphemistic, “and she brought forth her first born son.” 

It has been undisputedly established that women have been and continue to be written out of history, their achievements attributed to men, their contributions minimized or forgotten altogether. When women are remembered by history, they are often written as hypersexualized beings, their sexuality their most defining feature. It is as if men are unable to conceive of women as people like themselves, so their femaleness,  regardless of their other attributes, becomes the most salient thing about them in the historical record.

I’m convinced that the only reason Mary hasn’t been written out of the nativity story is because it wasn’t possible to give Jesus’ origin story without mentioning her. But like many of the women history has recorded before and after her, Mary’s sexuality became a fixation for the male historians who wrote about her. It was not enough that she gave birth to Jesus; it had to be a virgin birth. And it was not enough that she was a virgin when she conceived Jesus; she had to remain celibate for the rest of her life. In a historical tradition where women are stereotyped as either madonna or whore or crone, Mary was the original and ultimate Madonna.

I’ve always felt the almost tangible lack of women in the scriptures, in the temple, in religious and secular histories alike. I try to peel away the layers of the “official” story of the birth of Christ that have been lacquered onto our cultural consciousness for two thousand years to find the empty spaces where women must have been: the Bethlehem midwife who, with her assistants, attended to Mary even though Mary was poor and unlikely to be able to pay; the women who lived in the house whose stable housed the holy family; the women in Mary’s and Joseph’s extended families who taught Mary the art of breastfeeding and caring for her infant; the wives and daughters of the shepherds and wisemen who cared for home and hearth while their husbands pilgrimaged to see the foretold Messiah. 

If angels appeared to shepherds, and if the wise men were inspired to seek out Jesus, surely there were also women who took part in the adoration. We don’t have a record of angels appearing to women to tell them about the birth, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. More likely, though, I imagine that women were led to the Christ child through the same network that connects women in communities all over the world, that of communicated need spread quietly from woman to woman that we use to help each other to this day. Surely there were warm meals, fresh linens and blankets delivered to the new mother by women who heard of her situation. Surely these women were able to hear Mary tell her birth story, to hold and adore the baby. And, surely, their gifts were every bit as needed and appreciated as gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

My nativity set is beautiful and meaningful to me, and I recognize the power in the traditional narrative. But I wish I had another nativity set to place beside it, one with a calm and competent midwife tending to Mary, with the woman of the house making the space as hospitable as she could, with neighbors bringing gifts of bread and cloths and bedding, all paying homage to the child and his mother in the unassuming and practical way women have cared for each other through the ages.

ElleK

ElleK is a foodie, gardener, and writer. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.

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16 Responses

  1. Thanks for reading between the lines and finding and remembering these women that the authors of the story forgot to mention.

  2. Lily says:

    Great post! I have heard LDS scholars (both men and women) say, 1) He wasn’t born in a stable. She would have gone home to her mother to have her baby and that the literal translation is NOT “there was no room in the inn”, but “he wasn’t born in the guest room.” 2) She would have been attended by her female relatives, i.e. her mother, aunts, etc.

  3. Anna says:

    I like my nativity set that I picked up in Mexico. It contains Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child, three wise men, one female angle, and two (wise) women who are also baring gifts to the child, a bunch of sheep, a cow and a donkey. You can’t really see what the women are bringing. One is a jar of something and the other looks like gold fire wood. My other Nativity set that we picked up in Germany contains the female angel, holy family, both male and female shepherds, (who said that all the shepherds were male) three wise men, and a woman that you can’t tell who she is but she has a gift, and of course the necessary animals. So, not all nativity sets or stories leave the women out.

    The best estimates say that the wisemen didn’t show up for two years or so, and I am sure that by then Mary and Joseph and the child were living in a house, not the barn for two years. So, really the midwife belongs in the nativity set and the wise guys don’t.

    • ElleK says:

      Anna, I’m going to have to look for nativity sets like yours! Agreed–who said the shepherds or angels were male, and the ‘wise guys” shouldn’t be included in the creche anyway.

      • Niki-La says:

        I have a set that I’ve been collecting slowly for years (Fontanini). It is an open stock set, meaning you buy each piece individually instead of as a completed set. I have female angels and female shepherds. There are also a multitude of villagers. Women making bread. A pregnant woman bringing food. A child spinning fleece. Women carrying jars and baskets. A mother with children. Small girls, kneeling. Other girls, singing. Various women working with animals. Mary is surrounded by helpers in my nativity.

  4. Abby Hansen says:

    Amen! I also think the gifts them women brought to the new mother Mary were like, a thousand times more practical than frankincense and myrrh. She probably had to return those items to the market and use the money for something she actually needed.

    Funny enough, I’m writing a blog post for Monday about Mary and finished it before reading this. We have several of the same questions – mostly, why would she not be with WOMEN when she was giving birth? My husband was deployed when our oldest was born, and instead of him I had female friends, neighbors, and visiting teachers – and they were so, so much more helpful to have around than he ever could have been. It’s silly to think Mary had a baby on her own and needed no help, and then the dudes just came around to check out what a good job she did.

    • ElleK says:

      Great insights, Abby! I think men are ignorant of the the services women perform for each other–our network just isn’t on their radar (they think the dishes do themselves, am I right?).

  5. Kaylee says:

    I’ve loved Brian Kershisnik’s painting “Nativity” because the midwives were included (and the look on Joseph’s face is great too.)

    Anna, I love that you pointed out the possibility of female shepherds. The KJV Luke 2 only uses they/them pronouns for the shepherds, so it seems like all-male shepherds is an ingrained cultural assumption. Besides, linguistically 1 shepherd + 10 shepherdesses = 11 shepherds.

    I couldn’t find a beautiful-but-kid-friendly nativity set (My mother-in-law has a lovely set that looks like ivory, but it’s really plastic, so that’s the one the kids get to play with. All I could find was Little People.) So I made my own with wooden peg dolls. I think for next year I need to make some midwives carrying blankets and a pot of food or water. And some shepherdesses.

  6. SisterStacey says:

    I think that there was family there with Joseph and Mary! If Joseph had to be counted, then surely his father would and his uncles. Mary’s family too, right? She’s of the same lineage of David. So maybe not a midwife, but her own mother. I agree that women are often left out of the narrative.

  7. Maya says:

    There’s also historical evidence that women were also shepherds, so I strongly believe that there were women shepherds coming to worship Jesus and care for Mary.

    • John Gough says:

      I would be VERY interested, Maya, in your “historical evidence that women were also shepherds”. It certainly seems likely, but I’d like to know your sources.

  8. John Gough says:

    This posting is exactly right, ElleK. Well done! The further comments are also interesting.
    Wikipedia has an interesting article on the brothers and sisters of Jesus, as named and mentioned in passages in some of the gospels, and in Acts, and 1 Corinthians. It also notes that official doctrines (Catholic and Protestant) ignore this, and, indeed, “brother” and “sister” are controversial as possible results of translation from the original Greek or Aramaic. We may never know the truth, at least in this world.
    I have written a short story about the women who were (or could have been) at the manger, and beyond, including the inn-keeper’s wife and a serving girl, the local midwife (of course), a shepherdess, Anna in the Temple (giving Simeon-like words to Anna’s recognition and worship of Jesus), and a female magus (the word “magus” can refer to male or female, and the Zoroastrians who were probably the wise people from the East treated women as equals of men).
    At this point, only informed fiction can remedy the male-dominated stories we rely on as canonical.

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