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By Mary Jean Ronan Herzog
I am a Mary.
I was named after the Blessed Virgin. Born into a Catholic family, as the first daughter I was anointed with Our Lady’s name, and I was destined to become a nun.
I know many Marys. Mary was the most popular girls’ name from 1890 to 1950, and not just for Catholics. My friends Susan and Anna and Catherine all dropped the Mary. In the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon to have several Marys among the daughters in a large Catholic family. On St. Patrick’s day, the author of The O’Briens, Peter Behrens, said his grandfather, John Joseph, named each of his daughters Mary: Mary Margaret, Mary Frances, Mary Patricia, and Mary Altheia. Some Catholic families named their daughters variations of Mary when the families grew so big they ran out of names. And then there were the nuns. They were all Marys. Sister Mary Michelle, Sister Mary Stanislaus, Sister Mary Joseph, Sister Mary Ruth, Sister Mary Demetrius.
Mary was an important symbol of Catholic religion and culture when I was a child in the 1950s. Another symbol was the large family.
When I was young, my sisters and I would often brag about the size of our family. Of my cousins, we had the second biggest family. Aunt Julie won that contest, with 11, while we had only nine. Well, we really had eight, because my brother Joseph lived only four days, but we still counted him. My mother had one miscarriage, so all in all, we could claim that she was pregnant ten times. Eight years or so of being pregnant. In my Catholic family, every new child was a blessing. Joseph was baptized before he died, so he was in Heaven, protecting us from harm and Satan. We were very Catholic.
On April 23, 1962, my mother gave birth to her last child. The world was very hush-hush back then. Parents didn’t talk to their kids about problems, but somehow I knew having this baby was risky business. On the night my youngest sister, Katie, was born, I, still a devout Catholic, lay in my bed, stiff as a board, tense and barely breathing, waiting to hear if either my mother or the baby had died.
I had good reason to worry. Not only did Joseph, the fifth Ronan, die, but Maria was born with Down’s syndrome and Christopher was born with spina bifida. When Dad came home to give us the good news that a healthy baby girl was born, I was so relieved, I got out of bed, got down on my knees, and said my prayers of thanks to God. I was very Catholic.
Katie, number nine, was the last Ronan baby. The doctors said that my mother should not have any more children because it was too dangerous to her health. I didn’t know this then, because the silence around sex was so huge, but gradually, through overheard conversations, I learned that my parents were going to practice, shockingly, BIRTH CONTROL. Even more gradually, I learned this was a very tough choice for them, because as devout Catholics, they were committing a sin. A mortal sin. My father, especially, believed in the infallibility of the Pope and the teachings of the Church. Long story short: He started using birth control, and he stopped going to Church. This was 1962.
I did not become a nun. Round about 1968, the year before I went to Woodstock, I joined my generation in discovering sex, drugs, and rock and roll; Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and Gloria Steinem; and freedom. And I questioned authority: the authority of the Church, the authority of the government. Having helped raise my younger brother and sisters, by the time I was 19, I had no desire to have kids of my own. So the church said sex before marriage and birth control were sins? Well, goodbye Church. Hello, Our Bodies, Ourselves and women’s liberation!
Unlike my father, who felt guilty when he left the Church, my schism did not cause me much angst. It was gradual enough, and it was in a milieu of emerging freedom, anti-war demonstrations, and feminism. It wasn’t all a bed of roses – there was Viet Nam, Richard Nixon, assassinations, and women with unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions. Change came incrementally. New York State legalized abortion in 1970, too late for my roommate who got a coat hanger abortion in a dark clinic in New York City. Birth control pills replaced the Cover Girl compacts in our purses. Living together came before marriage. It was a liberated time. It was a time of exuberant free will.
Flash forward to 2012…
Fifty years after my youngest sister was born, the priests and politicians have openly embraced a return to the Dark Ages and declared war on women. The priests of that very same Church – – the one that told my parents it was a sin to use birth control, the one that said, “? Keep on having them!” – – those priests and cardinals want to prevent women from access to birth control today with legislation removing it from their health benefits. They pontificate about the birth control option in health care coverage being an issue of religious freedom.
Oh, and the politicians! Congress holds a hearing about the Blunt Amendment, and women are not allowed to testify. Sanctimonious politicians, like Rick Santorum, preach against birth control. He says, “I don’t think it works. I think it’s harmful for women. It’s harmful to our society to say that sex outside of marriage is something should be encouraged or tolerated. Birth control enables that, and I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for our country.” This, from a man with seven children and a financial “safety net” to afford them.
Sandra Fluke is called out as a “slut” and a “prostitute” for testifying in a Democratic Party hearing about the need for women to have access to birth control. My 86-year old mother, who had nine children because the Pope said it was a sin to practice birth control, is outraged at these damn men, as she says, going back in time trying to retake control of women and their bodies. She talked about it on her cell phone in the parking lot of her Church before going inside for a class on the Psalms. She said, “There’s a big difference between god-given laws and man-made laws. God doesn’t want women to have babies they can’t feed and care for. The priests are supposed to be celibate anyway, and they don’t know what it means to be married and raise a family.”
I did raise a family. I had three babies, when my husband and I wanted babies, when we were old enough and stable enough to take care of them well. We raised them in a liberated home, one that blurred traditional roles between men and women. But I worry: what kind of world will their children—my grandchildren—face if the priests and politicians win their war on women? It won’t be good for boys or girls, men or women.
What year IS this anyway?!
Mary Jean Ronan Herzog is a professor of education at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC. She teaches history and philosophy of education and qualitative research methods. Her research interests include gender equity and power in higher education.