It starts happening before you realize it, and by the time you do, the slow, grinding erasures have already begun. At church, the young adult group gets mentioned repeatedly, and even though you look around and realize you’re still one of the youngest people there, you’ve crossed the mysterious river into no longer being a young adult. You’re also very frequently alone in church. Your own generation, the one that was Xed out before it found an identity, lost interest in Christianity around the time of Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” and Tammy Faye Bakker’s smeared mascara, and only one of your fellow born-in-the-seventies friends takes her faith very seriously, and she’s a priest, so it’s her job. Yet here you are, still trying.
You’re too young for the “Senior Celebration of Life!” at church but too old for the “baseball and beer” excursion with a firmly underlined reminder that “anyone under 40 is welcome.” You’re too old to be on social media but too young to quit. The wrong shape for those jeans but still somehow the wrong shape for those other jeans. Too bland to have so many tattoos but too interesting to stop getting them. Too ambitious to settle for an easy life but too self- critical to settle into anything for long. Too angry, too crazy, too predictable, too surprising, too smart, too capable. You’re a woman, so you are always too much.
A younger friend says you look “good for your age,” but you’re not sure what that means when you watch Big Little Lies and realize Nicole Kidman, four years your senior, has perfectly undisturbed, luminescent skin, like the shimmering surface of a faraway planet, while your own face is forked and pitted. You look for other TV shows, movies, or books about women like you, women who are neither old nor young, neither fat nor thin, neither pretty nor ugly, neither this nor that, and in each of them, the woman is screaming, crying, throwing her phone, frowning in a dressing room, getting divorced, getting cancer, fighting with her children, fighting with her parents, or embarrassing herself repeatedly, every single day. She is, in a word, messy.
But what exactly do we expect a woman to be? In the Roman Catholic tradition, which is the religious and intellectual lens through which I was taught to see the world, the image of Mary as a meek, mild, blonde, and white model of female perfection has caused centuries of problems for the vast majority of women who are nothing like that, including Mary herself. The real Mary, a revolutionarily minded Jewish woman who grew up under the rule of an empire, does not resemble the plaster statues that watched over me in my own girlhood. But I did not meet that Mary until I was well into adulthood. Nor did I meet Dorothy Day, Mary Magdalene, Sister Thea Bowman, Pauli Murray, Julian of Norwich, Dolores Huerta, or any other potential religious role model who resisted those narrow definitions of Christian womanhood—until decades after I graduated from Catholic school.
The notions about what women should do, think, and feel are entrenched in religion, culture, and history and remain stubbornly persistent well into this fourth wave of feminism. We’re expected to be both nurturing and independent. Angry and tranquil. “One of the boys” and still femme enough to be sexually viable. Racism and classism have made the aspirational image of a thin, wealthy white woman normative, when it is far from realistic for the vast majority. Women are expected to be fertile (otherwise your body is dismissed as a barren wasteland), but not too fertile (otherwise you’re burdening society). Self-sacrificing, but not selfless. Women can cry picturesquely on occasion, but clinical depression and anxiety have to be brushed aside or sublimated, because we are always expected to be doing something for someone. We should love and accept our imperfect bodies but still not gain weight or “let ourselves go.” We should have a “girl squad” and we should never go anywhere without them, rather than preferring, at least on occasion, to be alone. We can be smart but not brilliant, impressive but not intimidating, friendly but not fawning.
To fail to live up to these expectations can be a declaration of defiance, of resistance to categorization and pushing back against expectations. These kinds of women are also messy, because they’re agents of change, and change is messy. And yet, like every other woman, they’re still expected to clean up the mess.
Five years ago, I sat across from my spiritual director, rattling off this same series of complaints. I felt messy, every day. He asked exactly how old I was. When I said I’d just turned forty-five, he sighed. “That’s a hard age,” he told me. Something shifted. I’d been rolling the Sisyphean boulder of my age for years, just waiting for things to get easier, as other women kept reassuring me they would. Apparently, at some time, I would reach a magical point when I had “no fucks left to give.” But no one had warned me that before I hit that magical point, I’d have to survive something harder: the in-between years, which never seemed to end.
And, in fact, I still had many fucks left to give. Numerically, I am today middle-aged, somewhere between young and old. But I resist the term middle-aged, not because of its unfriendly reminder that I’ve hit some Dante-esque pivot point at which I’ve become lost in a dark wood, but because I don’t know what I’m in the middle of. And how can any of us know we are in the middle when the end is unclear?
To find a location, I wondered, What if, instead of being caught in between expectations and reality, we thought of ourselves as medieval? It was in that era when many women also defied expectations and reinvented themselves, along with their world.
The medieval imagination was often male. The dark wood where Dante is lost is the selva oscura: in the medieval imagination, it was a place where questing knights became lost and disoriented among the trees, their paths forward put on hold while they went mad due to a loss of direction. These knights, however, were always men. Men were expected to explore and wander. For them, it was a noble cause.
Women, on the other hand, had little agency, almost no control over their bodies, and brutally short lives. When they entered the selva oscura there was a very different cultural response—and cost. But there were always exceptions, in that era and others, and those exceptions can help us understand that being caught between expectations placed on the women themselves and the reality of the time can be spiritually and creatively fruitful, even if that often comes with sacrifice.
Hildegard von Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Joan of Arc, Margery Kempe, and other women in the medieval era were all examples of defiance against what women were expected to be because of their culture, gender, and religion. And this defiant streak would appear again and again in women across the centuries, manifesting in many different ways and shifting our ways of understanding the world.
At the age of forty-three, Hildegard (who had been having mystical religious visions since she was three) wrote, “I heard a voice from Heaven saying to me, ‘Cry out therefore, and write thus.’”
As she moved into her fifties and sixties, Hildegard’s fevered imagination couldn’t be held in by the confines of Latin, the language of the church, so she invented her own alphabet, the Lingua Ignota, or “unknown language.”
She also wrote about medicine and even served as a pharmacist for her community. She wrote sixty-nine musical compositions, along with the largest surviving collection of letters from the medieval era. And in a time when many women were confined to the home or to cloistered monasteries—and within the boundaries of the Catholic church, which is still closed to the ordination of women today—Hildegard embarked on preaching tours throughout Germany, calling out clerical corruption.
The kind of subversion Hildegard modeled was echoed in the lives of other women throughout the medieval era. Roughly a hundred years later, the British mystic Julian of Norwich also pushed the boundaries of our understanding of God. The first woman to write a book in English, the language of the people rather than of the church hierarchy, Julian referred to Christ as both mother and brother, unbound by gender but capable of boundless compassion. In the Revelations, she gives us a creed most useful to women trapped between expectations and reality: “Thou shalt not be overcome.”
Medieval women can be mentors to us in the in-between. In an era when women were so often held back or silenced, their brazenness and creativity made them models of agency and self-identity. Hildegard, Julian, and other medieval women like Joan of Arc stood up to church authorities by creating forms of life for their religious communities, putting their visions into words, and sometimes putting their bodies on the line for the sake of what they believed.
Today, we often take feminism and what it’s given us for granted, which makes it harder to understand how unusual these women were in the context of their time—and the cost of their choices and work. Medieval women were censored, silenced, accused of heresy, and sometimes killed for what they said and wrote. But what they and other women throughout history who stood in between expectations and reality offer us today is a different way of thinking. What was pushed to the margins, cloistered, and silenced feels absolutely contemporary. The end of the medieval era, after all, was the beginning of the Renaissance.
Today, women are still hemmed in by expectations of what we should be, but we are also coming to new understandings about age, youth, anger, mental health, the meaning of fertility, solitude, and independence. When women feel the freedom to evolve beyond prescribed roles, we can experience a fecundity of the imagination, an era when we become not solely creative, but creation.
In my reading and research, I kept returning to those women who were too old, too young, too barren, too butch/femme/other, too crazy, too angry, too alone. They were both in between and on the edges. Many more categories of too other could be added, and clearly, many of these expectations of women are placed on them by men. Toxic masculinity—the way “traditional” ideas of manhood have turned on themselves and curdled into a violent, self- loathing, woman-hating stew—is part of the reason women and men alike are so caged in by gender “ideals.”
In some ways, we are in the same boat, but women are doing most of the rowing while men are still steering the ship. This is part of why any investigation of what we expect from women means we also have to ask what we expect to gain from cleaving to an increasingly useless and troubling focus on any static or binary ideas of gender. “Complementarianism” has much to answer for and has done centuries of damage we are just beginning to undo today.
When it comes to what we expect from women, these themes of age, attitude, caretaking, and behavior keep repeating throughout history and remain persistent today. Yet there are women from across history who show us how to navigate those in-between spaces, women who fell far short of perfection and failed to fit into prescribed roles for the times they lived in, but who still managed to create themselves, rather than letting social expectations dictate their creation. As I came to know these women, I read and wrote and learned. I will always be learning from them. Perhaps all of us can.
When we live in the in-between eras, we know enough history to understand how women have been confined, and we can learn from how they defied confinement. So we, in turn, defy our own confinements and grow beyond other people’s definitions of what we should be.
We reinvent ourselves and our world.
This is an excerpt from The Defiant Middle prologue: The Middle, the Medieval, and the In-Between.