Enigmas of the Desert – Gender and Sexuality of the Desert Mothers

Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.”
Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
Gospel of Thomas, 114
As the early Christian church began to flourish under Constantine’s rule in the fourth century Greco-Roman world, so too did the ascetic movement. This shift from the mainstream life to a simple life of solitude was catalyzed by the physical, geographical movement of Saint Antony. Revered as the father and founder of desert asceticism, the movement grew as an alternative form of martyrdom creating a community of renunciation in the desert. By moving into the desert, men and women ascetics replaced the voice of the martyr’s blood and became the voices of the desert (Chryssavgis 2008, 143). Women who moved from the home-centered subordinate lifestyle of mainstream society transitioned into a new arena of freedom found in the ascetic lifestyle. This autonomy is seen in the lesser known writings of the Desert Mothers who “did not allow cultural norms and expectations for women to thwart their call nor limit their pursuit of God” (Swan 2001, 18). As such, the Desert Mothers tended towards adopting more masculine-gendered traits to achieve acceptance into desert monasteries and cultivating authority within the ascetic movement. This gendering is seen primarily through three different categories of women: widows, battling with fornication, and androgyny. By critically examining gender theory its application to other female ascetics in antiquity, the abatement of the Desert Mothers sexuality takes on a greater meaning in how these women are portrayed through their sayings and the stories of their lives…
By playing a significant role in the ministry and leadership of ascetic Christianity, the Desert Mothers proved to make male leaders uncomfortable with their public roles. As a result, these women sought out the solitude of the desert which in turn offered these women a greater sense of physical and spiritual autonomy (Swan 2001, 10). When the Church Fathers encountered virtuous women such as the Desert Mothers, it challenged the notion that women were miserable, abject creatures that fell from Eve (Mellinger 2007). Their quest for ascetic perfection was not bound to villages allowing them to venture into the desert where their female characteristics disappeared and they became men (Elm 1994, 262). These women of deep Christian character and action broke the prescribed female nature and strove to exemplify the masculine qualities found in Christ. This is seen in the three categories of gendering that occurred – widowhood, androgyny, and the temptation of sexual desires…
The extreme renunciation found in desert asceticism is shown clearly through the gender transformation that the Desert Mothers undergo. Within these stories of the Desert Mothers, the liberation found in the desert is seen through these women gaining control over their bodies and sexuality (Burrus, 32). Melania the Elder challenges the authority of non-Christian men and ministers to exiled male bishops showing the liberation from masculine social domination. New expressions of sexuality are seen in Amma Syncletica’s androgyny and Amma Sarah’s masculine transformation. These women of the desert create and defend new communal boundaries, rewriting and redefining women’s bodies in asceticism. For these Desert Mothers, “sexual asceticism represents liberation from precisely such male attempts to control women’s sexuality, social relationships, and intellectual strivings; and their articulation of their own sexuality remains attentive to the knowledge and experience of their own bodies” (Burrus, 51). Contemporaries to these ancient mothers include, Tamav Irene, who emulated the life of Amma Syncletica, carried on the tradition of the Desert Mothers into modernity by reforming and guiding women into ascetic life. Additionally, journalists have stepped into the world of asceticism, documenting and experiencing the ancient practice of desert asceticism.”
From: http://uo-sexgender.weebly.com/desert-mothers.html – website created and maintained by Dr. David M. Reis for the students enrolled in “Sex and Gender in Early Christianity” at the University of Oregon (Fall 2013).
A useful annotate bibliography is appended to the paper.


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