Date of Award

Spring 1990

Document Type

Restricted Thesis

Terms of Use

© 1990 Karin Wagner. All rights reserved. Access to this work is restricted to users within the Swarthmore College network and may only be used for non-commercial, educational, and research purposes. Sharing with users outside of the Swarthmore College network is expressly prohibited. For all other uses, including reproduction and distribution, please contact the copyright holder.

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Religion Department

First Advisor

Mark I. Wallace

Second Advisor

Hugh Lacey

Third Advisor

Amy-Jill Levine


Throughout church history, Mary of Nazareth has held an extremely prominent position in the Catholic tradition. The official church doctrine regarding Mary exalts her as the mother of God and the mother of the Savior, but it is in the popular tradition that her figure has become the primary recipient of devotion. At the same time, however, the church's patriarchal doctrine has trapped Mary in an image of submission and hindered her ability to represent liberation for the people.

Recognizing and experiencing their people's continued fascination with Mary, several liberation theologians have recently attempted to recover her as a figure of liberation for the people devoted to her. In his book, The Maternal Face of God, liberation theologian Leonardo Boff attempts this by defining Mary as the essence of femininity and thus as the female dimension of God. With this argument he hopes to free Mary from the oppressive tradition surrounding her. He further asserts that the accounts of Mary in the Gospels, particularly the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55), prove her to be a representative of the oppressed people. With this he utilizes her liberating image in the Latin American people's struggle against oppression.

Much like Boff, Latin American feminist liberation theologians Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer try to "demythologize" Mary's figure from the patriarchal tradition. They also propose her as a liberating figure for their people's struggle. In this attempt, however, unlike Boff, they voice a specific concern for the liberation of women, and they do not employ Boff 's androcentric definitions to deify her.

Several North American feminist theologians have also joined in this discussion of Mary's liberating potential. Those that are included here have produced the most comprehensive interpretations of Mary by North American feminist theologians. For the most part, they too recognize the liberating elements of Mary's figure, but ultimately they argue that, for several reasons, her image remains disempowering for women.

This paper presents and analyzes each of the three arguments with particular attention to the various cultural and philosophical perspectives from which they were written. Through a comparison of the three interpretations, this paper attempts to determine which argument appears to be the most effective, both in liberating Mary herself from the patriarchal tradition, and in supporting the people (men and women) in their fight for liberation.