Pope Joan
by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Ballantine Books, 1996. ISBN 0345416260.
Reviewed by Doris Anne Roop-Benner
Posted on 06/01/2002

Fiction: Historical

"Sin came through a woman," said her father when told he had a daughter. His displeasure was palpable. Her mother would later tell her, "Never give yourself to a man. If you marry, you will surrender everything—your body, your pride, your independence, even your life." So, naturally, the girl later would feel that marriage plunged a woman into a state of serf-like bondage with absolute control of her goods, property and children going to her husband. Her brother learned from his father and felt that he was far superior to Joan because she was just a useless daughter-she couldn't sew or spin, all she wanted was book learning.

This upbringing sets the stage for the tale of an extraordinary woman who set out to show that her birth was not a mistake, no man could have power over her, and knowledge was the key to success. She ran away from home at the age of 12, after her father beat her within an inch of her life when he caught her reading. She disguised herself as a man and entered the monastery pretending to be her brother.

In a quirk of fate, she met two men, Aesculapius & Gerald, who changed her life. They discovered she was a girl, but did not betray her or treat her condescendingly. They recognized her potential and encouraged her to reach high. Because of her brilliance, she would rise through the ranks, land in Rome, and become Pope of the most powerful institution of her day.

Is this story a fact? We don't know, but it certainly is exciting to think it might have happened.

The 9th century setting with vivid descriptions of the Middle Ages woven into the story of a strong, intelligent woman who loved life and learning made me care deeply about her. This book spoke to me. I was born in 1944, and my Daddy felt that girls didn't need higher education. They should just find a good man, get married and have children—which I did. It took me many years to realize that I could do anything I put my mind to. I sometimes wish I had been more like Joan.

Donna Woolfolk Cross graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, earned her Masters Degree at UCLA, and taught English in New York. Her other books include Word Abuse, Mediaspeak, and Speaking of Words.

The author says that for women to empower themselves in this world, they must learn. As we have all seen recently in Afghanistan, men control women by taking away their right to an education. In the Catholic Church as well, women are still limited in their involvement. Some things never change.

Many reading groups are discussing the implications of this book. You can log on by searching Donna Woolfolk Cross on the Web.

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