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(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)
(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)

Neil Reynolds

Joan of Arc's cautionary tale for baby Storm's parents Add to ...

George Bernard Shaw tells us, in his preface to Saint Joan, that the "most notable warrior saint in all Christendom" played as a child in the ruins of a castle near her birthplace in eastern France. It was probably here, he says, that the Maid of Orleans first imagined herself as a soldier and hence as a man. And therein lurks a cautionary tale for the mother and father of Storm, the famous secret-sex child in Toronto.

Joan of Arc's father tried to frighten her out of her fascination with soldiers, threatening to drown her in the Meuse River if she ran away to join them. Shaw says, though, that the threat was theatrical. "This extravagance was clearly not serious," he says. "It must have been addressed to a child young enough to think that he was in earnest. Joan must therefore, as a child, have wanted to run away and be a soldier."

When it came time to change sexes, Joan went all the way. "Why did she insist on having a soldier's dress and arms and sword and horse and equipment, and on treating her escort of soldiers as comrades, sleeping side by side with them on the floor at night as if there were no difference of sex between them? Why did she insist that she go herself and lead the assault in person? Why did she give exhibitions of her dexterity in handling a lance?"

It isn't enough, Shaw insists, to say that Joan was protecting herself from the physical risks of associating with marauding males. "The simple answer to all of these questions," he says, "is that Joan was the sort of woman that wants to lead a man's life." This sort of woman, he says, is found "everywhere there are armies on foot or navies on the seas, serving in male disguise, eluding detection for astonishingly long periods and sometimes, no doubt, escaping it entirely."

It has not always been necessary for women who wanted to lead a man's life to so it in disguise. In ancient times, women warriors fought in many great battles. In the 5th century BC, for instance, a certain Athenian princess named Telesilla led an all-woman army to victory over Spartan invaders. The Athenians commemorated the victory with a festival in which men dressed as women for a day and women dressed as men.

The warrior class traditionally prohibited women from waging war - for the pragmatic reason (as Shaw observes) that men were expendable and women weren't. Yet women kept surreptitiously signing up: More than 600 women joined Union and Confederate forces in the American Civil War, many of them serving secretively as soldiers and spies. Great gender-equality progress, however, has since occurred: Ten countries, including Canada, now permit women not only to have military careers but (in some cases) to engage in combat, too.

In the past, women who wanted to lead a man's life did so mostly for reasons of professional development. Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) swore an oath that proclaimed her king, not queen. George Sand (1804-1876), the French novelist, failed as a woman, succeeded as a man. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), the French artist who always dressed as man, attributed the practice to the bother of female garb: "The suit I wear is my work attire - nothing more."

In the span of a single century, the need to change genders for reasons of career has mostly disappeared. By 2005, according to one U.S. report, one-half of all Americans engaged in professional careers were women. Women are now quite able to pursue (in self-help pastor Rick Warren's ubiquitous phrase) purpose-driven lives: or, from Saint Joan's perspective, God-driven lives. Yet the number of people who want to change sexes keeps rising - at a cost to taxpayers, in Ontario's case, of roughly $20,000 per surgical procedure. Since work is mostly what life is all about, the contemporary reasons for this elaborate intervention - beyond mere narcissism - appear less purpose-driven all the time.

As for Storm, he or she will probably do fine. For one thing, he or she is obviously loved. For another, parents - eccentric or not - have only limited control over the destiny of their children, as Saint Joan's father demonstrated 600 years ago.

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