St. Joan of Arc: Girl Power or Godly Power?

Sean Fitzpatrick

By Sean Fitzpatrick

Sean Fitzpatrick is a senior contributor to Crisis and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania.

Joan of Arc

The Dauphin had heard of this girl from Domrémy who wished to see him. Rumor had it she won over the commandant of Vaucouleurs by predicting the outcome of the Battle of Rouvray. How intriguing. The rough soldiers who were bringing her apparently called her la Pucelle, “the Maid.” How amusing. The frivolous Dauphin, Charles VII, thought it a fine jest and hid giggling among his courtiers when she arrived. The girl entered, striking and sturdy in men’s garb and cropped hair, strode directly to the Dauphin, and said, “God has sent me to help you and the kingdom of France.”

So spoke a seventeen-year-old girl in 1429. And the battle to help the kingdom of God on earth is far from over—and it frequently involves a controversy of femininity. God often sends a woman to do His will in surprising ways, whether a Virgin to bear a Child or a farmgirl to lead an army. As a woman, Joan of Arc clashed for the good of Church and country, even as she was persecuted for her sex and her piety. And that persecution goes on and is as ancient as the mysterious tradition of the battle maiden, whether Amazon or Valkyrie.

But the reason why St. Joan stands out as a heroine is not because she was a prototype of women’s liberation, but because she carried out the orders of God under unusual circumstances.

Having undertaken the journey to Chinon through lands held by England and the dukes of Burgundy who disputed Charles VII’s pedigree, Joan unflinchingly told the Dauphin she had been commanded by God, Michael the Archangel, and the saints Catherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch to undertake three tasks—to save the city of Orléans from the nearly one-hundred-year English invasion, to see the Dauphin crowned and consecrated at Reims, deep in enemy territory, and to force the English out of France. 

The embattled heir to the throne of France stared at the strange, country girl standing before him, not knowing what to think. It was an impossible proposition. Who was this girl—this unlearned, illiterate farmer’s daughter? What did she know of military tactics and strategies? “I am not afraid,” the Maid said, “for this, I was born.” Her fearlessness struck fear in the Dauphin. He clad Jeanne d’Arc in white armor, gave her a sword, a charger, and a banner bearing the names of Jesus and Mary. Though it was impossible, the Dauphin put Joan before his army. Every possible option had been tried and had failed. What else was left but the impossible?

With God, however, nothing is impossible. Joan of Arc led her army victoriously to the walls of besieged Orléans and took the city on St. Michael’s feast day. The forces of Patay and Troyes then fell before the Maid of Orléans, who soon stood with tears in her eyes in the cathedral of Reims as Charles VII was anointed King of France. In nine months, Joan had initiated the salvation of France.

While Joan might be seen as a medieval forerunner of the feminist movement, she embodied, in fact, a genuinely feminine attitude. She was meek and practical in her strength and determination, despite her sword and armor, dutifully doing the difficult task given to her by God with a feminine presence and poise that men often need. The attitude of women taking the lead today, on the other hand, is charged with a masculine domination. Feminine roles, but not feminine virtues, are extolled and given immunity to a degree that actually threatens female identity in a way that Joan of Arc decidedly did not. 

Joan clearly fought selflessly for God and country, not “women’s rights,” “girl power,” or “gender equality.” In short, Joan of Arc is a powerful symbol because she was good and strong, not because she fought and led men as a woman. The sex-based exoneration women receive in the name of equality that really seeks equivalency imbalances the natural relations of the sexes. The role of women is too significant in the grand scheme of things to isolate, for it loses its power without the role of men.

In bringing about a God-ordained balance in her time, St. Joan is a shining example of femininity, even though she is one in shining armor. Cooperation, not competition, is the basis of gender equality—for, though men and women are equal in fundamental ways, they are not equivalent. The desire to sanctify and safeguard the dignity of women is good, so long as it does not serve to dethrone the dignity of women by encouraging or pressuring them to become like men or the masters of men. The end is to preserve the Kingdom of God on earth, and for that end, the servants of God, men and women alike, must strive together.

Despite Joan’s unprecedented victory, the apathetic Charles VII neglected to launch her against Paris while the army’s morale was high. When an assault was finally launched, Joan failed to take the city. As efforts were underway to make further assay for Paris, Joan was captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English as a prisoner. After several escape attempts from her mocking captors, Joan was dragged before fifty clerical judges to stand trial as a heretic.

Determined to delegitimize the king Joan had put on the throne of France, her accusers had difficulty in their illegal proceedings due to the sharp intelligence of their victims. Joan deftly answered questions of tremendous theological complexity and subtlety, giving her accusers little ground on which to base their accusation as they pressured her to confess to witchcraft, fabrications, and a plot to dress like a man.

At last, they found Joan guilty of heresy, apostacy, and idolatry, and condemned her to death. Eight hundred men-at-arms escorted the girl in a cart through Rouen before she was bound to the stake. A crucifix was held up to her through the fire as Joan burned to death, she calling to Him who had called to her. It was then that a soldier saw a white bird flash from the flames and fly to heaven.

St. Joan of Arc is a model for our day, for we have a war to win as well, and one of the battles is over womanhood, where women are reduced to being targets, tools, or tyrants. Though all are victims in one way or another, women and girls can be doubly so as they are the ones largely besieged and used as the vehicles of this manipulation which is portrayed as fulfillment. The display many women put themselves on is not emblematic of the empowering, free ideal that it is made out to be. It is servitude to a system, an ideology that devalues women in the name of power. Without reservation, we run the risk of ruination. The more “gender-bender” noise and spectacle and vulgarity, the more the pain and sorrow can be drowned out—for a while.

Though part of St. Joan’s scandal was that she dressed and fought like a man—dubbed errant then and “equality” today—she was notwithstanding a pillar of feminine virtue and strength that defended the sacred things of God entrusted to mankind as only a woman could. Her story is one to remember well, especially on May 30, the day she died burning at the stake at nineteen years of age, a prisoner to powers that imprison still, though their enslavement is termed “liberation.”

As they struggle to define and deploy sex rages on, with innumerable prisoners and casualties, the proper place for Catholics is in the front lines, for similarly sacred things are vulnerable to similar assault. All the while, St. Joan of Arc stands as an icon for us all, despite the incongruities of the ages, because she fearlessly did the will of Heaven, not because she did something no one thought a woman could do. The matter of sex was a mere accident in the story of Joan of Arc. What was essential was Joan’s bravery and holiness—and it is in these that liberation lies, not just for women, but for the human race as a whole.