My history guru Bonnie recommended a fascinating book I'm now reading: Alone of All her Sex: the Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976) by Marina Warner. A line I like from the back of the book jacket:
The figure of Mary has shaped and been shaped by changing social and historical circumstances from the first century to the present day...For all their beauty and power (and indeed because of them), the legends of Virgin Mary have condemned real women to perpetual inferiority.
Here's an excerpt from a review which, I'm so sorry to say, I've lost the credit for:
With Alone of All her Sex: the Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, Marina Warner found her true metier, looking at the mythology, symbolism, allegories and icons of 'the Christian mother goddess' across Catholic Europe.
[Warner] focuses on the figure of Mary as archetype, the approved model of ideal womanhood: virgin, queen, bride, mother, and intercessor. She argues persuasively about the Marian cult's influence over the centuries in fixing, for the satisfaction of the male Catholic hierarchy, the structure of society and women's roles within it.
I just picked up her book Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (2000) which I hope to get to one of these years...