The legend of Pope Joan is the story of a ninth-century German woman so devoted to learning and the Catholic Church that she disguised herself as a man and rose through the Catholic hierarchy. According to the legend, she was eventually elected pope. Her sex was only discovered when she died in childbirth, two years into her papacy.

The controversial story has been around for centuries, but the woman pope has received a great deal of attention in the past decade. An investigative work ("The Legend of Pope Joan" by Peter Stanford), a myth-shattering historical work ("The Myth of Pope Joan" by Alain Boureau), and a novel ("Pope Joan") have all recently come out in print. In 2001, Beliefnet's Rebecca Phillips interviewed Donna Woolfolk Cross, the author of the novel.

In your book, you seem fairly certain that Pope Joan really existed, or at least that there is some validity to the legend. Why do you believe the story?

I don't think we'll ever know for sure. But if you're asking me my best guess, I think probably so, just because there is so much historical smoke there, there must have been some kind of fire. Maybe not exactly the way the story has come down to us today, but it's hard to believe nothing happened there.

"Women have always been allowed to be mystics and visionaries and that kind of thing. Whereas Pope Joan, by contrast, is a woman who wielded power, secular power."

Why are readers so shocked to find out about the story of Pope Joan?

Even if you think of her as nothing more than legend, you can compare her to another person whose story is certainly nothing more than legend--King Arthur. King Arthur's story is such a comfortable story, religiously, politically, that it has been advanced and promoted to the point where most people, at least in the United States, think of it as history.

Joan's story, because it's an uncomfortable story, religiously and politically, and because it raises all kinds of difficult issues, instead of being promoted to the point where people think of it as history, has been smothered and obliterated to the point where most Americans have never even heard of her. I hadn't when I came across her story by accident.

And yet people have been writing about her for hundreds of years.

Yes. It just shows what ignoring and smothering can do. I just think we prefer King Arthur's story to be true, and many people don't prefer Joan's to be. But people divide on this issue.

Now, I'm not Catholic, so it's not up to me to make decisions in the faith. I do have a lot of respect for people of a given faith; they should be the ones to make decisions. But even just as an outsider, I feel sorry when I read all these stories about the terrible shortage of priests. There's just no priests around. And here are these women--I know women--of deep spirituality and faith with wonderful leadership qualities who could do so much for that very faith. And the only reason they're excluded is because of their gender. And that seems somehow wrong, or at least a waste.

Is the recent spurt of interest in Pope Joan similar to other recent books about women reclaiming their religion, such as "The Red Tent"?

Exactly, "The Red Tent" and also a lot of books about women who had strong roles in the early church, in the first one or two hundred years. There's one woman who was a bishop, Theodora Episcopa. One recent book by Joan Morris, "The Lady Was a Bishop," is about her and about other women with strong roles that seem to be priest-like roles in the early church. There are many other books on this topic.

Do people embrace Joan as a feminist role model?

I think partly. It's one of these ancient bastions in which this deep inequality that we've tried to address in other realms is still not only tolerated but institutionalized and promoted. She is also widely embraced because she's one of the great lost mysteries of history. I like her because she's so different from Saint Joan of Arc, who was much more typical of a religious woman. Saint Joan of Arc was an illiterate peasant. She couldn't read or write. She dressed as a man, but she never disguised herself as a man because everyone knew she was a woman.

Joan of Arc was also very typical in that she was allowed to hear voices and speak to God. That doesn't overturn the view of women as the lesser of the sexes, because God has always said that he will speak to the least among us. Women have always been allowed to be mystics and visionaries and that kind of thing. Whereas Pope Joan, by contrast, is a woman who wielded power, secular power. She was a woman known for the brilliance of her mind in a time when lots of women were believed to be unable to reason.