My favorite crafting book just after college was The Knitting Goddess (Hyperion Press, 2000). I suspect I may have been in an impish mood the day I picked it up, because it is the only Goddess-related text I own. Having drunk in the milieu of evangelical college ministry, there’s something almost illicit about the stories of Grandmother Spider, Ariadne, and Rachel, and the vibrant patterns that emerge from a woman’s hand. The prose hooks me in at a gut level desire to create something beautiful, mythic; a sacred, everyday object that imbues spirit into the utilitarian. The book itself creates a space in which women are allowed and encouraged to be women in all their tangled and magical glory—a space I seldom allow for myself.
In church and society, women tend to be categorized in relation to someone else, particularly men: “daughter,” “wife,” “mama,” and “grandmother.” These are the phases we ‘all’ supposedly go through, with one naturally sequencing to the next. Women who become revered as role models and garner legendary status are those who become daughter and mathematician (Ada Lovelace), wife and scientist (Madame Curie); or simply those who sacrifice everything for their husband and children (too many to name). The patriarchy loves a virtuous martyr. There are the occasional tales of women who dare to transgress these phases, or make their own path, yet it’s a toss up as to whether the tale is framed as a cautionary moral, or celebrated. How well do we know the story of Joan of Arc, really?
One of my professors in seminary intentionally set the stories of Christian women before our eyes, in the form of historical anecdotes in lectures, and texts like Her Story: women in Christian tradition (Fortress Press, 1986). Had it not been for him, I might never have heard about the intense faith of Susanna Wesley, mother to Charles and John; or about the nuns “freed” by Martin Luther. The church needs more such revisionist history that extols the theology of Gregory, Basil, and Macrina. History that treats women mystics as theologians in their own right, not simply segregating them to the (lesser esteemed) discipline of “spirituality.” To take it further, though, we need critical feminist hermeneutics and analytical frameworks to dredge up the political side, rather than just making these women personable. We can praise the work of women missionaries while also articulating the prejudices that would rather exile the female body than give her space in leadership. Because, let’s be honest—those prejudices haven’t gone anywhere. To say that a woman from the past succeeded despite the odds, or at a time when women did not have (the) advantages or opportunities (of today), is to employ the myth of progress. Progress is glacial and transformation uneven when it comes to gender equality.
Feminism has been recalibrating the narrative for women in our society for over forty years now, and continues to percolate through some church institutions. Increasingly women are encouraged to dream of having rich, significant relationships with others and pursuing vocational desires. It is still a struggle to discern what that means for each wave of young feminists, as Christian discourse explores new fronts, as economic realities impose varying opportunities, and as technology plays an increasingly necessary role in building families. In this brave new world, the four phases of a woman’s ‘natural’ life are changing, along with key milestones that help us verify when we’re not simply “adulting,” but are actually maturing (if one can aspire to maturity without having to speak of a change in skincare regimens).
Over the coming months, I will explore the four phases of life in terms of relationship with our own bodies and minds first, and then in relationship to others. For some women relationships with a significant partner remain first and foremost. For others, combat with their body is the primary and all-encompassing relationship. While others still would simply like to remind society that women are equally entitled to a life of the mind as men, and we are weary—and wary—of the supporting role. How we live through our bodies and minds form the warp through which relationships weft their way over time.
What might our four phases be? Phenomenologically speaking, we could begin with how a child absorbs her surroundings—nurturing elements, but toxic factors as well. Information about the world soaks into her mind and orients her vision, while dis/trust, empathy and confidence (or lack thereof) sculpts her bodily sense of knowing. Eventually the sponge is saturated and she transitions into a seeker of what she perceives to be lacking—intellectual knowledge, romance, friendships, security, money, and various mixings and matchings of all of these. Moving out into the world, she is expected become a responsible doer in whichever field she finds herself in. It is up to her to make things happen, to produce her own fulfillment. Barrenness in any area is a curse. After some time passes, and by the grace of God, eventually she may become a sharer of good things. No longer able or required to maintain the same level of productivity, she can simply spend her wisdom where she sees fit.
The above schema is one possibility among many that attempts to address the whole person, body, mind and soul, through time. There are other ways to think of how women in particular engage with the world at different times. If we desire to center the body and consider ways we orient ourselves to the world perhaps apart from chronology, the four categories could look like this: fearless body, hyperconscious body, ambivalent body, perplexing body. Similarly, when it comes to social perceptions of girls and women, we might consider the following through visual culture: untouchably innocent, commodifiable, given over (to others), untouchably discarded. What is missing, however, in all of this is a privileging of queer bodies. The way that I conceive of the phases is limited to my own conflicted experience of fitting and not fitting the normative mold. As a cisgender white woman, I confess that I need to read and learn more from the LGBTQ+ community, a lot more. While the goal here is to offer an alternative to church traditions and narratives of the “natural” woman, I recognize that it can—must, in fact—be expanded further, and sincerely hope that it will.