A friend of mine showed up for history class as an adolescent, and her teacher said,
“You aren’t going to hear about any women in this class because women didn’t do anything important.”
I have a similar experience, and I would like to use my specific example to highlight the benefits of re-membering dis-membered stories of women.
Just a few years ago, I was sitting in a history class, and the teacher mentioned one of the Episcopal Church’s origin stories. This is how he told the story:
“King Henry VIII killed most of his wives in pursuit of a male heir.”
I raised my hand and said, “When you tell the story that way, you leave out many women and children.”
He said, “I tell it that way because that is what happened.”
(Please try not to feel upset towards the teacher. Everyone functions according to their system, and he was doing the best he could in his system. And, that story has been told that way for a long time. Regardless, you might feel some anger, which can be motivating. If that is the case, I suggest using your anger to motivate you to do something about this issue, because you are part of the system too. Point your finger at yourself and say, “What can I do?” I will talk about that more in a moment.)
The way we tell stories is important. There are many ways to tell “what happened” in the past, and it changes how we think in the present. When you tell the story about Henry VIII in that way, you tell an incomplete story, leaving out many important women and children, including his surviving children: Edward VI (who was king until his death at age 15), Queen Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), and Queen Elizabeth I, who was perhaps one of the greatest monarchs in England. You also emit at least eight other children through miscarriage, stillbirth, and early childhood death. Children have been left out of history because of their association with women. When I think about Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon (an amazing woman with her own unique story) and the six children they lost (Mary was the only survivor), I look with more compassion on the whole situation. Not only did they desire children, but there was the added political pressure to produce a male heir which could have stabilized the region.
When we tell the associated story of Henry VIII without the stories of women and children, it tells us that women and children weren’t important then, and it teaches us to disregard them now also, in the present. The men also lose favor. When Henry VIII’s story is told that way, it makes him look like a murdering psychopath. Telling the story in a more balanced way including men, women and children is humanizing to all. Women and children become important, and we can look with more compassion on all of them. It must have been heartbreaking for Catherine and Henry to see six of their seven children die. When we can look with compassion on men and women from history, then we can look with compassion on all of us in the present, too. Our perspective changes our thinking, and that is why I am writing this article.
When we tell the story in that way, the words “miscarriages” and “stillbirths” were left out of the original story also. Miscarriages and stillbirths happen frequently in the present, and we still don’t talk about them. If we can learn to talk about them from the past, then it will give us permission to talk about them in the present. It is hurting us to hide those stories, to shove them under the rug. Those dis-membered stories are about suffering, grief, and sometimes even resilience. Those stories teach us how to grieve and how to be resilient in the present in the face of difficulty. If we can look with some compassion towards Catherine and Henry and their lost children, we will learn to look with compassion upon ourselves, our relationships, and our own losses.
When we tell the story in that way, generalizations and exaggerations become acceptable also. He did not kill “most” of his wives. Two of Henry’s six wives were beheaded. One died of complications from childbirth. Two had the marriage annulled (including Catherine of Aragon), and one was his widow. Truthfully, Henry provided some of his wives with positions of honor and ongoing royal monetary support. Generalizations hurt history, and they hurt all of us in the present. Life cannot be so simplified, and the complexity of life makes room for compassion.
The story of King Henry VIII and his wives had an even more complicated overlay, the desire of political figureheads to change the church for the salvation of humanity. Both the Catholics and the Protestants thought they were battling for the salvation of souls, so Henry’s influencers sought to give him a Catholic or Protestant queen according to their beliefs. It’s ok to tell complicated stories. It helps us to understand that our own lives have many influences and perspectives, too. That can help us have compassion with ourselves and each other.
Origin stories are important. They set patterns for the functioning of an organization. If we tell the story of King Henry VIII in that way, it portrays a church with origins in tyranny. As an Episcopal church (a church with bishops), the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States has struggled with issues of authority. Sometimes we have treated leaders like tyrannical kings, and maybe they have acted as such. Is this a surprise with that story as one of our origins? I wonder what would happen to the struggles with authority if we changed this origin story. Can we see leaders as human partners with their own stories? Can we have more compassion for them? Could it be they are faithfully struggling to do the best they can? Maybe leaders of the past did the best they could, and maybe they are doing the best they can in the present, too. (As are we all.)
Women and children have been dismembered from history. We are all to blame because we are all part of an interconnected system. Instead of playing the blame game, let’s take responsibility and do something.
What can you do? Look and listen for the stories of women and children. When they are hidden, seek them out. Tell them. Here are some areas I have identified that could use some illumination:
- History books.
- Sermons and abbreviated Bible stories (put the women back in, please).
- Our knowledge of the Bible in general (we have dis-membered stories of women and Sophia, personified holy wisdom, there too).
- Classic Western fairy tales (they have women, but the women are not strong). I have written a fairy tale to contribute to this genre.
People now are working to tell the stories of women. I would like to call this a “trend.” The Very Rev. Dr. Cynthia Kittredge noted her disappointment as I sat in her class in 2014 on Women in Early Christianity. She began teaching the class over 25 years ago, and had hoped she would not be teaching it so many years later, that women’s stories would have been re-membered by now. But, I am excited. She is still alive, and it seems to be happening in her lifetime.
Sister Joan Chittister encourages the elevation of women’s rights because she says that in denying the needs of half the human race, it’s like the human system is thinking with half our brain. So, what does she say to do? She says, “Do something.” And, I think that telling stories is something we can all do. Also, I think we have come pretty far thinking with half a brain. Just think of what we can do with a whole one. The future looks bright as the stories of women are given full membership in the human race.
(Photo: Catherine of Aragon from the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry KT, public domain.)