Some of these women are remembered in various traditions. One has a festival in her honor, and a bestselling novel and miniseries has been based on another’s experiences. But I didn’t know about any of this when I was growing up. I’d read and read the Bible, and come across a few lines or maybe a chapter or two featuring a woman I’d never heard of: Tamar, Dinah, Deborah, another Tamar, Philip’s daughters, Shallum’s daughters, Abigail, Lydia. For many of these women, they are only recorded at the worst moments of their lives, like when some man raped or murdered her, when a husband’s foolishness threatened to get everyone killed, when they struggled for the opportunity to use the skills their society and family ignored. There are plenty of women who made bad choices, too—Jezebel and Delilah come to mind—but there are far more women who responded well to their difficult, dangerous circumstances. And remember, so many men in the Bible made bad choices, too.
So as I grew up, I read and I studied, and what did I learn? That the best I can hope for is a footnote in history. Because I am female, if I am remembered at all, it will be for what happened in the worst moments of my life. If I’m lucky, I’ll live and get married. If I’m unlucky, I’ll die or be vilified for the rest of the ages. Which is crap. Crap options, crap ideas of both the best and worst case scenarios, crap societal views on women that led me to believe this. But I did believe it, even though my mother and many others, I’m sure, never wanted me to.
At some point, I got fed up with this idea that I can never accomplish enough to build a legacy that my child self would have craved to read. I wasn’t convinced that no women deserve or have earned significant places in history, but I was convinced that women wouldn’t be remembered in the same depth or breadth. So I started really searching.
I would come home from church and read a dozen or more chapters, often in the the Old Testament, in a day. And I read throughout the week, too. The more I read, the more interesting women I found. Outside the books of Esther and Ruth, very few accounts were comparable in depth or length to the accounts of men located nearby. But I found so, so many women. They all had lives as full as mine, and they had not been completely forgotten. Their stories, fears, hopes, loved ones are seldom and sparsely recorded, but of the details we have, these women sound so interesting. And they had roles to play: saving kings, hiding spies, guiding prophets, being prophets, bargaining with God, rebuilding walls. We don’t even have all their names, but they made lasting marks during a culture and time when women’s contributions were little-noted.
I found these women in the Bible, so surely history holds many more. I began with the women dismissed as beautiful (Nefertiti, Helen of Troy, Sisi of Austria, Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette) to examine what their lives might really have been like and what they may have valued. Then I looked for women who barely or never show up in lessons, like Hatshepsut, Jahanara, Empress Myeongseong, Elizabeth Marsh, Noor Inayat Khan, Ida B. Wells, Anne Bradstreet, Genghis Khan’s daughters, Keumalahayati, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Fatima Al-Fihri. As a preteen, my mother bought me literally every book in the Royal Diaries series (like the more popular My America series, both of which consisted of fictionalized diaries of women living throughout history). Today, I follow the #BygoneBadassBroads hashtag. And every day I fight to make my life more than a footnote, and where I can’t (which is most places), I try to elevate other women out of the footnotes.
Honestly, the vast majority of people, both women and men, are known only to their families and friends before they pass away. They are only remembered so long as those who knew them live. But it is incredibly more like that men’s work and contributions will be remembered and celebrated than women’s. It is infinitely more so for white people than…literally anyone else. That’s part of my concern in helping to elevate other women. There are some stages on which I just don’t need to stand because I’m white and we white folk are pretty crappy human beings by and large. I don’t want to add to that and I don’t want to take up space that would otherwise go to a person of color, particularly a woman of color. People of color have been central players in history and their stories should be remembered and honored in far more than footnotes. As do women’s stories. Thank you to all those who listen and search and elevate.
P.S. I’m always on the lookout for more interesting women in history and the Bible!