Thursday, July 16, 2009

part 6: excellent women

Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym, was on the syllabus of my Brit novel course at Harding. As a student, I loved it for the wonderful voice of Mildred, protagonist and narrator, whose sotto voce commentary on every situation provides the irony upon which the book turns. For Mildred never actually says those things. She too is a PK, well-versed in the necessity of conforming to expectations.

The "excellent women," to whom the title refers, are the backbone of Mildred's little Anglican church: the women who polish the brass and organize the rummage sales and make endless cups of tea for all occasions. I must admit that the book improves upon a deeper and more personal acquaintance with the Anglican tradition (the inside jokes about Cardinal Newman are now hilarious to me), but the excellent women themselves seem to transcend denominational specificity. Excellent women are to be found in all churches: silent, hardworking, dependable , and underappreciated. Easily ignored, and easily maligned.

As an ACU student attending Highland, I found myself one Sunday in a small group discussion on the role of women, an adult bible study which was part of the larger process of Highland's study on the topic. In this intimate setting I remember being astonished to realize, at the end of the discussion, the woman sitting across from me in our informal circle was openly weeping. How, I thought, how could this liberating possibility that she might use her voice, act in ways she never could before in her church, how could this cause grief? And then she spoke, haltingly, about how she had, her whole life, conformed to the roles she had been taught were biblical and godly for women; how this shift in perspective brought not a sense of freedom, but condemnation, on the submission of her whole life. That weeping, excellent woman.

Like JW, I too am one of the blessed ones. I come from a long line of excellent women. I know their names, their contributions. Very few others do. They are the excellent women, the backbone of our churches: silent, hardworking, dependable, underappreciated. Unrecognized.

Perhaps I wish that they had not been quite so excellent, that instead they had been a little more discontent, a little quicker to express themselves, a little louder, a little more out-of-order. Shall I malign them, because they chose differently than I wish to? These women, who have, in their excellence, made it possible for me to see and to value women's work, women's wisdom, women's voices. Made it possible for me to see that the excellence with which they fulfilled expectations were the very ways they exceeded and challenged expectations. Made it possible for me to see that everyone should value them, the excellent, and the not-so-excellent, women of our churches.

My mother, who taught me that Jesus told us to be salt, not sugar.

My grandmother, for whom I am named, who not only learned Chinese but taught herself biblical Hebrew (to the enduring astonishment of a certain Harding professor who, years later during roll call for freshman OT survey, would greet me with delight as her granddaughter, and regale my whole class with the story of how this crazy woman, some missionary's wife, walked into his office and floored him with a flawlessly read and translated random passage from the Tanakh for her final exam--the only reason I even know this story).

My great-grandmother, who raised a son whose faithfulness would mean a lifetime in the mission field, and who wrote a whole book of her own hymns, and painted biblical scenes of Christ and his disciples.

I come from a long line of excellent women.


pat said...

I'm proud to see the line continues.

Carolyn said...

Oh, how I love this post. And the woman's tears following the "liberating possibility" of increased participation -- makes me want to weep for my mother, and grandmothers, and great-grandmothers as well.

Also, your mom's quote about "salt, not sugar" is fantastic!

TKP said...

I love the story about your grandmother at Harding. What an example and inspiration. Love it.

JTB said...

Ma, you're getting all softie nowadays!