This month is National Women’s History Month, and while it is important to share stories of transformational women, this month is also a time where we think about how we tell the broader stories of humanity. In my studies at Candler and my experience as a woman I am realizing more and more that history is not merely a recitation of facts but an arranging of those facts in a particular order. Writing history also means choosing some facts over others, ignoring facts that don’t make the story sound exceptional and judging which facts of history are most consequential.
There are many amazing women who have brought this predicament of history-telling to our attention: Elizabeth Cady-Stanton, bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Wendy Farley (to name some favorites of mine). There are scholars who are retelling women’s histories that have been painfully obscured and mutilated by men, such as that of Sarah Baartman. There are writers who are telling new histories, giving a voice to the women who screamed, laughed, shouted and sang and yet no one wrote it down. The spirits of these women come to us through the work of writers like Toni Morrison.
There is still much work to be done to reconstitute half the world’s history, the history of women. Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed at the U.N. Fourth World Conference in China in 1995 “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” In the same way, women’s history is human history and human history is women’s history. How do we continue to tell the history of humanity and yet still deny this simple fact? One example surfaced in chapel last week when the preacher referenced the famous evolutionary mantra “survival of the fittest.” This little phrase contains an entire history of human existence—a history of competition, autonomy, self-interest and an illusion of fit-ness—a history told by certain men in certain circumstances.
To tell the history of humanity as one of competition, scarcity, autonomy, fear or an abstract notion of being “fit” is no explanation for the life-giving interdependence of a nursing mother and her baby. Survival of the fittest is not the history of immigrants who coordinate the care of each other’s children so that they can take English classes and learn to support their refugee community. Survival of the fittest is not the history of my friends in a same-sex partnership where they daily sacrifice the world’s cookie-cutter “fittest” ideals to flourish in a relationship of love and creativity. Survival of the fittest is far from the story of Jesus whose place in history marks a unifying baptism and a common table where mutuality, welcome and love are offered as the defining story of all the children of God, men and women.
Theologian Sarah Coakley is currently working with scientists to examine the implications of cooperation and sacrifice in the history of human survival. In a Gifford lecture she comments on the “great secret that men rarely discuss…sacrifice is being done all the time physiologically in the tiring and painful human business of pregnancy, birth-giving and lactation.” (See article: “What’s God Got to Do With Evolution?” in Times Higher Education.)
Through the work of women like Sarah Coakley, we can now offer new narratives of history during National Women’s History Month. How we tell the story of humanity this month includes the values that women have always relied on in order to survive and flourish in this world: cooperation, care, sacrifice, interdependence and mutuality. May our history become a full reckoning with humanity’s life in this world.
Jenelle is a second-year in Candler’s MTS program and a student ambassador. She graduated in 2006 with a degree in English from Whitworth University in Spokane, WA.