When you meet Karen Swallow Prior, you are immediately taken with not only her brilliant mind, but her thoughtful, listening engagement. She is an author, a Professor of English at Liberty University and an award-winning teacher. She is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.com and for Christianity Today, where she blogs frequently at Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Relevant, Think Christian, and Salvo. She is a Research Fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, a member of INK: A Creative Collective, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She and her husband live on a 100-year old homestead in central Virginia with sundry horses, dogs, and chickens. And lots of books. I’m humbled and ecstatic…for it’s a grace to welcome the wonderful words of Karen Swallow Prior to the farm’s front porch today…
“W rite about being a woman,” she said.
So I will.
It means something, this being a woman.
It is something bodily, yet beyond biology.
There is something of earth in it, and something heavenly, too.
It is something that can be understood, yet is not easily captured in words.
It brings forth a sense of sisterhood among the women I’ve met in places across the world, from Malawi to Morocco, from Guatemala to Ireland, from Puerto Rico to England, from Tennessee to Chicago.
And among the women I’ve never met, too, except through their words: Teresa, Flannery, Edith, Emily, Charlotte, Jane, Hannah, Julian, and so many more.
It means something that transcends age, time, place, race, class, and creed.
Yet, there are as many ways to be a woman as there are women.
When I think about being a woman, I think most about the women I come from.
I think about my grandmother, my mother’s mother, strong, stoic, and brusque, with an edge about her, both familiar and strange. She was never like other people’s grandmothers.
She was not a cookie-baking, cheek-pinching, ooh-aahing Grandma. She showed more affection for her goats, chickens, and hothouse flowers than she did to her children and grandchildren. But though she didn’t stoop to enter our world, we were always welcome to join her in hers.
My grandmother resented her whole life the fact she wasn’t born a man. This is something I could but couldn’t understand.
Born in rural Maine in 1914, my grandmother, like all women did (and do), faced many obstacles.
Yet, a rough-and-tumble woman, she seemed able to do just about everything a man could.
She competed in math against the boys in school.
She accompanied my grandfather on the piano while he played trombone in a dance hall band.
She helped him tend their 140 acres, planting, weeding, haying, reaping, feeding, milking, and selling what they produced from that land.
She stood with him waist deep in cold northern streams, fly fishing for the trout they’d fry up in an iron skillet in butter she’d churned herself in a big wooden barrel.
She birthed their two girls at home, the younger in the one room cabin she’d helped my grandfather build by hand.
She went to a Methodist church where she sat under a woman preacher.
She was stubborn, scrappy, opinionated, intense, and independent to a fault.
Anchored to a wheelchair these days, she is a bit less so. But not much.
There are women who are elegant, sophisticated, and refined. This is not what I think of when I think of being a woman. These are not the kind of women I come from.
I think about my mother, soft and shy.
My mother who loves little children and has taught them in Sunday School most of her life.
My mother for whom my father is the center of her universe, the sun to her moon.
She has made and served my father three meals a day nearly every single day of more than 50 years of marriage. She has loved (nearly) every minute of it.
She is never happier than when she is with my dad. It doesn’t matter what they are doing. Except for their love of gardens, animals, and church, my mother and her mother are not much alike.
I never saw my grandmother and grandfather display affection toward each another (save the kind of affection I suppose there is in an ongoing mutual competition). But I have watched my mother and father kiss one another good morning, good-bye, and hello each and every day.
My mom loves being a woman. Mostly, I think, because she loves being the wife of my father. I know that next to God, I owe to my parents and their example the goodness of my own marriage, different as it is from theirs.
I am somewhere in between these two, bearing the image and likeness of both of them whose bearing brought me into the world. An average yield of two generations (or more) of women.
We are three women who could not be more different from one another—and yet we share so much of each other.
I am who I am because of these women.
My grandmother’s gift to me was her toughness. My mother’s, her gentleness.
“Write about being a woman,” she said.
So I did.
In writing, we call this a prompt: the provision of a topic and directions for a writer to follow in a given assignment. Following the set rules allows creativity to flourish in ways it never would or could with no restraints or limits. It’s the paradox of the prompt.
“Write about love,” the muse whispered.
So Shakespeare did. Over and over, he explored the same theme, following the same rigid rules: 14 lines, iambic pentameter, set rhyme scheme. Those tight restraints unleashed the Bard’s mighty power, such as the world has never seen, prompting him to write lines like these:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove …
My love is strengthened, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear;
That love is merchandized, whose rich esteeming,
The owner’s tongue doth publish every where.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
One can fight against the rules of the prompt. One can also just follow them limply along. Or one can press into the limits until truth, goodness, and beauty are squeezed out and burst into the world.
“Be a woman,” God said, as He knit me together in my mother’s womb.
“Be a woman neither sweet nor hard. Be short like your mother and your grandmother, tending a little toward stout.
Have thick, lumpy hair, neither curly nor straight. Be left-handed. Love logic and words but be tone-deaf.
Be a woman who sees and speaks but who needs more patience, delicacy, and reserve.
Be a woman born here in this place, not that one, at this time, not another. Be born from these people and among those.”
And even before He had made me, He called me to Himself.
This was my prompt.
I press into it in hopes I will,
by the grace of God, flourish.
Karen Swallow Prior’s book Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More was named by Christianity Today & Desiring God as one of the best books of 2014. A most powerful, compelling read…one to frame and inspire.
From the heart of Hannah More: “Bible Christianity is what I love … a Christianity practical and pure, which teaches holiness, humility, repentance and faith in Christ; and which after summing up all the Evangelical graces, declares that the greatest of these is charity [love].”
“For Hannah, life was a feast, and the space at her table was abundant.” On William Wilberforce, Hannah’s friend and partner in the push to abolish slavery: “I really look up to God with a renewed thankfulness; I say renewed, for His having by his good providence drawn me to the Abolition business has alway appeared to me to call for the most lively gratitude.”
Karen Swallow Prior is one of the sharpest writers I have ever read. I cannot recommend Fierce Convictions highly enough.