In Praise of Women

For the life of me, I cannot stomach watching shows like The Real Housewives of Some North-American City.

I find them odious and glorifying the worst in human relationships. Jealousy, envy, pride, and gluttony all mashed together in artificially constructed female fraternity. Please pass the trashcan. Other shows do marginally better in depicting “real” women’s lives. But if I pay attention, I do not often find stories of strong female characters relating well to other strong female characters.

I am also hard-pressed to find examples of female friendships in the bible that is not somehow connected by a father, husband, or son. There is no story equivalent to David and Jonathon, Elijah and Elisha, or Job and friends (I didn’t say they had to be good friendships). The closest would be Naomi and Ruth, the mother and daughter-in-law caught in a tragic loss. Their story tells of a friendship forged out of hardship. Yet their healing and restoration came through the actions of a godly man, Boaz, whom Ruth marries. I can’t think of a biblical story of two women, independent of husband(s) or son(s), who are friends. Can you?

From an early age I had developed close female friends, a fortunate thing especially when I had no sisters. I think my mother intentionally had me spend time with other girls so I would not feel isolated. I have always sought female friends because I knew I needed them. There is a particular group of girlfriends who are like sisters to me because they have known me for so long. But I have lost several female friends along the way as well. Some moved away, some grew distant, and some simply rejected my friendship.

It is a curious dynamic when women do not get along with each other. Sometimes it is out of personality clashes and difference in values. Other times, in my observation, it is out of insecurity and an unconscious tendency to compete with one another, whether it is for male attention, for success in careers, or for success in motherhood. We judge each other’s clothing or method of housekeeping. We compare and find that we are either satisfied with our own level of competency, or become dissatisfied…. and the race continues.

Why this sense of competition? Why can we not mutually admire and praise each other? Why can we not celebrate the goodness and uniqueness of the other? And if we are rooted in the love of Christ, should we not help each other to succeed instead of striving for ourselves?

Women are capable of incredible friendships and I lament that the stories we share from the bible often depict women at odds with other women. However, this is not surprising given the patriarchal setting of the ancient world. What is remarkable is the eventual rise of monastic communities of women bound by a shared devotion to Christ. In these communities, women worked together, taught each other, and were educated. They were also freed from unwanted marriages and family constraints. I have no doubt that every community, religious or non, had its share of conflicts and problems, but it is not often that we pay attention to healthy kinship between women.

Perhaps then I should express my admiration of women more openly. Like the friend who has fought cancer and survived. Or the friend who manages a household under financial constraints and the stress of raising young children. Or the friend who overcame trauma and illness. Or the friend who was vulnerable and asked for prayer. Or the many friends who have shown sisterly love to me. Simply put, in every situation of life, I have been blessed by remarkable women because of who they are and their friendship to me.

Upon further reflection, there is the story of Mary and Elizabeth. Young, pregnant Mary goes to visit her much older, pregnant cousin Elizabeth. It is an occasion of joy, of shared delight of what God was doing in their lives (by bearing a son). There is no bickering or comparison, but affirmation between these two women. They were drawn together by common life-circumstances, and maybe that is enough.

But silent are the stories of women who share life together beyond the realm of marriage and motherhood; these need to be told and remembered because they are still a part of the larger Story. They are our stories. If God is in the business of forming a people for Himself, then our character and ethics matter. How we treat each other matters because it is only in relation to the other that we can be kind, loving, gracious, and forgiving. The real reality, the Kingdom of God, resides in relationships, not least of these between women.

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

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