What Women Want

Reading Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting yesterday, I came across the story of Sir Gawain and the Loathely Lady. The authors’ retelling of the story shortens it and softens its rough medieval edges, focusing on the answer to its central question: what do all women really want?

If you have a few minutes, I suggest reading this translation of the story before coming back to this post. Spoilers follow this paragraph, and it’s a fun story to read before listening to further discussion of it. Especially this week, with Valentine’s Day coming up, I invite you to enjoy a romance that is decidedly of a different time and place! (Why do I suggest this particular translation? Because it appeared to be the most authentic translation of the original story that came up on the first page of Google results. Yes, thank you, I am such a scholar.)

In the story of Sir Gawain and the Loathely Lady (aka Dame Ragnell), we learn that what all women really want is sovereignty. When I read this story in Everyday Blessings, I thought for a minute that it couldn’t be an actual King Arthur story, spouting modern ideas like this one!

But reading the translation of the original, I see that “sovereignty” is treated more as “in charge of everything” than as “the right to rule oneself.” So that it may be more about the classic battle of the sexes, and the notion that in any relationship between two people, someone must always be in charge.

But, defining sovereignty as “the right to rule oneself,” I think this is a fitting answer to the question, and I might clarify further that women – just like men, just like politically-defined nations – want their sovereignty recognized, not bestowed (because it is no one else’s to bestow).

Or, as Mary Pipher writes in Reviving Ophelia (quoted in Everyday Blessings), though women all have different wants, each woman wants to be “the subject of her life and not [merely] the object of others’ lives.”


  1. I read this post, and then spent supper time racking my brains as to where I have encountered this story before. Then it hit me: Chaucer. The Wife of Bath (my favorite of the Canterbury Tales) tells a version of this story as her tale. For those who haven’t read Canterbury tales, each character has a prologue followed by a tale. The Wife of Bath is far more famous for her very lengthy and funny and insightful prologue, in which she defends her multiple marriages, her enjoyment of sex, her increasing wealth as result of each subsequent husband’s death, and her unorthodox views of Christ and St. Paul, namely that St. Paul was full of crap when he declared virginity and celibacy as the most exalted states of being. I’m not sure I would call The Wife of Bath feminist, but as you say in your post, it is interesting to realize that women have been reflecting on their place in the world for much longer than the 20th century! Canterbury Tales dates to (I think) the 14th century.

    Interesting a difference in Chaucer’s version of this story. In your version, Gawain is given the choice of his wife being beautiful either by day or night, and in The Wife of Bath’s tale, the choice is either always ugly but always faithful, or always beautiful but possibly unfaithful. But like your version, the knight gives the choice back to his wife, and is rewarded in kind. There are some other differences in the stories as well.

    Well, Julia, once again you make me cast about my cluttered mind!

    Duh. Just as I’m about to post this, I remember I am on the internet…here is a link to a translation of Wife of Bath at eChaucer, a good place for all things Chaucer:



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