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.”

Who’s Repressed?

Epiphany passed me by recently, dressed like a Somali woman. It occurred to me that with her cultural requirement to wear a head covering in public, she is free from stressing about hairstyles. And with her long and shapeless body covering, she is immune from fashion police and probably never wonders if she missed a spot when shaving her legs. For the first time I saw comfort and freedom in her clothing rather than only repression.

Growing up fundamentalist, my textile signs of repression included long skirts, culottes, and nylon stockings. To prove I was free from this bondage, I spent many of my early adult years wearing blue jeans or shorts just about everywhere. I avoided nylon stockings and knee-length skirts, sure that would be the same as wearing a sandwich sign entreating, “Blow me a kiss, I’m a fundamentalist.”

Then came the hippie feminist years, when makeup and shaving were the symbols of my captivity to The Man. To declare my independence, I dumped the mascara and left alone the leg hair, though I was still chained to the need for smooth armpits.

Somewhere along the way life normalized and my statements and declarations morphed into nothing more than habits, some of which I continued and some of which I changed, without attaching much of a larger meaning to them.

photo courtesy djcodrin, freedigitalphotos.net

It goes without saying, in my estimation, that women just about everywhere and throughout all time are repressed. My Somali neighbor must dress as she does to be accepted in her community. In mainstream western culture, where women have been liberated from stringent dress codes, they have been subjected to ever more ruthless standards of slender bodies, large breasts, firm smooth ageless skin, perfect hair, etc.

I’m not done thinking about it, speaking out against it, trying to pass on to my daughter – and my son – some sense of healthy female body image and gender equality. But I marvel regularly at the resilience of the human spirit that is alive and well in women everywhere, who play by the patriarchal rules, or don’t, but still manage to do what needs to be done, day in and day out, and add their own strength and spark to this shattered, shining world.