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.”