Bodies that menstruate, birth, nurse. Bodies that grieve and sacrifice. Bodies that are infertile. Bodies that are taken advantage of and mistreated. Bodies fighting for survival. Bodies that are broken and sacred. Women’s bodies.
My favorite part of Katey Zeh’s book Women Rise Up is that she highlights, over and over again, a piece of the Christian faith that is too often minimized or overlooked: its relationship to the human body. There is indeed irony there, for a people who place so much weight on the importance of God taking on a human, mortal form as the ultimate symbol of love and liberation. And yet, there remains in our present context a discomfort with bodies. With “ambiguous” bodies, with vulnerable bodies, with differently-abled bodies, with sensual, sexual bodies and, yes, with women’s bodies.
I began Zeh’s book reluctant to return to biblical analysis at all. Since I graduated from divinity school, the deepening of my own faith and spirituality has not focused on reading scripture or those who study it. But, I love the RCWMS, so I tried to lean in to the challenge. Gradually, I became less resistant and opened up to the possibility that engaging with these biblical stories may prove illuminating somehow. Sure enough, by the time I got to chapter 2, when Zeh implicates our broken maternal healthcare system in the story of Rachel’s death after giving birth to Benjamin, I was underlining and starring sections with increasing frequency and ferocity. Her comparison of present-day patriarchal norms with the confined spaces that women like Ruth, Hannah, and Mary Magdalene inhabited summoned my own experiences and got me a little riled up.
As I have alluded, I identify as a woman, and was socialized as one. My white privilege has offered opportunity throughout my life, and I have also been vulnerable to the pervasive cultural definition of, focus of, and expectations of, inhabiting a “female” body. Zeh identifies many of the messages that women throughout history have received, resisted, and been formed by. She illuminates the ways in which biblical women step into vulnerability by showing up as embodied beings: the hemorrhaging woman entering a public space despite stigma that she is unclean; Hannah mourning her infertility before God (I love when Zeh wonders, “What if, instead of feeling apologetic for our tears, we claimed them as sacred?” (91)); and the story of the unnamed “sinful” woman in the Gospel of Luke who anoints Jesus’ feet with oil in a moment of intimacy. There is profound wisdom, resilience, and presence in these stories of women – and they are so often glossed over by stories of men in power.
When I was a divinity student at Duke, I felt almost too embodied. I discovered I was pregnant the week before my very first semester. I was nauseous and fatigued, and the smell of the Refectory’s entrees eventually became unbearable. As I became progressively rounder, I learned to lean into the discomfort not only of acid reflux but also of the reality that pregnancy was not normal there. It was awkward to be pregnant: silkier hair, accentuated curves, and an external validation that “yes, I’ve had sex.” Few people knew how to interact with me. One person, whose name I never knew, asked me if I’d done this on purpose. Others seemed to avoid me altogether. My professors were obviously uncomfortable navigating the reality of a “due date:” No, I was not able to know exactly when the baby would arrive, and therefore would not know whether I’d be able to be present for the final exam. This ambiguity was impossibly difficult for one professor in particular to wrap his brain around and make accommodations for.
Whenever possible, I hid in the Women’s Center, a small windowless room rumored to be an old closet that I assume someone begrudgingly handed over once women were able to “prove” there was a need. It had a couch, lamps, and tea. I spent afternoons horizontal or else moving through cat/cow poses on the rug, actively fighting to retain my intuition – my lived, embodied experience; to return to my breath and the two beating hearts inside my body. This space away from the glorification of memorization, headiness, and exegesis was my refuge.
In Women Rise Up, Katey Zeh illustrates that for biblical women, embodiment was not necessarily understood as an individual experience. Indeed, the stories that she highlights reflect women crying, birthing, dying, and bleeding. But none of them are outside of a more robust definition of embodiment as a collective process; a collective responsibility. Call it the Body of Christ (a notion mentioned but rarely put into practice), if you’d like, or collective liberation, or just plain community. We are connected.
In Women Rise Up there is a notion of embodiment as familial, collective, and transgenerational. As she unpacks the story of Ruth and Naomi, Zeh describes not only their hopeless future as widows, but also their inherent dependency on each other. She writes, “Ruth and Naomi are forced to live in the tension of simultaneously resisting and complying with the cultural and social customs of their times. They resist by banding together, but in the end they must depend on a wealthy man- and they use Ruth’s body to secure that protection… In no way does this diminish the strength of their commitment to one another, but it does remind us that individual people cannot singlehandedly dismantle the institution of patriarchy, especially when they depend on it for their subsistence” (109). Ruth is required to make difficult choices once she has become a widow, but her survival is inextricably connected to her bond with Naomi. Moreover, the stories of the Exodus midwives and mothers – Puah, Shiprah, and Moses’ mother, reflect not only the deeply personal grief that mothers endured during that time, but also the acts of resistance that the women stepped into in order to save a generation of Hebrew boys (71). There is a simultaneous honoring of the lived experience of self and the experience of a people.
And when I think about it, that’s what the Women’s Center was for me. It went beyond being a space safe for my body’s processes and changes and presence (and, eventually, a space for my baby). It was also a collective space, rooted in relationship and resistance. Women gathered there to claim space for their bodies, find their voices, and brainstorm how to rise up.