God Gave Women Wisdom. We Should Have Written It Down. | CBE International

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God Gave Women Wisdom. We Should Have Written It Down.

On March 07, 2019

When I recall the day my grandfather held open the door, inviting me into his treasure trove of genealogical information, I smell pickles. At our family gatherings, we’ve never lacked for a variety of briny vegetables—olives, pickles, and lupini beans, collected in an assortment of glass dishes and jammed alongside sticks of carrots and celery (which replaced the harder-to-access fresh fennel, present on special occasions). Growing up, I thought of this as the Sheild way, the way of my father’s family.

The spare bedroom at his home was crowded—boxes stacked haphazardly, papers poking out of drawers or piled high and tilting precariously. Despite the chaos, the clutter of the room, combined with the smell of pickled vegetables, was nothing but pleasant to me.

My family is very proud that so much Sheild family history is intact, in large part due to my grandfather’s genealogy hobby. For decades, he’s not only done traditional research, rooting through archives and historical documents before the internet even contained them, but he’s also traveled to two other continents to trace Sheild roots.

Because of all this, we know that our Sheild ancestors came to the colonies in 1641. “Sheild” marks a historical home in Yorktown, VA, as well as a street. Sheilds are buried with signers of the Declaration of Independence, pastored historic churches, fought teenage duels, battled in the Revolutionary War, and are celebrated for rescuing Yorktown records during the Civil War by stashing them in an ice house by the river.

In the piles of papers and recitation of family lore, Sheild stories stuffed and wedged and heaped and catalogued for the sake of posterity, it took me too long to realize what was missing. Not one story starred a female Sheild.

Here’s the thing about genealogy: In Western culture (as in much of the world), it’s inherently patriarchal. We can trace the names of our fathers easily, but the names of our mothers are a research drop-off point. It’s not the convention to follow the path of lost maiden names, claiming the stories of women whose surnames were not carried into marriage.

When my grandfather moved to assisted living, the family sifted through his many, many boxes. I missed the big sort, so there were only a few items buried in the unclaimed mildewed papers and rotted boxes which didn’t belong in the garbage, including a collection of glasses. The dishes were engraved with the letter “C” for Crissman, the maiden name of my grandfather’s mother, and apparently belonged to Grandpa’s “spinster” aunt. Though we’re more closely related to her than to Sheilds four hundred years past, no one claimed her glasses. No one drinks from them now.

Recently, I was working on a project to highlight the leadership of women in church history. I wanted to collect a few quotes to pair with portraits of women of faith. Though the church increasingly recognizes the historical contributions of women, it’s still difficult to find record of women’s words. We have entire libraries brimming with the whispers of white men and a seemingly unending string of google pages crammed with quotes from church fathers, but much of the wisdom of historical church women remains untapped. No one can drink from it now.

As I hunted and hunted for suitable quotes, I began to feel a great sense of loss for the millennia’s worth of words missing from both my family’s women and from the church’s women. How many insights scattered? How many encouragements buried? How much more of God, of ourselves, of others would we understand if we’d not been so careless with what women offered?

This year, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, I’m haunted by those missing voices. For as many stories as we tell of women who held on, resisted, pushed back, and persisted, there are countless others still absent.

The past few years, I’ve begun to track down the stories of my mothers, both in my family and in the church. I’m learning from women in the early church like Priscilla and Junia. I’m discovering Paula and Marcella, the desert mothers, the Beguines, and the more than one hundred white and African-American female preachers of the Second Great Awakening who traveled around the country preaching outdoors because they weren’t allowed to preach in churches.

But I’m also reaching into the imperfect and sometimes complicated stories of women in my own family, my ancestral mothers who traveled by covered wagon to carve a home out of the dirt, who ensured the survival of her fourteen children on the Trail of Tears, who was an expert weaver of cloth, who provided refuge from the violence of the American Revolution, who enlisted with the Red Cross in WW1 and who, when she was told “there are no more sailings for women,” marched up 5th Avenue with 300 other women to protest, and was then shipped to France to entertain the troops as a whistler. Ironically, much of what I know about these women is not due to liberation from oppression, but because of the US government’s desire to catalogue and, therefore, control the existence of Native Americans.

These women, these mothers of mine, do not share my last name; not my maiden name, not my current one. Like many women, I followed the convention of taking my husband’s name, in large part because I wanted a common one with my future children. Of course, if they follow suit, my children won’t share my last name after their own marriages. Their children might feel as disconnected from Sheild as I did from Crissman.

But I will teach them, perhaps over a tray of briny vegetables, to celebrate their mothers, those whose names they share or don’t, those whose words are forever lost or possibly never recorded. And as we nibble on olives, I will recount how I finally realized that what we are eating is antipasto. And that even though it has become the Sheild way, it was first the DiMaio way, the way of my grandmother Anna Maria who, after meeting a soldier named Bob at a wartime party in Naples, Italy, travelled across the ocean to share her table and her pickles with him in Minnesota.

We can never fully recover our mothers' lost voices, but by mourning them, we honor them, and renew our resolve to move forward a better way. I am reminded of Wisdom in Proverbs, portrayed as a woman who prepares her table and sends the women of her household to call from the hilltops, inviting all to come, eat and drink, and gain understanding. May we have ears to hear.

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