Each month, I focus on one of my Holy Woman Icons with a folk feminist twist, highlighting the often unsung stories of feminism’s heroines: Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, and many others who will be featured in the months to come. While some of these holy women may not be incredibly famous to the wider public, most of their names and stories are familiar to the readers of Feminism and Religion. They are goddesses, saints, artists, dancers, scholars, clergy, and pillars of the faith. We tell their stories in our classrooms. Their stories embolden us to stand tall, stay strong, and continue working for justice and equality. But what of the women whose songs really are unsung, whose stories never grace the pages of our textbooks? What about the women who have, indeed, emboldened us, paved the way for us to be who we are, but who our readers have never heard of? This month I would like to focus on one of these women. You’ve probably never heard her name, but I know her very well. It is her courage that has given me strength, her compassion that has taught me to love. Her name is Mary Harrell and she is my mother.
In her seminal work that highlights the importance of telling women’s stories, FAR’s own Carol Christ begins by saying:
Women’s stories have not been told. And without stories there is no articulation of experience. Without stories a woman is lost when she comes to make the important decisions of her life. She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain. Without stories she cannot understand herself. Without stories she is alienated from those experiences of self and world that have been called spiritual or religious. She is closed in silence. The expression of women’s spiritual quest is integrally related to the telling of women’s stories. If women’s stories are not told, the depth of women’s souls will not be known. (Carol Christ, Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980)
I would like to contend, like Christ, that the telling of women’s stories is important. This is why I paint my Holy Women Icons, canonizing their lives and beings with a brush stroke, deeming these myriad revolutionary women “holy” by virtue of painting them as icons. But it is not only these seemingly famous women—these heroines of feminism—who are holy and whose stories matter. It is also those unknown mothers, courageous sisters, daring daughters, and bold lovers who make our world a more just and holy place.
Before I ever painted Sophia or Lilith or Guanyin or any of the other classic holy women who have joined the great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, I first painted the two women who are most holy in my life: my partner and my mother. Drawing upon classic Christian iconography, but subverting it with a folk feminist twist, I painted my mom. She was the first Holy Woman Icon. She was later joined by these many pillars of feminist faith, along with other friends and colleagues who became commissioned icons upon the meaningful days in their lives: ordinations, graduations, new jobs, the birth of a child. It is my hope that my brushstrokes have canonized their stories, capturing the essence of their holiness in paint and canvas.
Though she has never taken center stage in life—always placing the needs of others before her own—I situated my mother in the center of the canvas, worth every bit of space she takes up in our great, big, beautiful world. She is surrounded by the night sky, specifically the stars she loves so dearly. Like all my Holy Women Icons, her heart is central, and she tells all of us the same thing she has told me my whole life:
Melodious notes burst out of her
Great, big heart, creating
Harmony in the place of discord…
And she danced…
And she loved others with
Her whole being…
And for this she is
My mom isn’t particularly “religious,” but she always instilled in me a spirit of harmony, compassion, and a deep respect for the spirit. She has more faith than I could dream of having. Because she wasn’t afforded the privilege of higher education, we will likely never read her wisdom in a book, or learn of her story in a classroom. She raised three wily children as a single mom, consistently created beauty out of chaos and disrepair, and she taught me more about wisdom than any textbook or degree ever could. We just returned from celebrating her 60th birthday in the biggest way possible. I had the great privilege of taking her to Europe for the first time. In so doing, the stories of holiness embedded in the Virgin Mary, flamenco dancers, and that sacred herb called lavender intertwined with our stories. And we are better for it. As we craned our necks back to look upward at Gaudi’s breathtaking La Sagrada Familia, I couldn’t help but glance over at my mom and think, “This is the holy family, right here. Mother Mary and her proud daughter: just two women trying to change the world.”
I believe Christ is right when she claims, “If women’s stories are not told, the depth of women’s souls will not be known.” I want the depths of my mother’s soul to be known, so I have chosen to iconize her story in paint and share it with you. I think we’ll all be better for it.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com