“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that.
You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied.
You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember! ….
You say there are no words to describe it;
You say it does not exist.
But remember. Make an effort to remember.
Or, failing that, invent.”
From Les Guerilleres, by Monique Wittig, mid-20th Century French feminist writer
The first time I heard this quote from Wittig was in the mid-1990s when I took ‘Cakes for the Queen of Heaven,’ an introduction to feminist thealogy and the Great Goddess, created by the Women & Religion committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Cakes was my introduction to Carol Christ, feminist thealogy, and the Goddess. It changed my life forever. I’ve been teaching this program for close to twenty years now and as my understanding of women’s history and the role of patriarchy in our suppression has deepened, I continue to find new resonances with Wittig’s words.
“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that.” This statement is relevant to all oppressed peoples and especially to women. History tells us that enslavement was a part of European culture long before Africans were kidnapped into slavery on this continent. Enslavement of the defeated was a common aspect of war, dating back to Biblical times. Many aspects of the feudal system dominant in western Europe for centuries were little better than slavery.
We know from the historical record that some of the earliest laws passed in the ancient Mesopotamian city-states defined what women could and could not do, stripping sovereignty from their hands and placing it into the hands of related men. “There was a time when you were not a slave” but that time is buried so deeply that it is indeed hard to remember a time when women were not subject to the whims and authority of men.
“You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied.” Can you remember a time when you walked alone, and were not full of fear? Can you remember a time when adventures into unknown areas or darkness were not fraught with danger? Perhaps those who dwell in the countryside are able to do that, but during the years I lived in a city, I walked alone with a constant awareness of where I was, who was around me, and what protective measures I could take if necessary. My adult daughter, an experienced hiker and camper, recently complained that since her divorce she has no one to go camping with and is afraid to camp alone.
Sadly, most assaults against women come from intimate partner violence (IPV). According to the NCADV (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence), a woman is at greatest risk of violent and/or sexual assault in her own home, at the hands of her partner. Thus for many women, bathing ‘bare-bellied’ even when at home is not safe.
“You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember! …. You say there are no words to describe it; you say it does not exist.” Of course we’ve lost all recollection of it, try as we may to remember. There are no words to describe it because women have been written out of the historical and mythological record, in intentional actions by male leaders. Older Greek myths were modified to remove power from the Goddesses and accrue it into the hands of the Gods, reflecting in mythology the cultural shifts that were already taking place in the physical world. Women were written out of the mythological record of the Christian Bible as well. The Bible was compiled during the first four centuries of the Common Era. Books were selected and adapted to affirm the narrative created by the church fathers and women had no role in their vision.
We have been taught to think of Homer as the world’s first great poet—he wrote about the exploits of gods and heroes. But few people have ever heard of Enheduanna, a priestess of Inanna who wrote around 2400 BCE, almost two thousand years before Homer. Enheduanna wrote hymns of praise to her Goddess—words that were used to unite her people around that worship. Yet, even in those distant days, the Goddess was taking on some of the more fearsome attributes of the god.
Not only have women been written out of the historical record, in Greek and Roman mythology, we have often been defined as monstrous. In a fascinating book titled Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology, author Jess Zimmerman observes that female monsters are “the bedtime stories patriarchy tells itself.” Female monsters, such as Scylla and Charybdis, Medusa, and the Sphinx often display qualities that are seen as heroic when displayed by men, such voracious appetites, great strength, seductive beauty, and secret knowledge. But they represent things men most fear about women and thus when women display these traits they are monstrous.
“But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.” Despite great efforts, I find I cannot remember. So I am grateful to live in a time when archaeological research and the increasing number of smart women seeking to change the narrative are providing ample fodder for the last of Wittig’s statements— “failing that, invent.” Zimmerman suggests that women might reexamine some of the historical monsters, uncovering the strengths they represented and claiming those strengths for ourselves.
Or failing that, Invent! This is my very most favorite part of Wittig’s statement. Invent! That’s an explicit invitation to create—to take all the most magical, mystical, and creative parts of myself and use them to develop a personal narrative that heals and feeds my soul. An invitation to reject the cultural lies that patriarchy keeps whispering in my ear and replace them with stories I create with my community—stories that speak of our strength and power as women, our visions of the world we want to co-create, and the love and compassion we want to share with all beings.
5 thoughts on “Remember! by Mary Gelfand”
I think remembering makes it infinitely more painful – and as attached as I am to nature – this was what brought me to eco-feminism – a word not even used anymore – we are THAT disconnected from nature even as women – well this remembering is death destroying…I am starting to get it why people just turn away – I wish I could too.
Thank you. I love this, Mary! and am reposting and linking on the divine feminine app. And yes to inventing! I do not recall but have done so much work in inventing that person and then stepping in to Her. It is time. <3 Deep well wishes, Caryn
What a wonderful post! I remember so clearly reading about the ancient Irish Brehon laws and feeling shock at the realization that those laws came from a society where at least women of property, if not all women, had more rights than I did when I was born in the late 1950s. And then going back and realizing how many ancient cultures had powerful spheres of influence for women that our own does not. It is so easy to forget that this five millennial period of the loss of women’s most basic rights is an instant in the history of humanity, an aberration and not an inevitable given and definitely not the “way it has always been and so much always be.” I think of my mother and grandmothers, and great-grandmothers, and how each of them went beyond what was socially acceptable for her time to live life as she chose to the extent that she could, and I wonder if there isn’t a remembrance that has come down to us through the generations, a small voice from mother to daughter saying “you can do more than society says you can, just go ahead,” whether by words or example. We may not remember the times that bold attitude came from, but I think may there are remembrances still that have come down to us by the “oral tradition” of women encouraging their daughters and each other to re-find some of that freedom.
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Thank you for bring this back into our consciousness. It’s one of my favorite quotes I often use to close my podcast. It’s taking a long time as big change often does, but I think more and more women are shifting and if they can’t remember, they are inventing!
A friend was telling me younger women, below the age of 40, are rethinking what a family looks like. If they are hetero and haven’t found a worthy man, they’re entering into platonic relationships with a trusted woman friend, buying houses, having kids. They may date, but their men friends know their priority is to their kids, partner and household. Maybe as more women realize they can make it without an abuser’s paycheck, fewer and fewer of these men will get female partners – or at least not partners who have self worth.
My son and I used to watch a wonderful animated film about a horse called “Spirit.” It featured the song, “Remember who you are.” This has echoed through life for both of us. I thank Marija Gimbutas and all the others who turned archeology upside down, letting us all know “who we are.”
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