Whose Stories Do We Tell?

By Kaitlin Hasseler 3-31-2016
Do you know who she is?

In recognition of Women’s History Month, the co-ed church small group I co-lead was inspired to spend a few weeks discussing the ways our culture and the church have created divisions along gender lines, and exploring ways that our faith allows us a new framework.

We started by asking each person to share a favorite story featuring a woman in the Bible. The more obvious ones came up quickly: Mary, mother of Jesus, Esther, Ruth, the woman at the well, and the like. Some unexpected, but still familiar women in the Old Testament were named: Leah, Hannah, Deborah, and so on. But we also discussed lesser-known women like Priscilla, Junia, Lydia, Phoebe, and Dinah. There were still prominent women’s stories left untold, including Eve, Sarah, and Mary Magdalene.

Nearly everyone in the group mused over just how many stories of women there are in the Bible — not to mention what a variety of stories, roles, and personalities showcased among the examples shared.

It was a beautifully simple and poignant reminder of the power of telling our stories.

And it was a heart-aching reminder that too often the stories of women are overshadowed, undervalued, dismissed, forgotten, ignored, and simply overlooked. The stories exist — they are there — it took our group less than a half hour to recount 17 stories back to back. But the collective awe that we felt — the pat on the back we were giving ourselves — felt bittersweet. How often had we heard these stories preached from the pulpit? Or shared in Sunday school and small group? Growing up in a church that told these stories and explored the full richness and validity of all the ways women’s voices, actions, leadership, courage, humility, and faithfulness have shaped the gospel truths we hold dear was unfortunately the anomaly not the norm in our group of 17.

It reminded me of a comment made months ago by a colleague of mine that has stuck with me ever since. My colleague’s 7-year-old daughter was studying peacemakers in school and had inquired in a somewhat indignant manner to her mother the night before as to why there were so few women peacemakers in her curriculum. She knew that while Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela were indeed all noted peacemakers, that there also were missing stories.

I showed my colleague a postcard I have hanging in my office, with a handwritten label asking, “do you know who I am?” Quick pause here: Scroll up to the photo. Do you happen to know who she is?

During a transformative trip to the Netherlands and Scandinavia last summer, I stumbled across the story of this woman, whose legacy and influence has left an indelible mark in the peacemaking community and yet whose name results in mostly blank stares.

She is Bertha Von Suttner, an Austrian writer, peace activist, and close confidant of Alfred Nobel, a name somewhat better known. Bertha first met Alfred Nobel during a short-lived stint as his secretary in 1876. While her employment was abruptly disrupted soon after by her eloping with another man her family didn’t approve of, she maintained a friendship with Alfred until his death in 1896. During the time they corresponded, Suttner became a leading figure in the peace movement with the publication of her pacifist novel, Die Waffen nieder! ("Lay Down Your Arms!") in 1889. And in fact, she was the only woman to attend the opening of the famed 1899 Hague Peace Conference. It is believed that Bertha was a major influence in Alfred’s decision to include a peace prize among the five Nobel Prizes provided in his will. (It’s perhaps worth noting here that Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer, innovator, and armaments manufacturer, whose wealth was largely attributed to his inventing of dynamite, among other weapons). Bertha became the first female Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 1905 (also of note is that it’s believed Alfred intended Bertha to be the first recipient of the Peace Prize, though it took 5 years for the Nobel Committee to award her the prize). Fifteen more women have joined Bertha in this honor including Wangari Maathai, Mother Teresa, Aung San Suu Kyi, and most recently Malala Yousafzai.

As someone who considers herself decently well-versed in the spheres of peace-building and women’s leadership, it still took me 30 years to learn the name and story of Bertha Von Suttner. Yet without her, the Nobel Peace Prize would most likely not exist.

It’s another poignant reminder of the power of telling our stories. How many more stories like Bertha don’t I know?

The beauty of Women’s History Month is that we have an added incentive to tell the stories of women. It’s been a delight to see so many articles written, discussions facilitated, lists curated, and events hosted lauding the achievements of women. However, my prayer is that the story telling doesn’t end after today. Thirty-one days of stories is great. But the impact made by these women is felt every single day, 365 days of the year. May the stories we tell from the pulpit, in our classrooms, at the dinner table, and throughout our media channels reflect this.

Kaitlin Hasseler is Director of Major Gifts at Sojourners.

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