Infinite Circles: Celebrating Female Friendship in the Bible and Beyond

By Cara Curtis, a lifelong Quaker, a student at Harvard Divinity School, and a fan of noodles of all kinds. This piece is part of the ongoing series on badass biblical women.IMG_3146

When I think about the idea of “badass women of the Bible,” my mind immediately jumps to the several courageous and fierce ladies of scripture who pull off daring and deeply powerful acts. The Magnificat is a downright badass poem. Esther was clearly not one to be messed with. Ruth has a whole book commemorating her faith and story. I celebrate these women in all of their strength and power, as well as the many others like them whose acts of faith and bravery were not preserved for us in the canon. But you know that saying, “behind every successful man is a strong and wise woman”? In my experience, this is just as true of successful women–in fact, I’ve often found that it takes a whole community of women encouraging and supporting each other for acts of deep caring, bravery, justice, and truth telling to become possible. Simply put, badass women help each other be more badass!

So in this post, I’m focusing on the idea of female friendship as a radical act. I think the Bible gives us some hints about this, even if we have to imagine many of the details. (The brief and fragmented stories of biblical women often lend themselves to this kind of imagination. I’ve often found this both frustrating and freeing given the space for exploration provided by the many silences.) Of course, ideas about friendship, gender, work, and relationships are quite different now than they were in the ancient Mediterranean. But the hints that do bubble up in scripture I think can tell us something about our own lives as well as the kinship of women’s community that stretches far back into the past.

I like to imagine all the places in the Bible where friendship between women was probably flowering unseen. Which one of Exodus’s midwives (1:15-19) suggested to the others that they defy Pharaoh’s order to kill the Hebrew baby boys–and how had they built the trust within the group to go through with the plan together? What happened to this group of courageous women, what role did they play together, in the ultimate flight from Egypt?

On the other hand, the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) has always frustrated me: they are depicted in a moment of tension before Jesus correctively tells Martha that she should be focusing on faith, rather than logistical worries. This can be a deeply helpful metaphor for those of us who are easily consumed by daily stresses. But I’ve always wondered what Martha’s honest, realistic response might have been–the housework did, after all, need to get done! Moreover, as sisters who lived together, Mary and Martha likely had a rich and complex relationship of which we only hear a tiny snippet. How did they, through both faith and the dirty, practical work, help each other live boldly as early followers of Christ?

Finally, I find the image of the women at the foot of the cross to be powerful symbol of the support and courage that women give to each other in community. Across all four gospels, a group of women is said to mourn Jesus as he dies on the cross and to later gather in mourning at the tomb. I do not think it is a coincidence that the women are depicted as a group: as Sr. Joan Chittister writes in her book on biblically-inspired female friendships, “Women supported women at the foot of the cross then; women support women at the crossroads of life now.” Here, too, I wonder about the grief and pain, and then astonishment and amazement, that these gathered women would have shared–and how this sharing would have emboldened them to forge paths forward in the new movement.

I wonder all these things because over the years, women’s community has been essential to helping me take the risks that have helped me find my passion and power. In college, my friends and I on the women’s ultimate frisbee team found a space to celebrate the power of our bodies, our friendships, and our voices as leaders.  Off the field many of us met in a Women’s Group where we shared the joys and challenges of hurtling through emerging adulthood. As part of the Word and World [link?] mentoring program, I found a circle of badass women writers who held each other in accountability, love, and strength to write works that told of our histories, our encounters with God, our fears and hopes about movements for justice.

My oldest and dearest friend is named Auguste. Since we were 14, Auguste and I have been  She keenly edits my writing, makes fun of my slow uptakes, and soothes my idiosyncratic health worries at all hours. I try and tell her every way I can that she is smart and fierce and that I genuinely believe she is capable of anything (I really mean this! This is an AMAZING woman!).  Last summer at a gathering of women just before my wedding, Auguste gave me a soft and intricately knitted scarf that she had made. This “infinity” scarf, named because it is a circle of fabric rather than a long rectangle, was  “to remind you that circles of women are also forever.” As I joined my life with my (also totally awesome and badass) male partner, Auguste found a tangible way to express the love and support of the many women around me, who will keep pushing and loving me without end.  These circles certainly looked different for the midwives, the women at the cross, and Mary and Martha–they certainly were not texting each other photos of new babies or catching up on movies together across thousands of miles. But even from the small hints that the Bible gives us, I believe that the power of women’s communities to enable acts of love, justice, and bravery stretches far back in our history, too.

What about you? Which passages make you wonder about women’s community in the Bible? Whatever your gender, what acts of faith and courage in your own life have been made possible by circles of daring, nurturing women?

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