From the moment we humans first developed speech, stories have been told about courage. It is seen as a manly virtue, essential for a warrior, a hunter, an adventurer, a king. The world’s primary cultural narratives celebrate this attribute and its manifestation, as legendary men are challenged with the most daunting of circumstances and manage, through their personal courage, to prevail and triumph. Courage as compulsive narrative has trickled down into our own time, softened by abundance and diluted by excessive information, and is attributed alike to regimes and their prisoners, victims of disaster, survivors of atrocities, politicians and sports heroes, cowardly lions and singing nuns. The word itself seems diminished.
And women’s courage? It is not so widely sung, even if acknowledged by the fact that without it, the human race would not be here. Women’s courage is often described in quieter forms, the ability simply to survive in the face of ceaseless oppression and mistreatment. We think of Penelope, endlessly unraveling her weaving as her husband roams the Mediterranean; she clings to dignity and avoids abduction by repeatedly creating and uncreating a shroud. With one hundred men carousing outside her chamber, what presence of mind, what brave patience was required to maintain this ruse? Cleverness is celebrated; think of the biblical Judith, determined to save her people, striding in her perfume and jewels into the camp of an invading conqueror, captivating and then beheading the man with his own sword, and striding out again with his head in a bag. Could the greatest of spies have conceived a better stratagem? To be sure, historical women with virile courage are often memorialized and then punished for stepping outside their spheres: think of Cleopatra, Boudica, Joan of Arc. The list of courageous women is long. The ones we don’t know about probably did the most.
I pay tribute here to a woman of courage who passed away this week, Edith Windsor. In another era we might not have known about her, for in many ways her life was ordinary, or as ordinary as possible for a woman who loved another woman in mid-20th century America. Ms. Windsor lived happily with her beloved partner for 46 years before she lost her to illness. At that point she could have retreated into her grief, but instead she chose to fight the unfair law that did not allow her to inherit the estate of her wife – for they had married in Canada – as other married couples do. Ms. Windsor made a quietly heroic choice, knowing she was sacrificing her privacy and allowing herself to become a target and a symbol, not for the benefits of the estate but for the fierce belief in a principal: fairness and equal treatment for all. Her law suit, United States v. Windsor, was argued before the Supreme Court in 2013 and ultimately brought about the repeal of DOMA, which nefariously stated that for legal purposes the word “spouse” applied only to heterosexuals. Ms. Windsor’s choice resulted in the fact that gay Americans at last have the same rights and privileges in marriage as everyone else, and if not for her lawsuit, we might still be waiting. Edie Windsor was in deed a woman of courage, for her actions turned the tide for LGBTQ people everywhere. She stepped into the light and carried the rest of us with her. Our debt to her is immeasurable.
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2017. Reuse with permission.
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