I have always loved princess stories.
One of my favorite gifts that I’ve ever received was a copy of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” that my grandfather gave when I was small. There were not one, but TWELVE princesses on almost every single page, and twelve sets of gowns and shoes to boot. It’s not my favorite princess story–I was always sad that the princesses lost their freedom and independence when the gardener discovered their secret and the magic that held their midnight dances together fell apart (my favorite princess story is Cinderella, but that’s a tale for another day).
My grandmother was a smart woman, and she managed to take my interest in princess stories and direct it towards the lives of real women in positions of power. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of her favorites, and Shirley Temple Black, and Juliette Gordon Low (the founder of the girl scouts), and Julia Morgan (the architect who designed Hearst Castle), and of course, both of my great-grandmothers, who were both teachers. My grandfather’s mother, whom I very barely remember meeting, earned a masters degree in 1935, while raising three sons and living through the Great Depression.
But as I grew up, I kept being drawn to stories of princesses and queens and women who wear tiaras. In school, I kept finding ways to write papers on Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria and Princess Liliuokalani and Anne Boleyn. I stayed up all night to watch William and Catherine’s wedding in college. I have framed photographs of Grace Kelly, princess of Monaco, hanging over the fireplace in the manse. As much as I love fancy dresses and sparkly things and fashion history, what is even more alluring is the idea of having a voice that cannot be silenced. For many women, that can be a very hard goal to achieve.
Next week falls July 20th, a date that is always marked in my calendar because it is the commemoration day of perhaps my favorite historical princess of all, even if she’s one that most people probably aren’t familiar with. Her name is Wilgefortis, and for centuries, she has been honored as a saint and a martyr. I’ve found ways to remember Wilgefortis on July 20th for years, but this year, since she is, after all, a religious figure, I want to share her story with you.
Wilgefortis is the patron saint of women in difficult situations–relationships that seem impossible to escape, oppression that can’t be stopped, beauty and societal standards that reduce women to being objects and not people. She may have only a small following, but she is depicted in Westminster Abbey, and for some women, she is as much of an icon as Eleanor Roosevelt was to my grandmother.
Her story is bizarre (perhaps comically so) and miraculous (God heard and answered her prayer) and sad (in a way that far too many women’s stories have been) and of course, very very medieval (literally). But whether or not we as Presbyterians revere saints in the same way that we might have done before the Protestant Reformation, I think that we can still learn a lot from the stories of religious figures who have left a mark on their communities and on history.
If you’d like to hear Wilgefortis’ story, I invite you to join me on Monday night to pray and to remember a woman whose story begins much like I always wanted any good princess story to begin:
“Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who wanted to dedicate her life to God…”