Where I live in New England winter’s snow cover makes the land seem frozen into eternal barrenness. Yet, during this cold season, nature labors below the surface to recreate the earth; the buds of early spring are only the outward manifestation of her weeks of unheralded toil. Later, summer will parade her own glories, as grand as any majestic empress, and her winter sister’s accomplishment of beginning the process of new life will be forgotten.
A Winter Queen’s silent, hopeful work of giving plants and animals the chance to live makes me think of Jennie who sat sewing late into the night in the first years of the last century. Because of her, you are reading this column, generations of her female descendants savor their lives of the mind, and women all over the world are going to school and educating their daughters. Jennie was my great-grandmother.
Jennie’s husband died when my grandmother, Gladys, was six. Jennie supported herself and her child by sewing dresses and quilts for neighbors in her small mid-western town. She wanted her daughter to have more opportunity than she’d had and she wanted her to go to college. After saving money that she earned by her needle, Jennie moved to a college town and paid Gladys’ tuition. Gladys eventually left school to marry and have children, as was common at the time.
Years later, when her sons were in high school, Gladys enrolled in a university to finish her degree even though her neighbors laughed at her from behind their drapes. “There goes the coed!” they taunted. She was also well known for voicing her thoughts, once even bursting out of the kitchen during a business party with my grandfather’s conservative clients to declare, “But, of course, we all know that socialism is the perfect system!”
Gladys’ love of learning, in turn, inspired her three granddaughters. One is now an MD/PhD biomedical researcher, another edits an online edition of early English literature, and I write. My grandmother never preached to us about education, but her library of philosophy and literature and the way her conversation evoked our ideas molded how I viewed myself from an early age. Jennie’s great-granddaughters also have created a small scholarship that benefits women at a community college and they contribute to a number of organizations that support women’s education around the world.
Jennie’s kind of “Winter Queen” sovereignty is not noteworthy because she rules what has already been created—nations, parliaments, society—as traditional queens do. Instead, she creates that which gives others the power to rule themselves through such means as education, health, self-confidence, economic independence, and safety. The fruits of their reign do not last only a few years, until the battlefields are once again farmland and the borders redrawn, but for generations.
Who are these women? They are the unremembered abbesses who maintained convents where centuries of women could make a choice other than marriage and endless children. Others are now teachers in Middle Eastern countries who conduct secret outlawed schools for girls. Thousands of Winter Queens sew, like my great-grandmother, as part of micro-economic fair trade projects to send their daughters to school and earn independence for themselves. They are the midwives all over the world who for millennia have cared for the poor and isolated, made childbirth safer, and have been models of diligence and service to community.
At some time in her life, I believe that most every woman has had her choices expanded, been inspired by, or received strength from a Winter Queen, as I did from my grandmother and great-grandmother. In fact, I would say that most women also have been Winter Queens. But, when I think about the women in my life who have been Winter Queens, I think that most of them would have said, “Oh, I didn’t do so much, just what anyone would have done.” I know that I, for the most part, take for granted the Winter Queens whose gifts made my everyday life more livable.
In fact, being a Winter Queen is an act of extraordinary creativity, one worthy of a place of honor in a museum. My Winter Queen work—like encouraging a friend’s teenaged daughter or writing for women’s publications—comes from the depths of myself. I am not just putting words together, but bringing to reality one small piece of a global future I am helping to create. Winter Queens, instead of controlling their art as other artists do, give up dominion over end results of their masterpieces—the women and girls they inspire and enable—by giving others what they need to create themselves and pass along their gifts to others.
Over the millennia, women’s leadership and creativity have not been valued. Most women did not have access to wealth and armies to transform their world. Instead they offered what they found within themselves through the work that they were allowed to do. Is this a way women naturally rule? Maybe it is and maybe it is only the fruit of necessity. However, it is winter’s way, nature’s way, and one that is deeply powerful and should be celebrated.
Perhaps in this time between the hustle of the holidays and the activity of the spring, we can take a few moments to remember the Winter Queens of our lives, including those whose toil for our benefit goes back generations. We must not forget also to honor ourselves. Many of the things that we think of as just our day’s work are really the acts of a Winter Queen. What you do this afternoon may transform the life of someone a hundred years from now in ways you could never know. Truly, we are all Winter Queens of the soul.
Photos: Jennie’s high school graduation photo and a quilt she made.