Beijing +20 & Michelle Obama: What is Women's Work? (Ruth 1:1-18)
By Lisa Davison
Recognizing the incredible gap (between those with health insurance and those without it) in the health care system in their area, Nurse Practitioners Mary Wysochansky and Anna Stinchcum decided to do something to address the program. These two women founded and opened the Sumter Faith Clinic in Americus, GA. The clinic serves the uninsured and the underinsured in Sumter County, GA. Funded purely by donations and staffed by volunteers, Sumter Faith Clinic provides healthcare for those in need that tends to the body, soul, and mind. Their desire to make justice happen was possible because these two women decided to join their efforts and work for a better future.
In 2014, the UN Women launched a campaign to revisit and reengage with the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality. The slogan of the campaign is "Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity, Picture It!" The platform identified 12 areas for attention in working for the rights of women and girls: Poverty, Education, Health, Violence, Armed Conflicts, Economy, Power/Decision-Making, Institutional Mechanisms for Advancement, Human Rights, Media, the Environment, and the "Girl-child." At the original 1995 Beijing conference, 189 countries committed to this platform for achieving gender equality and female empowerment. Beijing + 20 reminds us that, while advancements in gender equality and the empowerment of women have been made, there is still much work to do.
It appears that one of the best ways for this important work to be accomplished is through women working together to address the most important issues that face our world today. First Lady Michelle Obama has challenged women with these words: "As women, we must stand up for ourselves. As women, we must stand up for each other. As women, we must stand up for justice for all." Woman-to-woman partnerships, like that of Wysochansky and Stinchcum, can accomplish great things; they can find a way in a hopeless situation; and they can change the world.
The biblical Book of Ruth contains an ancient and powerful story about two women who faced an uncertain future and decided to walk together in creating new possibilities for them and for their communities. Ruth is one of the five scrolls that make up the Ketuvim (Writings) of the Jewish canon, which is the last section of the Hebrew Bible and also the last section to gain canonical status in the Jewish community. Today, the scroll of Ruth is associated with the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, reflecting the Jewish tradition of lifting up Ruth as an example of Torah faithfulness. Although it is set in the "time of the Judges" (perhaps c 12th century BCE), most scholars believe Ruth was written during the post-exilic period (after 538 BCE). Its "historical vagueness" gives the story a timeless quality.
This short story recounts an unlikely partnership between two women of different ages, ethnicities, and religions. Naomi and her family emigrate from Bethlehem to Moab due to a famine in their land. Once in this strange land, Naomi's husband dies, leaving her alone to raise two sons. After the sons marry Moabite women (Orpah and Ruth), tragedy strikes again; both sons die. Now, Naomi and her daughters-in-law are widows with no sons in a time when this status placed women in a particularly vulnerable position. When Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem and live out the rest of her life, both Orpah and Ruth start to follow her. After some rather strong words to discourage the women from going with her, Orpah decides to stay in Moab, and Ruth commits to staying with Naomi. Ruth joins her life with that of her mother-in-law.
Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die - there will I be buried.
May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well,
if even death parts me from you! (Ruth 1:16-17 NRSV)
This beginning of a partnership between two women sets the stage for the rest of the narrative. In the remaining chapters, Ruth and Naomi join forces in making their way in an inhospitable culture.
Although Naomi did not seem too pleased to have Ruth follow her back to Bethlehem, her daughter-in-law turned out to be her salvation. While Naomi, consumed with bitterness, was ready to wait for death, Ruth refused to let her give up on life. Having knowledge of the Israelite practice of leaving the edges of a field unharvested, saving that grain for widows and orphans, Ruth decided to go and find them some food. Her commitment to Naomi and her passion for life allowed Ruth to provide sustenance for Naomi. When she returned home and told Naomi about reaping in the fields of her dead husband's kin, Boaz, it was the elder woman's opportunity to pass on wisdom to her daughter-in-law and join with Ruth in securing their future. Naomi told Ruth to stay with Boaz's female servants so she would be safe; a woman gleaning alone in the field would have been easy prey for attackers.
By the end of the harvest, Ruth's strength had renewed Naomi's spirit. She realized that it was now her responsibility to help her daughter to find future security. Because of the patriarchal culture, the women needed a husband, and Naomi had a plan to help her acquire that necessity. Ruth would go to the threshing floor; when Boaz had drunk too much, and she could capitalize on his weakness to get him to marry her. With motherly compassion, Naomi instructed Ruth on how to dress, where to go, and what to do when she met Boaz. With Ruth's added twists, the plan worked like a charm. With legal concerns settled, Boaz and Ruth married. Then, they had a child. In the closing scene, we are provided with a beautiful consummation of the partnership formed between Naomi and Ruth, two women empowering each other. Naomi is holding her grandson, and the women of Bethlehem vocally affirm the importance of her relationship with Ruth, whom they claim to be worth more to Naomi than seven sons.
These examples, one ancient and one contemporary, of women working together to meet the needs of their communities and to change the world are but a small fraction of the countless stories we have of women-to-women partnerships. In the biblical story, Ruth and Naomi faced incredible obstacles to gaining the justice a patriarchal society denied them; they were two women in a man's world. Even so, they did not let their lack of authority stop them from ensuring their future and that of their people. In Sumter County, GA, Mary Wysochansky and Anna Stinchcum, faced with what seemed like an insurmountable gap in healthcare coverage, joined their wisdom and their resources to fill that gap, by creating a clinic that would treat people without health insurance and those who were "underinsured". Their partnership brought healing and compassion for their community.
Those involved in the organization of Beijing +20 are calling all of the countries that signed the Beijing Declaration and Platform to accountability. They are asking everyone to give careful attention to the advances that have been made and the unfinished items on the agenda for gender equality and female empowerment. In addition, there is a call to "step-up" and accelerate progress toward these shared goals, so that their dream of a "world where all women and girls have equal opportunities and rights by 2030" will become a reality. It will take everyone to make this happen, especially women working together to effect change and create a better world.
_ Sumter Faith Clinic is a free clinic to treat the uninsured and underinsured. _
Bible Study Questions
1. How can women work together to address injustices (e.g., healthcare, poverty, etc.)?
2. Who are some of the women in your local community who are working to effect change?
3. What can each person due to work for Gender Equality and Female Empowerment?
For Further Reading
Kate, Judith & Gail Reimer, eds. Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.
Nielsen, Kirsten. Ruth: A Commentary. Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 1997.
Tull, Patricia. Ruth & Esther (Bible Studies). Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2003.
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