Great Women from Joan of Arc to Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa in 1960 (Keystone Features/Getty)
Seven salutes.


We are not the ones we have been waiting for.

In his new book, Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness, Eric Metaxas, tells the story of seven women from history. He examines their successes and weaknesses, their motivations, and the heart of their missions.

As he explains it:

Perhaps the best thing about biographies is that they enable us to slip the strictures of time and provide a bracing corrective to our tendency to see everything in the dark glass of our own era, with all its blind spots, motes, beams, and distortions. We must be honest enough to recognize that each era cannot help having a pinched, parochial view of things, and of course the largest part of that parochialism is that each era thinks it is not parochial at all. Each era has the fatal hubris to believe that it has once and for all climbed to the top of the mountain and can see everything as it is, from the highest and most objective vantage point possible. But to assert that ours is the only blinkerless view of things is to blither.

The author of an authoritative biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Metaxas talks about his Seven Women with National Review Online.


ERIC METAXAS: Mainly because I wrote a book called Seven Men, and everyone asked me to write a similar book about women. Of course, I can make up other more interesting reasons. Would you believe that when I was wondering how many women to include in the book, a magical finch alit upon mine windowsill, that golden were his feathers and seven were his tweets? Don’t, because it’s not true.

LOPEZ: Who is Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, and how did she make a cameo in the book?

METAXAS: She blew through it for a half-second in the introduction, going 342 mph — so it was a very quick cameo! But what would you expect from a champion drag racer? That’s what she was, and she’s not one of the seven women referred to in the book’s title, but I use her as an example of someone we typically think of as a heroine, because she did something that only men had done before. This is not to take anything away from the “First Lady of Drag Racing,” but the seven are all women who did what they did because of their being women, who fully embraced their femininity. They did things that men really could not do, and shone because of their being women, not in spite of it.

LOPEZ: How has many men’s “view of women . . . been twisted and dented by our cultural assumptions”?

METAXAS: My publisher has embargoed that information, so you’ll have to read the book. But I can tell you that the answer is so fascinating you will literally spin around several times once you discover it. I wouldn’t read the book in a public place, is all I’m saying.

LOPEZ: How are “apples and oranges actually far more like each other than are men and women”?

METAXAS: Men and women are complements to each other, physically and otherwise. Apples and oranges are not. Apples and oranges are both spheroidal fruits with seeds. Men and women are not. Ha! But seriously, the idea that men and women are different only in the way that Bruce Jenner is different from Caitlyn Jenner is a Brobdingnagian untruth, but one from which our culture has drunk very deeply, and we are currently intoxicated with it. Every single cell in each person’s body tells us whether that person is a male or a female. There is no human being in history whose cells have some mixture of the two, nor anyone who has ever been able to change that cellular reality. As I learned in junior-high-school Spanish class: Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda. That women have wombs and men do not is at the heart of our unbridgeable, glorious differences. What is involved in ovulation and gestation, for example, is so complicated and staggering that everyone ought to be in deepest awe of it. Suffice it to say that men do not and cannot have wombs.

LOPEZ: ​What is it about “Joan of Arc’s relationships with the soldiers who served under her” that is “nothing less than moving”?

There is even a comic aspect to Joan of Arc’s forthrightness that makes her all the more delightful.

METAXASShe was so innocent and so glowing with disarming piety that the hardened warriors all around her respected her and behaved differently around her. They didn’t even slightly see her as “one of the guys,” nor would she have allowed them to do so. She was a chaste and holy young woman, so much so that these battle-scarred men were almost invariably affected by it. And if and when any of them ever strayed from what she thought was chivalrous behavior, she would let them know it in no uncertain terms. There is even a comic aspect to her forthrightness that makes her all the more delightful.

LOPEZ: What’s most notable about Hannah More’s friendship with William Wilberforce?

METAXASThe fun and the joy of it. It’s clear that both of them were extremely witty, and there was a sparkling effervescence in each of them that, combined with their deep seriousness about helping those who were suffering, must have made being in their company extremely delightful. What I would give to be in the room with the two of them joking!

LOPEZ: Anyone believing that the life of a woman dedicated to her family must be less than optimal cannot know the story of Susanna Wesley.” What should women and men know about her?

METAXASIf ever we needed the picture of someone whose life as a mother changed history and the world, she provides it, yet few know her name. And she did all that she did by being wholly dedicated to raising her children. It’s a stunning indictment of many of today’s most cherished cultural assumptions. It’s almost unbelievable, and yet it’s historically undeniable. Our world needs to know about it, about her.

LOPEZ: What is it in her story about mothers and sons that is important?

METAXASIn a nutshell, her sons, who were used by God to change history, could never have been who they were unless she was their mother. If we want to see a clear case of someone great standing on the shoulders of giants, we need only consider the story of John Wesley.

LOPEZ: How was Rosa Parks’s “feminine dignity” “vital” to her story?

METAXASRosa Parks was notably ladylike and deeply dignified, and those leading the civil-rights movement knew that she and her moral character would be unimpeachable when things got ugly, as they certainly did. A young woman of less than ideal character had had a similar incident on a bus some time earlier, but because of her character the incident did nothing to further the cause of civil rights; in fact, it likely set it back. But because Rosa Parks was a lovely and respectable woman, known to be a serious churchgoer, she was chosen to be the person to represent this important cause. Also, a man in the same situation, of however noble character, would not have had quite the same effect that she did. Her vulnerability, her quietness and frailty, made her more difficult to see as a mere “troublemaker”; in the end, her character helped further the cause of civil rights dramatically.

LOPEZ: How is Saint Maria of Paris like Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

METAXASBoth were smokers. Both were intellectuals. Both wrote poetry. And both knew that standing against the Nazis and for the Jews was not only consistent with their Christian faith, but a non-negotiable aspect of it. Both died living out that belief.

LOPEZ: You quote Saint Maria as writing, “No one is aware that the world is on fire.” What was she talking about and do you find it relevant today? Do you find yourself saying the same? I think I’ve heard you do so!

METAXASShe was living in dramatic times, historically speaking. But I think anyone who is sensitive to the evil in the world and to God’s desire to use us to fight against it and to help those who are suffering from it must feel this way.

LOPEZ: Why don’t more people know about her?

METAXASMany reasons I go into in the book, but anther reason is that you haven’t published this interview yet. But I know that you will.

LOPEZ: Why did you start with Joan of Arc and end with Mother Teresa?

METAXASI simply put the seven women in chronological order, as I did the seven men in my book Seven Men.

LOPEZ: In your experience, is “the biggest problem on earth . . . being unloved,” as you describe Mother Teresa’s diagnosis?

METAXASIn a nutshell, yes. When we feel the love of God, whether directly or through another person, we begin to change, to become who we were meant to be.

LOPEZ: About Mother Teresa’s childhood you write: “Agnes observed her mother each week bringing food to the home of a poor woman and even cleaning her house. She also took care of another woman whose body was covered in sores, and when a poor widow died, she took the woman’s children into her own family. She was the model for the young girl who would one day become Mother Teresa.” How much do parents matter on the road to holiness and greatness?

METAXASIn some cases not at all, but in most cases they matter tremendously. Which should make those of us who are parents tremble at the responsibility and privilege given to us.

LOPEZ: What do you know about Chuck Colson’s correspondence with Mother Teresa?

METAXASHe used cheesy cat stationery that he found in a drawer in a guest bedroom, and she reciprocated by enclosing a Garfield cartoon with each of her subsequent letters. Just kidding! I know almost nothing of it, but I want to know more, to see the letters with my own eyes, which I’ve not yet done. But I hope to.

LOPEZ: Do you have a favorite among the seven?

METAXASI don’t. They are each wonderful is such different ways. Good and great people are far more variable and fascinating than bad and evil people, who have usually devolved to be clichés personified, who seem to shrink down into similarly unimpressive husks. God calls us to open up like flowers blooming toward Him, and we see in good and great souls an endless variety and creativity.

LOPEZHow do these seven make you a better man?

METAXASAs I say in the introduction, when men and women love and respect each other, each of them benefits. Because God chose to make us both in His image, to know the lives of these seven great women is to know more of God. But knowing how God expresses Himself in the lives of women is something every man will benefit from; so yes, I hope all the men I know will read this book too.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice. 


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