Constance Maynard is 92 and living in the Lindell assisted living home. When we meet her, she is druggy with prolonged Ambien use and being cared for by the 50-something Eunice and the 20-something Sam. Most of the story follows the independent-minded Constance as she muses over her past, interspersed with her interactions with the women she comes in contact with present-day. Besides Eunice and Sam, we learn about Maeve, Lois, Meredith, and many other women.
From a young age, Constance learned men will gladly discard women when they feel the women no longer “useful.” Her father did this with both her mother and herself, committing the one and shipping the latter off to live with his stepmother, Lois. That was a blessing for Constance, though, as Lois was a woman with her own wealth that afforded the very best education for Constance. Threaded among the musings of Constance’s extraordinary past are glimpses of her present, as well as of the lives of her caregivers, the sweet Eunice and ungainly Sam, each with their own lessons to be learned.
For all of Constance’s adult life she stood for women’s rights. This led her to focus on her career over a man and to adopt and care for Meredith while single, never saying that the child was adopted and not Constance’s natural-born daughter. Her point was to flaunt the stigma as a way of saying “this is stupid, and there’s nothing wrong with being a single mother.” In her waning years, Constance wants to turn her childhood home into a center where women can go to learn basic life skills and find mutual support among other women.
I loved learning about Maeve, the Gaelic granny who gave Constance the tapestry of Womanhood. This tapestry depicts the supposed defining moments of a woman’s life–maidenhood, betrothal and marriage, motherhood, widowhood. The tapestry represents what a woman’s life must be relative to men and contrasts with the actual truth of what a woman’s life can be, as exemplified by the generational grouping of Constance, Eunice, and Sam themselves, reflecting the Triple Goddess aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. The Goddess aspects are free from ties to men and supposed male superiority, the attitudes of which women are still being forced to deal with today. A woman needs no husband to be a mother, and having no husband, there isn’t the inferior aspect of widow defined by the husband’s death, but instead there is the wise and powerful Crone.
The tapestry itself is a treasure passed along from woman to woman over generations, spanning the Victorian era to the modern and probably even older. Many different women have contributed to the crafting of the tapestry. What a weight of time and continuity is represented by this beautiful artifact! And as Constance to Sam, the women create a generational chain, so Meredith adds a parallel…a tassel in the living tapestry, if you will, in her true relationship to Constance.
Parrish’s Women Within is well-wrought, containing dazzling, lyrical prose that will draw you into living memory, into the heartbeat of generations of women. This is a story, a vibrant tapestry of stories, with many lessons to offer. Perfect for those interested in women-centric stories and stories empowering to women.
Black Rose Writing
Anne Leigh Parrish