Sepia Saturday – In Praise of Women’s Bodies

Oh my. Two Sepia Saturday posts in one weekend!

What to do with today’s prompt? Kat Mortensen (chooser of the prompt) tells us that this picture is of “Twin Wells” on the banks of the River Aille at Lisdoonvarna in County Clare, Ireland, taken around the turn of the century (1900). The waters were acclaimed as restorative and this place was designated a spa. (My image won’t enlarge; if you’d like a better look, go here.)

To be honest, I don’t understand this picture. What in the heck is going on? The poor woman on the right hardly looks real. What is that “shelter”? Why are these people standing around in their nice clothes and hats in front of this woman? It’s a mystery to me.

I was thinking about this prompt while trying to go to sleep last night. The woman sitting on the right led me to think about a picture of someone in my family. Both images portray women whom we would not consider attractive and whom we would assume lived a hard life.

Pictured below is my 2nd great grandmother, Sarah Stokes Bryan, at age 90. It is the only picture I have seen of her. Perhaps it was taken on her birthday?

Sarah Stokes Bryan, age 90





Sarah Stokes’ life in brief:
Born August 26,1821 and raised in Todd County, Kentucky.
Married June 9, 1842 to George Washington Bryan.
Bore 11 children.
Two children died before the age of 2 years.
Moved the family west to Ray County, Missouri in 1854 as troubles over slavery brewed in Kentucky. They found themselves in the middle of trouble in Missouri as well.
Husband joined the Missouri Enrolled Militia July 28, 1862.
Husband relieved from duty February 9, 1863 due to illness (pneumonia and tuberculosis).
Moved family to Davis County, Iowa.
Husband, George, died January 3, 1864.
Gave birth to 11th child, Sarah E. Bryan (my Mom’s grandmother), February 27, 1864.
Remained single, raised her children and managed her farm.
Died October 22, 1914, at the age of 93.

Sarah’s sister, Nancy, had married George’s brother, John. Both families made the move to Missouri and lived together for a while, but Nancy and John remained in Missouri when Sarah and George moved to Iowa. Nancy gave birth to her first child in 1850, twins in 1851, followed by 6 more babies. As told by George in a letter to his brother Francis, Nancy was in poor health after giving birth to her 4th child.

Nancy’s last child, Susan Virginia Bryan, was born March 1, 1866. Nancy died about 10 weeks later on May 19th. The baby died July 13th.

Nancy’s story always reminds me that access to birth control saves lives.

While writing this, I was also reminded of something I read many years ago, so I looked it up. It was from the essay “In Praise of Women’s Bodies” from Gloria Steinem’s book “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions”.

I stole her title. I hope she won’t mind!

Here are some of Ms. Steinem’s words:

Stretch marks and Cesarean incisions from giving birth are very different from accident, war and fight scars. They evoke courage without violence, strength without cruelty, and even so, they’re far more likely to be worn with diffidence than bragging. That gives them a bittersweet power, like seeing a room where a very emotional event in our lives once took place.

…. Childbirth is more admirable than conquest, more amazing than self-defense, and as courageous as either one.

…Perhaps we’ll only be fully at ease with ourselves when we can appreciate scars as symbols of experience, often experiences that other women share, and see our bodies as unique chapters in a shared story.

When you first saw this picture of Sarah Stokes you may have thought, “What an ugly old woman!” I understand. That was my first reaction.

But now I see a survivor. A strong woman who earned every wrinkle through poverty, hardship, endless hours of working a farm, caring for her large family, grieving the loss of children, separation from her husband during time of war, nursing her sick husband and burying him, then bearing her 11th child after his death. And living to the old age of 93.

Beautiful, isn’t she?

28 thoughts on “Sepia Saturday – In Praise of Women’s Bodies

  1. I can ony agree. I have a photo of my own great grandmother who bore ten children and had a hard life, and it shows. In the picture she’s probably the same age I am now but looks twenty years older. Sadly she died at my age (60) worn out by her hard life.

  2. I rarely see someone and think “ugly”. Especially very old people. I see what time and hard living has done. She would look different with teeth in too. I hope her life got easier as her children grew up and were able to do more.

    • Thank you for your comments, Kristin. At some point one of her sons took over the farm and she was able to live with her children.

  3. Poor Sarah! She certainly did live a hard life filled with trial and sorrow! She really had earned every wrinkle she wore. And if this were a photo of her smiling, she would probably look quite different.

  4. I agree with you Kathy, she must have been a very strong woman. By what you wrote she managed the family very well under circumstances we can hardly imagine. And then there is another difference with (wo)men today: cosmetics. In those days people didn’t care about a wrinkle more or less. An impressive woman!

    • Yes – no makeup or fussing much with hair – certainly no botox! Although I rarely go without makeup, I like faces in their natural state.

  5. When you put it that way, YES – beautiful indeed. Her story was a common one that I’ve seen in my own family numerous times. We owe a lot of gratitude to women like them and to Gloria Steinem for making everyone see the beauty.

  6. Yes, she is beautiful. What a strong, strong woman. Her story was the story of many women during her time. Things sure have changed, haven’t they, and still we probably complain more today than they did back then.

    I loved this post.

    Kathy M.

    • It is hard for me to put myself into the lives of my ancestors sometimes as I sit here in my comfortable home in front of my computer. Thanks for your comments!

  7. Kathy, a truly wonderful post to the stamina and beauty of women. Beauty does not have to be a wrinkle less face. I think all these older women who try to get every wrinkle out of their face with botox miss the real them. Look at Sarah’s elegant hands, these I am sure were never idle. Her lined face shows her old age, her hard life,with no way out. She deserves honour and credit to reach such an old age with dignity despite her hardships.

    • Thank you, Tatania. I agree with you completely! It makes me sad when I see a woman whose face is literally “frozen” and unable to form a natural smile. There are so many beautiful older women whose faces are a true expression of the life they have lived and the life within them.

  8. Inner beauty, perhaps.
    A good example of the era where selfless duty prevailed.
    Values have changed somewhat since then…
    Ugly? No, but one that wears cruelly the marks of Life…

  9. That generation and those up to WW2 were a different breed, tough, uncomplaining and hearts like lions. I don’t think we will see their like again.

    • I think you may be right. Our lives are so different than theirs were and our children even more removed from the kinds of struggles they lived.

  10. I’m so glad you included the quote by Gloria Steinem. Especially after being on the faculty committee that co-ordinated Women’s Studies at the university here for 10 years, I often think about women who lived these hard lives. My great-grandmother bore 14 children. When I consider that women 100 years ago had even less respect than they do now (I think of the War on Women, metaphorical, but even so), I don’t know how they kept going. The joy of bringing new life into the world must have carried them through. I hope, hope, hope their husbands and children respected them. Thank you for this great post!

    • Thank you Mariann. I couldn’t remember the quote at first and thought it had something to do with wrinkles – but it was scars and stretch marks – and just as appropriate, I thought. I wish I could have known her or had some of her words to tell me more about her life. I hope she had the love and respect of her husband and family!

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