Arunachalam Muruganantham is a personal hero of mine. Like most men, Muruganantham had no idea how menstruation even worked before he married his wife. As people with little means in India, he began to realize the incredible challenge that women like his wife faced when their periods came. There are profound health hazards that come along with having no sanitary options for managing a period. Menstruating without the proper products also means that your options for education and jobs are limited. Arunachalam Muruganantham became a man on a mission: he would invent a machine to make affordable sanitary pads for poor women in India. 

 

So much of this story is compelling. But the image we get in the beginning speaks to how committed Muruganantham was to helping the women he loved:

He created a “uterus” from a football bladder by punching a couple of holes in it, and filling it with goat’s blood. A former classmate, a butcher, would ring his bicycle bell outside the house whenever he was going to kill a goat. Muruganantham would collect the blood and mix in an additive he got from another friend at a blood bank to prevent it clotting too quickly—but it didn’t stop the smell.

He walked, cycled and ran with the football bladder under his traditional clothes, constantly pumping blood out to test his sanitary pad’s absorption rates. Everyone thought he’d gone mad.

While it may not be the most pleasant picture to have in your head, it is the hard facts on the ground of what it means to be a menstruating woman with no resources. In so many ways, Muruganantham took on the most difficult part of womanhood in order that he would be able to help women survive it.

For a while after this stunt, his wife actually ditched him. She was understandably mortified by his behavior. “So you see God’s sense of humor, I’d started the research for my wife and after 18 months she left me!” She would return. And Muruganantham would go on to create a miraculous machine that would create sanitary pads for poor women in India. Remarkably, it was his goal to keep the machines simple so that he could also employ these same women to make the product. 

We live in an age when women standing up for themselves is headline news. The past few years have been filled with women calling out their abusers on mass scale. And women’s leadership is apparently a boundless topic that so often ends in us justifying ourselves on repeat. I can get my young daughter a t-shirt that blares out, “Empowered Girl.” And under the weight of everything else, I pray that I am not needlessly giving her yet another role to fill. The “I am woman hear me roar” edict can feel less like freedom and more like another thing that is expected of me.

This is why Muruganantham’s story captured my heart. He chose to step into the gap for the women in his life. He knew that they had value, that they had contributions to make to the world around them and so he spoke back to a world that said otherwise. He put himself out there. He went so far out on a limb that he faced losing the very woman he first sought to help. His love was more than just benevolent, it was sacrificial. 

I heard his story several years ago, but it has come to mind again lately. I have been ordained for six years, and it would be foolish for me to write that it has all been easy. Figuring out appropriate attire with a clergy collar, navigating the power structure of meetings as one of the few women in the room, and hoping that you can garner 3/4 of the respect your male colleagues automatically get is a typical Tuesday. It can be exhausting.

Tempting as it is to bemoan people and their lack of worldly sophistication around women’s leadership, that’s a sea of self-righteousness in which I’d rather not swim. People are used to what they are used to. It takes time and witness for them to adjust to something new.

And to be honest, I am too busy being an ordained woman to advocate for being an ordained woman. I know this is also the case for women in my life who are in medicine, business, law, etc. We are too busy running to catch up that we can’t also be yelling that our running is worthy.  

What has struck me recently though is the number of men in my life who have reminded me of Arunachalam Muruganantham. They believe that women have something valuable to add to the promulgation of the Gospel. Beyond simply being pleasant to me, they have advocated for me. They have asked me to preach and teach in their churches. They have decided that the boys’ clubs of the world limit the power of the Gospel. They do not just gloss over the challenges that ordained women face; they recognize them and listen.  

Weirdly, these are all men who subscribe heavily to grace. To be totally honest, I know that many of them have not always been on the side of women’s ordination. Some of them are in denominations that still choose not to ordain women. Which I find even more moving. When these men support the ministry of ordained women, they risk quite a lot. But I am guessing that Arunachalam Muruganantham was not exactly thrilled to be prancing around town wearing a bladder full of goat’s blood. But he did it anyway. Because he believed that the women in his life had something to contribute and that their very existences were valuable.

And I wonder if that is what grace pushed to its natural end looks like. It is risky and bound up in love. When we begin to believe that it could all be true, that God could value us against all odds, then we see this radical possibility for others. We realize that we have an Advocate that stands in the gap for us, and, God willing, it makes us a bit braver to do the same for others.