Fierce Female Friendships

Ruth and Naomi: the Story You Probably Didn’t Hear in Youth Group

Alison Kjergaard / 7.9.21

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother

 Henry V

Quotes like the one above light my soul on fire. The camaraderie in the Saint Crispin’s Day speech, the soldiers standing together against unfavorable odds is absolutely inspiring. Everywhere we look there are tales of “bands of brothers”: from Stephen Ambrose’s book of that name to the biblical stories of David and Jonathan. It feels like there are innumerable examples in history and in fiction of brother-like friendships, which has left me wondering, where are my fierce, inspiring tales of female friendships? 

Sometimes it feels female friendships are given a little pat on the head with films such as Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But I want something more binding than a magical pair of jeans (though that is a sweet movie). Where are the stories that tell of women relentlessly having each other’s backs? I know it will look different from the trenches of warfare — rarely today do either men or women experience true battlefield camaraderie. But I do know there is a fierce loyalty among women that’s only rarely depicted in fiction. 

I recently reread the book of Ruth and was surprised by the way this book tweaked my perspective on female friendship. In high school, it felt like every girl’s Bible study was on Ruth or Esther (both incredible books, but perhaps the cliché Bible study for women). I memorized the talking points: Ruth was a foreigner, Boaz rescued her, it was a real Prince Charming and Cinderella situation. A happily ever after. I had written off Ruth as the “damsel in distress” of the Bible — an archetype I’m not quick to find admirable — so I rarely listed Ruth as a heroine. And yet in Ruth’s exchange with Naomi there is a fire and stubbornness I hadn’t noticed before:

But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.” (1:16-18)

This passage never featured in all those women’s Bible studies, but I see now Ruth fiercely urging Naomi, “Do not tell me to leave you, because I won’t.” It’s easy to imagine the two of them are in a stand-off, both stubborn in their decisions and in their love for one another, and at last, Naomi caves in. The strong-willed Ruth will not be turned away. Both of them are in the throes of tragedy. Naomi has lost her husband and her sons, there is nothing for her. A young widow, Ruth’s only real option for a future is to turn back to Moab, but she gives it up. Ruth and Naomi have no means of provision, and the future is pretty bleak. But Ruth has made it clear: Naomi will not be going it alone. 

After this exchange, Ruth goes out and provides for the two of them by gleaning in the fields. It’s dangerous for a young woman to go out by herself; there’s no guarantee for her safety. But Ruth takes on that risk. I can imagine her equal stubbornness when Naomi suggests that she come along to help Ruth. Ruth pushes it off: “I’m young and healthy, let me go! I’ll take care of us.” Ruth and Naomi, their protectors gone from them, must press on and live life as best they can, even though the situation isn’t particularly hopeful. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” attitude of these two women carries throughout the entire book. 

I remember the times my own girlfriends have delivered this same kind of fierce care for me, an unwillingness to take my “no” for an answer, in the best way. Not that we were widows with little future before us, but we stepped in and just aggressively took care of each other. One day, on a long distance run, I got hit by a car. Thankfully, I walked away with only bruises, road burn, and scratches. After the accident, I decided to carry on and just keep running, so I staggered on. I came back, tried to clean up what I could, and limped to the grocery store. I was standing in line at the store when I texted my friend that I had gotten hit. She immediately called me to tell me that she would be picking me up and we would be going to the emergency room. She got me home, made me breakfast, and would later be the person who physically had to pick me up and haul me to the couch when I passed out. She gave me help that I was too ashamed to ask for but received anyway.

I think how hard it must have been for Naomi to ask for Ruth to come. It was a request we’d all feel too guilty to make of anyone: Please abandon any hopes for a future and be with me so I don’t have to be alone in this grief. Naomi knew she couldn’t ask that of Ruth. Maybe it was pride, or maybe it was just Naomi’s unselfish nature. But Ruth saw through that and steadfastly told Naomi, “I am coming with you, and won’t leave your side.”

There’s a sort of ferocity and grit to the care Ruth exhibits in her friendship with Naomi, and it’s one I’ve come to see in my own friendships. We may not be in battle together, but I feel the force of love in their actions. I’m not a soldier in arms with my friends, but there are tragedies we must walk through in this life nonetheless.

There are lots of different relationships that we might categorize as “friendships,” but are they “15-minute-coffee-dates-every-six-months” type friends or are they the “I’ll-abandon-my-world-to-walk-with-you” type friends? It’s all well and good to sit around watching You’ve Got Mail with your girl squad, but I think what we’re actually looking for is friends who will love unconditionally and deeply. Ruth’s love for Naomi wasn’t going to a Bachelor watch party. It was one of gritty sacrifice that drastically changed her life. Sometimes the fierce love we need from another is getting picked up from a grocery store when we’re hurting. It’s being accompanies on a journey that we were too scared to ask others to join us for. 

I wish there were more female friendships to read about, more “bands of sisters” to feel excited over. I still often think about writing a story highlighting the fun and fierceness of female friendships, but I’ve discovered an example of that friendship in a place I hadn’t been expecting.

I went into Ruth looking for the fairytale and instead found a fierce bond of loyalty and friendship. Cheers to fierce friends, who we bond with through tragedies, who refuse to leave our side when things look the bleakest. May we all continue to find our fellow warriors in this journey through life. 

You will not find the warrior, the poet, the philosopher, or the Christian by staring in his eyes as if he were your mistress; better fight beside him, read with him, argue with him, pray with him. (The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis)