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Flenglish: To be a Large Woman

In Belgium there is a term for a “larger than life” woman. She does what she pleases, she’s confident, and people respect her.

She’s a hele grote madam.

I’m due for another Flenglish lesson, where I explain some cool things I’ve learned from the Flemish language and applied them to my english vocabulary.

The first time I visited Belgium in 2011, I was astounded by how ‘female-friendly’ it is. I felt the women had a lot of opportunity and power in their lives, both in personal relationships as well as professionally. I met women who were the breadwinners in their household, had great degrees, and seemed to have the pick of the litter of whom to choose a partner. In fact, while I was in Leuven, I read a news article that the sperm donor clinic was asking the young men of the University of Leuven to donate their sperm because there were more lesbian couples looking for a sperm donor than donors themselves.

Of course, the longer you live somewhere the more complex gender cultural standards begin to emerge (and I’m not well versed enough to elaborate on them in this simple blog post and do it justice). However, I still feel that Alberta could learn some gender neutrality from Belgium.

In the first month of being in Leuven in 2011, I was walking with Billy to catch a meal in the cozy Muntstraat, a tiny street lined with cozy bistros. We came across the statue of Friere Margreite and Billy told me the story. I’ll never forget that moment because I thought, “I would never see a statue like that in Alberta.” The tale dates back to 15th century and goes like this…

Young Margreite worked in an traveller’s inn located on the Munstraat in Leuven, which was owned by her relatives. She was known to be a hard worker and well-behaved. One day, a group of pilgrims came into the inn. Margreite was sent out to get more wine for the pilgrims and while she was gone the pilgrims, who were actually a gang of robbers, murdered her relatives. When she returned to find the massacre, she was kidnapped, taken outside of the city, and gang raped. She was then tossed in the Dyle river to be forgotten.

But her body did not sink. The fish of the river carried her body upsteam. The tale goes that her body was surrounded by a beautiful light as it drifted back to Leuven. She was discovered by the Duke of Brabant and the robbers were convicted and sent to jail because of their heinous crime. Her name Friere Margreite means Proud Margaret because of her defiance to her rape and murder.

Below is a really neat 3D art installation that was done in in Leuven.

I’ve linked the tale of Friere Margreite and the idea behind the expression ‘hele groote madam’ because they were both ‘ah ha!’ moments regarding Belgium’s progression towards gender equality. This past summer I was back in Belgium at Rock Werchter, a massive music festival, where I had the pleasure of seeing Patti Smith and Alabama Shakes perform. It was during this festival that Billy taught me the Flemish saying hele grote madam and it’s been stuck in my head ever since. Watching these women perform their craft and be acknowledged for their hard work and talent by women and men alike sparked an idea in me of how to pursue creativity and challenges in life.

As a personal goal, as I get older, I’m striving to become a hele grote madam. The larger than life woman who’s lived her life and ruffled some feathers. She’s driven by her craft/passion/art/cause and pushes for innovation. She capitivates people with her strength and demeanour.

Grid collage of portraits of women I think are hele grote madams.

My list of hele groote madams (in Meredith speak, “Badass ladies who are living for themselves”):

  1. Patti Smith (artist)
  2. JK Rowling (writer)
  3. Brittany Howard (musician)
  4. Diane Keaton (actor)
  5. Alison Mosshart (artist/musician)
  6. Toni Morrison (writer)
  7. Elizabeth Gilbert (writer)
  8. Gabrielle Hamilton (writer/chef)
  9. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi (writer)

A photo of a happy llama
Well then, I guess by reading this list it’s easy to tell what my passions in life are: writing, art, music, design, and cooking. Next post like this I’ll talk about inspiring men because Equality.

What women leave you inspired? Reading your list will make me as happy as this llama over here…



2 responses to “Flenglish: To be a Large Woman”

  1. Whitney says:

    Great post Mere! I aspire to be a hele groote madam :) I love hearing stories of brave, independent women who don`t quiet their voices for causes they believe strongly in. You should speak up even if your voice shakes.

    I can only think of 2 hele groote madames at the moment which are: Rosa Parks and Malala Yousazai who both would not stand for mistreatment due to gender or race. More people need to know their rights and fight for them!

    • Meredith says:

      Excellent examples Whitney! While I was making my list I thought of other women that I “should” include because they are obviously amazing, like Melinda Gates. But I think going with my initial instincts says something about what I’m passionate about in life and your choices of Rosa Parks and Malala Yousazai tell me a lot about your special causes and passions. Thanks for the great comment.

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