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Where Are the Women?

by Elizabeth Debold

Not again! was my first response to a new posting on the culturally sophisticated website There, right before my eyes, was integral philosopher Ken Wilber responding to—and asking—the question: “Where are the integral women?” Wilber's response sent me reeling: after acknowledging a dearth of women in the up-and-coming integral scene, he explained that he and his colleagues were thinking of ways to take affirmative action to attract more women. Affirmative action for the cultural frontier?!

How on earth did this happen? I wanted to know. Don't tell me we're once again playing catch-up. In the last four hundred years, elite women in Western culture have taken a flying leap out of slavery and servitude to independence and self-assertion. So this is a disturbing turn of events—and somewhat confusing. Haven't women been leading a cultural revolution? Yes, it's true. But while we've been working toward building a society in partnership with men, we seem to have missed the start of something that may well be the next revolution. New ways of thinking are arising to meet the chaos and conflict of our globalizing world, sometimes called “integral” à la Wilber and others, or “second tier” by those in the know about Spiral Dynamics, or “big history,” or simply “post-postmodernism.” And with very few exceptions, the leading proponents of these new views have one noticeable characteristic in common: they are all men. So the question certainly is: Where are we women? And where do we go from here?

A scant forty years ago, women were making history, pushing the leading edge of Western culture from the modern era into the postmodern. The rapidly rising tide of a new consciousness swept through the young women of the New Left, lifting the most courageous out of the “sea of misogyny” that characterized even the most progressive politics, opening their eyes and hearts to the radical possibility of true equality between women and men. Small groups of women, fresh from the civil rights movement, angered by Vietnam, and ridiculed for their passionate intelligence, began to speak with each other about what had theretofore been unnoticed and unspeakable. Something went “click”—as they described it—and a feminist consciousness sparked into life. The social and legal structures that kept hierarchies of dominance and privilege in place suddenly became visible. In pockets across the United States and Europe, women gathered, six, twelve, a couple dozen at a time. A phone call from one woman to a friend in another city would ignite the flame. “News that women were organizing spread . . . like a chain reaction,” says political scientist Jo Freeman. The span of two or three years saw the creation of the National Organization for Women, Redstockings, New York Radical Women, Seattle Radical Women, Cell 16, the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, Bread and Roses, WITCH (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), and the Female Liberation Front, to name just a few.

Courting outrage, these radical women broke boundaries, taboos, laws, and habits at every turn. Women's minds burst out of the corseted confines of traditional femininity. “The joy of feminism, for those who felt it, often had spiritual proportions,” write Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow in their introduction to The Feminist Memoir Project. “Like a conversion experience—'the scales dropped from my eyes; I saw all things new.' One's inabilities and blockages, resentments, hidden griefs, all the paraphernalia and picturesque qualities of 'girlhood' and 'womanhood' suddenly were ripped open, suddenly fell apart. And 'all things'—from the most mundane and habitual to the most enormous—seemed changed.” In just one afternoon of street protest in 1967, women overturned the long-standing policy of the New York Times to segregate “help wanted” ads by sex, with most major city dailies following shortly thereafter. Like a tidal wave, this new consciousness lifted the institutions of Western culture—marriage, family, work—and dropped them, teetering, on a higher ground.

Fast-forward to the present: the once-outrageous notion that women and men are, or should be, social, economic, and political equals has become the accepted view of the majority, even in the increasingly reactionary U.S. This is an enormous sea change. A 2003 Ms. Magazine poll showed that seventy-five percent of women and seventy-six percent of men surveyed felt that “feminists and the women's movement have been helpful to them”; eighty percent of those surveyed saw the women's movement as “the moving force behind” such positive social changes as “women's greater job opportunities, higher education levels, changes in the workplace that allow combining jobs with families, and better pay.” And yet, after such stunningly rapid change, the final goal of true equity and partnership evades us. On the most basic indicator of economic equality—median wages—women earn seventy-five cents for each dollar that a man with the same experience earns for the same work. Women are still rarely seen in the highest echelons of power in business or politics. And most married working women with children will tell you that they're not only bringing home the bacon—they're frying it, serving it, and then cleaning up.

The traditional feminist arguments about the source of these differences between women's and men's lives are wearing thin. To continue to blame structural biases and inequities doesn't seem to be enough. There's something deeper at work. In fact, if we listen to teenage girls' expectations and aspirations for their lives, we can hear just how deep these differences run. Girls give us a view of life from the upcoming generation, shaped by what has gone before, desirous of more, and unfettered by the practical realities that limit a life. In a 2002 survey of teens by The Committee of 200 and Simmons College School of Management, there is significant parity in girls' and boys' desire for enjoyable and interesting work, respect, and a “balanced life.” Only three percent of girls and two percent of boys don't think that they will need to support themselves financially. But there are critical differences. Girls place a higher priority than boys on work that involves “helping others and making the world a better place.” And even though girls and boys in high school “are equally likely to be leaders of their clubs and teams” and “rate themselves similarly on leadership skills,” girls “are less likely than boys to aspire to leadership positions in their future careers.” Thus, the study showed that while a majority of girls want to change the world, they don't want to take responsibility to lead or to have authority over others in order to do so. When the question of hierarchy enters into the domain of relationship, girls—and, I submit, their mothers and older sisters—balk.

This raises a serious question: Are the differences in men's and women's relationship to hierarchical power hard-wired into us? It's increasingly popular to assume so. And it may well be true. But before we use this evidence to drop the project of achieving a radical and liberated equality between women and men, I want to slow down. There is something that came alive at the birth of the movement for women's liberation in the sixties that points to a potential so powerful that it calls into question everything that we think we know about the female gender. In the forward momentum of that fresh wave of radical feminist consciousness, women were the vehicles for an almost irresistible impulse to reach higher, to break free, to rise up. “It came at us full tide and from all sides and swept our lives into action, sudden meaning, a transforming vitality, a consuming energy that is still unspent,” Kate Millett recalls. The light of this new consciousness shone on everything in women's lives, from shaving one's legs to the institution of marriage to the workings of industries (including pornography, women's magazines, and fashion) that trained women to walk the narrow path of femininity in high heels. Women were lifted into leadership despite themselves. “To give expressive leadership is exhilarating, draining, and terrifying,” explains Meredith Tax, cofounder of Bread and Roses. “It is not just self-expression; it is letting the spirit speak through you. At certain historical moments when change is possible, collective energy fills the air like static electricity, shooting out sparks.”

These women celebrated sisterhood. “To be a feminist in the early seventies—bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” writes Vivian Gornick. “Not an I-love-you in the world could touch it. There was no other place to be, except with each other.” Ignoring their gender's long history of competition and the very real differences between them, for a glorious evolutionary moment these outrageous and outraged pioneers created an ideal of women-as-sisters, giving them ground beneath their feet as they attempted to leap beyond the safety of homebound relationships into something unknown. The ideal of women united in shared struggle kept them together as they undertook the deliberate act of changing women's consciousness. In small groups, they engaged in an experiment in evolution called “consciousness raising,” or CR. Reaching to see every aspect of their personal experience as the product of a social, political, and economic system that had primarily benefited men, they coined the slogan “the personal is political.” This profoundly impersonal perspective on their personal fears, dreams, and desires created a seismic shift in the consciousness of woman—releasing a rage for change. “We expressed individual rage, but on behalf of a more communal political and economic radicalism than is imaginable now,” says Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall, of New York Radical Women and Redstockings. “The aim was to challenge the systems through which the classifications of 'masculine' and 'feminine' are constructed and maintained. . . . We downplayed the role of the individual. We never dreamed sexism could be solved by changing one man or one woman.”

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