Several years ago, a quote by Dorothy Sayers, the Christian essayist and mystery novelist, stopped me in my feminist tracks. “The first thing that strikes the careless observer is that women are unlike men,” she writes. “They are ‘the opposite sex’ (though why ‘opposite’ I do not know; what is the ‘neighboring sex’?). But the fundamental thing is that women are more like men than anything else in the world.” Having spent years exploring gender differences, I found her statement of the obvious to be a complete and refreshing surprise.
So much has been made of the differences between men and women—Mars and Venus, dogs and cats—that sometimes it does seem like we are two different species. The simple fact of sex difference has puzzled humanity since the emergence of human culture. Most ancient cultures—as well as aboriginal peoples everywhere—dotted the heavens with male and female deities that represented different core aspects of the process of creation and the experience of life. Somehow we have always believed that the fact of two, not one, bears a mysterious significance.
Frankly, even today with all of our scientific sophistication, why we exist as two sexes is still a mystery. Why didn’t intelligent life continue the way it began—by some form of cloning? Biologists argue that there were significant evolutionary advantages in mingling DNA from two parents. Through combining DNA, change was built into the process of procreation. But could the existence of the two sexes in fact reflect a deeper pattern in the universe—expressing two fundamental forces, the masculine and the feminine, that are not just human but cosmic? It is very hard to know. Pioneering psychologist Erik Erikson noticed that when young children played with blocks, boys built erect towers and girls created circular enclosed spaces. He didn’t think it was an accident that children constructed structures that reflected their anatomical differences—in fact, he suggested that projecting our experience of embodiment outward is a primary way that we make sense of life. For much of human civilization, for example, we have projected our inner experience onto the world around us, inventing deities that reflect the mysterious forces at work within us. Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Mars, the god of anger. Are feminine and masculine, yin and yang, another projection of our experience onto the canvas of the cosmos? Or is it the other way around—that there are two sacred cosmic principles that are manifested in physical form as male and female and expressed in human psychology as masculine and feminine?
Why does it matter? In the last few issues of this magazine, I have been asking: Where are the women who want to evolve consciousness to the next level of human awakening? Responses, primarily from women, poured into my email in-box from around the globe. We’ve never seen anything like it. By and large, the women who have responded argue that our global culture has been shaped by a hypermasculine ideology that is destructive of the web of life so meticulously woven by nature. They also observe that women are working in every corner of the world to bring forth a feminine form of consciousness, leadership, and social change in order to transform this planet. It’s obvious that women care passionately about the leadership that will bring humanity forward. And I can think of nothing more thrilling—since the sixties, Woman Spirit has ignited, spreading like brushfire around the globe. I wholeheartedly agree that this has to continue. But I would also argue that there is more than bringing forth the feminine that is needed to transform the world. If we believe that masculine and feminine are primary sacred forces embodied by males and females (even though each contains aspects of the other), then the evolutionary progress that we can make will always be bounded by our ideas of who we are as men and women. I’m asking: Could there be something beyond our ideas of the masculine and feminine that marks a new potential for humanity, women and men alike?
Gender holds the heart of culture, I have written elsewhere. Gender is such a primary organizing principle of human life, governing its most intimate aspects, that it is almost unthinkable to seek for new ways of being that take us beyond what is so deeply familiar to us. Our cultures, particularly those that have the most global impact, are patriarchal—meaning that they have developed out of social arrangements in which men hold power. However, it’s not simply that men rule but that most often women are considered to be the lesser, weaker, and justifiably subordinate version of humanity—leading to dismaying episodes in history such as the debate within Christianity as to whether or not women have souls. In many of our societies, perhaps most, patriarchy operates out of what historian Riane Eisler calls a “dominator” model in which everyone, male and female, is distorted in his or her development by dynamics of domination and oppression.
How do we move beyond this dynamic when it is so deeply entwined with our sense of ourselves as men and women? If we take to heart Einstein’s oft-repeated and apt statement that problems can never be solved at the same level at which they were created, it seems doubtful that we will ultimately be able to “solve” the twin problems of patriarchy—the dynamics between women and men and the way our male-dominated cultures function—from within a framework that still sees the solution in terms of our existing ideas of gender. However, at this moment, the need for new leadership that embraces values that have been traditionally ascribed to women—care, communication, inclusiveness—is critical.
So, holding the tension between the need for a solution beyond gender and the immediate need for more “feminine” values in leadership, I want to explore three key themes that emerged across the various responses to my query: Where are the women? These themes contain some popular assumptions about women’s leadership. Given women’s sincere desire to change the world for the better, I believe it’s important that we be very clear about the assumptions we are making so that we can see where they are taking us. And then we can better determine if this is where we need and want to go.