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Elizabeth Debold Headshot

Divine Feminine Alert

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I'd like to challenge one of the most popular beliefs of our era: that women have a profoundly different value set than men, and that embracing these particularly feminine values will change the world. Men, and masculine thinking, have dominated the world and made a mess, so now women, and the feminine, are desperately needed to clean it all up. That's how the story goes. And in postmodern spiritual circles, these traditional qualities of women that are associated with our roles as mothers, wives, and caretakers are often raised to, well, divine status. That's why I call this the myth of the Divine Feminine.

This isn't problematic simply because women end up once again with the thankless task of cleaning up after everyone! As I have written before, this way of looking at the world polarizes the masculine and feminine, and men and women, in ways that are simplistic and divisive. Moreover, our ideas of the feminine—representing compassion, feeling, caring, embodiment, nurturing, etc. etc.—are reheated leftovers of the Victorian ideal of the good woman, the "Angel in the House." We've just sexed her up a bit. How can we create a new culture, if our template for women's role is based on being sexy but "good," bound to 19th century ideals of womanhood? Those feminine values that are supposed to change the world are primarily based on women's age-old roles relating to sex and reproduction. That can't possibly lead to anything new between the sexes, can it? If we want to create a new culture, then men and women will have to find a new basis of trust that will be its foundation. Because the relationship between women and men creates the bedrock dynamic upon which any culture stands.

So, here's my first salvo at the idea that women are inherently different (read: more caring, compassionate, peace loving, and just plain good) from men. Check out Cleopatra and the Macedonian queens. (Sounds like the name of a girl band!) In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Stacy Schiff comments that Cleopatra, who ruled for 21 years, "was essentially a female king."

Cleopatra arguably had more powerful female role models than any other woman in history. They were not so much paragons of virtue as shrewd political operators. Her antecedents were the rancorous, meddlesome Macedonian queens who routinely poisoned brothers and sent armies against sons. Cleopatra's great-grandmother waged one civil war against her parents, another against her children. These women were raised to rule.

Now, it may seem unfair to call on an ancient queen to make my argument. Admittedly, Cleopatra's time was very different from our own. In the lingo of Spiral Dynamics, the theory of cultural development based on the work of Clare Graves (and carried forward by Don Beck), she was a RED queen—and I'm not referring to Alice in Wonderland. Quite the opposite: at the RED stage of cultural development we see the emergence of kingdoms run by rulers with semi-divine status. (Often a lot of human and animal sacrifice is involved.) The true power behind the throne is impulsivity and the desire for domination. Domination and subordination are the core dynamics of the RED cultural system. Cleopatra, and her lovely female forebears, ruled as long as they could dominate, intimidate, and manipulate. Just like the men did at the time—gender only made a difference because women, who are typically less physically imposing and strong than men, would have had a more difficult time dominating. (While most of these cultures belong to the far off past, RED cultures and rulers exist today. Think of Saddam Hussein—he was a RED ruler. He played out the whole drama of the WMDs, leading to his own demise, in order to appear invincible to his people to maintain his control over them. Appearing weak would have been the end of him.) But there are some fearsome examples of women in history who held the reigns in a RED kingdom with an iron grip.

That's part of my point. The expression of the feminine—if by that we mean some essential something that women express more than or rather than men—has varied enormously across history. In Cleopatra's time, and in all RED cultures, you could pretty much say that there really wasn't a notion of the feminine that women were expected to adhere to. One's position in the dominance hierarchy determined behavior, privileges, and status much more than one's gender.

Our notions of the feminine today are often idealized and sanitized, excluding aspects of our humanity that, say, a Cleopatra expressed freely. Women's relationship to power is not innocent or pure. So often, blinded by our hopes for the feminine and for a saner world, we deny that women even have self-serving motivations or raw ambition or the desire for power in order to wield control. That denial does us all an enormous disservice. It keeps us women from addressing, in ourselves and with each other, darker impulses and aspects of the self that block us from advancing together and creating a new culture through our relationships with other women and with men. Without facing this head on, women will never be able to hold and express authority cleanly and with the real respect of men.

Which reminds me of another recent New York Times article on bullying in the workplace that presented research documenting how women cannabilize each other in order to get ahead. (More men [60%] are workplace bullies, but men tend to be more egalitarian in their approach—"mowing down men and women pretty much in equal measure." But women [who are a full 40% of bullies] bully each other, "choosing other women as targets more than 70 percent of the time.") The article cites Peggy Klaus, an executive coach in Berkeley, Calif., who calls this "the pink elephant" in the (board)room. But few women want to talk about this, because it's "so antithetical to the way that we are supposed to behave to other women," Ms. Klaus said. "We are supposed to be the nurturers and the supporters."

It's that "supposed to be" that I see as a problem of Divine Feminine thinking. If we are trying to reach the impossible ideal of being perfectly supportive angels, and refusing to deal with the Cleopatra in us, we aren't going to create new, straightforward ways of being with each other and with men that actually changes core dynamics in our world.

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