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W. Hunter Roberts

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Reclaiming Femininity

Posted: 10/19/09 11:55 AM ET

In education, in marriage, in religion, in everything, disappointment is the lot of women. It shall be the business of my life to deepen this disappointment in every woman's heart until she bows down to it no longer." --- Lucy Stone, American Suffragist 1855

According to Gallop pollster, Marcus Buckingham, after more than a hundred and fifty years, Ms. Stone got her wish. Women are deeply disappointed, and I say it's about time.

Having worked as a counselor and coach with hundreds of women since the early 1980's, I've had a bird's eye view of the human pain and confusion reflected in Mr. Buckingham's statistics. Many of my clients are the envied women who "have it all"---nice husband, kids, big job, lovely home. Most are physically attractive, too. Yet somewhere between the ages of forty and fifty, these women show up in my office with panic attacks or total burnout. Are these privileged women just ungrateful? Or has something gone terribly wrong?

I would not prescribe socially ordained sex roles as remedy for their unhappiness. Nor would my clients want to return to the television version of the 1950's and vacuum in their pearls and high heels. I remember those years. Women were isolated. They were afraid to do anything on their own, having been told for so long that they were inferior and generally incapable. Professional opportunities were scarce. Wife beating and rape were commonplace, and no one talked about either one, except to whisper that some women liked it. You couldn't leave a bad marriage because divorce was a stigma, and life without a husband was the social and economic kiss of death. You couldn't even go into a restaurant on your own! When a woman aspired to do something outside the norm, like become a scientist or a concert pianist, she was swiftly put in her place with the label "unfeminine."

So femininity became the enemy of self-actualization. If femininity meant having to give up power and autonomy, feminists said, they didn't want any part of it. Out it went, along with goo-ball bread, pin curls, and doilies. They threw out biological explanations along with it for good measure, since those, too, were used to justify confining women to a supine position. I remember people asking, "Don't you think there may be real, natural differences between men and women?" and answering, "There may be. But we can't know what they are for so long as we continue to buy into the stereotypes. We have to strip everything away and see what emerges." So women made one of the bravest ontological moves ever made by any people in the history of human liberation movements. We threw out all our definitions of masculine and feminine, and stepped into the void.

If femininity was just a social convention designed to keep women submissive, we reasoned, then underneath we must be like men. That was where all the social and economic power lay. So we cultivated assertiveness. We invited men out on dates, tried casual sex, climbed the corporate ladder. We competed like men, swore like men, fucked like men, and tried to think like men. We asserted we were whole people, transcending gender, which of course meant we were masculine, since that was the agreed-upon norm for human being.

Now, a mere forty years later, it should not surprise anyone to find women exhausted and less happy than men, strung out on anti-depressants and coffee. Standing on the battle field in the aftermath of the gender wars, we see it strewn with bodies: broken families and communities, cynical, hurt, bitter women, angry, confused, passive men, and little girls sodomized on playgrounds where once pigtail pulling was high crime. No wonder we romanticize 'better times," from ancient matriarchies to Pleasantville. We have created a world in which everyone is on the same treadmill, without any direction for our lives beyond the nearest shopping mall. What is left to make life worth living?

The women I work with are not struggling with issues of survival (although sometimes they think they are). They are high up on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. They are not upset just because they are not getting enough help with the housework, although sometimes they're not. Nor are they angry because they were passed over for a promotion; they weren't. On the outside everything is fine. They have achieved everything they thought they wanted. And they are deeply unhappy.

Whether they know it or not, the people who show up in my office nearly always have some unfulfilled potential, which is threatening to undermine the tenuous personality balance they have achieved by burying inconvenient parts of themselves. At first my clients hope I will help them silence those annoying parts once and for all, but instead I invite them to speak. As we probe, we begin to find answers to Freud's age-old question: What do women want? It is not, as Freud suspected, exactly what men want. Beneath their achievement-oriented lives, most women crave passion, beauty, connection, and a sense of the sacred. (They also want some sleep, which current research shows women need more than men, in order to feel content.)

The inconvenient parts are the feminine parts. My clients have spent their lives trying to best men; competing like men, organizing their time like men, and putting out aggressive energy like men, until they are exhausted. One client tells me her father used to punch her in the arm when she would cry, and say "Be a man." I am sure he thought he was toughening up his daughter to survive in what is still a man's world. He wanted to empower her. He did not understand that her emotions could empower her as a woman.

Our society sees the feminine as extraneous at best, and dangerous at worst. Our decisions as individuals, families, and as a nation are based on what we call survival needs: what we deem to be real, practical, and necessary for physical existence, like efficiency and defense. While no one can question the centrality of survival, this value system, heavily weighted toward the masculine, neglects the things that make life worth living, like beauty, graciousness, compassion, and relatedness. The very things that hold the world together are relegated to the status of luxuries. Art and music get eliminated from our schools. There is no time in our busy lives for volunteering, family dinners, or musical evenings around the piano, no time for friends or community festivals. Instead, we have millions of sleepless, cranky women spending their lives in the fast lane and running on adrenaline, which women are not wired to do. One day they walk into a meeting or a presentation and melt down. Their hearts start pounding. They can't speak. They lose their voice.

One woman, working as an insurance executive, gazed out her fifteenth story window at the glorious spring day below. She then looked down the conference table at the faces eagerly awaiting her strategy for meeting quotas that quarter. Suddenly she thought, "I don't care." She turned to the staff assembled, and said, "I'm sorry. You're going to have to figure this out on your own. I'm going to the park," and walked out of her important job. She now runs a non-profit agency that serves the poorest children in her state. Another woman went to hear poet Mary Oliver read. When she heard the famous line "What will you do with your one wild and precious life," she thought, "Not what I'm doing now." The next day she quit her job and began teaching poetry to pregnant teenage girls.

It takes the realization of disappointment to create the impetus to change. Lucy Stone knew that. A lot of successful, powerful, beautiful women are disappointed. They are not just disappointed in their male-assigned sex roles; they are disappointed in their lives. They are disappointed in the limitations of a society that was, and still is, for the most part, organized around men and masculine values as essential, and women and feminine values as "other," as Simone de Beauvoir observed so long ago. They are disappointed that the very voice that could save us by bringing balance to our world is not welcome at the table.

We need to redefine and reclaim femininity. In 1972 we really didn't know what gender differences were innate; we didn't understand the importance of the feminine, as defined by women, to society and to ourselves. Now we can see. We are starved for grace and beauty, sensuality and spaciousness. Women want to bring their feminine gifts to the world. We want to be honored--and paid--as successful, powerful women, not as replicas of successful, powerful men.

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W. Hunter Roberts (M.S.W., M. Div.) is a counselor and coach using video conferencing to help women and men unlock the secrets of their souls. She has published widely about women's psychology and spirituality.

 

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