How often do you hear that it's now women's time? Finally. After many, many millennia of male domination, patriarchy is dying and women are stepping forward. Let's heave a big sigh of relief and embrace the new era of women.
Well, I don't think so. I'm not saying this just because women are not there yet -- women lag significantly behind men in leadership or in any of a number of different economic indicators. My disagreement is that thinking of this shift primarily in terms of women misses the deeper current of change that we are in the midst of. We certainly have far to go to bring about parity between the sexes, but for real change to happen in our culture, our hearts and minds need to be awake to a possibility that goes beyond women's equality with men. This deeper current of change has to do with a liberation of human consciousness, female and male, that will enable the emergence of a new culture. And for that to happen, our understanding of our selves has to go through a deep transformation.
Women's liberation marks the beginning of this transformation. The push for women's social equality has rocked the house -- it began to break down the historical division between work and family that has shaped the modern world. We find ourselves still caught straddling this divide, often wondering how or if we will ever manage the competing demands of children and deadlines. But as we focus on finding an impossible balance, we can miss the fact that women are changing as human beings. To compete in the world of work and public life, women have had to cultivate capacities and skills that have been traditionally associated with men, such as agency, intellect, analytic and strategic capacities. Even in sports, women are breaking limits and perceptions of how to inhabit the female form by taking on the male preserve of boxing, soccer, bodybuilding, and weight-lifting.
The trouble is that too often women's core sense of identity doesn't change along with the actual changes in our lives. Women's identity is still focused on being in an intimate relationship or being a mother or caretaker rather than on being a person in our own right. Not that there is anything wrong with wanting these things, but that painfully gnawing sense that "I'm not really a woman if I don't have children or have a husband or attract a lover" hooks women into old, limiting patterns of thinking and being. It constrains women's choices. No matter what we are capable of doing, if our identity is linked to 19th century values for women and men, then we are not going to be free to create a different social world.
While it may seem odd to most of us today, Friedrich Engels argued that the role of women in the family was the archetype for all oppression. How so? In marriage, women were considered their husbands' property. Both women's existence and sense of self, or identity, has been defined by relationship to an "other" -- to men, spouse, or children -- rather than being self-defined as an active, agentic subject on her own feet. Women cannot create and innovate freely and powerfully with men from this subordinate position as "other." One's consciousness and full intelligence simply isn't available when one feels dependent on another for affirmation and selfhood. This shift from being "other" -- or the object -- to becoming a subject, the agent of one's own destiny, is a big deal. It marks the beginning of the end of what feminists have called patriarchy.
It's not all up to women. The agency that has been historically associated with men and masculinity has been radically independent and impenetrable in ways that make interdependence and interrelatedness nearly impossible. Limiting ideas of what makes a man also creates what author Stephanie Coontz calls an "overinvestment in gender identity" that inhibits flexibility and creative exchange between people. Men need to embrace those qualities that have been outside the bounds of traditional masculinity to discover a deeper humanity. Yet it's not easy. As a society, there is far less tolerance for men to step outside of their role. Coontz noted in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that men are more often harassed at work when they participate in childcare or housework. A recent New York Times Magazine cover, highlighting a feature on what are now being called "gender-fluid" children, captures a boy with dark curls flying in the wind as he zips along on a scooter in a hot pink gauzy dress, yet a similar photo of a girl in boys' clothes wouldn't be considered "gender fluid."
From what I see in the unfinished business of the women's movement and in my own experience, it is very tricky to step beyond identities that have been so deeply conditioned by history and cultural expectations. Gender is our core identity, after all. Identity is closer than our skin. In fact, we wouldn't know who we are without it. So, even as we push forward, we keep defaulting -- under stress or at key choice points -- back to our old identities, back to the past rather than stepping beyond what has been. It makes true and equal partnership between men and women exceedingly rare.
To step beyond the gendered divisions in ourselves and in our society, we have to go very deep. The deepest dimension of our self is consciousness. Consciousness has no gender. It is undivided, already whole and free from the conditioned self-sense that limits who we are and what we can be. Cultivating and deepening our recognition of this deepest Self frees us from being locked into identities that are based on the past. It releases a new, creative potential between us. We discover that we are inherently nonseparate and from this unity we can work together to create a culture that no longer divides us, inside and out. We become human to each other and, together, expand the depth and reach of our humanity. This is the time that we are at the brink of -- a time to be human.