(This article is one of a series on the Nine Arms of Women’s Power Wheel. For more information, you can visit www.womenspowerwheel.com.)
Women relate. We are in community all the time. It might be a community of two – you and your partner or you and God – or a community of changing numbers – whoever shows up in your yard, at your door, or in your dreams.
More than ever we need to recognize that the experience of life in community is a reality, not a second-class perspective compelled by emotional instability or lack of self-confidence. Recognizing, honoring, and learning to live in community is in many regards the task of the next century, as we understand more and more that we will be thriving or suffering as a global community – together.
When Carol Gilligan wrote about women’s psychological tendency toward relatedness in her 1982 “In a Different Voice,” she called into question the patriarchal worldview dominating the field of psychology at the time, which emphasized individuality, autonomy, and separation as pinnacles of human development.
More recently, neuroscience supports the view that women’s brains and hormonal systems create a ground for experiences of relatedness in a way that men’s don’t. And, evolutionary science suggests that many qualities we identify with “women’s” and particularly “mothers” like emotional sensitivity, feeling connections, and empathy, are actually part of an evolutionary trajectory leading us all into increased awareness of connection and community. [i]
These developments echo the day-to-day growing sense of global connectivity and the understanding that an old patriarchal model of extreme individualism and competition is not going to be effective in our post-modern era. Events in one part of the world are no longer separated by the boundaries of time and space like they used to be, as the Internet and global communication and travel all have undermined boundaries between nations and cultures. Ecological issues like deforestation and air and water quality also reveal our interdependence, emphasizing that the health of one part of the earth greatly affects others.
The emerging sense of community is not separate from other emerging “feminine” perspectives and experiences that so many are now feeling – like increased sense of the sacredness of all life forms, not just human, or non-rational of modes of thinking like intuition and emotional intelligence,
And as is the case with other emerging global forces, since community and connection are feminine in nature there is a uniquely important role for women to step into.
The dominance of individualism
So many of our current collective assumptions about human maturity, morality, and spheres of responsibility are born from patriarchal theories, world-views, and behaviors that are not coherent with women’s natural wisdom. They do not belong to everybody. They are part of a trajectory of evolution with stages along the way that need to be let go of as we participate in creating the future. This letting go will be easier if we acknowledge their temporary function and impermanence in a human value system.
Exalted ideas about autonomy have a strong religious, economic and political function and were highly intertwined with the decline of the power of the Catholic Church in Europe in the middle ages and with the Renaissance, Reformation and rise of capitalism. The decline of Church absolutism, the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on individual choice and scriptural interpretation, the increasing interest in humanism with its recognition of the power of individual will, and the rise of capitalism and accompanying promises of upward mobility all supported values of individualism that pinnacled in modern times and our ideas about “self-development” and the “self-made man.”
But this was largely a European phenomenon, while many other parts of the world remained more oriented toward community intertwined with spiritual views that emphasized divine power over personal power. The culture clash of individualism and community was lived out violently through colonialism when European settlers brought their ideals to foreign lands. When settlers came to the Americas, they were impressed by Native American’s sense of community[ii] but by the mid-to-late 1800s, the community dimension of Native life was seen backwards, and less civilized than the individualism of the Europeans, which was deeply tied to political and economic ideas about private property and competition for resources. The conflict between individualism and community is well articulated by Joseph R. Brown, one Sioux agent and government official in 1858:
Give a man a separate tract to cultivate and he does not hesitate to labor in the common field… The common field is the seat of barbarism; the separate farm the door to civilization.[iii]
Today, few would equate community or the “common field” as barbarism. Quite the opposite as we are coming to realize just how shared our resources truly are. Nonetheless, our culture is steeped in assumptions about what is more civilized or of higher value, and a sense of individualism and self-determinism tops the list.
To say that this dominant cultural ideal of individualism has held women back and also held back society from developing its sense of collective responsibility is an understatement. It’s time to reclaim and value this sense of community and women need only look inside themselves to find it.
Women and relationship
To say that women are “connectors” or “relational” strikes a few intuitive chords, but where is the foundation for this in the culture, body and in our brains?
Early childhood psychologists have explained women’s relationality through the simple fact of gender sameness between primary caregivers (mothers) and daughters. While daughter will come to see and relate to the mother as essentially similar, a son grows up with a basic sense of “otherness”. These early experiences create a template for girls to relate to the world around them as “like” them, while boys have developed a tendency toward experiencing their own separateness.
Carol Gilligan recognized that studies delineating stages of psychological and moral development were largely done with male subjects and began observing female subjects. Her research offered a very different perspective, one that gave women their own developmental trajectory not through increased autonomy and individual rights, as had been the main patriarchal model, but through expanding spheres of relationship and responsibilities.[iv]
Gilligan’s early feminist work was groundbreaking in the 70s and continues to be integrated into our cultural understanding. Also contributing to this growing awareness is neurological science that identifies key differences in the brains and hormonal systems of men and women, and which reveal the connectivity within a woman’s brain.
For example, Dr. Louann Brizendine researched women’s brains throughout their lifecycle and wrote about her findings in “The Female Brain.” Differences in boys and girls orientation show up right after birth, as studies show girl babies are much more interested in people and faces than boys. In the teen years, increased estrogen activates girls’ emotional responsiveness, while testosterone encourages competition in boys. Girls seek out harmony in groups, while boys want to stand out as the best or strongest.[v] Later in life we see that male brain is less capable of reading emotions in faces and voices, while they excel at abstract reasoning.[vi]
Brain and hormonal responses in women during childrearing also help support and accentuate women’s attachments, as her levels of oxytocin and prolactin – both of which are related to bonding– increase during breastfeeding. Many mothers remember (if they can!) the often debilitating effect of the breastfeeding and sleeplessness of early childrearing on abstract reasoning and memory, skills men continue to use in work outside the home while mothers often stay deeply entwined in emotional and physical union with baby.
Science has shown that the hormones flooding through new mothers are the same hormones at work in generosity, sympathy, conflict resolution, love and empathy. Men are of course capable of these feelings – especially when they fall in love and/or make love, when the body releases oxytocin – but women’s brains and bodies give them to us as an often life-defining and long-lasting gift not just through love-making but years of childrearing.
Many of the intuitive differences we sense between men and women have a base in the brain and a role in evolution. Evolutionary psychologists point out that a woman who is attached to her child is more likely to protect and care for it, continuing the species. Men who are able to solve problems and detach from emotions are more successful at their own roles in advancing the family’s well-being. Brain chemistry plays key roles in these evolutionary functions, providing an instinctual, natural foundation for women to be more relational and connection-oriented than men. And of course cultural norms that support women as primary caregivers not just at home but in schools reinforce and solidify these experiences and identities.
Isolation, connection, and the underworld
Two myths of feminine transformation – the Greek myth of Persephone and the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna and Erishkegal speak of the dangers of isolation, the powers of connection, the price of wholeness in women’s development and the expanding wholeness that synchronizes a mature women with the powers of the earth.
In the myth of Persephone, it is the young woman’s fascination with the narcissus flower, after having been with other maidens in a meadow, that makes her suddenly vulnerable to Hades, who sweeps her down into the underworld to be his bride. Demetir, her mother, is left in great grief and despair, to the degree that she refuses to keep the earth fertile, so it is stricken with drought. In some versions of the myth, it is Hecate, goddess of magic and the crossroads who roams at night flanked by dogs whose sympathy is responsible for bringing Persephone home. In other tellings, it is the fallow earth (and resulting lack of offerings from people) that finally convinces Zeus to allow Persephone to return. But as we know, journeys below never result in a total forgetting of that world, and Persephone – having eaten the fruits of the underworld – is destined to live half the time above and half below.
In the older Sumerian myth of Inanna, this Queen braves a journey to the underworld out of respect for her sister who is grieving for her dead husband, whose funeral rites Inanna chooses to attend. But once there, Erishkegal strips Inanna of all her outer raiments and jewels, hangs her dead on a meat hook and forgets about her. It is the empathy of two creatures who had been sent in case Inanna did not return, that moves Erishkegal to release her and free her to return to her above world. Here, again, Inanna is not entirely released, but like Persephone must return for half the year.
These myths are perhaps two of the oldest and most complex descriptions of female transformation we have available to us and have been interpreted over and over throughout the centuries. They describe the depth and reality of a woman’s power, her connection to the earth and fertility, and her role as connector between the above and the below. And while the myths are from different times and cultures, they describe universal patterns – most notably perhaps the ultimate potential of wholeness that resides to be known in all women and serves to hold seemingly disparate aspects of maiden, wife, and crone, life and death, dark and light, and all that transpires in the above and below worlds.
The wholeness that is gained, lived, and held by the end of these myths is not easily realized. There is loss, violation, despair, and even death/unconsciousness to endure. And once realized, the picture is not all sunny, as both heroines must spend half their lives in the underworld, as though such a journey as theirs never returns one completely back to upper-world normal. But one key to the movement and development in these transitions into wholeness has to do with connection – and the human feelings of grief, empathy, and sympathy.
In Inanna’s story, it is the echoing of Erishkegal’s cries by two genderless creatures made by dirt and sent by Inanna’s grandfather above that move Erishkegal out of her isolated state of grief and rage, and releases Inanna back to the upperworld.
‘Oh! Oh! My belly!’
‘Oh! Oh! Your belly!’
‘Oh! Oh! My back!’
‘Oh! Oh! Your back!’
‘Ah! Ah! My heart!’
‘Ah! Ah! Your heart!’
‘Ah! Ahhhh! My liver!’
‘Ah! Ahhhh! Your liver!’
She looked at them.
‘Who are you,
Moaning – groaning – sighing with me?’
It is this echoing, the awareness of being heard and felt and acknowledged that draws Erishkegal out of her emotional isolation and moves her to grant these beings their wish of releasing Inanna. This is a deeply mysterious indication of the power of feeling in women’s transformation.
In the Persephone myth, it is the entrancement of narcissus – symbol of isolation and self-interest – that makes Persephone vulnerable to Hades, and it is her mother’s unrelenting grief that ultimately leads her home. Again, it is a story of connection and of enduring violation and separation as part of an expanding wholeness.
These myths do not paint a pretty picture of what it means to be a whole woman. These are not “American dream” spiritual ideals of realizing wisdom with no cost, and finding unending happiness. These are stories of how the dark mysteries of the underworld are never left behind even as we return to the light, how fertility includes the despair and death of barren lands and how cycles of life depend on those strong enough to stay connected to life with human feeling. They are stories that insist on emotional connection as key forces of transformation, survival, and new roles in a wider world-view.
And they are precursors for women like Carol Gilligan who came thousands of years later to offer a similar message – women become themselves in part through valuing and living in relation.
Connectivity and the future
There are genuine, important, outer world implications for women’s orientation toward connection that extend beyond individual transformation, and beyond the home and the family. In fact, one of women’s greatest gifts is that it is hard-wired in us to experience greater and greater circles of community and extend our care outwards.
Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammed Yunus was one of the first to emphasize the power of women in community development when his Grameen Bank offered micro-loans to women in developing countries despite many cultural roadblocks. 97% of the banks loans are to women because women’s spending choices benefit more than just their own self-interest. This same phenomenon was recognized by Cheryl Wudunn and Nicholas Kristoff in their research on spending and lending documented in “Half the Sky.”
Because men now typically control the purse strings, it appears that the poorest families in the world typically spend approximately ten times as much (20 percent of their income on average) on a combination of alcohol, prostitutes, candy, sugary drinks, and lavish feasts as they do on educating their children.
Sobonfu Some, elder from the Dagara tribe, describes a similar phenomenon in her community near Burkino Fasso –
Once a Western company came to the community to start a project. They got all the men involved and they ignored the women. Several years passed of pumping money into the project with no results…. On the advice of these men, the company finally got the women involved. And the projects began to succeed. An they even had some projects that were run exclusively by women, and those were especially successful.”[vii]
The spending of money is an indicator of patterns of attention and energy. For better and for worse, men’s desires, energy and attention often naturally extend outward and upward, through imagination, toward abstract challenges, and individual escapism, whereas women’s energy follows her natural attachments to place, the body, family, and friends. It makes sense that when we want to develop and serve our earth-based, day-to-day communities that we allow women the power to create and sustain these relationships through the control of finances.
This innate capacity for women to see and relate to life as community has implications in so many arenas. Trends in globalization, the need to see our world as interconnected in order to solve problems effectively, the connectivity of media and technology, the increasing need for cooperation among sectors of society and among nations – all point to the growing awareness of connection as integral to a flourishing future.
As studies show how the mind can develop its feeling intelligence including empathy and compassion through meditation or other practices, we catch a glimpse of how these instinctual feminine aspects might be part of all our futures. The primatologist Frans B. de Waal author of “The Age of Empathy” believes that connection is hard-wired into all of us and can play a bigger part in our future societies: If we could manage to see people on other continents as part of us, drawing them into our circle of reciprocity and empathy, we would be building upon, rather than going against, our nature.[v]
This is a spiritual message echoed by many. Credo Mutwa, Zulu leader, also calls for the recognition of interdependence:
It is said by our Zulu people that women think with their pelvic area where children grow. We must think that way. We must no longer look at a tree, but I must see a living entity like me in that thing. I must no longer look at a stone, but I must see the future lying dormant in that stone…. We must think like grandmothers.” [iv]
This imperative to “think like grandmothers” who understand the shared living essence of all things, and who have an expansive sense of connection, time and meaning, is relevant now more than ever. The earth and our human systems need an infusion of intelligence born from connection and from care, which compels us toward deeper, long-term vision and experience.
Power and Service
There are powers available to those who are responsive to life. Just like unconditional love grows as we give ourselves to family or community or to the gods we’re devoted to, so also are other energies and forces activated through our willingness to connect and serve.
While this is not exclusive to women, nonetheless, there is something unique in that women are connected and attuned to life in ways that men are not. Women’s natural instinct to relate draws our attention outside ourselves, offering us – as if a gift – the opportunity to align with life’s needs. Of course, we don’t always respond. More often than not we cut ourselves off from life and live in an isolated shell of separateness. But we can understand that this sense of separation is not natural to us. It is not who we are. It is not our nature or our potential. It is a shell that needs to be shed in order to reveal our sense of connection and our capacity to serve.
Power accessed through connection is not ours as much as it belongs to the web of life of which we are a part. There are powers dormant in this web, waiting to be honored and activated, but it only emerges through our awareness of connection.
Mother Teresa once said: I want you to care about your neighbor. Do you even know your neighbor? She recognized that the isolating tendencies of modern life put up barriers that we might have to disable if we are to relate appropriately to those around us. The first step to activating the endless possibilities and powers within connection is through opening ourselves to others, reaching across boundaries and simply recognizing and acknowledging that we share our world.
Women have often lived this sense of community through our shadow – through our insecurities and our needs, and with a sense of shame as though being attached to life is not as mature, important, or even spiritual as being detached. But life depends on women’s attachments. And the time is now for women to step forward and honor our capacity to relate, our willingness to respond, and the unique ways we can serve.
[i] See “The Female Brain” by Louann Brizendine, M.D. and “Brain Sex: The real difference between men and women” by Anne Moir and David Jessel.
[ii] Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck, a leader of the German settlement of Ebenezer, Georgia, wrote in his 1736 journal that despite violence in many areas of life:
Their table is open to everyone, and one can sit at it uninvited. When an Indian wants to assure someone of his friendship, he strikes himself with his right hand on his left breast and says, my breast is like your breast, my and your breast is one breast – equivalent of my and your heart is one heart, my heart is closely bound with your heart, &c.[ii]
[iii] Nichols, Roger L.The American Indian: Past and Present, pg. 201
[iv] The elusive mystery of women’s development lies in its recognition of the continuing importance of attachment in the human life cycle. Women’s place in man’s life cycle is to protect this recognition while the developmental litany intones the celebration of separation, autonomy, individuation, and natural rights.” Pg 23
[v] “The female brain has tremendous unique aptitudes – outstanding verbal agility, the ability to connect deeply in friendship, a nearly psychic capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotions and states of mind, and the ability to defuse conflict. All of this is hardwired into the brains of women. These are the talents women are born with that many men, frankly, are not.” Pg. 8
[vi] Brain Sex, by Anne Moir and David Jessel. Pg. 17
[vii] See The Unknown She, Hilary Hart pg. 247-248