Divine Feminine Alert No. 1

Posted on May 16th, by Elizabeth Debold in Blog, Culture, Divine Feminine, Gender. 6 comments

I’ve decided to create an ongoing series of posts 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 C. ideals of womanhood? Those feminine values that are supposed to change the world are primarily based on women’s age-old roles of 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) than 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 rancourous, 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.

6 responses to “Divine Feminine Alert No. 1”

  1. Dear Elizabeth,
    I completely agree that we have romanticized what we mean by “the feminine” and at the same time made the masculine somehow “less than” the feminine in this postmodern period.
    We cannot afford imprecision in our language or our thoughts if we are seeking real conscious evolution. I find the words “feminine” and “masculine” essentially impossible to work with right now as they have no clear operational definitions; evoke many different meanings to different people; and they tend to lock us up rather than move us forward.
    I think the challenge to get past this to true “Integral” or “enlightened” thinking is to put aside what confuses us – even if we have fondness for it – and search with courage for more precise language that maps out the lines, levels, quadrants more clearly. There are beautiful polarities at play here – polarities which we need to master to move to “Tier 2” or Integral / Enlightened stages by any name. Those polarities deserve their own clear names and conscious embrace.
    I personally feel that we must – for at least a while – put aside words that confuse us and embrace the polarities more clearly. Not in the postmodern down side of “there is no difference between men and women” but in the a Tier 2 way where we fearless see what is the human condition and ALL of its polarities. These polarities no longer are neatly summed up by terms connected to our XX or XY chromosomes, or by large “bucket” terms like feminine/masculine. To do neurosurgery we need fine tool and high magnification. To clean up our thinking, advance our cognitive complexity, and route the shadows we need finely tooled language which holds up under close examination. This is the new frontier of “feminism” and I would prefer to call it “human consciousness evolution” – what does it mean to be fully and OPTIMALLY evolved as human being? What poles must we name and how can we embrace them, integrate them, and perhaps transcend the attachment to either pole as we see the “next stage” of our consciousness emerging.
    Thanks for a great post!

  2. Hi Elizabeth
    … in talking about the Divine Feminine I would like to stretch out into the Fully Conscious Human Being. This is a term that you (and Andrew) have used more than once — that has been quite confusing for me — mostly because all the HB’s I know are fully embodied in one of 2 types of body (or variations thereof) each of which gives us the operating equipment to become fully conscious in different ways (ie.. somewhat or completely different epistemologies).

    So, I wanted to build more on your ideas of using Spiral Dynamics integral levels of complexity to go beyond the Divine Feminine, by relating a personal experience.

    I was struck last Fall by a personal insight when you ran the Webinar on “Where are the Women/the Divine Feminine”.

    Through examining the polarities of mind and body (two polarities that Cindy Wigglesworth might perhaps consider worthy of exploring in this discourse??) I have realized that there is a spectrum of mind that runs from systemizing to empathizing and that research shows relate to male (systemizing) and female (sympathizing) (see Baron-Cohen, S. (2003). The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain. New York: Basic Books).

    However there is also a polarity identified by male and female biologies (aka bodies). What’s more, there is not necessarily a one to one match of the mind spectrum with the body spectrum. It is most typical to have male:male mind/body and female:female mind/body — but you can also have male:female mind/ body and vice versa.

    As one who appears to have the male:female mind/body combo, this has brought me many dilemmas of trying to understand many things feminine — let alone the Divine Feminine!!!

    However, on the webinar last Fall, I got an insight that was very helpful. We were talking about what you describe elsewhere, as the culture of Orange Level 5 as being very rational and masculine. I could identify with that, as personally having subjugated my feminine qualities to be successful in that world for 20 years. Then women on the webinar started to explore how the culture of Green Level 6 is very feeling based and feminine. But that Green had not really transcended and included Orange — instead was often antithetical (or even hostile) to it. In the rise of Green culture, the world of Feminism has flourished and so it is held onto with special attachment.

    We went on, in the webinar, to further discuss that as we move into 2nd Tier, into Yellow we must transcend and include not just Green but all of Tier 1 — so we transcend and include the feminized empathy of Green with the masculinized rationalism of Orange — to emerge what? a Fully Conscious Human Being!! This FCHB includes both the qualities of Orange and Green — but subsumed and recalibrated into a self-sense and worldview that embraces both. As I contemplated that, something deep inside me went “click” and the masculine and feminine seemed to re-align in a lived, felt shift!! In a quiet deep moment I felt that my previously polarized qualities that had existed as separate tributaries of self in masculine/Orange and feminine/Green had become unified in a single Yellow flowing stream of a Fully Conscious Human Being.

    I wonder if that is the condition that we are seeking both as women and men? to know ourselves as FCHB, wherever we are embodied on the spectrum of female or male?

    Meshful blessings

  3. Jo Thompson says:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    If we are examining the roles of the feminine versus the role of the masculine in our society , and how to move from these societal roles and stereotypes into the new consciousness and shift that is occurring, then we really have to move beyond the borders of identifying with either male or female.

    For instance, when we examine the past and look at female authority figures such as Cleopatra, what we see is a woman who was in a position of power in a world that was dominated typically by the males in society. Which I believe is the same scenario we see with women in high powered positions today. A female achieves a position of power, but in order to maintain her hold she must play by the rules which are born from a patriarchal society.

    So we must in a new consciousness, not just move from a “male” consciousness into what we deem would be a more “female” consciousness. We must actually move beyond the “lines” of gender altogether. The tough part is how to remove the lines, thus removing the polarities and the stereotypes that are ingrained into our thinking, and into a consciousness that propels us forward in evolution.

    In order to do this we have to let our stories of who we are as either a woman, or as a man leave completely. To identify with your gender, whatever that may be, is a part of ego. It is our story that replays itself in our mind, and it desperately wants us to identify who we are and what our story is, so that it (ego) has a place in our consciousness.

    To move into a new consciousness requires that we do not identify our selves as either male or female, just as we don’t identify our selves as human, as opposed to insect. It requires that we get out of our “story”, and start realizing oneness. We are not part of the whole, we are the “whole”. There are no lines, no polarities, no differences.

    Once we can move beyond the lines ego has created, then we can move towards a consciousness that strengthens bonds between perceived selves, a consciousness that empowers wholeness. We can then move into the mystery, rather than viewing ourselves as separate “mysteries”.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Jo, thanks so much! I couldn’t agree more that we don’t want to try to embrace the “feminine.” (If you know my writing, this fallacy that is posing as our next developmental step is one of my pet peeves.) Humanity’s next stage of development has to take us beyond gender as we know it, to define the human in new ways, discovering what it means to inhabit male and female bodies in the process.

  4. I certainly agree — it is a truism that person’s consciousness in the purest sense is not gendered. However we as collective individuals in femalel bodies must constantly and respectfully redirect the interaction on all levels (material to immaterial) to one of mutual interpersonal interaction and respect that is non-gendered. This is obvious for some and a challenge for others that may not yet have developed the internal resources and self-worth.

    I find that I am typically viewed as female in form but that my interaction and consciousness is respected as non-gendered, once their mental landscape has shifted to allow their conception of me as person (HB) rather than subperson (woman). I do not expect anything but the respect and courtesy I give others as people, not as males or other constructs or objects. This type of interaction is generally well-received but requires an independence and fearlessness on my part that we must not assume all are in a position to assume. Certainly in the US and many other socities, many are focusing on responsibilities to children or others within an institution (i.e. marriage or partnership) that may leave them unable to fulfill their responsibilities without entering into a more or less dependent partnership.

    We need to be compassionate, understanding, and above all accepting — these are humanitarian traits that are in short supply but which are critical to human evolution. Neither an individual nor a society can evolve without acceptance of all levels, including the physical and material realities. Being physically (and institutionally) less powerful, bearing children puts females in yet an even more physically, socially, and economically vulnerable situation. This reason for the existence of physical gender differences is the root, as many have said, for the ongoing recreation of our current societal institutions or relationships. It is essentially impossible to transform unless we consciously structure society so as to either eliminate it or support it — I would guess most would choose option 2. That is, if we transcend the material by embracing it and transforming it in order to reach the next level of consciousness as individuals and collectives, we must honor the material world by accepting it with a true spiritual non-gendered love, per Buddha and many others, in order to transform it. If that means supporting our generation as a species outside of dependent institutions, then so be it. If it means transforming those institutions into true spiritual partnerships, then so be it. Whatever it means, it must be done consciously, both individually and collectively. Consciously and collectively are the key terms here — I don’t know whether it’s possible to transform or evolve as a society, much less as a species, unless it’s done collectively and consciously. Ideally, that means both bottom-up, top-down, and lateral change. As we all know, no one “gets there” until we all get there, change is usually not as fast and deep as we would like, and top-down change where power and ego are institutionalized typically faces the most resistance. These may or may not be true for the spiritual or like-minded sangha, but it is what we are dealing with for the vast majority of humanity throughout history.

  5. sue niedzielski says:

    This subject matter is so invigorating as my experience and verbal exchanges with women through my career have expounded on the fact that our love and compassion do not translate well into female support.

    To begin anew, i suggest we take the Buddhist approach…. Beginner’s Mind. Let us address every situation as though we know nothing of the past. Allow a fresh thinking pattern to emerge and bring about new and creative patterns of behavior to every situation. Doing this we may begin to truly allow the Divine Feminine to flourish.


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