Time to Be Human: Gender Liberation and the Creation of a New Culture
The United Nations declared 1976-1985 the Decade of Women, which created an international consensus on the importance of women’s political and social equality. The African Women’s Decade began in 2010. And in the United States, analysts have called 1992, 2012, and 2013 the Year of the Woman. For the last forty-plus years, since the student revolts of the ‘68 generation, media pundits, activists, and cultural savants have repeatedly announced that women have toppled male hegemony. Recent books, even those written by men such as The Athena Doctrine, explain that women’s ways of thinking or leading will lead to greater success in our highly interdependent, networked world.
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 because women are not there yet—yes, women do still lag significantly behind in leadership or in any of a number of different economic indicators. Elite men hold the reigns of power across the board, including in traditionally female fields such as education. My disagreement with the idea that women rule or should rule the world is based on what I feel is a misperception of the cultural shift that we are in the midst of. Thinking of this shift primarily in terms of women misses the deeper current of change that is happening. Far more needs to happen 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. The 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 ourselves as male or female, man and woman, will have to go through a deep transformation.
Women’s liberation marks the beginning of this transformation. Following on from the great movement to abolish slavery and grant all adults suffrage, the push for women’s social equality rocked the house—it began to break down the historical division between work and family that had 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. Yet, too often this struggle obscures the fact that bridging the divide between what was a male-only public world and a female-only domestic world is actually changing women as human beings. To enter 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 sense of self doesn’t change along with the actual changes in our lives. The core of 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 her 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. American feminist author Stephanie Coontz calls this “overinvestment in…gender identity instead of their individual personhood.” She notes that it’s an identification with old values that prevents us from creating selves that are free to respond to the changing circumstances of our worlds. 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.
Women’s liberation from these old identities is the beginning of a different relationship between women and men. 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? Because when class society developed and man’s home became his castle, men’s rights to property meant that he had effective control over the woman of the house, his wife. Marriage was originally a property exchange and the bride was part of the property. The result was that both women’s existence and her sense of self, or identity, became defined by relationship to others—to men, spouse, or children—rather than being defined as an active, agentic subject on her own feet. Marxists thought that women’s belief that they were happily choosing to be “other” to the one who had the real power and control was a false consciousness that hid the brutal truth of women’s subordination and dependence. Today, ironically, as women are developing capacities to be active, autonomous subjects, so many still cling to historical identities of otherness rather than accepting the freedom and responsibility of autonomous subjecthood. Women cannot create 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—within a social and cultural world defined primarily by men to becoming a subject, the agent of one’s own destiny, creates a new cultural potential.
Likewise, men also need to develop qualities and capacities that have been more traditionally related to women, such as nurturance and caretaking, in order to transform their agency. 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 an “overinvestment in gender identity” that inhibits flexibility and creative exchange between people. It also creates strange ideas of gender freedom—as if freedom from restrictive ideas of masculinity means to adopt traditional notions of femininity. 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.” Male to female transsexual surgeries have been on the rise for the last few decades and are more popular than female to male, which suggests that masculinity feels more limiting than femininity. This extreme example points to the depth of the belief that masculinity is so different from femininity that both qualities cannot abide in one body.
The divide between the worlds of family and work has created an interior divide between masculinity and femininity. The belief that this polarity expresses the right and true relationship between men and women as opposites is an enormous barrier to transformation. It is that core belief that keeps too many women invested in relational otherness—wanting to be wanted, needing to be needed, rather than seeking to fulfill one’s desires and destiny as an active agent of change and potential. It is also that core belief that locks too many men into an isolated agency that prohibits real dialogue and deep engagement with others. Even the popular notion of “balancing” the masculine and feminine in the self still starts from the premise that certain qualities are more appropriate for women or for men. Isn’t creative agency the birthright of any human being? Don’t we want care to be a universal quality that we each cultivate in widening circles of empathy and responsibility for others? The capacities and qualities that have been divided between us as feminine and masculine are human qualities that all human beings, female and male, deserve the freedom to cultivate.
Yet, from what I see both in the unfinished business of the women’s movement and in my own experience, it isn’t easy to step beyond identities that have been so deeply conditioned by history and cultural expectations. Moreover, billions of dollars are spent each year to entice women to think that their deepest and truest power comes from sexual attraction. Billions more are spent in the porn and gaming industries to give young men a sense of entitlement to sex, control, and power. Fraught dynamics between men and women are viewed as natural, as simply the way we are. It makes true and equal partnership between men and women exceedingly rare.
To step beyond the gendered divisions that not only separate us from each other but also from capacities in ourselves so that we can create something new together out of partnership, we need to become aware of our deeper nature: consciousness. The deepest dimension of our selves is consciousness—pure awareness or Spirit. Spirit 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 gives us the inner freedom to engage with life beyond the ways that our minds and bodies have been conditioned through culture. From this enlightened awareness of Spirit as the ground of ourselves, we discover that we are inherently nonseparate and part of something far larger than ourselves. Women’s liberation is the first step in a process of human liberation—giving women and then men permission to free themselves from the constricted roles and narrow identities that block our capacity for full creative partnership with each other. Human liberation through Spirit is the goal. And I think it’s about time.
This article first appeared, translated into German, in the magazine, EnlightenNext Impulse, Issue 8, 2013, and more recently on Integral Life, https://www.integrallife.com/integral-post/time-be-human