What is Women's Liberation?

The current issue of What is Enlightenment? magazine is devoted to an “a cultural, philosophical and spiritual exploration” of Woman. In one featured article, the author posed a question to a wide spectrum of women including spiritual leaders, teachers, feminist thinkers and authors, philosophers, activists and such. (The likes of Gloria Steinem and Eve Ensler among them).

The interviewer writes, “One hundred fifty years after a handful of courageous and visionary women ignited the first movement for equal rights, women in contemporary society are the most liberated ever to have walked the planet.” Given that context she asked them this question:What is liberation for women today?

Before moving on I will acknowledge the obvious— that a large percentage of the women of the world do not have the same liberties and have not benefited from the same advances as the aforementioned “women of contemporary society.” Nonetheless, that does not negate the question for the fortunate among us who have benefited.

Elizabeth Lesser, author and cofounder of the Omega Insititute gave this as part of her response:

We have to deal with our aversion to taking full responsibility for our own lives. If we want liberation we must rewrite the Sleeping Beauty myth. No one is coming and no one else is to blame. [We also have to deal with] our fear of not being liked. Women are obsessed with being nice. Liberation often takes the kind of bold action that leaves Planet Nice in the dust. Women must learn to use the vajra sword of wisdom and perspicacity. Often the kindest thing a liberated person can do it to say no!

Similarly, Tenzin Palmo, Tibetan Buddhist Nun, said:

The solution is in our hands. We don’t have to wait for men to change their attitudes. It’s up to us to change our attitudes, and that’s hopeful because, as with everything, the problem is never out there. It’s always in here.

In secular life, I’m much closer to doing this. I take responsibility for my life, my actions, my body, my career, my time, my spiritual growth. In insitutional religious life, I just don’t know how to find this balance. I do my fair share of blaming the patriarchal structure and the men who run it. How might we give up the Sleeping Beauty myth within male dominated structures? I admit that my current method of dealing with this is to refuse to interact with the structure, because within it I feel utterly powerless. That’s one way to deal (or not deal), but I’m certain there are other ways. Surely there must be women who remain engaged in the LDS church and yet really truly take full personal responsibility, use that vajra sword of wisdom, and feel empowered to use their insight and discernment for the benefit of themselves and all around them without the need for a stamp of approval from the institution. I wonder how they come to that place.

The next issue that I was made to face was referred to several times in the magazine; here’s Tenzin Palmo’s take:

One of the most significant problems is that women don’t support other women. This is a very ironical situation, and it has kept women weak throughout time.We have to stand solidly behind each other and not get caught up in factionalism and jealousy. Until we’re aware of that, it won’t change. . . . We don’t trust each other. We don’t love each other. We don’t value each other. And until we value each other, why should anyone else value us? If women really held hands together, we would be a terrific power.

My initial reaction was denial. I love women. I need to be around them and commune with them and feel their support. How dare she accuse my entire sex of not supporting each other? And then I realized how much I am guilty of this. How often do I only support women who think like me? How many times have I thought mean things about ‘nacle women who come at things from a different perspective? How many times did I sit in Relief Society feeling completely alienated and misunderstood, but mainly because I refused to truly see the other women and find a way to join hands and hearts with them. How much do we judge each other and put down each other’s decisions, or in our Mormon context, question each other’s faith or worthiness? I have to admit the painful truth that I do it all the time. This tears at my heart.

So how can we come together? How can we avoid the factionalism of which Palmo speaks? How can we begin to heal our hurts and bridge divides? I’m starting with acknowledgement that I contribute to the problem, and a renewed, concerted effort to approach the women around me with an open, compassionate heart.

What else can we do?

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  1. Deborah says:

    Amy, this post had me redigging up a Sunstone article I linked to many virtual oases ago:

    Julie Mounteer Hawker’s
    “Toward A More Authentic Sisterhood: Unmasking Hidden Envy And Competition Among LDS Women”

    And then I got to thinking about Podiums and Pedestals — Martha Sonntag Bradley’s book about the church and the ERA — and the woman to woman emotional violence that occured at the Utah IWY (when “niceness” certainly did not rule the day).

    And then I thought about Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth” (just finished it), and the degree to which this turn of the century “manners” tragedy mimics the social visciousness of Mean Girls (a brilliant movie).

    So what about niceness and strong women? I find real “niceness” incredibly liberating. Yes, I get the issues about socialization for “nice” — so much of the girl-to-girl bullying among students flies under the radar to teachers because the bullies look so “sweet.” But when I am comfortable in my own skin and feel like I’m flourishing, my store of compassion and good old fashion kindness is brims. That’s the kind of strength I want — that which enables others to feel strengthened when they interact with me. I’m admittedly much more successful in this endeavor in the workplace than at church . . .

  2. dangermom says:

    Just to comment on the last bit: I sometimes think that the sisterhood we get at church, flawed as it is by our own imperfections, is one of the last bastions of that kind of female solidarity. You get it in other places too, but I hear an amazing number of women comment about rivalry between women (often rooted in fears about losing men) and a real lack of friendship. Many, many women are very lonely and feel that they have no real female friends.

    I love women, and I love the women in my ward, and I feel that I do have that solidarity. But I think I’m lucky.

  3. AmyB says:

    “That’s the kind of strength I want — that which enables others to feel strengthened when they interact with me.”

    Beautifully said, Deborah. I think there are varying ways to see “niceness.” For me, sometimes wanting to be “nice” ends up meaning I completely overlook my own needs or desires, or don’t stand up for myself when I should for fear of offense, or when other people aren’t straight with me becuase they were trying to be nice, that’s when it’s a problem.

    I actually attended a reception last night held by the WIE? magazine editors, and we had presentations from some of the writers of the articles in the “Woman” issue. The energy of the women there was amazing. They seemed so authentic, open, passionate, compassionate. It was really amazing.

  4. AmyB says:

    Dangermom,

    thank you for your comment. I’m not sure I see the lds model as a last basion of female solidarity– I’m finding for myself in other places and in new and exciting ways. But I do think there is good potential there and when it does work, it works in an exquisitely beautiful way. I’m glad you’ve found that in your ward.

  5. dangermom says:

    I didn’t say that the Church is the last one. I simply meant that sisterhood seems to be on the decline, and I feel lucky to have easy access to it when so many women are suffering loneliness. By no means did I say that no one else in the whole world does.

  6. AmyB says:

    Dangermom, I’m sorry I misread your comment. I’m interested in your thought that sisterhood is on the decline. I can see how formal structures and community connections have decreased as western society has changed. I’m thankful that blogging has given us a new way to connect with people, although it doesn’t compare to being in a room with someone.

  7. bigbrownhouse says:

    “We have to deal with our aversion to taking full responsibility for our own lives.”

    This resonates deeply and far more strongly with me than the following statement:

    “We have to stand solidly behind each other and not get caught up in factionalism and jealousy. Until we’re aware of that, it won’t change.”

    I’ve never felt in my bones the need to seek solidarity with all womankind for it’s own sake. I’ll be the first to admit it – I seek to love, trust and value all women, but not any morethan I seek to love trust and value people in general – and that certainly includes men.

  8. bigbrownhouse says:

    And I should add, I’m not saying I’m right or wrong, just giving my reaction. I’d like to track down the magazine and read the whole thing.

  9. Caroline says:

    AmyB,
    I love this post! So interesting to think about what these great feminists now see as the next step for women. And if I weren’t out of town at a public library which is closing in 5 minutes, I would be giving a more meaningful comment. But I’ll be back!

  10. AmyB says:

    bigbrownhouse, I hear you loud and clear. When I was first reading these ideas I had an aversion to the second part you mentioned (avoiding jealousy, factionalism). I decided that the fact that I was so defensive about it might mean there’s something there for me to look at. I almost left the post only to the part about personal responsibility and our pwer to change things ourselves, but decided to make myself dig into the stuff I didn’t like. So just to let you in, that was some of my process.

  11. bigbrownhouse says:

    This has been on my mind all weekend – so, thank you!

    “And until we value each other, why should anyone else value us?”

    Since “we” is all women, the “anyone else” implies men, right?
    So we could rephrase it like this:
    “Until women value each other, why should men value us?”

    I’m struggling to set aside for a moment the fact that I am enormously priveleged and have, frankly, never doubted my value as a person, but I still feel like that question comes from a place of chilling weakness and pessimism.

    “If women really held hands together, we would be a terrific power.”

    Try replacing “women” with “men” in that sentence. It sounds absurd to me.

  12. Kiri Close says:

    Talk to each other. No more lying to each other.

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