What would happen “If Women Ruled the World...”

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In her acceptance speech for a 2007 Emmy Award, actress Sally Field boldly declared, “If mothers ruled the world, there wouldn’t be any God-damned wars in the first place!”


And there it is. We’ve all heard it. Another variation on the famous quote, “If women ruled the world there’d be no more wars.” I heard the same thing on the bus the other day and have since tried to find its source, but can’t. The truth is, whoever coined the phrase couldn’t have been up on their history (nor was Sally Field). History is full of women rulers (and mothers) who not only went to war, but whose cutthroat politics would put them in good company with many a male autocrat. That’s probably the reason why no serious scholars today argue for ‘women only’ leadership. It doesn’t make sense given all we know about human nature – men or women.

But what about the general public, how do we perceive women leaders? Interestingly, studies show that many of us consistently rate women much more favourably than men in most key leadership traits.

So why the mix-up between history and our view of female leadership? Part I of this article looks at a few female stereotypes and compares them to examples of women leaders throughout history. Part II tackles a new stereotype I call the Cult of the Goddess and argues for a more realistic and constructive consideration of modern women. Here we go!

Part I: If Women Ruled the World

Women are inherently good. They’re morally superior and don’t hurt people. They smell pretty too.

You don’t believe this crap do you?

There’ve been women political leaders throughout history. Like their male counterparts, some were good leaders, others weren’t. It’s a myth that women possess an inborn trait that makes them ‘good people’, simply because ‘good’ is a matter of character, not gender.

burned_at_stake1Irene of Athens (8th century): had her son blinded so she could become empress of the Byzantium empire. (Um, not so ‘good’)

Isabella I (15th century): expelled all Jews and Muslims from Spain; re-conquered Grenada; began the colonization of the New World; initiated the Spanish inquisition, killing thousands through torture and burning at the stake. (Yay!)

Mary I Bloody Mary (16th Century): burned thousands of religious dissenters at the stake; waged war in Ireland and France. (Now we’re talkin’)

Nzinga Mbandi (17th Century): had her brother killed so she could ascend the throne of Angola.

Catherine the Great (18th Century): engaged expansive military campaigns through central Asia and Eastern Europe; brutally quelled rebellions throughout the Russian empire.

Empress Dowager Cixi (19th Century): killed political rivals; may have killed her own son to ascend the throne; her penchant for fine luxuries almost broke the Chinese state treasury. (Need a few more?)

Golda Meir the original Iron Lady (20th Century): considered Palestine a British fabrication and famously declared, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people”; refused to stop expansion of Israeli settlements.

Indira Gandhi (20th Century): led India in war against Pakistan; waged an internal campaign against Sikh communities in India; imprisoned political foes and censored the press; tested nuclear weapons.

falklandsMargaret Thatcher the Iron Lady (20th century): launched the Falklands war; contributed to the Cold War build-up of nuclear weapons in Europe; bombed Libya; supported foreign dictators like Augusto Pinochet; privatized many British social services and national industries; ate unions for breakfast. (and a mother no less, yikes!)

Benazir Bhutto (20th Century): removed twice from office of Pakistani Prime Minister on grounds of corruption; allowed intermediaries to smuggle uranium enrichment data to North Korea; adamantly opposed abortion; supported the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan.

Condoleezza Rice (20th Century): as National Security Advisor of the United States she pushed for the 2003 invasion of Iraq (based on its supposed possession of WMDs); authorized the use of illegal torture techniques such as waterboarding on detainees.

boudiccaOf course, there’ve been lots of inspiring female leaders throughout history too like Grace O’Malley, Joan of Arc, Zenobia, the Trung sisters, Queen Victoria, and Boudicca, to name a few. And because I don’t want to paint these historical characters in black and white, it’s good to note that some of the women on the list above also did great things during their reign. Catherine the Great, for example, was a large financial supporter of arts and culture, while Nzinga Mbandi helped resettle former slaves during the Portuguese slave trade. What the list highlights, however, is that the notion of women as good and benign rulers is historically a false stereotype. It’s not true.

Emily White, author of the book, Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes And The Myth Of The Slut, explains where the idea of the benevolent female ruler might have come from:


What [Gloria] Steinem and many of her peers in the Second Wave feminist movement preached was that women were innately, intuitively opposed to war. At the height of the Vietnam era, the women’s liberation movement and the antiwar movement were cross-pollinating, forming hybrid ideologies. The idea that grew from this period and gained ascendency in popular media representations of feminism and 'women's lib' - the versions of feminist zeitgeist I saw on TV as a girl - was that women were natural pacifists. If women had been running the world, the argument went, the war would have never happened.

White claims her own belief in a utopian world ruled by women was slowly eroded during her years working for a feminist press. “It was not a happy or peaceful place to work. Among the women of the all-female staff, power struggles flourished unchecked. My boss, who looked like a sweet earth mother, was petty and cruel, full of mixed messages and little jabs.” (Br. TJ explores this idea of infighting among women in greater detail, here.)

woman_grabs_ballsThe point isn’t that women are terrible people and that working for them is some sort of rotten experience. On the contrary, some women are very kind, gentle and all-around great people. But there’s no reason to believe that putting ‘good’, benevolent women in charge is going to lead us to a cultural transformation.

But wait, just because they’re not ‘good’ doesn’t mean they’re still not better leaders than men. Women around the world today hold major positions of leadership – from Christine Lagarde at the head of the IMF, to Mary Schapiro Chair of the Securities & Exchange Commission in the US, and numerous heads of state, in Germany, Brazil, India, and Australia. With so many women now in visible positions of power, how do we perceive their ability to lead?

The public thinks very highly of women leaders

A recent 2008 study by the US based Pew Research centre, found that public perceptions of women leaders was much more favourable to that of men in key leadership traits. Respondents (2,250 were polled) said that women were more compassionate, honest, and creative than men[1]. In policy matters they were “widely judged to be better than men at dealing with social issues such as health care and education” and in job performance skills women received higher marks when measured for “standing up for one's principles in the face of political pressure; being able to work out compromises; keeping government honest; and representing the interests of ‘people like you’”.

women_ruleAnd here’s where it gets juicy: In the eight leadership traits deemed most important by respondents, women were judged to have greater capacities in five (intelligence, honesty, outgoingness, compassion, and creativity)! In two traits (work ethic and ambition) men and women were judged equal, and in just one trait (decisiveness) men came out on top. As a man, I cannot say this bodes well for my gender.

Even though women are rated higher in leadership qualities, they still don’t outnumber men in positions of leadership (even in America where the Pew survey was conducted)[2]. The reasons for this are many and have been explored exhaustively elsewhere. There are, for example, social and systemic barriers limiting women’s access to higher office, as well as cultural expectations such as child rearing duties and pregnancy, which conspire against women being hired on equal terms with men. These issues are troubling and must be addressed. The focus of this article, however, is not the barriers to women’s office but the cultural stereotypes surrounding their abilities.

palin2Online comment sections give anecdotal, fly-on-the-wall evidence about public stereotypes of women. In a 2008 article in the New York Times, reporting the popularity among men of US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the comment section reveals some interesting takes on the nature of women. An insurance agent from Indiana asks rhetorically, "Who can't trust a mother?" A former truck driver in North Carolina says, "They bear us children, they risk their lives to give us birth, so maybe it's time we let a woman lead us." He went on, "The sexual drives and big egos of male leaders have gotten in the way of politics in this country." Another adds, "Women don't have big egos and ambition.” Academic perspectives are often (not always) more nuanced than this, but in many ways public perception seems to hold generally positive stereotypes concerning women leaders.

So why are women leaders considered more compassionate, honest, and compromising when historical evidence suggests that’s not actually the case?

iraq_warEven many of our modern women leaders can’t standup to the Pew stereotypes of outgoingness, honesty, compassion, and intelligence. Sarah Palin’s ‘outgoingness’ didn’t limit her polarizing rants to American society nor her uninformed version of small town politics. The ‘compassion’ of Ana Palacio, Spanish foreign minister in 2003, didn’t change her UN Security Council ‘Yes’ vote in favour of invasion in Iraq[3]. Bangladeshi Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina’s, ‘honesty’ didn’t stop her from sacking women’s rights advocate and Nobel laureate, Muhammad Yunus, from the Grameen Bank, in what is widely regarded as umbrage for his short entry into politics. And unfortunately, the ‘intelligence’ of Dambisa Moyo has only helped bolster her neo-liberal leanings and better advocate for less foreign aid to Africa.

Something’s going on here. I’d like to argue a groundbreaking point: not all women are created equal.

Women are not all the same. 

Women are a large and diverse group. As a segment of society they naturally express varying motives, political beliefs, and personalities that run the entire spectrum of human nature. In the anthology, Dropped Threads, Margaret Atwood describes it like this:


Women are not Woman. They come in all shapes, sizes, colours, classes, ages and degrees of moral rectitude. They don’t all behave, think or feel the same, any more than they all take size eight. All of them are real. Some of them are wonderful. Some of them are awful. To deny them this is to deny them their humanity and to restrict their area of moral choice to the size of a teacup. To define women as by nature better than men is to ape the Victorians: “Woman” was given “moral superiority” by them because all other forms of superiority had been taken away.



In many cases the differences between two women can be even larger than the differences between a given man and woman. This is true in biological traits like body size, strength and hormone levels, and it extends to personality types and political preferences too (they're not all anti-war liberals!). This all seems obvious enough; yet apparently we still hold general assumptions that women are a homogenous, inherently trustworthy and compassionate group.

In our quest for social equality among men and women, we’ve perhaps gone a step too far and equalized all women as inherently good, morally superior, or better than men. Equalizing all women is not the same as creating an equal society. Equal rights are different from equal abilities. Stereotyping equal abilities among women – and highly positive ones at that - implies that there’s not so much work to be done in terms of personal growth. Everyone’s fine just the way they are. I see this theme arising in the narcissistic, self-congratulatory culture of what I call The Cult of the Goddess. Which brings us to part two: (to be posted Nov. 16, 2011)

[1] Compassionate: 80% of respondents say women, 5% men; Creative: 62% said women, 11% said men; Honest: 50% said women, 20% said men.

[2] A UN sponsored study in 2008 found that worldwide women accounted for only 4.5% of head of state positions, and occupied only 11% of parliament seats. In the US, where the Pew study was taken, women CEOs command just 2% of the top fortune 500 companies and about 16% of congress and senate seats. And although the study found that 69% of respondents believed that women were at least equal leaders to men, there’s still a large gap between opinion and actual employment.

[3] The vote and invasion proceeded in the face of a “huge majority” of Spaniards that opposed the war (CNN).


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  • Comment Link Trish Tuesday, 15 November 2011 23:45 posted by Trish

    I believe that one of the dominant sources for the 'if women ruled, there would be no war,' concept is Marija Gimbutas. She is one of a group of feminists (~1980s) who argued that there was a 'goddess' (preceding the Western masculine god takeover), and that a goddess, or to use her term, matrifocal culture would (be definition) be more gender equal, less violent, and ecofriendly. while heavily disputed, she has been a powerful influence.

    Given the length of recorded, and generally Western human history you reference, and the preponderance of male control in almost every dimension, I don't buy your argument that history is "full" of women leaders. The proportion is so small--a handful of women leaders. Moreover, given male control, most women have and continue to take on male characteristics in order to be successful. I think it highly unlikely they reflect the actual "common" female perspective, which is what I would be a lot more interested in. Is there one?

    If women do share any common perspective, what would it be? What 'intelligences' or values mark that perspective? Which could suggest how things might change if world leadership across all social, political, and economic dimensions were dominated by women? I actually do wonder, from time to time, what would happen if the proportions of men and women in leadership were simply reversed. Set the clock and let it run 100 years, see what happens.

    P.S. Is there a common male perspective, with respective 'male' intelligences or values?

  • Comment Link Olen Wednesday, 16 November 2011 03:48 posted by Olen

    Hey Berg, I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts as to what deeper and essential contributions you think modern women can bring, if any to this conversation of leadership.

    My sense so far is that your deliberately ignoring or seriously underplaying the wisdom ethos and rich contributions of women in formulating your views here. I'm not sure why you'd do this?

    The quick list of tyrant women figures in no way makes a sound case for ignoring certain vital qualities, relational and embodied way of knowing and being among others that women could bring to this conversation of leadership and would help our current world situation out tremendously.

    I guess what isn't sitting well with me about this piece is that it strips away or simply ignores grounds for making any worthwhile orienting generalizations concerning women's contributions to leadership.

    just my two cents,


  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Wednesday, 16 November 2011 08:31 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Hi Trish,

    Thanks for the pointer to Gimbutas. I'm not familiar with her work but recognize her name as a key reference for Riane Eisler's famous text, the Chalice & the Blade. Makes sense, as her book discusses many of the goddess and matrifocal ideas you've attributed to Gimbutas.

    Astute point on my use of 'full'. I agree, 'hand-full' would be more accurate. I know why I used it though. When doing initial research for the article, I was totally blown-away by the number of historical women leaders. I couldn't believe I'd never heard of them before. Chalk it up to a male-centric history record and my own ignorance. But as I started to look I found myself saying - "Hey history is full of these ladies!".

    I'm not sure I agree with the implications of this point: "given male control, most women have and continue to take on male characteristics in order to be successful.I think it highly unlikely they reflect the actual "common" female perspective, which is what I would be a lot more interested in. Is there one? "

    First, I think your question at the end is very important. I'll come back to it.

    What the point (before the question) implies, however, is the very thing I was trying to get at in my article. Doesn't the point carry an underlying assumption that the only reason women would act in any way other than 'good' or 'benevolent' is because they are caused to do so by the male-dominated system?

    It suggests that the common female perspective (which we're undecided on so far) is going to be better and more 'good' than the current male one. Now it might very well be! But the point is that we hold this implicit view of women as somehow holier and less willing to cause harm than their male counterparts. I don't believe that personally. It doesn't match my experience with women, or any humans, in fact. I'll borrow a bit from the Atwood quote above:

    "To define women as by nature better than men is to ape the Victorians: “Woman” was given “moral superiority” by them because all other forms of superiority had been taken away."

    Back to your question: "If women do share any common perspective, what would it be?'

    That's a good one, key perhaps. And I don't have an answer. A first thought would be any common perspective would be very deep and subtle. Like perspective gleaned from biological experience, or the experience of living in a particular time and culture. Things that are hard to see without a lot of deep collective-contemplation or mountains of interviews and reflection. Other things like preferences, traits, types, dispositions, etc., are widely varied, I'd gander. (I'd say the same applies for men)

    You question of reversal is a good one too. One of the best thought experiments I've ever been asked to do was to imagine what it'd be like to be physically weaker than 50% of the people around me.That was a welcome shift in perspective! For a moment I felt like I better understood what it would be like to be in a female body. I imagine the diversity of women's perspectives would add many such insights to the male-dominated system.

    Thanks for the important points,

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Wednesday, 16 November 2011 08:34 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Br. Olen,

    I can tell you're a bit riled up by this article and I look forward to our discussion and debate!

    First, you're right. I didn't speak nearly as much as I could have on the positive "contributions" of women's leadership. But that's because I'm trying to make a specific point: that not all women are sugar and spice and everything nice, so let's stop pretending as much. It's an obvious point, not very nuanced, and pretty self-evident in my opinion. Alas, an article's and article, and not a book. I can't speak to every point. That's what the comment section is for... On to debate!

    I think you're argument is very well meaning and I completely agree with your basic point: women have different qualities than men, we need more women leaders.

    But I think we need more women leaders because diversity is healthy. Multiple perspectives can have huge impacts in problem solving, equality, vision, and just plain richness of life. For this same reason I also think we need more leaders of colour, religion, sexual orientation, and ethnicity (including indigenous groups).

    But in the same way that I'd never claim indigenous people or people of a certain religion were all 'good' people, I can't claim that women are either. It's absurd.

    Yet that's the very thing we often do when saying we need more women leaders. We don't just say we need them because they'll bring diversity or new perspectives (which they will), we tack on this little subtext that implies they are somehow inherently good or morally superior to men. Why do we do that? That was the inquiry that prompted my article.

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Wednesday, 16 November 2011 10:27 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    My sense of this turns on the word "ruled" -- which inherently speaks of power as power over. This type of power is already morally corrupt. So the title of the piece reduces to "if women were the group that had power over everyone, then that would also be morally corrupt" - which is a rather trivial version of it, but for me gets straight to the truth. The moral corruption of this type of power can be seen *both* in the ways that men (code for "in power") exercise their dominant mode and also in the ways that women (code for "outside power") accommodate to that role. As the power equation shifts, both men and women can experience, alternately and/or simultaneously, both roles (being the rule maker, or having to accommodate to the rules). Coming from the outside, in, women can either 1) adopt the conventional role of power and structures 2) exacerbate it by working toward oppressing the oppressor and creating equal and opposite oppressive structures against them, or 3) act toward a post-conventional reconciliation through creating liberating structures for all. It would be interesting study to see if there is a relationship between the growth to post-conventional moral aptitude and gender, and/or other oppressed groups in various societies. My guess is that would not be the case, as it seems from all kinds of developmental psychographs, that moral aptitude is all over the place...

  • Comment Link Olen Wednesday, 16 November 2011 14:24 posted by Olen

    Br. Berg,

    Definitely getting riled up there for a minute as I wasn't feeling your love and admiration for women!

    Stepping back from your piece here, I see your doing some important semantic housecleaning around some of the ways in which we commonly talk and think about these issues.
    I also wonder about your point around the contributions of women to leadership being diversity and inclusivity of perspectives. To my mind these are neutral distinctions or placeholders for key values that haven’t yet been voiced.

    My concern was more in the process of cleaning house here (again important work!), lets be careful not to ignore the profound wisdom ethos and milieu of enlightened care within the sisterhood that has held and continues to hold the human family together since time immemorial..

  • Comment Link Vanessa D. Fisher Wednesday, 16 November 2011 14:54 posted by Vanessa D. Fisher

    Hey Berg,

    Definitely a provocative piece. I'll wait to read part two before offering any full comments.

    One thought is that I think, in general, it is always a delicate line when a man takes on writing about women's shadows or their role in culture, which is why you may get some flack. I've found the same struggle in trying to write about women in other cultures--it's some of the most difficult writing to do because of how many filters I have from my own perspective as a white woman. Doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, just that it is delicate, as I'm sure you know.

    My own main concern came up more on the last sentence of this article. I will obviously have to see your second half before I say anything of real value. But I guess the concern for me came up with the framing of the Goddess. I completely agree that the negative forms of "Feminine/Goddess" ideology are out there (as I spoke to very frankly and critically about in my own article).
    But I also think the Goddess has played a very important role in helping women relate to an image of the divine outside of patriarchal religious structures that have offered them no reflection of themselves in their own image within traditional religion.

    Gender is not everything, and it shouldn't be overly emphasized in a divisive way--totally. That said, in religious contexts, I believe many women, at different points in their development, need these gendered divine images and the vibration that they carry to connect with their own higher self.

    And much of my own concern with the Feminine and the Goddess ideology is how it has been filtered through the mainstream and through patriarchy. This leads to that "power over" dynamic that Bonnitta is pointing out. Women can play into the same games. And by patriarchy I don't mean MEN=BAD PATRIARCHY. Patriarchy is a system...

    My co-editor for my upcoming anthology on integral approaches to sex and gender, Dr. Sarah Nicholson, did her whole PhD on this topic of female images of the divine and their importance on women's spiritual journey from an integral perspective. The thesis is called: In the Footsteps of the Heroine. I'm trying to post her link, but it isn't working! sorry.

    Anyways, you may address all this stuff, and you may not. Either way, I'm very interested to read it. I just felt my concern to want to preserve both sides of the equation.

    much love,

  • Comment Link Carolyn Victoria Mill Wednesday, 16 November 2011 18:32 posted by Carolyn Victoria Mill

    the only women who have been 'permitted' to rule by a still patriarchal society are those that most resemble men in their attitudes, policies and actions. this greatly skews the few examples (4.5%16% tops) or women in leadership positions. We may never see what - all things one day equal - a an average woman leader and her policies would look like. But due to the vast biological differences between men and women, it would follow that it would, if nothing else, be different. and brother, sister - I could use a change.

  • Comment Link Sarah Olson Thursday, 17 November 2011 00:45 posted by Sarah Olson

    I totally loved this article (and am loving this theme week in general) and really appreciate the clarity and discussion that is coming forward.

    I felt like the piece was crystal clear in achieving it's intent, and it's opened up some useful reflection for me in how I perceive women in positions of leadership. I notice a dis-connect in my idealized vision of power and equality (which truth be told, does hold some of the myths of the goodness of women you speak to Bergen), and the way I see women enacting their leadership positions all around me.

    I work in medicine, and as over 55% of new medical students (in Canada) are women, there are plenty of very powerful women in this field. Many of them are anything but warm and fuzzy, and are far from what I would consider to be "good", whether in terms of moral fortitude, or just being a kind, considerate, connected individual.

    Now it must be said that many (most) of the women I am thinking of are in surgical or intense medical specialities (such as cardiology or gastroenterology) that are incredibly time-consuming, competitive, and at times cut throat, and the individuals who end up in these powerful positions have gone through the grinder, so to speak, of this system/process. It is very hard to say how much this process and culture influences how these women end up behaving once they have gotten to the top. Women also have to have some inclination towards those characteristics to even apply for those specialties in the first place! One thing is for sure, though - their being women does not in anyway protect them from being just as big of assholes as the men in those positions (would that it did!).

    Maybe touching on some of what Olen was saying, and a bit of an aside, there are ways I think women make exceptional doctors, and from my observation, they do seem to have an edge up on men in terms of empathy and inter-personal skill with their patients (clearly I am generalizing, and leaving out the women mentioned above). Hard to say to what degree those qualities are simply allowed to flourish more in women than men (this gets to a bit of what is happening in the comments section over yonder on Chris Dierkes latest article) but it has been my experience. I should add though, that the most sensitive pelvic exam and PAP smear I have ever seen (in a terrified woman with a history of sexual abuse) was done by a man.

    I wanted to say as well that I found myself reacting a bit to Vanessa's first paragraph warning Bergen that he may take some flack for daring to address women's shadow (or whatever you want to call it) like he did in this piece. While it may be true, is it valid or fair? It seems that those who are outside of the group being spoken about (in this case women) may be uniquely and importantly positioned to clearly see things that those inside the group can't see. I'm pretty wary intuitively of any move to silence men from speaking about these issues - (not that I think you were doing that Vanessa, just wanted to voice my opinion on this one) and think we need to whole-heartedly encourage clarity here, wherever that voice might come from.

    Just some thoughts that came up for me, and thanks to all for your comments.

  • Comment Link Vanessa D. Fisher Thursday, 17 November 2011 08:07 posted by Vanessa D. Fisher

    Great comments, Sarah.

    In regards to your concern with my comments. I think it is fair to be concerned about silencing men on these issues, so thanks for bringing it up. I don't want to silence men on these issues, and that definitely wasn't my intent with my comments, although I can see it being read that way.

    I actually have the same concerns with myself in regards to speaking about other cultures, or men's issues (see my comments on Dierke's piece in the bits and pieces section).

    I definitely agree with you that those outside can offer perspective that is hard to get from the inside. I also think it is delicate for a few reasons, but that shouldn't silence us from doing it, and I honor Berg for taking the risk and speaking articulately about the issues.

    There are some filters I have concerns about in the piece, but it doesn't mean I don't think it is good. Perhaps I should have contextualized that better.

    And my warning was just my sense that other women might take issue with a few things. At the same time, Berg doesn't really need me to warn him about that. He's a big boy, and that was probably my own stuff to be concerned around it. Perhaps I was trying to soften the blow he might get from some women--again, I don't need to do that. So your comments are well received.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Thursday, 17 November 2011 21:04 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Hi Bonnita,

    I think you're right that the word "rule" reduces the concept of power to a "rather trivial" version of itself. Yet, 'If women ruled the world,' is such a culturally common phrase that it's perhaps an indicator of how little we, as a culture, are thinking through these matters. Throwing this phrase around in public without a lot of thought to its implications, creating an implicit us vs them mentality, as others here have mentioned.

    I don't quite understand you on one point. You say:

    "It would be interesting study to see if there is a relationship between the growth to post-conventional moral aptitude and gender, and/or other oppressed groups in various societies."

    Are you interested in how growth of moral aptitude impacts one's conception of gender? Or a relationship between one's gender and moral aptitude?

    Either way, I agree it's an interesting route. During the edits for the article, two female editors brought up the issue of *development* as it relates to leadership in women and men. I wrote a short Bircolage about it yesterday:


  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Thursday, 17 November 2011 23:09 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Hi Vanessa & Sarah,

    This is a key idea I expected to come-up at some point this week. Even considered writing a Bric on it.

    Sr. Vanessa, point taken. Men, especially men who look white (I'm actually Metis), have to be careful when bringing-up issues of gender or ethnicity. There's a cultural climate in the west that's pretty hostile to men commenting on these issues. It's understandable, given white men have traditionally held the most power in western society and have done a lot of things - some unintentionally, some with clear intention - to speak for, silence, and oppress, less powerful segments of society. If a man, or anyone, is speaking for someone else, or being a bigot, that's not cool. But the silencing can go both ways. And I think it's also uncool to silence or attack respectful debate. You're not doing that, but you're right to point out that some might go that route.

    Sr. Sarah I think you're bang-on when you say: "It seems that those who are outside of the group being spoken about (in this case women) may be uniquely and importantly positioned to clearly see things that those inside the group can't see."

    I don't want to take this point too far. It could quickly slip into the "you just can't see what I'm talking about cuz it's your shadow," crap. So let's not go there. But taken to a reasonable degree I think it's a point that is very important to this conversation:

    As a man I'm blind to a lot of things that go on in the lives of women. TJ's piece on battles between women is an example (linked below). I said in another comment on Chela's piece (also linked below) that I've been learning a lot about the perspectives of women during this week, in ways I had no idea I was even blind to. (something TJ also talked about in a recent piece called "Ask Women Questions").

    Yet while I'm blind to some things, maybe others are clear. As someone who's not a woman I have a perspective that isn't gleaned from subjective experience, but from observation and interaction. In the same way that an anthropologist can observe another culture or a physician can observe her patients - they don't know how they feel, but can infer general trends, themes, and ideas.

    It's ridiculous that I even have to point this out, but hell I've grown-up with two sisters, a mother, aunts, grandmas, female cousins, dozens of girlfriends, serious long-term relationships with women, and about 50% of all the people I meet are women! It seems likely that along the way I could learn enough to at least COMMENT or DEBATE on what I see.

    Here's a question aimed at no particular person: "Do you think it's true that women can see things about men that men don't notice on account of being men?"

    I'd say yes. The opposite is probably true as well.

    Women vs Women http://beamsandstruts.com/essays/item/684-women-vs-women

    Crazy Bitches http://beamsandstruts.com/articles/item/680-those-crazy-bitches

    Ask Women Questions http://beamsandstruts.com/articles/item/431-ask-women-

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Thursday, 17 November 2011 23:12 posted by Bergen Vermette

    @ V & S

    Another point Vanessa brought out was good too: "I've found the same struggle in trying to write about women in other cultures--it's some of the most difficult writing to do because of how many filters I have from my own perspective as a white woman."

    I think there's two pieces to this.

    1) There's a minor but not insignificant difference when speaking about another culture, vs. the women of my own culture. I haven't likely spent a lot of time in that different culture. I haven't grown-up in it's nuance, humour, idiosyncrasies, and guiding world-views. That's why good anthropologists spend years INSIDE a culture they're commenting on. The only way to do it is to get to know who you're speaking about. In this sense, my growing up with women of my culture, as i described above, grants me at least a working familiarity with cultural themes. It sure doesn't mean I understand what it FEELS LIKE to be a woman. But that brings up the second point.

    2) There's a difference in speaking ABOUT a theme in culture, an observation, a phenomenon - and speaking FOR a person, or group, especially one with traditionally less power. I haven't spoken for women in this article. And the women on this thread seem perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. Rather Im talking about a theme in western culture, and if anything, I'm speaking as a man and what it looks like from my seat. Some men might disagree, like Olen above. But then that only strengthens my point in the article that genders are not homogenous creatures, with the same dispositions, opinions, and traits. That's ludicrous.

  • Comment Link Vanessa D. Fisher Friday, 18 November 2011 01:42 posted by Vanessa D. Fisher

    Hey Berg,

    Thanks for responding to all this.
    I think there are many valid points to what you are bringing out here (and didn't know you were Metis--cool).

    The anthropologist metaphor is a good one.

    Also, just to be clear, I actually wasn't making the point about delicacy simply because I think men are in a potentially oppressive role and therefore will silence women. As I mentioned in my other comment, I actually have the same cautions when I talk about men and men's issues--I don't see it as a one-way street.

    For example, I've spent a lot of time with men: I grew up in my early years as a tomboy and played sports with guys (hardly had any female friends and hated barbies :), I also grew up with my father (not my mother) in my late teens and he was a huge influence on my life. I've usually ended up in positions of work with many men because of my own characteristics and inclinations which led to environments that were more male dominated, and I also have four male contributors to my book who have taught me a great deal about men's issues.

    I feel I have a great deal of insight on men, and also male shadow. And yet, still, I have the hesitation and caution to write about it.

    Now, granted, this may be over concern on my part and maybe I should just jump in and write a damn article about it and not be so worried! :) Very possible.

    The other side is that I do think it is tender territory. To speak on the other side for a moment about why I'm cautious to write about men, it is because I feel that many men carry some very deep wounding around women's shaming of them. I think there is a lot of pain in the male psyche around women for a myraid of reasons--some very valid.

    I have a lot of views about men, some which I think could be very valuable, but I'm also very sensitive to the silencing and shaming it could cause if I didn't do it well, or if my own pain around how I've felt treated by men at times clouded my own views. I'm a very smart person, and very insightful, but I also have blindspots due to my own pain in this area.

    Also, because of the way men and women have related to one another throughout history, there are certain dynamics that many of us are unconscious to in how we approach these issues with eachother, both as men and women. That is why all men's groups and all women's groups are so important. Dynamics do shift when we enter co-gendered space to talk about these issues. So I'm just aware of all this. And yet, I also think some of the real evolutionary edge and juice is exactly at this co-gendered intersection point--so it is all good in my eyes. Just also tender in my eyes.

    I could go into more detail, but I'm already feeling my vulnerability of not wanting to go here :)

    Glad for the responses, and truly glad you wrote the piece Berg.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 18 November 2011 02:22 posted by Bergen Vermette

    You should totally write that article!

    I think your concern is generous, but this whole thing about deeply wounded shamed men sounds a bit exaggerated to me. Yah sure, we all carry shame. Chris' Bric (linked below) discusses this issue, but it's certainly not something I'd say you need to tip-toe around. Frankly, I've never heard it was an issue! Even so, it doesn't seem like something that's so tender and sore that it'd somehow impact how your opinion was received.

    One possibility to keep in mind - you're trained in feminism and gender studies, yes? In my limited experience, this field works very very hard to train it's aspirants to be sensitive to the experiences of others. A good gender practitioner must, for example, always take time in a piece of writing to explain who they are, and how their perspective is informed. Often this occurs before the writer even gets to the subject at hand! This framing of the author is an explicit nod to the fact that every person/culture has it's own perspectives that need to be accounted for and honoured. It's also a bit of a protection against projecting your view onto others.

    Anyhow, it's a great practice, especially when working with power-less groups. But I bring it up because you shouldn't let it bog you down either. It's an important professional move, but can probably be relaxed a bit around these parts. Write that shit!

    Also, you said: "There are some filters I have concerns about in the piece..."

    Let's talk about those! What do you see?


  • Comment Link Vanessa D. Fisher Friday, 18 November 2011 04:09 posted by Vanessa D. Fisher

    Thanks Berg. I appreciate the encouragement.

    I may be too sensitive to these issues, for a few reasons. I can own that. It is definitely a tension point, and we are probably both expressing different poles that are important. I have a lot of reasons for my view (being steeped in the complexity of gender issues is only one of them). But your points are fair ones to consider....

    I really appreciate your invitation to comment more deeply on some of this, but I think I'll step back for the time being. That said, I will take your suggestion to think about writing a piece on it, so thank you.

  • Comment Link Vanessa D. Fisher Friday, 18 November 2011 09:10 posted by Vanessa D. Fisher

    Also, I just wanted to offer one nuance to my last comments.

    It's not just my concern about my own blindspots in writing such a piece about men's shadow. It is also my own sense of vulnerability that I don't know if I'm ready for what might come back at me from men (and even possibly some women) in writing it. That is my own vulnerability, which I carry for a few reasons. But when I've worked through that piece, then I know I will write the article.

    anyways, just wanted to clarify.

  • Comment Link Paul P Friday, 18 November 2011 16:12 posted by Paul P


    A couple thoughts on this: first the Sally Field quote is not about women it is about mothers. So for me, I can find the partial truth in what she is saying based on a mother archetype: nurturing mother, Mother Earth, and so on. But surely not all women are mothers, or even want to be...

    Second, similar to Trish, I find that your argument based on the list:

    "What the list highlights, however, is that the notion of women as good and benign rulers is historically a false stereotype. It’s not true."

    a bit absolutist. It's not true only if you are making absolute statements about ALL women. Sure then logically you only need one counter example (and you've got 10 or so). All swans are white swans is easily refuted by the observation of one black swan.

    But what about the relative statement: most women would make better leaders?

    Actually, I think it even ludicrous to go there, which is related to your point
    that women (and men) are different. Uhh, yeah!!

    A little knowledge of statistics would go a long way here as would the dominant role of context and metric in the better/than less than game.

    As to Vanessa's point about keeping the boys with the boys and the girls with the girls. I think that has it's place, mostly in the context to trying to heal wounds. One needs to feel safe in order to have effective dialogue. And I think that most of the juice in these issues is found when the opposing views come together and interact. (When two people agree, one of them is redundant in terms of dialogue.) Both sides need to be solid enough not to take the other side personally and open enough to hear the other point of view.

    I would encourage more REAL dialogue between men and women. Not the caretaking type. And so I'm with Berg, Vanessa write that article!! (when you feel ready)

  • Comment Link Vanessa D. Fisher Friday, 18 November 2011 22:52 posted by Vanessa D. Fisher

    Hey Paul,

    Just wanted to respond to your small comment at the end for me. First, thanks very much for the encouragement to write the article! I think I should write it :)

    Second, I didn't mean my caution as a caretaking thing of men! My reasons are much more complex, and I didn't go into explaining it in detail here for a few reasons. I don't want to see women caretaking men either, nor visa versa.

    I think, yes, for the purposes of healing all male spaces and all female spaces are important. But all male and all female spaces are also important for other reasons (I will explain this more fully when I write my article :). And yes, at the same time, the intersection of the co-gendered space is also very important work (as I said in my past comment).

    Just to clarify, I don't think men are too gentle for my critique. It is much more complex than that. I also think it would be hard to write a piece about male shadow, without writing about how intimately female shadow is woven into it, which would put me in a doubly vulnerable place in publishing it. I have cautions for many reasons... but that shouldn't stop me from writing it.

    So I will write it--when I'm ready :)

  • Comment Link Amy Jean Cousins Saturday, 19 November 2011 22:44 posted by Amy Jean Cousins

    Oh my.
    So much arising here in the article, and the comments....

    My first response to this topic Bergen, was to connect it to the First Wave of feminism and the suffrage movement. From a little bit of study into the history of feminism, I learnt that there were two strong voices for the woman's right to vote: 1) that women were inherently better or more moral then men, and 2) that women had equal rights to men and should therefore vote. These were considered 1) Maternal Feminists, and 2) Egalitarian Feminists.

    So my point in bringing this up Bergen, is that ever since the Feminist movement arose, there have been differing perspective from the activists themselves. What you seem to be pointing/reacting to is a Maternalist argument: that women are more moral then men. This was, at the time, as mentioned in the Margaret Atwood quote, one of the only arguments or claims women could make at the time. I agree with you, in that this claim -situated in a post-postmodern context -has no ground to stand on.

    The only other point I'd like to make here is that I'd actually like to drop the male-female language to focus on shared human qualities. Whether we like it or not, by making these distinctions, we also limit the ability of the other sex to embody and embrace the opposing qualities, and this is hurtful to everybody. Although important -we have to transcend and include these distinctions and hopefully move towards a more inclusive dialogue and holistic identification for all.

    The dignity of Feminism was a reaction to what "human qualities" were missing from the dominant societal structure -namely patriarchy. The disaster was that it catalyzed a man-hating revolt against men -not the system, or qualities embodied in the system. The anger was not very discerning and is still causing some problems. I definitely hear Vanessa on this one, I personally know men who are still unsure of their masculinity and cary deep pain, regret and shame due to the harm their sex has inflicted onto the planet and onto women. These men, are the products of a post-modern culture that has demonized masculinity,

    You're right Bergen, I'm not sure if Matriarchy is that much better. I think the trouble is the "archy" -not the "patri" or "matri". This points to Bonita's comments about RULING.

    Other cultural systems have existed -lead by men I think -which were shared power structures. These existed in some indigenous tribes. Anyway, my fact might be a bit off, but I think the point is clear: it is the social structure and the quality presenting in the person that are more important then the sex of the person in determining whether he or she is a good or transformational leader.

    My suggestion would be to encourage everyone to explore and embody a full spectrum of human qualities. This speaks to your point of diversity Bergen. We are all fully CAPABLE of expressing the whole spectrum of human qualities, and yet, we all arise as our own unique constellations which shine beautifully and equally -together.

    I'm going to go read what Chris has written about in his article, sounds interesting.

    P.S. Vanessa, I'd love to collaborate with you on an article about men:)


  • Comment Link Xaka Sunday, 20 November 2011 16:00 posted by Xaka

    So...when can we expect part 2? Or do I just not see it?

    I enjoyed reading this article. The main problem I think women have faced over the past few hundred years is the predilection of most people (including women) to view us as "the other". The objectification of women creates and maintains entire social messaging around how there is just 'something different' and inexplicable about us and that difference is rooted in the fact that we have breasts and uteri. It strips us of our basic humanity, but let's face it: humanity is a commodity these days. No one is safe from objectification and therefore, no one is safe from this sort of mythology.

    The person who pointed out that Sally's comment was about mothers, not women, is one that struck me, too, at the beginning of this article. Women and mothers are not interchangeable in that context. However, I understand the desire to substitute one for the other since the myths about woman are largely couched in the assumptions we feel free to make because of a woman's potential to become a mother. In fact, I'd suggest that all misogyny is simply translated mother-hate.

    Looking forward to more!

    And, Vanessa, I hope you write something soon. Lately, it's always a man writing something well-received about women. ;-)

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Tuesday, 22 November 2011 22:46 posted by Bergen Vermette

    @ Paul,

    just a short note on the mother archetype. agreed that this archetype - nurturing, safe, peace loving, etc. - is probably what Field was conjuring up in her mind when she made her speech. but of course, some nurturing mothers who love their children still work for the war effort. http://americanwarmoms.org/awm/

    @ Amy,

    Interesting distinction between the Maternal feminists and the Egalitarian feminists, I didn't know that. I completely agree with this point, by the way: "I think the point is clear: it is the social structure and the quality presenting in the person that are more important then the sex of the person in determining whether he or she is a good or transformational leader."
    I'll be posting another Bric in a couple of weeks that argues exactly that!

    @ Xaka

    yes, sorry for the delay on that, it's going to be at least another month. I learned a lot from Dark Side of the Womb week and, frankly, what I had originally intended for Pt 2 lacked nuance and accuracy, so I pulled the plug. I'm rewriting now, but look forward to more of your thoughts once it's up.

    as for your thoughts on "other", I quite agree. This point is particularly potent: "The objectification of women creates and maintains entire social messaging... It strips us of our basic humanity, but let's face it: humanity is a commodity these days. No one is safe from objectification and therefore, no one is safe from this sort of mythology."

    i like it because it relates to both genders and we could (or V could) write something similar about men.

    and that part about "stripping our humanity to a commodity" has me thinking. because WE ourselves are often the ones doing the stripping, and creating false archetypal images of ourselves and others to satisfy the cultural myths we live within. So on the one hand, culture nurtures certain archetypes, but it's always we who invoke them. (which relates to the conclusion of pt 2 - if it ever gets posted!)

  • Comment Link Paul P Thursday, 24 November 2011 06:32 posted by Paul P


    Yes but in what capacity do mothers "support" the war? As it turns out, my great-grandmother was known as the "step-mother" of all Guelph soldiers and all 7 of her boys were in the Canadian armed forces (my grandfather included).

    This from the Guelph Mercury, Feb 10 1940:

    "'The fact that my boys are in the army doesn't mean that I like soldiering, for I don't,' said Mrs. Yemen. However, they are in there and she has to make the best of it..."

    What my g-grandma did was work for the womens auxillary whose role was to support solidiers whose mother's weren't alive.

    Of course my g-grandma is not all women; I just think your argument is weak.

    On the other hand, I totally agree with what you write in the latest comment
    "WE ourselves are often the ones doing the stripping, and creating false archetypal images of ourselves and others to satisfy the cultural myths we live within. So on the one hand, culture nurtures certain archetypes, but it's always we who invoke them."

    Looking forward to your re-write :-)

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 25 November 2011 02:16 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Nice find from the archives Paul! Very cool to have this here.

    I've got to say though, you build a very odd case. In your first comment you remind us that it's "absolutist" to use the logic of "one black swan". But in the next you do exactly that and lay down a SINGLE (black swan) case. Terrible. How do you sleep at night dude?

    As for being absolute? Nah, absolute is saying "if women ruled the world there'd be no more wars." A list of warrior women is a fun way to poke a hole in that truism. Frankly it seems crazy to me that we'd need any evidence at all. It's pretty self-evident from where I'm standing.

    In fact when I first read that whole 'black swan' bit I didn't think you were serious there, only making a side point. But as you apparently were serious, I've got to ask - how many examples do we need in order to meet your criteria for going beyonds black swans? There're 10 or so examples above, not one. On their own, they don't hold much weight - they're black swans. But as a group they start to illustrate a painfully obvious point: people are different, they don't fit into archetypes, particularly one about all women being gentle and benign. You'd have been better off accusing me of building a straw woman.

    Please, let's break from the minutia arguments of logically fallacy. Case studies are meant to be descriptive; we infer insights from them. Any case study, no matter how relevant or well documented, can easily be punched full of holes. That's the perennial struggle of the social sciences. I don't want to battle you in pointless arguments from 100-level Philosophy of Logic classes.

    So, in the spirt of it, I'll go first:

    In so far as I can tell, you agree with the basic point that not all women would be benign rulers. Although you disagree with the logic of the argument. How then do you come to agree? (or am I mistaken here)

    Also, your point about nurturing mothers is well taken. What about an update of this archetype though. I mean, when I think about Mother Nature, she can be a real bitch. Red in tooth and claw, as they say. For years she was THE focus of (wo)man's quest to overcome the elements and secure safety, etc. So shouldn't this archetype also have a vengeful or wild side to her - it can't be all nurture and love can it?

    Thanks Paul,

  • Comment Link Paul P Friday, 25 November 2011 06:01 posted by Paul P

    Currently I sleep interrupted approximately every three hours by the sound of a 3 week old baby :)

    I'm not building a case nor was I trying to do battle; perhaps I'm mistaken. And I'm not trying to make this into a personal thing. Reference to my g-grandmother just seemed relevant and I have a copy of the article in a scrapbook.

    I guess I think in terms of distribution and variation when talking about groups.

    I agree with you that there is a great variation among women (and men) in many dimensions. As you mention, the perennial struggle in the social sciences is what to say about groups given the variation.

    Let's take the public perception of compassion. 80% think women are more compassionate than men. Only 5% the other way around. Do you believe this is a wrong perception? (I don't. And I'm going to assume I don't have to describe sampling from a distribution since we are way past 100 level philosophy.)

    In your article you suggest that "historical evidence suggests that’s not actually the case?"

    So I'll retract the weak characterization; it's actually bizarre! ;-)

    I don't know if you need to update the mother archetype in order to include ferociousness - you know what they say about getting between a mother bear and her cub...

  • Comment Link Adrienne Friday, 02 December 2011 06:16 posted by Adrienne

    Hello all, Damm you guys comment in essays...

    Very interesting article Bergan. I'm more interested in where we're going - which hopefully has nothing to do with your article. Power-over structures are inherently oppressive. I vote for option 3 suggested by Bonita. Old stereotypes need not apply. Where we're going is going to look so completely new that we won't remember this men vs. women crap.

    Until then... some concerns about the current debate. I agree with all the comments concerning the past and currently successful female candidates for leadership positions exhibit very strong masculine qualities. And that these "masculine" qualities were rewarded by the structures and systems. (And I've experienced this in my own life experience, you get promoted for getting results and are not demoted if you're ruthless... we're still encouraging a "means to an end" kind of culture...). I believe the qualities of female leaders has little to do with their being female bodied, i.e. visual sexual characteristics, but a complex bio-psycho-social-experiential matrix. I would do well to remind everyone that we have more than 2 sexes ... XX or XY are not our only options. Some other options: X0, XXX, XXY, XYY, XXXY, XXXXY, etc... This is our biology and can, but not always, result in different physical expressions, including being born sterile and/or of transgendered body. Our sex hormones and our physical form do not determine our behaviour, but I do believe pre-disposition us to learning certain behaviour..... AND, that behaviour that we are pre-dispositioned to learn is not a simple binary option! The complex combination of biological variation plus psycho-social-experiential variations creates almost as many variations in gender expression as there are people. This women versus men debate totally ignores the truth and reinforces a closeted, Aristotelian view of the "men" and "women" heterosexual binary.

    Would love to see more info about gender variation in this conversation.

    ...I'm also curious about the introduction of the Taoist Yin (Masculine) - Yang (Feminine) energy continuum model into this debate in the mid 60/70s (?) and how this use of language has confused the issue for the Western mind who can't understand the fluidity, flow and equality inherent in the model.

    Wow. I wrote an essay. I actually got out notes from my Human Development class...

    Who knows, maybe Margaret Thatcher had a penis.

    Much love,
    (bi-sexual, female bodied)

  • Comment Link Adrienne Friday, 02 December 2011 06:48 posted by Adrienne

    ...Oops... signed off too quickly! I would like to add that I am happily female bodied and that my gender identify is also female.

    AND - Warning: I am looking forward to Part 2 Bergan! I do identify with the Goddess and believe that our sex hormones and corresponding bodied do pre-disposes us to develop common qualities that bind us as women... But it doesn't necessarily follow that we all identify with the Goddess. I however, happen to be one hell of a Goddess! :)

    (note my subtle use of psychological intimidation??)

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Friday, 02 December 2011 11:40 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    I think if you are serious about this question, then you need to dig a little deeper - ask different kinds of questions. For example, a better question would be "What would the world look like if it were primarily structured around women's primary values as a result of a long evolutionary history of being structured that way?" You have to go back a long way in the anthropolgical record to the point when the human condition was examined, and men were understood to be free agents. "Men", that is -- the home, where women and slaves worked to create the accumulated resources (food, idle time) for men to enter the polis were not free agents at all. SO this one move has taken us a long way into the modern condition of laws and contracts that are still based on the separation of home (labor) and polis (public, action)... the values in the former denigrated to a large degree even today. Even our economy is based on this male/female split, where certain types of labor is paid for, and women's labor -- which is the foundation of the livelihood of the people-- does not register economically. Therefore, when the kinds of resources associated with women's labor are lacking, those become entitlements from the welfare state -- there is no adequate mechanism for the economy to provide those goods and services. So it you are serious about asking the question, in a deep way, then I would seriously answer - yes, I think the world would be very much different if it evolved primarily through the values associated with the contribution women's labor makes to society, rather than the accumulated idle time gained by men, through their power-over women and slaves, which allowed them to design the notion of free agents in the polis. Read the anthropological record. The notion of free agents has NEVER ARISEN in any other kind of society, except those that *capitalized* (intentional choice of word) on the labor of women and slaves. So today, it doesn't make much difference if the individual in the office is male or female, the structures are already laid out and impermeable, so much so even our language, when we talk about such things, no longer represents the genesis of the reality we are talking about.

  • Comment Link Bruce Sanguin Tuesday, 06 December 2011 21:16 posted by Bruce Sanguin

    Hey Bergen,

    Great piece. I must confess, I cringe a bit when I realize that a man intends to weigh in on anything concerning women. I was over-educated in the hey-day of feminist theology. I learned that it was best to keep my mouth shut. I was the poster boy for all-that-is-bad-about-men and male privilege in the eyes of more than one of my women professors. For example, you refer to women as "ladies". I think I would have been thrown out of university. :-)

    So kudos for your courage.

    But, here I have to confess. When I try to imagine being in authentic, vulnerable intimate relationship, that involves intuition, being in touch with subtle body energy, capacity to process and be open to alternative perspectives, very few men (at least of my generation of old farts) come immediately to mind.

    You guys at Beams are the exception. Or maybe I live a sheltered life.

  • Comment Link Rebecca Bailin Thursday, 08 December 2011 17:42 posted by Rebecca Bailin

    I believe strongly that there is very little that is “essentially” (that is ahistorically, aculturally and immutably) different between women and men. This article seems to me to be brilliantly dismantling the argument of feminist essentialists that women are innately superior; an argument with which I have never resonated.

    What gets lost in a conversation about whether women’s “essence” (ahistorical, acultural, immutable nature) is good or bad is the conversation about essence itself. BOTH sides of the debate about whether women are fabulous or messed up are, in my opinion, making an underlying essentialist argument, one with which I strongly disagree.

    What gets lost is evolution. My take on it is that biology (that which is MOST ahistorical, acultural and immutable) and gender roles are MOST coupled in early stages of evolution. So in early stages of evolution, the difference between the ability to breastfeed vs having superior upper body strength is CRUCIAL and DEFINING. Now, with breastpumps and fighter jets, both of which can be used by both sexes, the biological differences are not as defining or crucial. (PLEASE note that I do believe some biological differences are still important, just not as important.)

    So we have history and we have evolution. Way back when, our biologies tied us tightly to gender roles so women and men developed different skills. Women were tied, biologically, to relating, child rearing, etc. Men were tied, biologically, to leading/protecting tribes. Women and men developed different skills because of differing gender roles tied to our different biologies.

    AS WE EVOLVE, this is opening up. We can CROSS TRAIN and we are. Men are learning the skills traditionally mastered by women and vice versa.

    In the public space, we are also evolving. In the Orange/rational/industrial world (and before, it seems), skills traditionally mastered by women were undervalued. In the Green/postmodern/information world, the skills traditionally mastered by women have been rediscovered and revalued and re-assessed for their applicability to leadership and social structures – so I’m with Bonitta there. The fact that the skills traditionally mastered by men are a little undervalued at Green seems unfortunate but I also think the degree of whining about it is a little OTT.

    To me, the point is that for the first time in history the possibilities are OPENING UP! We can master each other’s skill sets. Brava/Bravo! Haaazzaaaaa! Whoopeee! We can even take each others’ hormones if we want to.

    So my plea here would be, let’s FEAST AT THE BUFFET, folks! It’s the first time in history that we can! Let’s eat both brights, both shadows, both skill sets, both masteries, both both both both both! Boys – here! Take my skills, take my shadow and share yours with me. Let’s fucking PAR-TAY!!!!

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 09 December 2011 07:38 posted by Bergen Vermette

    @ Adrienne

    Hell ya, I love breakin out the notes!, and look forward to what you have to say about Goddesses. You're right, the men vs women debate does reinforce a heterosexual binary (a term I've never heard but sounds accurate!). Glad you brought it up. I considered speaking to that point, but frankly am a bit confused by the different LGBTQ identities and can't really speak with any intelligence about the distinctions. Your other point about 'masculine' qualities being rewarded by the structures and systems ties into Bonnitta's comment so I'll continue it there.

    @ Bonnitta

    If I understand you right, you're saying to look at the way society has historically been ordered by men. That ordering thus influences how women must behave in society - as leaders or otherwise - and so, as you say, " it doesn't make much difference if the individual in the office is male or female, the structures are already laid out and impermeable". I completely agree (though I'm softer on the 'impermeable' and think that culture/society changes with time - it can be changed).

    Where I'm less clear though, is what you mean when you say "women's primary values". I think we could probably say that very generally men and women value different things (not absolutely, of course, there are a million degrees of exception). But let's just say that our values - men's or women's - are influenced by what we're most exposed to or dependent on. And so since men and women have traditionally had different roles (though that is blurring in post-industrial society) we'd be exposed to different things and so would probably have different views on what's important. (for example a participatory exercise I've done with community groups is for men and women to separate and draw a picture of the community's resources. The pictures are always different and the genders end up emphasizing some things while leaving others out entirely - usually related to their roles/exposures in the community).

    But to me this speaks to DIVERSITY - something Olen and I were batting around in the comments above - it doesn't follow that women have essentially better, nicer, or better leadership primary values. You may not be suggesting this. But I'm alert to the possible subtext of the 'male structured society' argument. Implied in that argument is (can be) that the bad parts of society are that way because male brutes designed it that way. And furthermore, it's not a woman's fault if she's a 'masculine' or aggressive leader, because she "has to" be that way in order to play the game. It's true that men designed the game, but what's often implied is that if women weren't trapped in the system, they could be themselves and that would somehow be some sort of women-led utopia - better, more pure, nicer. I don't agree with that. What would be different and better would come from diversity of perspectives, not from essential goodness of either gender.

    So basically, I like where you're going by digging deeper into the social/cultural structures that form who we are and how we act. You're right, it's very important part of the conversation. But I'm also wary about assigning 'primary' values. How are you using the term primary?

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 09 December 2011 07:41 posted by Bergen Vermette

    @ Bruce

    I think the spirit you're speaking about is still alive and well! I'm not in theology as you were, but study international community development. In this field I'm way outnumbered by female colleagues. I have received "gender sensitivity" training on more than one occasion while being the only guy in the room with like 15 women. There's little doubt who's being "trained" in these situations and it's best to roll with the punches :) (and why doesn't gender sensitivity training ever teach about respect for male perspectives, by the way?? anyhow...)

    On your second point you're breaking me down a bit. Above I just said that I was wary about 'primary' values. I.e. assigning men/women essential values that they act out. But what you say (and Paul brings up also) rings true for me. It's not true in all cases but the way I relate to women - how i experience their presence - is often different that that of men (as in the ways you mention - but there are also many exceptions!! I sure have met some inauthentic, closed-down, unintuitive, gross-level, stubborn women!!). But whether or not that has to do with how I'm relating to them to begin with (probably part of it); how they are relating to me as a man; or just plain conformation bias (I'm sure you also know some pretty amazing women Bruce, I sure do), I just don't know.

    @ Rebecca

    I think you're hitting the nail on the head here when you caution against looking for "ahistorical, acultural, immutable" essential differences. In terms of social evolution, I read a very thorough book once, called the Evolution of Human Societies, and this anthropology text agrees with you that at earlier stages of social organization - forager-family group, Big-man, chiefdom - roles were more defined by biology. But now I think you're right - as some of us are living in a post-industrial-information society, things are opening up A LOT!! Much work to do of course, but wow, what an amazing time to be alive! It doesn't make it easy. We have to work through new roles for ourselves, but damn we've got it good.

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Friday, 09 December 2011 11:30 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    @bergen - I am not suggesting the term "primary values" as an apriori construct, but an historical one. I'm not going back to check, but I thought I was careful to talk about the historical division of labor along women's/slaves roles versus free men. The structures of society (ie. rules that rule the world) were designed by free men who were divorced of the values left for the laborers at home -- so these were devalued by those rules. What it means to be "free" is already to be "free from" cycles of domestic labor, to have time and luxury to take up the role of speech in the polis. Let's say the early Greeks did something uncanny, like decide that the "polis" - the place where speech and action integrated into one - was in the home, and their role as rulers, was to interview what were the needs of women and slaves, and the duty of "free men as rulers" were to supply those needs. then you would have a completely different taxonomy in your definition of free, rule, etc...

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Friday, 09 December 2011 11:42 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    Maybe you will be interested in my notion of what "values" are. I subscribe to Jason Brown (a neuropsychiatrist and process philosopher) process model of value. He says that values are embedded deep within the earliest stages of the moment-to-moment micro-genesis of the cognitive occassion. The first level of value is "existence" - what exists for me as i sit in this room is not the same as what exists for the spider on my wall. This is already a fact-value embed. The next stage is attention. From the field of existents in this room, some get more of my attention than others. The next level is intention. This is the first active level - wherein I "go out" pshychologically to the existent. This "go out" obviously has an affective quality to it that can vary. The next level is associated with the body and is the level of desire (but also of its opposite, and also of all the other ranges of emotive content).. SO here is a deep explanation of how emotion and value embed. The next stage is the "projection" of these levels out into the object itself, so the subjective aspect of the desire stage, articulates to an objectified "value" in the world. Something is valued or valuable (versus I desire something)- there is a subject-object transformation. The next stage concerns intersubjectivity, and sets of shared valuations that become cultural beliefs. So this is interesting process description that shows just how deeply values are embedded. The entire microgenesis is a kind of enfoldment where the unified self is the unit of being that stands in for its becoming. What's interesting about this model is that it is consistent with the Buddhist practice of unfolding these levels (kleshas) and discovering their source as they arise -- and yet it is also scientifically supported by his neurophysiolocial work and his peurophyscological research.

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Friday, 09 December 2011 11:49 posted by Bonnitta Roy


    nuff said

  • Comment Link Vanessa D. Fisher Saturday, 10 December 2011 03:57 posted by Vanessa D. Fisher

    Ok, I felt my last comments here were a bit weak, so felt called to come back and offer something more nuanced and intelligent.

    First, I want to acknowledge that, like Bruce, I’m realizing that I have an automatic cringe response come up when I see men take on writing about women’s shadows. In sitting with it for a bit, I can feel that some of this is my own assumption that men just don’t really get women at a deep level, and I question why they feel the need to write about women’s shadows. I can see that some of this is my own arrogance to be a bit dismissive of these arguments because I think men just don’t get it, which has been interesting for me to feel into…

    So just wanted to acknowledge my own biases that may have come up a bit.

    From there, I wanted to offer some honest and hopefully humble objective feedback from my view on all this.

    First of all, Bergen, I think your points that women are not all sugar and spice is useful to bring to the fore in a postmodern context where over-eulogizing of women and the feminine as all love and goodness does happen. This is something I’ve felt strongly about too, and I think the point is important to make. I also think Rebecca’s point about dismantling essences is important in this conversation, and that is something that this article does enact well. I appreciated the comment about needing more integration of LGBT perspectives to add nuance to the conversation as a whole, but perhaps that is a whole other paper on its own.

    The main area where I want to add nuance and complexity are the points that Bonnitta has been bringing forward (and also Rebecca to some degree).

    First of all, I appreciate how the conversation is starting to be more contextualized from the perspective of development, rather than essences or even a question of who would make better or worse rulers of the world.

    I do think that the developmental piece fleshes out the conversation in beautiful ways. My concern though is, that development and evolution, as it is mostly constructed in the integral world, tends to be very functionalist in nature and assumption.

    I think what Bonnitta is pointing to is really important because it speaks to an added nuance that is often missed in integral conversations. How does power, systems and structures of power, as well as oppression dynamics, actually form and shape development/self-identity and values throughout history? And how are those dynamics also shaping the way we frame and look at these issues, and even how we pose the questions?

    Berg, I noticed you referred to Carol Gilligan’s work in the bits and pieces section, and I think her work is great for certain purposes of fleshing out the developmental side of this, but I also find Wilber’s incorporation of her work to be largely within a functionalist paradigm, without an integration of critical or conflict perspectives.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with many of the points being made here, and I also think biology does impacts gender roles, and the development of skills (there is something true to the functionalist argument). But I feel most gender theorists in the integral world lean too heavily on the functionalist argument in trying to understand history and evolution in this regard.

    And admittedly, many of these theorists of the functionalist argument are male. That's not meant as a judgment, but more something I want to pose as a question--what are the lenses we look through as men and women when we think about evolution and history? Of course, it isn't universal for either gender, and there are certainly men and women who stand on both sides of these arguments, nor do I think history is simply a case of men oppressing women, so I don't mean to make any totalizing or accusatory statements. But I do think posing the question of lenses is important.

    This is where I feel an ongoing desire to re-vamp the postmodern discourses on power and oppression and include them here, and I feel that they are sorely needed in the integral conversations in general.

    One person whom I’ve been very drawn to lately (who my father turned me onto) is Raul Quinones Rosado, who wrote a really fantastic book called “Consciousness-in-Action: Towards an Integral Psychology of Liberation and Transformation.” He really is one of the first people who I’ve seen integrating the best of postmodern and oppression theory with integral theory and applying it in practical contexts in a nuanced and non-victimized way.

    He even devises his own "line of development" which he calls social-identity development, where he incorporates his understanding of oppression and development into a new framework of growth. Very fascinating!


    Bonnitta, I believe you also did an interview with Rosado, yes?

    I also appreciate Michel Foucault’s work in this regard because I think he too was re-vamping notions of power from a pure Marxian top-down approach, to a more diffuse and complex approach that acknowledged power that arises in many different forms. Power is not a static concept, and it flows in both directions, from the "oppressor" and the "oppressed." In this regard, Foucault’s work supports a more nuanced view where women and men can both be held accountable for different forms of power, but he also still holds larger structures of power and domination in perspective, and how these larger structures shape the very conversation we have on these issues, and the questions that we ask.

    I hope this adds a bit more nuance to my original posting, and like Bruce, I do appreciate your courage in writing the piece Berg, and look forward to part deux.

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Saturday, 10 December 2011 10:50 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    Raul is a good friend of mine. I met him when I hosted an Integral Activism retreat here at Alderlore 2 summers ago. It was at that retreat that Joshua Gorman (and Cherine) fell in love, and went on to California and create Generation Waking Up! Anyway, here is something that was poignant to me at the retreat (among many very poignant events) - at the end, we were all asked to write down some recommendations for resources (books, videos, links, etc) for people to put in a common library for integral activism. Now I have read all kinds of socio-cultural criticism, but as I watched these others write down their titles, I realized that I had almost only read white western men critiquing from within - while they were listing works from girls in India, youth in South America, indigenous people, businessmen in Africa, etc.... and I TOTALLY realized that my perspective(s) was much less informed than theirs. Because you are right - you cannot achieve a wider understanding merely by thinking -- you must live your inquiry, and the breadth/depth of your experiences is a limiting factor.

  • Comment Link Vanessa D. Fisher Sunday, 11 December 2011 20:42 posted by Vanessa D. Fisher

    Cool that you are friends with him, Bonnitta. What is your take on his work? I really loved his stuff and thought it added an important new lens on integral theory.

    Also, I had a friend who read this blog mention to me that she didn't know what functionalism was, so for the sake of unpacking technical jargon that not everyone might be aware of I just wanted to clarify:

    Functionalism is a school of thought found mostly in sociology, anthropology, and psychology, which at its most basic argues that history develops by nature of what serves as the best functional-fit at any given time.

    This is more info on the theory and lineage of though:

    Critical/conflict theory bases its arguments more in the idea that history develops through conflict and the interaction of power relations. Marx is often considered one of the fathers of this school of thought, but there is a whole lineage.


    As a whole, I'm arguing that integral theory, over the last decade especially, has tended to adopt a very functionalist argument of evolution and history in understanding gender development, at the expense of integrating a lot of important critical/conflict perspectives, and I think it is one of the downfalls of the theory at present. I also think there is a lot of reasons why the integral world has adopted this view, but I'll save that for a longer critical reflective essay on the integral movement and it's leading proponents at some point.

    On a final note, another great critical theorist I'd recommend who I think approaches all this in a mostly balanced and non-victimized way is black feminist, bell hooks. A must read feminist writer in my opinion for getting a better understanding of the way dynamics of race and gender construct how we view the world. And she is not anti-men in any way :)

  • Comment Link Bonnitta Roy Tuesday, 13 December 2011 22:54 posted by Bonnitta Roy

    It's one thing to play the naive post-modern boy, and ridicule Salley Field's acceptance speech -- but what I want you to look at, seriously is this,


    in the context of your inquiry.... if women ruled the world.... wha ha?

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Saturday, 17 December 2011 23:40 posted by Bergen Vermette


    This report of what's been going down in India is pretty horrific stuff (similar female abortions happened under China's one child policy, I understand). To separate for a moment, the terrible human and moral cost of the story, and frame it in our discussion of women leaders - how do you see this relating to female leadership? In so far as I can tell, India's national leader of the time was female. And the more local (female) power structures of the South Asian mother-in-law are notoriously mean, domineering, and cruel over their less powerful daughter-in-laws (exerting ample social pressure to abort their granddaughters). Maybe this is what you meant when you questioned what would have happened had the Greeks looked for freedom in household, instead of the street. If they had, I'm sure things would look much different (in the west), but I remain unconvinced we'd live in the war-free world of your friend Sally Field or the utopia of women-ordered society.

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