Will someone please answer the question: what is a woman? I am certainly not the only person posing it. Maybe a clear, concise, distinguished definition for those of us who identify as women simply does not exist. Are we to show up as professionals, mothers, politicians, social advocates, lovers, friends? All the rules have drastically changed, continue to change, and no one has issued a new guidebook. Since we are clearly equal in virtue and value – yet not competing with or trying to replace, men – how are we supposed to be a woman in this ‘Man’s World”? Am I the only one who is somewhat confused on this subject?
What is our role today?
Personally, I had my own predicament. It took a radical physical experience, the birth of my first child, to jolt me into the reality that I am a woman. Well, that is a bit of an exaggeration. I mean, I knew I was a female, because I had all the right body parts, looks, and a female name. In reality, though, I had been unable to relate to the role of being a woman for the first three decades of my life.
I could blame my father, but it was not really his fault. He was a good Italian immigrant son, and the only male sandwiched between three sisters. In his quest for sons he had three daughters and raised us like boys, the preferred gender in his eyes. Whether through luck or genes, I slipped easily into the son’s role: learning to work on cars, build furniture, and learn my father’s banking business. In retrospect, I put my all into anything that would get me seen and accepted, by my father. He was proud of me, I know, but my ballet recitals were lost on him.
Fast forward to 1989 – corporate America in Denver, Colorado. In the aftermath of a particularly distasteful and misogynistic staff meeting, I called my father, of all people, for support. The response was no surprise: “You’re playing ball with the big boys now! Buck up,” his voice advised in the face of my outrage. The discrimination felt massive, the advice daunting, and I was only mid-way through my first well-paying job.
“The Big Boys.” It sounded hopeless. I would never be a ‘Big Boy’ and there was no “Girls’ Club” that I was aware of, at least not back then. The Big Boys played for high stakes and with fierce competition. There was no room for anything female, no sensitivities, no rebuttals to rude jokes, no recourse for harassment. If you had already figured out what being a woman meant to you, you hid it and kept it hidden. You played the game and showed up like a man, if you wanted to get by, to get somewhere.
Indeed, and fortunately, a lot has changed since 1989. Yet, are we any clearer on the question of what femininity and womanhood is? Historically, society, the media, our culture gave us our mandates on what to wear, what jobs to take, how to “please a man” and act “like a lady”. Yet those were parameters; not really helpful and also not an answer.
By the time I arrived at that job in Denver, I had had a lot of practice being “the man.” Still, it rankled that, yet again, the gold standard was the male model of business and I was required to stuff myself into a mold that truly did not fit, whether it was in regard to conducting meetings, defining goals, resolving conflict or the style, as well as the content, of communication.
Men, too, are both a product and keeper of this system that women are subjected to. Contrary to popular belief, however, men are not the problem in this dilemma. The problem is that being a women in a male oriented world – workplace, or society – simply does not work well. To fix this broken system, we must first decide what it means to be a woman. Individually and culturally, we must identify, welcome and properly remunerate, the qualities and contribution that women specifically bring to the table. When we are truly clear about our value, only then can we, women and men, effectively design a functional workplace, a peaceful home front and a thriving society that honors the genders, each with their unique set of gifts and challenges.
Two weeks ago I stood in a circle of women just after sunrise in a secluded valley outside Calgary, Canada. I had been honored with an invitation to attend the Cree Sundance ceremony where for five days we worked, danced, ate, and slept among the indigenous people of western Canada. The unique exposure to a worldview and cultural existence foreign to most people opened both my mind and my heart. What I learned about myself, our earth and the depth of our humanity felt both foreign in some ways and intimately familiar in others. Not surprisingly, the role and importance of womanhood in the fabric of it all was present not only for me but for the entire community.
Before attending, we all had been asked to adhere to ceremonial guidelines, which did not seem unreasonable, such as women wearing skirts during the days of ceremony. In addition, the tasks of cutting down trees, building the lodge, cooking meals, and tending to materials were distinctly distributed between men and women. As days passed, many of the non-indigenous women struggled with this division of actions and roles as it echoed for them of the separation, and discrimination, we are only now beginning to crawl out of in the western world. Respective comments could be heard: “I’m just as strong as a man. I can chop down trees,” and “why am I stuck in the kitchen cooking for everyone when the men get to build the lodge?” As a result of this unrest, two women elders of the tribe, one being the chief’s wife Verge, gathered the women into a circle on a grassy hill just after morning dance.
As I opened my mind to hear what would be shared, I was struck firstly by the fierce femininity that these women exuded. How do I describe that … They stood in their power yet with no harshness, with the clarity and firmness a woman possesses when passionate and intent on achieving a goal, like a mother urging children to do something they are capable of but have never tried before. They reminded us that we women, whether mothers or not, are the Givers of Life. Since we have the power to bring life forth from our bodies, the skirt is to sweep the ground, keeping safe the sacred connection between that gift that we alone offer and the firm and fertile energy of Mother Earth beneath our feet. Nothing should interrupt that connection during ceremony. It was likened to the skirt of a teepee that touches the ground, under which no one ever crawls, using rather side opening to enter. That teepee’s skirt of leather hide creates a sacred circle also connecting the community of people gathered above with Mother Earth below. The meaning of the skirt shifted for me then. It was no longer an indicator of being seen as less than, but rather as a status of honor in the community.
The task of cooking, also, took on a deeper meaning. It is one of nurturing the tribe with food, which sustains life. As women are the Givers of Life, they consider the cooking of food a sacred act. They treat each piece of washed, cut, and cooked food with love and well-wishing for those who will eat it. Only the purest of ingredients are used and the preparation of the meals is a joyous one. If a cook is angry, they are offered another task for that moment, so that the food will not take on anger and pass it forward to those eating it. The food blesses the community.
In like kind, the men, whose bodies are physically stronger in many ways, cut and carry the heavy loads. Not because women cannot do so, but because they should not have to do so. The men use their bodies in this way to serve and honor the women, and the tribe. They provide for the community by creating the lodge to house the people. It is their way to contribute.
In the circle that morning, the female elders spoke while walking in clockwise motion in the center. They taught us about the layered spiral of the medicine wheel, their spiritual model. They explained the role of women in their culture, of their vital contribute to the community, how they take care of their family, are a wife to their husband, and a mother to their children. Like us non-indigenous women, many have jobs outside the home to make ends meet, but they identify first as the Givers of Life and their role in the home and the tribe. There is no shame in being a woman. It is just the opposite. The role of the woman is revered.
During a conversation with Chief White Standing Buffalo, I asked about this difference in how women are seen and treated in our western paradigm and in theirs. He explained that the First Nation people do not think in terms of hierarchy among animals, people or genders. “You do not ask whether the bear and the eagle is more grand. They each have their jobs to do, their beauty and wisdom to offer, their role in life to play.” He went on to share that you would not ask if the earth or the sky more valuable, more important? We cannot live without Mother Earth or Father Sky. Neither is more important or better than the other by any measurement. First Nation people live in alignment with all beings in nature, whether it be an animal, a mountain, or the “opposite” sex. They enter into a relationship understanding the role that being plays and honoring it in the scheme of things.
Both men and women have a role to play in the web of life, like a spider’s web, the Chief said. Each and every thread of a web is needed for its stability, its flexibility, and its function. You cannot pluck out one or two of the threads and have the same sturdy, beautiful structure. Something is missing. Likewise, the one thread at the top on the outside is no better or worse than the inner most thread on the bottom. Each has its role. Each is a valued part of the whole.
With the sun just peeking over the treetops, the women in the circle heard the message that morning, gentle yet poignant. There was no discrimination, only honor and work to be done. The wet grass underfoot and the cry of an eagle overhead, seemed to paint the lessons more deeply on our minds and hearts. There was peace among the women after that. It was a different perspective that anchored itself in each one of us in its own way. I see women more clearly now, and in a new light. I am grateful for that.
So, what is then the answer to our question: what is a woman? Well, let us now do what any self-respecting 21st century citizen would do. Let’s ask Siri:
“Siri – What is a woman?”
Siri’s answer: “Female adult human”.
Well, that helps. Not. Maybe there is no answer.
Our challenging work, then, is not to define what a woman or a man is. Our work is to first identify what qualities and contributions we each have, as individuals and as a gender. Then it is our task to find the best way to live into, and from, that potential. From there we each, males and females alike, have the responsibility to define and live up to the highest expression of our version of masculinity and femininity.
Ok, so if we acknowledge that there is no intrinsic hierarchy among living beings and all are equal, how do we then integrate this understanding? How do we apply the connected web of all things into our relationships, our places of business and our homes in our western paradigm? Again, each person and each group must do so for themselves.
So instead of asking Siri, we are better off asking ourselves. “Leeza… what is a woman?” From what I am beginning to see, and although it is a fact, the answer is gratefully and very beautifully and far beyond being only a “female adult human.”
Leeza Carlone Steindorf uses her powerful message and practical tools to help individuals and organizations break through their limitations to create radical permanent change. An inspirational speaker, personal transformation coach and trainer, seasoned business consultant, and award-winning author, Leeza is a Women Undaunted Facilitator, ICF Certified Coach, Canfield Success Trainer, Mastermind Coach, Strategic Planning Facilitator and Mediator. Please visit www.leezasteindorf.com.
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