During a project planning meeting the other day, we were designating names to different groups of stakeholders. One group was women from the age of 20 to 25. I suggested that we call them young women. However, there was some debate over whether or not this age group would be considered “women”. At the age of 21, I consider myself to be a young woman. But in Uganda, the majority of people consider a girl to enter womanhood once she produces a child. This made me consider just how dynamic the term “woman” is and question how different societies designates who a “woman” is and what this means for those societies and our earth as a whole.
Although I have much to learn, I’ve gathered that generally in the Buganda region of Uganda being a woman is associated with holding a specific role in society. Family life and fertility are integral parts of womanhood. In fact, women that produce twins are highly respected in traditional Bugandan culture. Although women play a diversity of roles in society, the majority of women are pillars in household and family life, especially in rural areas. I have often seen them in the roles of food providers, life bearers, and teachers.
In the Western world, women are strongly associated by the word “feminine”. Gender is primarily based off appearance, and those who are “womanly” often have an appearance that would be considered feminine. In societal roles and on paper, woman and men are generally equal (or at least that is what we are striving for). Since feminism movements emerged in the 19th and early 20th century and Betty Friedman challenged the role of women as housewives in The Feminine Mystique in 1963, women have fought for an equal position in society and have long since abandoned the pie baking apron wearing homemaker role. These days, women often embrace being feminine through their appearance. This can be very empowering for some women. Part of the reason I love being a woman is to get to play the role through my appearance, its actually pretty damn fun! However, these associations with what is “womanly” are generally being dictated by an outside source, a societal expectation of sorts. If these expectations are not being met, well, then you’re outside of the societal norm. For example, it isn’t everyday that you see a woman with a shaved head.
As much as awareness has been raised about this issue, visual media still largely have control over dictating the standards of this appearance. This occurs at different levels and in different forms from body image to material consumption and many women and girls suffer from of eating disorders and depression because of these images. Sometimes I think this phenomenon is becoming less prevalent, and then I realize I just haven’t watched T.V. for a while. Women are still being projected as picture perfect sexual objects time and time again. I consider myself to be fairly aware of these things, and yet I still find this influence creeping up on me in subtle, almost unnoticeable ways. But it is there. This isn’t to say that media is the big bad wolf, because it is a two way street: visual media projects images and ideas to which society conforms, but it also tailors those images to the current culture. In this way, visual media provides a very informative lens on society. Nevertheless, in the creation of the societal standard of a “woman”, women themselves have little control. So, what does it mean when women don’t have control over what makes them women in society?
In a study titled “Babes and the woods: Women’s objectification and the feminine beauty ideal as ecological hazards” Britain Scott examines what the Western standard of femininity means for the environment. The Western beauty ideal disconnects women from nature, because it alienates women from their natural bodies, which can be harmful both to women’s bodies (such is the case of eating disorders) and the natural environment. Much of the practices that women partake in the attainment of this feminine image are damaging to both. In order to appear “feminine” women must engage in ecologically unfriendly practices—wasteful consumerism, beauty products, silicone breasts, cancer containing chemicals etc. These practices often take women’s bodies further from what is natural, in pursuit of an image that is created by the airbrush tool on an advanced photo-editing program in an office. It is an image that reflects the increasingly industrialized and technologically based growth that we experience in much of the Western world. What is considered feminine in our society has grown farther and farther away from what is natural. Although I advocate for women being able to do whatever they wish with their own bodies, it saddens and disgusts me that this unattainable image is too often the standard for being a woman, and that the results of pursuing this standard are often devastating for women’s bodies, psyches, and the environment.
In Uganda, rape is common and women often lack of family planning in both services and decision-making capability. Women often do not control of with who, where, when, and how they have sex. This means that women also often do not have control over how many children they produce, one of the primary associations with womanhood in Uganda. In terms of environmental degradation and food security, population growth is one of the major issues that Uganda, sub-Saharan Africa, and the world are facing. The earth is becoming parched, the forests are disappearing, the dry seasons are increasing in intensity and length, and land is scarce. This is especially bad news for communities that base their livelihoods off agriculture and pastoralism. As a result, food is becoming increasingly scarce and malnourishment is common in a place where women are the primary food providers and agricultural laborers. In Uganda, the agricultural workforce is around 80% female. However, women, particularly in rural settings, often lack the capacity to access family planning services, education, and hold negotiating power to make informed choices about how many children their lifestyle or environment can handle sustainably. On a more disturbing level, women and young girls are raped frequently. Rape is one of the most blatant forms of expressing domination and power over women. It is one of the most common crimes towards women in India as well, where population growth is one of the main causes of environmental degradation. Women lack control, both directly and indirectly while the natural environment is being exhausted.
Having said this, it is common to find patterns of control aimed at both women and the land. Much of ecofeminist theory argues that the despoiling of the earth and the subjugation of women are intimately connected in this sense. It acknowledges the historical similarities between the oppression of women and the oppression of the land and challenges the system of dominance and subordination that is causing both women and the natural environment to be held as inferior on different levels worldwide. Both our women and our environment are suffering, yet we are dependent on both for survival as humans.
In Ecopsychology, Mare E. Gommes and Allen D. Kanner discuss the theory of domination and dependence from a Western perspective. They argue that masculine attributes are associated with independence and disconnection, because from early life men are told that to be respected and admired as men they must be separate from others. These masculine attributes are seen as a route to success and status are more valued in our culture than those considered feminine. Thus, radical autonomy, or absolute separation, is the cultural ideal. Of course, this is an illusion. It is impossible not to interact with and depend on the people and wildlife around us, for it is the air we breathe. So those who wish to separate are faced with a double bind: living in a world that values worth in terms of autonomy, but the world they live in this an impossible feat. One of the ways of dealing with this is to create a false sense of independence through a form of domination characterized as “engulfing the Other”. They point out that this dynamic can be seen both in extreme acts of sexism, such as rape and domestic violence. However, it can also be observed through the myriad of every day activities such as a wife taking care of a husband’s physical needs such as preparing food. Instead of experiencing this failure to be autonomous as humiliating, he incorporates his wife into his ever-expanding self. In other words, domination becomes a way to deny dependence.
They argue that this same process can be seen in the relationship between humans and the earth. We depend on the Earth for life, yet much of our civilizations have been centered on denying this truth. Instead of acknowledging this total and complete dependence, by dominating the biosphere we can maintain the illusion of being autonomous. We have engulfed the living system of which we are a part and made it into our servant. Instead of acknowledging dependence and creating a relationship of gratitude and reciprocity, we deny our dependence. And when we deny dependence, we can feed on the other’s supplies and energy without returning anything. This constant feeding can exhaust the source, causing a breakdown of ecosystems, both nonhuman and human.
I understand this is theoretical and of course not all men are “bad”, all women aren’t connected to nature, and not all humans are on a quest of separation and radical autonomy. We all know living examples that this is not true, and it is very dangerous to make these assumptions. It diminishes our responsibility and roles in the earth as human beings, regardless of gender. In fact, designating qualities to all women such as associating them with nature could be considered patriarchal itself, another way of trapping women in a certain definition. And women, too, participate in sexist and oppressive behavior. In this sense, it is more the philosophy of domination and oppression that is deeply embedded in our culture rather than a dichotomy of the “oppressor” and the “oppressed”. On this note, the term feminine does not necessarily refer to women as a sex, but rather a set of qualities that are devalued in a patriarchal system. This set of values are what Jungian theorist Gareth Hill calls the dynamic feminine, beyond the notion of feminine as nurturing and motherly qualities which he calls the “static feminine.” The dynamic feminine represents,
“Undirected movement towards the new, the non-rational, the playful. It is the flow of experiences, vital, spontaneous, open to the unexpected, yielding and responsive to being acted upon…Its effects are the uplifting, ecstatic experience that comes from the experience of transformed awareness…The dynamic feminine is perhaps most simply symbolized by a spiral, representing the disorienting and transforming experience of new awareness. This is the realm of the wild imagination, of chaos erupting out of predictability”
In this sense, the dynamic feminine is not restricted to women. To me, it is more associated with restoring the balance to our earth. It is about acknowledging dependence and instilling a system of reciprocity. I believe that the patriarchal system that is dominant in our world isn’t inherently bad: it just lacks balance. Too much of anything can be harmful to an extent.
In a world built on knowledge, I believe that to embrace the dynamic feminine is to confront mystery, wildness, and danger and to accept that we do not know everything there is to know despite our highly valued system of Western science. In her book Staying Alive, Indian ecofeminist and physicist Vandana Shiva criticizes this type of science saying that is has “reduced the capacity of humans to know nature both by excluding other knowers and other ways of knowing, and it reduced the capacity of nature to creatively regenerate and renew itself.” She argues that the witch burnings occurred much in part to the threat that the collective knowledge women and wisdom that women had of healing and plants posed to this dominant system of knowledge. The same goes for the marginalization of traditional midwifery by Western medicine. This is not to say that science is “bad” it is not. But science itself is just one way of knowing, although it is the dominant one. Where there is domination, there is also a lack of balance.
So what is the missing balance of the dynamic feminine? It is hard to define. It comes glimpses, in moments, and feelings. I perceive it as a rhythm of sorts. I think of circles, roundness, and reciprocity. Something that comes to mind is a paragraph one of my favorite feminist authors Tom Robbins wrote in his book Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
“The Power of the World always works in circles and everything tries to be round. You should know that there are no squares in nature, not in the microcosm, the small things, nor in the macrocosm, the big things. Nature creates in circles and moves in circles. The atom is circular. Galaxies are circular and most organic things are circular in nature. The earth is round, the wind whirls, the womb is no shoebox. Where are the corners of the sky? Where are the corners of the egg? The nests that cranes make are they square? No. My friend, the square is the product of rationality and logic. The square was invented by civilized man.”
In our society, squares and rectangles are often used for maximization of space. When we design a city we do so in blocks. Our houses are made of walls with four straight sides. When we pack trucks we pack them with boxes. When we cut down forests, we give them edges. It is this mentality of maximization that is exhausting the earth. These types of structures are indeed important, much like the hexagons of a honeycomb, but they can also easily overwhelm. Maybe the extra space that a circle or a curve provides, leaves a little room to breathe, to think, and to step outside and look within from a different perspective every once and a while. There is a little room to play around, a little room for the future, and a little room for magic. I believe that our world needs this extra room, this balance, to flourish and to grow.
And this growth I speak of is not in terms of the current ideal of development. In fact I believe that this development is sorely missing the element of the dynamic feminine. The current development, which Vandana Shiva terms “mal-development”, that is being carried out currently focuses greatly on the product of growth in terms of production, such as GDP and physical structures to have tangible evidence that “growth” is actually occurring. However, this type of growth is only one part of a whole system, the rest of which is being ignored by our current definition of development. These other branches often will not produce tangible proof of their existence like a new road does, but they are greatly important, such as the healthy mental and physical development of the individual, or the enhancement of water retention in soil. The constant focus on the product of growth results in a lack of attention towards the system that supports that growth. We are stockpiling, stacking, and gorging on fruit without taking care of the tree. And little do we acknowledge that we cannot continue to feast for much longer without a healthy tree. As Sufi poet Rumi said, “maybe we are searching among the branches, for what only appears in the roots.”
Could it be that the balance that the world now lacks is that missing feminine? I believe that the dynamic feminine does exist in our world: it is not dead. But in order for it to be strong it needs constant exercise and attention. We have to begin to nurture it on an a collective and individual basis, and that experience will differ from person to person. For me, it starts with accessing the dynamic feminine in myself. By exploring the unknown, the mysterious, sometimes the dark, and not being afraid of it. It means asking questions about the world and myself even if they don’t seem to fit into the box, while being comfortable with leaving some things unknown. It means channeling playfulness, acknowledging interconnectedness, dependence, and creating and participating in new dialogues. It means standing up against domination and oppression in all forms. I think one of the reasons that I have such a love for the Oregon Country Fair is that I believe that it is, in a way, a celebration of the dynamic feminine. Women have a very sacred presence there that you have to experience to know what I am talking about. But it is there, it is alive, and it thrives. But beyond just women, it is the playfulness, the creativity, the communication, the challenging of norms, the rhythm, and most of all the magic. This magic isn’t the kind we know as in magicians, spells, and magic wands but more of a shifting of consciousness of sorts, both individually and collectively. This magic can occur unexpectedly and in all sorts of places. It can come from the simplest mediums and we all know it at one time or another, but the result is more complex than we can begin to communicate. Like when you listen to or write a poem that shifts everything inside of you and afterwards the world becomes a different place, even in just the slightest bit. It is the creation of a new reality.
But making magic takes inspiration and listeners. In accessing and creating the dynamic feminine, I believe that solidarity is critical, particularly between women. I say this because I believe the lack of solidarity between women is a result of the patriarchal system being the dominant one. To an extent, our society is very uncomfortable with women gathering and organizing. I notice this often, sometimes with the apparent distaste someone has when the word “feminist” escapes through their teeth, to the discomfort many people have with women’s circles. These activities are often belittled and feminism is still associated with the “man-hating bra burning bitch” image. I believe this is because women joining, gathering, and organizing creates a strong power, which is seen as a threat. This power is not in terms of domination, such as the gun or the bomb, but a different kind of power. Starhawk, a key author in ecofeminist thought and feminist politics, makes this distinction. “The power we sense in a seed, in the growth of a child, the power we feel writing, working, creating, making choices, has nothing to do with threats of annihilation. It has to do with the root meaning of the word power, from the (late popular) Latin, podere (to be able). It is the power that comes from within.” This power is much stronger than “power-over” in that it is regenerative, dynamic, and limitless while “power-over” ends with domination. Maybe the threat that this power poses is why society so enjoys watching women pitted against each other in “The Bad Girls Club” and young girls are taught to compete with and hate one another from a young age.
Although connecting women is critical, nourishing the dynamic feminine does not exclude men. In fact men are equally key players in this process as women are. Men, too can harness the feminine in themselves, just as women can the masculine. We all have a flow of masculine and feminine within us as human beings. It is time to step away from the association of feminine being restricted to females, and especially from feminine qualities as being less valued than masculine qualities. Because in order for the dynamic feminine to grow strong, everyone must nurture it: men, women, and everywhere in between. A man cultivating and expressing the feminine within himself does not make him less of a “man”. Rather, it can open up a new world of freedoms by breaking apart the constructs of a societal norm. Having said this, I challenge the notion of the feminist movement being a “woman’s movement,” but rather it is an anti-oppression movement. It is a movement that challenges domination and subjugation, and advocates for a balanced and reciprocal way of life. It acknowledges interconnectedness, mutual dependence, and understanding. It is a way of life that accepts other ways of knowing and the unknown. This cuts across gender, species, race, religion, age, and sexuality. And it concerns everyone because it is our future.
I strongly believe that in restoring our earth, we must restore the feminine. And in restoring the feminine, we will also restore the earth. In order to do this we must break down cultural conceptions of masculine and feminine that place limits on the potential of a human being and cause us to value one gender over others. Let’s create a world where women are valued as human beings above all else and are no longer trapped by a societal notion of what a woman is and is not. It is up to use to restore this balance, to create a relationship of complement instead of competition and to return the care towards the system that supports us. Lets put an end to domination and oppression. To do so, we must begin to look deeper, to look within our roots. To quote one of my favorite parts of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues:
Sissy: You really don’t believe in political solutions do you?
The Chink: I believe in political solutions to political problems. But man’s primary problems aren’t political; they’re philosophical. Until humans can solve their philosophical problems, they’re condemned to solve their political problems over and over and over again. It’s a cruel, repetitious bore.
Sissy: Well, then, what are the philosophical solutions?
The Chink: Ha ha ho ho and hee hee. That’s for you to find out. I’ll say this much and no more: there’s got to be poetry. And magic. At every level. If civilization is ever going to be anything but a grandiose pratfall, anything more than a can of deodorizer in the shithouse of existence, then statesmen are going to have to concern themselves with magic and poetry. Bankers are going to have to concern themselves with magic and poetry. Time magazine is going to have to write about magic and poetry. Factory workers and housewives are going to have to get their lives entangled in magic and poetry.
Sissy: Do you think such a thing can ever happen?
The Chink: If you understood poetry and magic, you’d know that it doesn’t matter.
So let us begin. Let us embrace balance, mystery, transformation, curves, rhythm and the glimpses in between. And most of all let us create the magic: the power is within us.