by Kathe Schaaf and Kay Lindahl
We can’t help but notice that the world seems to have suddenly ‘discovered’ the value of women. After thousands of years living in the shadow of the masculine, after being pushed into the margins of power and leadership, after being silenced in every cultural institution – including most of the major world religions - the media today is full of messages that it is time to listen to women’s wisdom.
Women’s leadership styles are being acknowledged widely in diverse segments of the global media:
Research articles from the field of neuroscience suggest that women’s brains do indeed work differently than men’s, giving us more capacity for the kind of functions required to address the complex issues facing our planet: multi-tasking, integration, cooperation, and contextual thinking.
A headline during the recent budget impasse in the U.S. Congress declared “Women Lead While Men Bicker.”
Micro-lending programs in Africa and Asia frequently identify women as key to their success; not only are women more marginalized in poor countries but they are also more likely to make decisions that will benefit both family and community.
Even the world of religion has begun to acknowledge the importance of women’s voices and leadership. Pope Francis recently called for a “more incisive female presence” and a broader application of “feminine genius” in the life of the Church.
Sojourners recently launched a Campaign for Women and Girls that supports the equality of women in ways that are both practical and theological. The cover of their January 2014 Sojourners magazine boldly states, “Twisted Theology: Churches that still treat women as inferior are distorting the image of God.”
The Divine Feminine Rising
While all of this sudden attention on women, leadership, and feminine spirituality is exciting, it is important to pause a moment and listen deeply for the heartbeat of the Divine Feminine guiding, informing, and inspiring this complex global movement. The Divine Feminine is indeed rising, despite all the jagged history which repressed Her and despite the reality that women have been offered little legitimate space in which to practice feminine ways of being and doing. She rises in individual women and in the thousands of organizations they have created around the world. She rises as women struggle to bring a different style of leadership – and a new matrix of assumptions and values – to the institutions, initiatives, and corporations which shape our culture. And many believe She rises now on behalf of this troubled planet.
What does the Divine Feminine look like? How will you know Her when you encounter Her embodied by a woman in your community, your workplace, your congregation? For the past four years, Women of Spirit and Faith has been listening deeply to women from all faiths and spiritual perspectives. We observed the following qualities about the community of women at the intersection of spirituality and leadership:
Women deeply value relationships. Over the past decade, women around the world have woven a living web of connections and relationships which offer us a glimpse at a powerful new kind of infrastructure. This web is built with strands of authenticity and trust, deep listening and mutuality, personal responsibility and interdependence. There is no Superwoman, no leader out front, no ego ownership. The strength of the web is in the diversity and complexity of the weave and the depth of the authentic relationships.
Women often gather in circles. We want to be in relationship with everyone and circles offer a space for making eye contact, sharing, listening. Circles invite and affirm the wisdom of everyone present. We honor the sacred at the center of each circle and surrender to the profound wisdom that arises from the synergy of the whole. We weave a container for the circle, making sure it is a safe and sacred space in which all are honored and all gifts are received.
We place our faith in Divine guidance – honoring all the diverse ways that we name and understand the Divine. We leave space for the sacred to show up in our midst – with silence, prayer, meditation, invocation, ritual woven into our circle, conference calls, meetings and working sessions. We ask the question – What is emerging? – and listen for a response. We come from a place of allowing rather than forcing or mapping out a plan. We are comfortable not having the answers.
We know that all women are leaders, so we shift leadership, share leadership, collaborate, and co-create. This is not a leader-less process; it is a leader-full experience.
We are a living organism, dynamic and generative, continuously surprised by the fruits we produce. We each take responsibility for our own visions, passions, and callings. When there is something to be done and you hear the call, it’s your assignment.
We trust in the Divine, in our own divinity and in each other. We honor the long history of those who walked this path before us: the goddesses and mystics and spiritual teachers who carried the energy of the Divine Feminine across cultures, religions and time. We are grateful for our ancestors and the pioneers of all the diverse communities within this movement.
We sometimes get glimpses intuitively of how the many pieces fit together into a complex and cohesive whole. Each piece is equally important and for the sake of the whole organism, we are guided to seek ideas and actions which contribute to the integrity of the whole.
Living into the Challenge
We often hear from women, especially from our young leaders, about how challenging it is to bring these more ‘feminine’ ways of doing things into the workplace, political systems, religious or academic institutions. It is not just women who are marginalized by the long reign of patriarchy on our planet. So much having to do with “the feminine” is also devalued and silenced in the dominant culture of values, language, spirituality, education, politics, leadership and power in which we have been living for many generations. It is the air we have been breathing for so long that we are often unconscious about the ways it has shaped and formed (or deformed) our own personal experiences and expectations.
As women bring forward their gifts and leadership in the coming years – and as the Divine Feminine seeks to bring Her gift of healing to the world through those women – it will be important to consciously make room for new ways of doing things, for feminine wisdom brought in feminine ways. This will require nothing less than radically different definitions of what leadership looks like and how success should be measured.
Even among women, there is no consensus about these new definitions of leadership and success. Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg’s best-selling book, admonishes women to get serious about taking on traditionally defined leadership roles. Sandberg has sparked a firestorm of reactions from women. Among them is a brilliant blog by Rosa Brooks entitled Recline: Why Leaning In is Killing Us. Brooks says, “We need to challenge the assumption that more is always better, and the assumption that men don't suffer as much as women when they're exhausted and have no time for family or fun. And we need to challenge those assumptions wherever we find them, both in the workplace and in the family.”
When women come together, it is common for the conversation to turn to the men that we love. Like Brooks, we see the diverse ways men suffer because of the denial of the feminine in the world. We see among women a real commitment to finding balance between the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine, to supporting the spiritual lives of our beloved sons and partners.
The Divine Feminine Embodied
This living organism of women and organizations is already remarkable. There are literally thousands of women’s organizations dedicated to women’s spirituality and leadership.
Some of them are based in large global interfaith organizations, like the Women’s Task Force at the Parliament of the World’s Religions and the Women’s Coalition MCC at United Religions Initiative. Religions for Peace offers a Global Women of Faith Network.
Regional networks of interfaith U.S. women are gathered on the West Coast by S.A.R.A.H. and on the East Coast by Women Transcending Boundaries. Most major religions offer women’s networks and initiatives.
Other large networks of spiritual women thrive outside of the religious community. Gather the Women, We Are Enough, Millionth Circle and numerous other organizations join Women of Spirit and Faith in bringing circle and prayer to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women every March in New York City.
The list could go on for pages naming women’s organizations, networks, initiatives and projects. The Women of Spirit and Faith’s website lists several dozen.
These organizations are woven together through relationships and shared passion into a complex hive of wisdom, resources, commitment, and energy in service of humanity and the Earth. It is not a neat, tidy, or predictable pattern. Like nature, it is sometimes messy and often redundant. It ebbs and flows, expands and contracts as women flow into the work and then out to care for the babies or the sick partner or the aging grandparent. This matrix is surprising and mysterious – and it is also growing, buzzing with energy, constantly moving in many directions at the same time. This is what the Divine Feminine looks like embodied.
And it’s all happening just in the nick of time. One of our young leaders recently told the story of her work, weaving together organizations and government agencies into a statewide empowerment project in a fluid, feminine way. Her words sound prophetic and hopeful: “I can see it in their eyes. They see I am offering a lifeboat. They know their ship is sinking and I offer a lifeboat. I just can’t seem to launch lifeboats fast enough.”