There’s a piece called Femininity 2.0 in the Huffington Post that is a masterpiece of gender essentialism. I think the author and I would agree on many positive changes that we’d like to see in the world, but disagree vehemently on how to get there. That author, Marianne Williamson, goes to such lengths to praise what she describes as essentially feminine qualities that she comes out saying that women need to avoid being distracted by all this so-called women’s liberation and get back to being the homemakers of the world so that we can save the world from the destructive, dangerous menz. No, no, and heck no! I don’t pick up men’s socks for them and I won’t be made responsible for raising their consciousness either.
My real problems start about halfway through. Williamson starts out by establishing her experience with feminism in the 70s and says that kind of feminism basically tried to make women able to be just like men, while “we denied some essential aspects of our authentic selves.” Just what were those “essential aspects,” you ask?
I ultimately realized that my mother’s very traditional role was far from meaningless. I now see that is a woman’s God-given role to tend to the home and take care of the children: it’s just that the entire planet is our home and every child on it is one of our children.
She goes on to explain how and why she thinks fulfilling this “spiritual mission” would change the world.
Homemaker and motherhood are not just material conditions that belong to a few; they are states of consciousness that belong to any woman who assumes them. Women should be the keepers of the conscience of the world. We are keepers of the internal flame — the light of humanitarian values and the primacy of love — and our greatest power lies in keeping it lit.
So where does that leave men? She gives an example from hyenas, which she says is typical of mammalian species, that it’s the females’ job to protect the cubs while the males are…well, threatening the females and cubs. (I’m hearing echoes of Mama Grizzly here, but I don’t know enough about Williamson to know how likely it is that she’s making an allusion.) Her examples of what’s wrong with the world – pollution and environmental destruction, a focus on corporate profits at the expense of humaneness, poverty, hunger, and even disempowered women – are all things that should be fixed, but her rallying cry is exclusively aimed at women. She doesn’t come out and say that men are irremediable brutes; she just doesn’t say anything about what they ought to be doing to change this state of affairs.
This nonsense demeans both women and men. Yes, she’s calling for positive change in the world, but the way she goes about it undermines her whole point. If women are the home of humanitarian values, where does that leave men? And if men don’t have humanitarian values, how can a culture ever be safe and assured of its humanitarian values until men are fully civilized and possibly even controlled by women, in order to keep their presumably inhumane natures from wreaking havoc? That’s not what Williamson is explicitly calling for, but I don’t know how else to interpret her utter neglect of men’s potential roles in her reimagined world, other than as aggressors and sources of danger.
I am not a keeper of conscience of the world because I’m female. I’m fighting for things I believe in because I believe in them, and because I believe that the only way to make a real difference is to get as many people – regardless of their sex or gender – as possible to work on putting those beliefs into action. If Williamson wanted to say something like “women’s (traditional) values of nurturing and caring can be a model for everyone, male and female alike, to learn how to care for each other and the planet,” I might still deride her gender essentialism, or pandering to “traditional” categorization, but I wouldn’t be so absolutely furious. But what she has written is ultimately as destructive as the kind of “paternalistic think[ing]” she characterizes as normal for men.
Casting women as the “saviors” or “civilizers” of humanity, particularly of men, restricts both men and women from exploring the full range of what it means to be human. It condemns women to the hard work and lets men off the hook, and by doing so, it prevents us from making real progress towards a future where all people foster within themselves a “state of consciousness” of caring for each other and the world. Working towards that future is not my “God-given” “spiritual mission” because I’m a woman. That ought to be our mission together, all of us, because it’s what our world needs from us right now. Want to help?