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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

Putting the Words Women and Power Together

By Elizabeth Lesser

The following is a transcript of a speech given by Elizabeth Lesser at the Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations Conference held at Omega Institute, September 11-13, 2009.

This is our 8th Women and Power conference, and when we first conceived of these conferences, people politely suggested that we not use the word power in the title— that the word was a turn-off; it was too controversial; that women didn’t relate to it; that it scared people. But, for those very reasons, we kept using it. I take my direction from one of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Apparently, other people also live by Mrs. Roosevelt’s advice, because women kept coming to our conferences. And we weren’t the only ones catching the women and power wave. The word power began cropping up paired with the word women all over the place—in books and blogs and magazines. Recently, this idea of women redefining power as opposed to merely learning the ropes of the old power paradigm has begun to pick up real traction.

A couple of months ago I helped the editorial staff of O Magazine—Oprah’s magazine—plan their September issue, which is organized around the subject of Women and Power. I want to give a shout-out to the women at O Magazine—to Oprah and Gayle King and to all the editors there—for the bold and savvy way they bring new ideas out into the world. At one of the early concept meetings for the Power issue, I sat around the table with the editors, who range in age from their twenties to veteran journalists in their 50s and 60s. I started the meeting talking about my experiences organizing these conferences and what I’ve learned about putting the words women and power together.

One thing I’ve learned is that women—especially here in the U.S.—spent the better part of the 20th century trying to prove to the powers that be—mostly men—that we could do whatever they did, and we could do it as well, or even better. We could vote; we could work; we could lead; we could make love and make art and write literature and compete in sports and report the news. We could explore the world—in the laboratories, in the universities, on the seas, and in the skies…We could do whatever men did, and we could do it how men did it, we could out man the manliest man. We knocked ourselves out in the 20th century and we made enormous strides: we got the vote; we went to work; we got elected. We got our reproductive rights; we left the house; sometimes we left the babies; sometimes we left the marriages. We climbed, we competed, we conned, we controlled. We did what we had to do in a power structure we had not created, by rules we had not devised, to get our collective foot in the door. We didn’t get everything and we certainly didn’t get it for everybody, and none of what we got has been secured, but life is entirely different for most of us in this room than it was for my mother’s generation, and for her mother’s generation.

And I went on to say, to the editors around the table at O Magazine, that in our zeal to attain our basic human rights, we forgot to protect another right. And that is the right to be exactly who we are, wherever we are. The right, the prerogative, to be proudly and instinctually female as we help set the agenda for human culture and society. I said to those women who have worked so very, very hard to get to the top floor, to break through the glass ceiling, I said to them that the work of women in the 21st century will be to question some of the values we women have adopted in order to make it in a man’s world; to question whether we really want to be who we have become. Whether we are teachers or legislators or business women or bus drivers or mothers or writers…whatever it is we do, do we want to develop and exercise only our rational, test-giving, number-crunching, strategizing, aggressive side, or do we also want to celebrate and activate and elevate our luscious, soft, emotional, relational side every day and in everything we do? And do we want our men—our brothers, our sons, our boyfriends, our husbands, our co-parents—to remain trapped in the straightjacket of cartoon masculinity? Or do we want them to know the pleasure of nurturing, the fullness of feeling, the difficult victories of compassion and connection?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said something startling about power. He said, "One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites so that love is identified with the resignation of power, and power with the denial of love... What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at it's best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love." I think it would be fair to say that in the 20th century many women learned that love without power is sentimental and anemic. It was a great thing to learn. It taught us to go forth, to stand our ground, to fight when we had to, to make a difference.

But I fear that we left love in the wings. I understand why we did this. As a woman leader in an organization that in its formative years was led primarily by men, I learned through trial by fire that it was a bad career move to feel too much, to reveal my heart too deeply, to talk too much, to take anything personally, and God forbid, to cry. When I first started out, I didn’t understand these rules of the power game. I’d been raised in a family of four girls and I didn’t know how to play with the boys. My strategic and political skills were completely undeveloped. And my values—what I cared about most for the organization—didn’t always line up with the prevailing priorities. I wasn’t as bottom-line oriented; I focused more on the health and happiness of our staff; I was less interested in growth for growth’s sake. It’s not that I wanted my ideas or values to win, I just wanted them to be part of the conversation. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate having developed my ability to be strategic and aggressive—I deeply appreciate that. But I thought we might learn from each other; that we might fill in the missing holes with each others’ strengths. I quickly discovered that power wasn’t done that way. It was a competition, a race, sometimes a war. Therefore, over the years, I became less emotional and more tactical; I got more comfortable with numbers and projections; I stopped taking things personally (well, almost). I modified my behavior just to be heard and respected. For example, if one of the guys felt angry about something, he could yell and threaten, and that would be seen as strength. But if I felt grief or confusion or pain about a person or a plan, and I “whined” or I cried, my voice would lose its authority and power. So, I became a student of the way power is done, as did millions of women in the 20th century.

I understand why we frequently abandoned our instincts to feel and empathize and express—to love—so as to hone our ability to lead. It made a certain kind of survival sense to do so. But the 20th century is over. It is time to actualize what Dr. King said: What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive. I believe that the work of women in the 21st century is to bring our instinct to love out of the closet and along for the power ride. This is our task to do for the human race.

Back to that table at the magazine. As we were discussing these ideas—women and power, love and power, the feminine values of nurturing and connecting—I noticed that many of the women of my generation—baby boomers, middle-aged women—were nodding in recognition. But some of the younger women weren’t. In fact they seemed sort of annoyed, or maybe just impatient, or even bored. So I stopped and I asked the group, “Does what I’m saying ring true?” And one of the younger women said, “No. No, I don’t relate to this idea that if a woman was given the freedom be who she really is, she might do things differently; that she would bring more love and acceptance of others; that she might create a more equal playing field. I don’t think that capacity lives only in women. In fact, some of the men I’ve worked for have been much more compassionate than the women.”

And another said, “My husband is staying home and raising our kids more than I am. And that works really well for us, with no sense of loss or guilt on my side or his.” And I was floored and excited by this reaction. Could it be that the new work has begun? That it is showing up in the lives of the younger generations in ways that I have been blind to? And isn’t this the way it always happens? That the next generation is born singing the new song, while the previous one can’t follow the tune or understand the words? That the generation who comes before us does their work so well that the next generation takes it as a given? That we aren’t even aware we are standing on the shoulders of our mothers, our grandmothers, our ancestors?

A couple of weeks ago right here in this Main Hall, 13 grandmothers from all over the world—from the Arctic Circle, Africa, Nepal, Guatemala, Tibet, the Black Hills of South Dakota, Brazil and other far-flung places—gathered (in their words) to pray for all life and for the next seven generations. They call themselves The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, and even though they are in their 70s and 80s, they have spent the past few years traveling all over the world out of their concern for the fate of the planet. By the end of the Grandmother’s visit to Omega I felt their spirits permeating the campus. It was a different sort of energy than a bunch of old women normally carry with them. At least here in the United States.

These 13 old women were proud to BE old women. They had deep creases in their faces—geographic evidence of long, risky, fully experienced lives; and they had white and gray hair, not in neat hair-dos, but in long braids or in wild ripples cascading around their expressive faces. Most of their bodies were round and soft, and they wore the kind of clothes that round and soft people should wear. They all spoke different languages, but even when the translators were out of the room, they laughed and cried whenever any one of them would speak. In fact, that seemed to be their reaction to almost everything—laughter or weeping. Or hugging. There was a lot of hugging going on. At a fire ceremony right outside of this hall, one of the Grandmothers got up to speak and within minutes she was crying. She stood by the fire, surrounded by several hundred people, and openly wept for the planet, and the animals and the children. By then—it was toward the end of the week—this had become a perfectly normal way for a person to address a crowd. At the end of the ceremony the grandmother had us turn to the person next to us and give them a hug. I was standing next to one of the other grandmothers. She took me in her arms and wrapped herself around me. And she didn’t let go. And didn’t let go. At first—out of habit—I gently tried to end the hug (I’m not really a big hugger), but the grandmother would not let go. So I just sank into her. And she held me, patted my hair, made clucking and purring noises, rocked me back and forth, laughed, cried, and whispered words in my ear that I couldn’t understand, but they sounded just like the noises I had been making earlier that week when my little 3 month old grandson had been visiting. My first grandchild.

So there I was, feeling like a little girl in the arms of an old woman, even though I myself am a grandmother; and soon enough I will be an old woman. And in that moment, I felt all the generations come alive within me. My grandmother, my mother, me, my son, my daughter in law, my little grandson. And in that moment I knew exactly why we had created the conference we are all at now. I am not a romantic about other cultures or eras being better than this one. But I am aware that much has been sacrificed in our culture in the name of progress. One of those sacrifices has been the helpful, loving, mentoring and energizing relationships between generations. We’ve spent so much time getting away from each other—psychologically and geographically—that yes, we have allowed ourselves to celebrate our individuality (which is a wonderful, even spiritual advancement), but we have also lost our interconnectivity. One thing that I felt in that hug from the grandmother was that loss of connection across the generations. So as we start this conference, I would like us to bring into this room the women upon whose shoulders we stand. We all know—in this therapeutic age—all the things our mother and her mother did to screw us up. But for a moment, I’d like us to call forth the deeper spirit of our mothers and our grandmothers—whether they are alive or dead, or even right in this room. Whether they are related to us by blood or by role. To call up the spirits of our mothers, and to thank them—not only for giving us life, but also for doing the best they could within the generation they were born into. So close your eyes and call up the spirits of the women in your motherline, bring them into this room, and thank them.

And now I would like you to call up your heroes, your mentors. The activists and the healers and the movers and shakers and those who toiled unknown and uncelebrated but still did what they could to part the waters for the next generation of women so that our lives would be fuller, better, bolder. If you are like me, many of your cherished heroes are men. But in this moment, let’s symbolically bring into the room the women water-parters. It’s interesting where you heart and mind go when you search for only your women heroes. You make room for people you may have forgotten. For example, I thought of women like Edna St Vincent Millet and Virginia Wolf, Jane Adaams, Maria Montessori, Audre Lord, Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks, Jane Goodall, Marion Woodman…women whose words and actions changed my life. So, think deep right now, and conjure up your women heroes; bring them into the room.

Here’s someone else I called up. Maybe some of you did too. I called up Eve Ensler—one of my dearest friends, and the woman who helped start these conferences with me. I’ve been talking with Eve a lot recently, because she has just finished a book (out in February, 2010) and Eve’s been reading some of it to me over the phone. The book is called, I AM AN EMOTIONAL CREATURE: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World. It’s a collection of monologues about and for and from young women claiming their authentic power. Here’s what Eve says in the introduction. I’m going to skip around some, with apologies to Eve. She starts the intro as a letter to young women.

She writes, “Dear Emotional Creature,” and she goes on to say, “So many of the women I have met through The Vagina Monologues and The Good Body and V-Day are still trying to overcome what was muted or undone in them when they were young. They are struggling late into their lives to know their desires, to find their power and their way. When I was your age, I didn’t know how to live as an emotional creature. I felt like an alien. I still do a lot of the time. I don’t think it has much to do with the country I grew up in or the language I speak… I think whatever country or town or village you physically live in, you inhabit a similar emotional landscape. You all come from girl land. There you get born with this awakeness, this open hearted have to eat it taste it know it, defy it. Then the ‘grown ups’ come with their directions. They teach you how to make yourselves less so everyone feels more comfortable. I am older now. I finally know the difference between pleasing and loving, obeying and respecting. It has taken me so many years to be okay with being different, with being this alive. I just don’t want you to have to wait that long.”

Here’s something else that Eve says in the last monologue of her book:

“Here’s what I’m telling you:

Everyone’s making everything up

There is no one in charge except for those

Who pretend to be…”

Let’s remember those lines as we progress through this weekend. I hope we take them as a call to make up a new world. To imagine into being, a new kind of society. A society where women know who they really, really are, and trust who they are, and love who they are. And don’t try to fit themselves into a constructed reality, but instead create a new one, where love and power are no longer opposites, where the health and wellbeing of children is a primary value of the whole society—way more primary than being thin or rich or famous; where the fate of a polar bear or a forest or a stream is so very important to the powers that be, that sacrificing some of the bottom line is a no-brainer. A new cultural reality where movies about love and romance and relationships aren’t called chick-flicks, but they’re just called a movie—like the way movies about battles or crime or car chases are just called movies. A new reality where communication becomes lionized, and love between people is no longer the domain of cheesy greeting cards, but a valid, respected instinct to be cultivated and taught. Like the way warfare is taught at Westpoint and business is taught at Wharton and law at Harvard—let’s imagine into being schools of relationship and parenting and peace making. Why not? Those other schools don’t have to go away. We just have to get busy.

The above is a transcript of the keynote speech delivered by Elizabeth Lesser at the Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations Conference held at Omega Institute, September 11-13, 2009.

To order audio CDs from the Women & Courage conference, please order online at www.eomega.org/omega/mediaworks, call 845.266.4444, ext. 317 or email [email protected].

Feminist.com's Archive of Features from the
Women & Power: Connecting Across the Generations Conference

Related links:

  • Elizabeth Lesser's keynote speech from the Women & Courage conference: The Birth of a New Human Story
  • Conversation with Elizabeth Lesser: Interview by Marianne Schnall
  • Gender and Self: Gods and Goddesses Within (Excerpt from The Seeker's Guide: Making Your Life a Spiritual Adventure)
  • Open Secret (Excerpt from Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow)
  • Feminist.com's Archive of Features from theWomen, Power & Peace Conference
  • Speeches from the 2004 Women & Power Conference

    Elizabeth LesserElizabeth Lesser is cofounder and senior advisor of Omega Institute. She is author of The Seeker’s Guide and Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. For 30 years, she has studied and worked with leading figures in the fields of emotional intelligence and healing—healing self and healing society. For much of that time, Lesser was a driving force at Omega, helping to lead the organization, create the curriculum, and spearhead many of its programs, including the Women and Power conferences. Today, she is an active board member and advisor to the organization.

    Lesser is a New York Times best-selling author, speaker, and frequent host on the Oprah & Friends Sirius/XM radio channel. She attended Barnard College and San Francisco State University. Formerly a midwife and birth educator, she has taught workshops on emotional intelligence, meditation, women’s issues, and death and dying. She has appeared on national radio and television, and lectured at college campuses, retreat centers, and conferences nationwide.

    Elizabeth Lesser is on the Advisory Board of Feminist.com.


    Omega Institute is the nation's largest holistic education provider, highly regarded for its pioneering work in holistic health, meditation, yoga, transformational psychology, bodywork, spirituality, world music, and art. Founded in 1977, Omega fulfills its mission to provide learning environments that awaken the best in the human spirit through its broad-based curriculum and unique community spirit. www.eomega.org

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