In this season of graduations and rites of passage, a dear friend asked me to write something to her daughter, who stands on the cusp of becoming a woman.
The first thing that comes to mind is how drastically the world has changed for emerging young women since I stood on this threshold fifty years ago. Back then, people simply did not talk openly about normal, healthy biological processes like getting your period or growing breasts, or all the new emotions and bursts of energy that come when a little girl becomes a woman. My mother was embarrassed to talk about it. In school they separated the boys and girls and showed us different films about sex and biology that were stiff, self-conscious, and “scientific”. This communicated that there was something “not okay”, even shameful about growing up in a female body. This began to change with the feminist movement of the 1970’s, but my caution is to be on the lookout for anyone or any ideas that attach shame, dread, or lack of worth to becoming a woman.
In ancient matriarchal cultures, the onset of menstruation was celebrated. A young girl got to go into a scared structure with other women and be cared for, adored, and educated. Sadly this changed when patriarchy conquered the goddess civilizations. The effects of this are striking today. I just saw an interview with former US president, Jimmy Carter, who has written a new book about addressing the plight of women around the world. He said today (March 23, 2014) that when the Pope says that women can’t be priests, it sends a message to men that they can devalue and dominate their wives.
As a girl becoming a woman, I believe it is important for you to understand that modern women must fight this kind of oppression, wherever they can. Not only by helping women around the world in school projects or volunteer opportunities, but in everyday interactions.
Simply asserting your worth, and standing up for who you are and what you believe communicates that women are valuable, whether it is insisting that a salesclerk gives you correct change, or masterminding a school research project on the lives of women in countries like the Congo, or the Middle East.
In the working class suburb where I grew up, girls were expected to grow up to be housewives and mothers. Period. Opportunities in education, sports, and the arts were scarce. There were no sports teams for girls. In high school you went out for cheerleader or drill team, both window dressing for the boys’ teams. So, my first thought is to shout from the rooftops: “How fortunate you are to be coming into womanhood in the 21st century!!” Today women are expected to have careers, whether they get married or not. Women’s sporting events are mainstream. Women excel in the arts, education, and politics. We now have the first woman CEO of a major auto corporation, the first woman chairman of the Federal Reserve, and we just might elect a woman President of the United States in 2016. In global affairs, three women jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in empowering women of the Third World to free themselves from abuse, domination, and oppression.
As you contemplate entering this brave new world of womanhood, it is good to ask, “How do I prepare for a future that is true to my own deepest needs, desires, and abilities? What am I curious about? What kind of power do I want for myself? Do I want to be powerful as many men have been in dominating others, or do I want a power that suits my own unique nature, and also brings a new compassion and humanity to our world? How do I learn to value power that is not about gender – whether someone is male or female, but about what they think, what they value, what they care about?”
A wise teacher once told me that it is important to “carry the question” – not to leap to quick solutions or to come up with answers that will please others. If you carry the question long enough, one day you may come upon the answer, and it will be something you could never have imagined, and yet it will feel “right”.
One great benefit of being a woman is that over time, we can develop, refine, and nourish our power of intuition. This is a way of knowing that does not come from obvious logical approaches. It is the ability to listen to that still, quiet voice within. To listen to our dreams. To observe situations, people, and systems from multiple points of view. To allow paradoxical truths to co-exist. For a deeply intuitive person, reality is rarely black and white. In my experience, growing into maturity as a woman has been largely about learning, not only to carry the question, but to hold seemingly contradictory realities as see the truth in both. For example, I may want to be a powerful woman in the world, and it may also be important to marry and have a family. I may want a career in business or the arts, and I may also want to take a year off to travel around the world with a friend. I may want to grow up and become a woman, and I may want to stay a child. Both are true.
When I was thirteen, I felt very sad. I knew I was leaving my childhood behind. I even thought I should write a book about what it felt like to be a child. I was afraid I would forget, and all the joy and wonder of my child self would be lost. Sadly, I moved into adolescence, and never wrote that book. I regret it, because I might have captured something that now I can only reach with my imagination. So, if you have an idea to create something or write about something from your unique perspective at a very important point in time, do it. Do it now.
Some part of me still grieves for my childhood, and yet, the spirit of child wonder is alive in me whenever I discover a new idea, or act on my own curiosity, or feel the sense of power rising in my adult woman self. For me, power is simply the opportunity to pursue what I love, to make my own living, to care for my family – to contribute to organizations like the Motherhouse Fund, Women for Women International, and Mary’s Place, a shelter for homeless women in Seattle.
You will find your own path to power, meaning, opportunity, and joy.
It has never been a better time to become a woman in the Western world.
Welcome to the adventure.