In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. This is part seven. Explore the rest of the series here.
The stress and confusion on his face was palpable. Knowing him as she did, it was obvious he was crumbling inside as he rose to the pressure of the lads around him, already pissed with half an hour to go before kick-off. Please don’t, she thought, I won’t forgive you. Help me his eyes pleaded.
Mum, you’re wrong about this. There’s no reason at all to think that women are any different from men. Especially when it comes to having babies. I’m all up for blokes getting pregnant if science helps them to do that. Let them do all that home-making stuff. Let them do all the emotional labour of being there for them, putting them first above any career, helping them become independent. I’ve got more important things to do.
What does feminine mean to you? 100 years after women got the vote in the UK, the F word has become much more difficult to define.
This is not a call to go backwards, but a commitment to actively re-locate the feminine in the public space.
According to the traditional narrative the feminine used to reside at home, where the children were or where privacy was possible. Where the internal life of contemplation found its space. ‘Feminine' spoke instantly of nurturance, supportive structures and the right to play.
Feminine language allowed feelings, intuition, wisdom – capabilities not measured for their efficacy, but valued highly as the thing that Mum brought, different from what Dad brought to the home. Though both men and women, boys and girls, valued and needed them. They came home for them. Not because these capabilities were an end in themselves, but because they were the gateway to children becoming individuals – their full selves – whatever form that might take.
But after only a few lines of exploring this question, I’m hesitating. Because we know so much more now than we did then: that Mum was often working outside the home, already subject to the values and structures created for industry and economic growth. The idealised relationship between the Mother and the Feminine was already under strain. And it became increasingly challenged by women themselves, as they fought for equality in what was once a Man’s world. They wanted the right to be an agentic self, not tied to the home, with access to power and greater resources. Surely this should belong to everyone?
In the future, history–or herstory—will show the transformation better than any one of us can describe it. We are looking from the eye of the storm. But the phenomenon of women moving out of the home into public life – whether that began with, or was simply accelerated by, the vote, the contraceptive pill
, feminism – has left us without anywhere clear to locate the Feminine spirit, its values or ways of being and doing. As a result, it becomes harder to find and grow when the need for it is becoming increasingly clear.
What happened to the Feminine?
Softness, the ability to empathise, the attentiveness to emotion: all these were seen as weaknesses that got in the way of action.
Women did not move into the public spaces of work, institutional life and politics and bring their particular feminine qualities and capabilities with them. They had to ‘fit into’ public life as it had been constructed over centuries, even millennia, by men. In this world, what women might have bought specifically was demeaned. Softness, the ability to empathise, the attentiveness to emotion: all these were seen as weaknesses that got in the way of action. So they were marginalised – often by women too.
This overly masculine mainstream culture also left men disconnected from their inner lives. There was so much demand on their physical and material capabilities. Men, as well as women, had a feminine, more ‘feeling' self that also needed attention and care. These selves also yearned for more complex understanding and relationships, within which they could be confirmed and grow, but also co-operate better. If they were lucky and could support mothers to stay at home, some men had somewhere to go and find repair, become whole again in their homes. If not, there was little respite from the endlessly performative demands of public life.
Is the suppression of the feminine why we have the multiple crises of depression, addiction and suicide in our society? When our daily lives do not support the need for self-development, full expression and holistic vision - through offering enough time, space and reward – we end up getting it where we can.
So, while it was both necessary and much to be desired for women to move into public life, that move has not provided a simple counter-balance to masculine domains of power and industry. Instead it has robbed men – indeed all of us – of somewhere to go and easily find that wholeness. This is not a call to go backwards, but a commitment to actively re-locate the feminine in the public space in ways that provide sustenance for all of us. That is not a small task.
Our difficult challenge
In public life, it is difficult to make a call on modern women in ways that emphasise the feminine without suggesting a return to the old divisions of labour, or over-emphasising the beauty and fashion industry as vehicles for all that women bring. Instead, there are many calls – for equality, for entrepreneurship, for more fluid sexual identity - each of which are vital for the advance of women, both physically and socially. But they rarely properly consider what is feminine and why it matters.
Consequently, modern female success has largely been measured on the same terms that men set for themselves. This means through the achievements of status and financial reward; through hard power (the ability to lead and force others to act); through measurable impact (most often meaning economic growth). Where are the prizes for the most integral, most magical, most loving actions in and upon the world? When do we consider the economy of emotional labour? Women have been generally required to downgrade the genius of their own femininity, in order to make advances.
While we may lose the sensibility of all that is verdant and beautiful in the cold months, the eternal rhythms of ature persist and the yearning for it increases.
And the dominance of masculinity in the public space has only increased as women have legitimised those values of success. They have played by those rules, celebrated the wins in that game, and thus intensified the feedback loop.
What are the cumulative effects of a barely-mitigated growth of masculine values, by means of a hard power now ‘owned’ by both men and women in the public space, on our society and planet? We can point to much evidence of a loss of balance between masculine and feminine. The continued logic of militarism; unsustainable business growth; mass incarceration; epidemics of mental illness; the persistence of a work ethic that leaves 60% of people unhappy in their jobs
; the growth of violent crime on our streets and on the internet.
We are living in a global story of collective self-destruction, in which only those at the very tip of this arrow - those who know how to profit from the instrumentalisation of others - can win. Male suicide
is on an ever-steeper curve upwards. Young women choose early not to have children
because it would only add to the unsustainability of a planet burning. Nuclear warheads – the weapons of mass destruction – are given spending priority over solving the crisis issues of food
and water across the planet. And too many of us in are thrall to the speed and excitement of the ‘daily news agenda' as it scrolls down the screens our devices, rarely stopping to notice our societal drive towards the cliff.
Where does the Feminine show up?
Yet the Feminine is not something that can be eliminated. While it no longer has a clear location - nor even a gender or a sex - to guarantee its attention in the media, it persists and grows in ways we don’t readily acknowledge: as if it’s waiting for its moment to regroup and become visible again. This is like Nature’s own cycles, its greenery almost disappearing for all to see during Winter but gathering its forces for Spring. And while we may lose the sensibility of all that is verdant and beautiful in the cold months, the eternal rhythms of Nature persist and the yearning for it increases.
Any new politics that has as its goal the flourishing of people and planet will be committed to the re-balancing of feminine with masculine values in the public space. How else can new forms of agency arise? From that perspective, and for at least the past twenty years, what we understand to be feminine forms and behaviours have been making their mark—though largely unrecognised as feminine per se.
Within this framing we see that we have moved from a logic of hierarchies to one of networks – which is the same way that women always worked in their circles and communities. We talk increasingly about soft skills and soft power
– the powers of attraction and connection - as the missing factors in our strategies for flourishing. Our self-awareness has massively grown through the use of social media – even if we don’t yet know how to create value for others with that reflective knowledge. In our public services, we are beginning to prioritise relational
practices – slowly understanding that the logic of economising costs lives rather than saves them.
Online we are giving increasing attention to our emotional needs and becoming slowly more psychologically literate.
Publishing is always a clue to where the public imagination is drifting. We are reading more and more about how to regain our humanity in the face of our soulless workplaces
- and even beginning to restructure them for better work-life balance. Online we are giving increasing attention to our emotional needs – for intimacy, self-development, community – and becoming slowly more psychologically literate, as we watch ourselves and others perform.
In a public sphere where most of which counts as news was constructed by men, these developments are too often missed. Sometimes they are actively dismissed as soft and fluffy, or self-indulgent. This still follows the logic that human beings are most useful when robotic and efficient, rather than when they are complex and in service to personal and social development.
But once you have trained your eye on the development of feminine practices within our institutions, civic life and education systems, you begin to appreciate them – and actively frame them – as signs of a public space coming back to life.
So will the feminine slowly assert its logic and burst forth alongside the masculine, bringing us back into balance as if by magic? Sadly, there’s no guarantee of that. This is the Anthropocene – Nature is not in charge, so there’s no guarantee that balance between all things will persist. It’s entirely possible that the sheer force of masculine values, guaranteed by men dominating leadership positions and women leaving the Feminine to fend for itself, will lead us onwards in the same direction we have been going until now. In which we cannot discount the possibility of human self-annihilation, during the history of a planet which continues with or without us.
Like the glowing embers of a fire, these feminine, regenerative, ways of being can either flare up to create the warmth we need, or die out – according to how much attention they get. If we want all that is feminine to gain more energy, we have to spot those sparks and fan the flames.
Illustration for Emerge by Christopher Burrows.