I recently had the privilege of interviewing a woman I admire deeply. Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder of the Omega Institute and the author of the best seller Broken Open. In our interview, Elizabeth and I dug into a topic that’s close to both our hearts and very potent right now: women, men and power. We talked about how we’re living in exciting times, as the paradigm between men and women in power is greatly shifting. Shaking up the status quo can cause strife and tension, but Elizabeth discusses this cultural change fearlessly and artfully. Her perspective is inspiring and eye opening. Read on to get Elizabeth’s take on what power means for men and women today.
Your event, Women and Power, has evolved this year into Women/Men: The Next Conversation. What guided you to transform the event and begin this new conversation?
We convened our first Women and Power conference more than a decade ago. When we first announced the conference…Women and Power…people actually advised against that title, thinking it would scare people off. The associations people made when thinking about powerful women seemed to bring up discomfort, even fear—in men AND women. But since then, we’ve seen a proliferation of women’s gatherings about women and power, books about women leaning in and taking charge. All over the world people seem to understand that after centuries of imbalance, it is time to bring women forward into the leadership realm and into all arenas of life—that women’s voices, values, and perspectives can help the human community thrive. Over the years, listening to some of the world’s most powerful, brave, and innovative women, we’ve come to the conclusion that power isn’t the problem—it’s the way humanity has defined power, the way power had been abused, and the way it has been denied to most and hoarded by a few. Women and Power has come to stand for changing the whole paradigm of what power and leadership mean.
Thousands of women have attended the Women and Power conferences, and I have noticed something in every audience. No matter how fiercely women are devoted to women’s rights, the mood at the conference has never been one of antipathy toward men. It’s not an against anyone message, but rather a for everyone message. An inclusive, big-hearted, forward thinking message. This year when we were putting together the conference, we asked ourselves, “What is the next threshold for Women and Power?” And we decided it’s time to bring men into the conversation—not only to enlist men as allies in women’s ongoing struggle for equality and voice, but also to explore how to make the world work for everyone. Because men long for the same kind of world that women do. And they have also been hurt and held back by the way power is defined and used. And ultimately, women and men cannot advance without each other as allies. We need to become inter-dependent. The speakers at this conference are examples of what it looks like to be allies, to be interdependent. They are pioneering women and men, representing different realms of work and influence and interests—from sports to economics to spirituality and art and social action.
What does interdependence between men and women look like to you?
It has been said that each human being’s growth moves in an arc from dependence, to independence, to interdependence. As kids we are dependent on parents and teachers and the community at large; then we turn into teenagers, and that’s a time for exploring independence, self-determination, and our own purpose and path; hopefully, when we become adults, and achieve a modicum of wisdom, we realize our inter-dependence—our connection to and responsibility for all other beings and the earth itself. This arc—from dependence to independence to interdependence—is the same for groups of people. Women as a group have been kept in a dependent state in cultures across the globe, for thousands of years, held back from freedom and self-determination. In the light of history, the women’s movement toward independence is still a new movement, and for many women in different parts of the world, the movement has barely begun. Gloria Steinem, one of the great minds of our times, said something once at an Omega conference that has stuck with me. She said, “We can’t get to interdependence until we have experienced independence. We can’t skip a stage. But nonetheless, interdependence truly is the stage for which we are all hoping and the stage for which men, too, are hoping. They get stuck in independence. We get stuck in dependence. We’re all waiting to get to a place where we can become interdependent with another human being without giving up ourselves. We are waiting to give birth to ourselves.” And that is what interdependence looks like between men and women: each person giving birth to his or her own most authentic self, and supporting the other in that birth process. And never forgetting our sisters who do not have the most basic human rights to pursue their path to independence. Never forgetting that an interdependent world depends on the freedom and rights of all people.
I love something you shared with me: “The joy of the human realm is diversity.” How can we celebrate our diversity while creating more interdependence?
Diversity is the hallmark of life on Earth. Scientists call it biodiversity—a term used to describe the variety of life on Earth, including humans, animals, plants, their habitats and their genes. Life on earth depends on this diversity. Loss of species and habitats are actually dangerous for the continuation of life as we know it. Diversity is also the hallmark within species. Within the human species there is great diversity of ethnicity, race, gender, culture, politics, religion, beliefs and behaviors. Variations in the human experience will never go away—and they shouldn’t go away. We grow from our differences; we learn; we get bigger and better. The trick is to value both diversity and equality—to see difference as a banquet of possibility. Unfortunately, that is not how difference is normally seen. You can trace most of the horrors of humanity to our fear of difference and our attempt to either control or eradicate those who are not the same. Men and women have many similarities and many differences. Some of these differences have been conditioned into us; some are probably biological. Whatever their genesis, interdependence asks as to respect our different traits because we need what the other has and knows. We can round each other out, help each other become whole. We need each other to survive and thrive.
How does interdependence play out in your own marriage?
I’ve been married to my husband for 26 years. We both came into our marriage fresh from a divorce, both with kids, and wary of repeating past mistakes. In my case, the mistake went in the direction that Gloria Steinem alludes to in the above quote. In my first marriage I was stuck in dependence. I had grown up thinking it was my duty and role to take care of everyone, to always pay attention to everyone else’s feelings and needs, and to devalue my own strengths, ideas, and needs. During the process of getting divorced, I came to understand how my first marriage had suffered from my lack of self-confidence and by the roles we had both unconsciously assumed. When I got together with my second husband, I brought a different kind of awareness into the new relationship. My new husband brought his own awareness into the marriage—he realized he had been stuck in independence. He had been told by the culture that it was his role and his right to forge his path in life—his education, his career, his daily routines—without thinking much of others. He had not developed his compassion and empathy muscles, and he realized his marriage had suffered from that, and he had suffered from it as well. We both committed to developing our full selves, to come out of our cultural comfort zones, and to support each other in our movement toward wholeness. I don’t want to make it sound like a walk in the park! Growth is hard; old patterns are difficult to shed. It’s easier sometimes to stay stuck. But we have tried to help each other evolve. Difficult issues like money, parenting, work, home, communication styles, etc., can bring up the old patterns of behavior. The trick is to stay open, not go into blameful corners, and support each other to grow. The movement toward interdependence is an exciting process if both people in a relationship commit to it. And it can have a ripple effect in the world. You know the old saying, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me”? Well, let there be interdependence one earth, and let it begin within marriages, and families, and workplaces, and all the places where women and men can grow beyond stereotypes into wholeness.
You say, “I think we’re in a revival of the women’s movement.” Can you share more about that? What events, people and so on inspired that statement?
The women’s movement is in a revival for several reasons, one being the natural passing of time during which we have built on the hard work and inspired progress made by women who have gone before us. Our mothers and grandmothers paved the way for our generations to express our own longing for freedom and authenticity in ways appropriate to our times. Exciting things are happening at all levels for women, for families, for the workplace, for culture—here in the States and everywhere across the globe. A less happy reason that I see flaming the fires of an awakened women’s movement is the backlash, fear, and fundamentalism that threaten the rights we have gained. Recently—in just this one year alone—we’ve experienced the violent abductions of girls and women in Nigeria; the shaming, the violence against, and even the murder of women who speak up for basic rights and education around the world; the rise of religious fundamentalism everywhere; the loss of health and reproductive rights of women here in the U.S.
We are witnessing many shakeups of the “traditional” roles of men and women. You said, “We’re dealing with the old imprint of what we think it means to be a valid woman and a valid man.” How can we move past our conditioned beliefs?
One of the most powerful arenas I see the traditional roles being shaken up is parenting. We are seeing what I think is a revolutionary movement happening in families. For centuries the pinnacle of womanhood was defined by motherhood, whether or not a woman wanted children, was able to have children, or ended up being a particularly good mother. And the pinnacle of manhood was defined by work, career, bread-winning. Both women and men suffered from these narrow definitions. But things are changing. Women are defining themselves in the workplace, in the world at large, and in motherhood too. And men are also expanding out of the old constraints. My sons are in their thirties now. Two of them are fathers. They are engaged in every aspect of their children’s live. From the moment their babies were born, they were totally in. In joys and the drudgeries of parenting! The diaper changing, the sleepless nights, the decisions about every little aspect of childrearing, and in the ways in which they have arranged their work lives so that parenting—and bread-winning—is shared with their wives. It’s inspiring and hopeful and amazing to me. This is where interdependence starts and is modeled for future generations. And it’s not just mothering and fathering that are changing. The whole notion of family is changing. We have dedicated a section of our Women and Power conference this coming September to the changing nature of the family. One of our speakers is Zach Wahls, a young man from Iowa who was raised by two mothers, who forcefully defended at the Iowa statehouse the right for gays and lesbians to marry. His speech went viral and has been viewed millions of times online. As he said in his speech in Iowa, Zach believes that the meaning of family has to do with love and responsibility and care, none of which has anything to do with gender or sexuality.
Why is it important that a younger generation engage in this new conversation and attend this event?
This is your world—this is the world you will create. Younger women and men have the possibility of creating new ways of being together that can help all people—women, men and children, and the earth itself. I already see a new kind of partnership between young women and men. It’s so exciting. It’s worth talking about, making stronger, and celebrating. That’s part of what we’ll be doing at the conference.
How can people find out more about the event this September?
We invite everyone to Women/Men: The Next Conversation. Women and Men.
Bring your mates, friends, colleagues, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. We have scholarships available too. Visit our website to learn more.