2016. I’ve focused a lot over the last two weeks on reenergising myself. After an extremely hectic 2015 where I tried to fit literally EVERYTHING into my life with predictably bad consequences (the least of it being that I was sick 7 times in 5 months!), I’ve made time to refresh myself and simply be in the moment these holidays (saying that, the word ‘thesis’ is constantly hovering on the edges of my sub-conscious). Of course, I haven’t stopped ploughing through the reading list (I have nine books to review this week!), but I’ve also been doing things for myself, whether that be shopping, going to the beach, seeing friends, binge-watching Downton Abbey, and spending a lot of time with hubby. I realised the other day as Mitchel and I were reflecting on the year that’s been that this is the first time in 4 years that I’ve taken longer than 5 days off over Christmas and the Summer holidays. I find a lot of fulfilment in being busy and achieving goals, but too much is definitely unhealthy, especially if you’re like me and just keep going, going, going without stopping for a decent breather. Note to future self: Read this post and take note of your own advice!
It's All About the Process + Progress
When I started blogging about the 'thesis process/progress' back in July, the first question I asked myself was: "How to start?" Starting is tough. Sharing honestly is difficult. Being 'authentic' is nerve-wracking. But here I am - I've started, I've shared, and I've tried to be authentic! I'm proud of what I've accomplished so far. And even though I still have SO much to do to get this thesis off the ground/down on paper/into the world, I feel I've carefully and deliberately considered the complexity of this project, a factor which will (fingers crossed) make it richer, more interesting, and deeply meaningful. The process has been all-encompassing and consuming, the progress challenging and enriching at both a personal-level, as well as academically. And in July 2016, I hope to be asking myself: "How to finish?"
Reflecting on Awakenings
An important aspect of myself I’ve wanted to explore in more depth this summer is feminist spirituality, or, more accurately, the ‘divine feminine’. Perhaps these phrases sound wishy-washy or unimportant, but part of the journey for me, in terms of what I like to think of as my ‘feminist awakening’ (putting words and theory into action), is discovering what it means to engage with religion, theology, and spirituality from the perspective of the ‘sacred feminine,’ the ‘other’ side of God if you will.
And so I was excited when I discovered that Sue Monk Kidd (author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings) prior to her mainstream literary success had written an account of her spiritual journey from the fundamentalist Christian tradition to a new understanding of the 'sacred feminine.' Unsurprisingly, the ideas she discusses in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996) deeply inform the content of her novels, and it sparked in me a new appreciation for what she is attempting (successfully, I might add) to achieve in her novels - celebrating women who grow into their strength and do intrepid things - "sometimes being gentle, sometimes fierce, sometimes waiting, sometimes leaping. But always knowing who [they are]” (p. 212).
While I don’t agree with all Monk Kidd's propositions (and she is careful to frame them as her personal ‘vision’ – only one way to engage with the divine rather than a definitive, unarguable theological stance), I felt refreshed after finishing the book. Permission was granted to simply be in the moment, allowing feelings of perhaps anger, confusion, sadness, but also excitement and happiness to be felt in entirety as new ideas were/are discovered, considered, embraced or abandoned. I am starting to ask myself: ‘What does it mean and how does it feel to ‘awaken’ slowly, noticing and moving in time with emerging experiences rather than always trying to be correct or attempting to navigate in an unknown ‘right’ direction?’ I also love the way Monk Kidd emphasises the importance of protecting oneself while in the ‘awakening’ or developmental stage of change; not everything has to be argued or defended right away:
While I found her spiritual musings thought-provoking (as in 'shelved for future reference') and interesting (heretical to some no doubt!), what I really appreciated was Monk Kidd's careful formation of a solid feminist critique. On several occasions she highlights the importance of looking at social institutions, the church, and Western culture as a whole, from the ‘bottom up.’ She writes: “This looking from the bottom up is the catalyst for a reversal of consciousness, not only for ourselves but also for the most resistant among us. For when we stop perceiving, assuming, and theorising from the top, the dominant view, and instead go to the bottom of the social pyramid and identify with those who are oppressed and disenfranchised, a whole new way of relating opens up” (p. 35). This ties in closely with post-structuralism and deconstruction, methods which I have discussed previously - here.
Testing Feminist Frameworks
One of the ideas I briefly played with in my last blog entry was the difference/similarity between liberal and cultural feminism and my desire to find a balanced approach between the two. So I was thrilled by Sue Monk Kidd’s eloquent framing of the two as mutually inclusive concepts:
My personal belief is that while differences exist, women and men both have an innate and equal ability to engage in the full range of human experiences. (Men can nurture and women can quest for autonomy.) Neither men nor women should be limited to a narrow category of what’s considered feminine if you’re female or masculine if you’re male. I also believe that men and women contain both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities and that the goal is to balance, blend, and honour both within the individual and the culture. The point, however, is that women have been socialised toward certain choices and experiences, and these experiences need to be valued in a way that is not inferior to men’s experiences. Indeed, as I made my critique, the problem seemed to me not that there are differences but rather how we value those differences. (p. 62 – 63)
Too idealistic perhaps? Nonetheless, it highlights the complexity of finding a middle ground which takes into account the socially constructed nature of male/female differences and at the same time stresses the importance of not devaluing feminine traits in favour of masculine norms. An increasing masculinisation of society, in the sense that over the past 40 years there has been a major shift involving middle-class women’s aspirations and attitudes becoming more like men’s, focused on individual achievement and individual freedom (Cameron, 2007, p. 175), is not the desirable outcome of minimising differences between the sexes, and vice versa.
As I’ve been drafting up my discussion on feminism and women’s leadership issues I’m starting to realise how valuable and useful a multi-lens feminist approach will be. I quite like how Evangelina Holvino in Women & Leadership: The State of Play and Strategies for Change (2007) uses five feminist frameworks (liberal, cultural, socialist, poststructuralist, transnational) in her consulting firm to inform her coaching practices and to come up with specific strategies for addressing issues of power and leadership that female leaders face in everyday organisational life.
For example, Holvino uses poststructuralist feminism to encourage 'Ana' (a senior female director in a large, successful firm) to pay attention to imagery depicting the women in her organisation and to “identify the sources of organisational influence and power that go beyond those expected and sanctioned by the culture for its women leaders” (p. 374). To demonstrate this method, Holvino discusses an image found in the company’s internal 'leadership' brochure. In the photo, the highest-ranking female executive in Ana’s organisation is portrayed with her arms outstretched & a warm beaming smile on her face as she serves up a platter of lasagne – she is the stereotypical image of a nurturing mother figure and dutiful housewife. By employing a poststructuralist feminist discourse, Holvino is then able to discuss with Ana the implications, both good and bad, such symbolic imagery has for female managers and leaders in the corporate workplace, e.g. what expectations may be subconsciously formed, how do men and women perceive the 'mother' figure in the workplace, etc...
Similarly, Sue Monk Kidd uses symbolism and symbolic imagery to deconstruct patriarchal power. (She also cleverly employs Greek mythology to question and explore the concept of female empowerment). I’ve picked out this example:
A Divine Feminine symbol acts to deconstruct patriarchy, which is one of the reasons there’s so much resistance, even hysteria, surrounding the idea of Goddess. The idea of Goddess is so powerfully “other,” so vividly female, it comes like a crowbar shattering the lock patriarchy holds on divine imagery. Nelle Morton often pointed out that word Goddess is so important because it bursts the exclusivity of the old symbol and opens the way to reimage deity. (p. 167-8)
Aside from the fact that it seems a rather New Age-esque trope (just to clarify, I’m not a goddess worshipper, whatever that may mean!), I appreciate the way Monk Kidd and Holvino both manage (in starkly contrasting ways) to use poststructuralist feminist theory to thoughtfully inform their writing and analysis, making it both practical and provocative.
And coming very soon…book reviews!!
Cameron, D. (2007). The myth of Mars and Venus. New York, NY: Oxford University Press Inc.
Holvino, E. (2007). Women and power. In B. Kellerman & D. L. Rhode (Eds.), Women & leadership: The state of play and strategies for change (pp. 361-382). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Monk Kidd, S. (1996). The dance of the dissident daughter: A woman’s journey from Christian tradition to the sacred feminine. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.