Keynote Speech By Elizabeth Lesser at Omega Institute's 2014 Women & Power Conference


Women/Men The Next Conversation

I am so excited to be part of this conference, to be part of a conversation about and between Women and Men. It seems wherever I look these days, this is the big conversation in our culture. So, how great is it that we are here this weekend, examining together some big questions, like: What does it mean to be a woman today? What does it mean to be a man? How are we similar? How are we different? How have biology, and culture, and roles shaped women and men’s identities and values, our gifts and our wounds? How are we keeping each other—knowingly and unknowingly—trapped in outdated stereotypes that no longer contribute to a healthy human community? And what will it look like in the years to come, as concepts of gender and sexuality and femininity and masculinity change and morph to fit the times? 

Women and Men: It’s a swiftly moving topic that drags with it ancient history and religion and myth, and a polarity that has been the source of so much love and creativity, as well as trouble and injustice. Sounds like a lot to cover in one weekend, right? Don’t worry—we’ve made some difficult choices for you. We’ve narrowed the scope of the subject, and yet still, we all may stumble out of here on Sunday afternoon, heads spinning, hearts on fire.  We’ve brought together an extraordinary cast of characters—speakers who will help us consider the changing territory for women and men around the world through the lens of economics, history, human rights, the arts, brain science, media, meditation, education, business, sports, and leadership. We are calling this gathering Women/Men: The Next Conversation. Because more than a conference with a neat beginning, middle, and end, we are kick-starting a conversation that begins right now.

Some of the conversations we’ll be hearing and having are difficult ones. It’s a confusing time. Things are changing in the direction of freedom and equality at lightening speed for some women and some men in some parts of the world.  And yet at the same time, across the globe, across the country, across town, unfair and often unfathomable gender norms for women and men are still upheld, using every means possible, from fear, to rape, to war. Even those of us fortunate enough to be having a wide-open, myth-busting conversation this weekend, have a long road to travel. There are gulfs of inequity and imbalance everywhere, not to mention the general befuddlement that women and men experience in our work and home lives together. It will take generations to carve the deep and abiding changes we long for. It will take all of us to work for change in our own corner of the world, and never to forget those struggling for basic human rights, dignity and safety.  But the good news is, change IS happening. I get to see it and live within it everyday at work and at home. Here at Omega I have the privilege of working with women and men who are trying their hardest to heal rifts, to strive for equality AND to give room and voice to our differences. Sometimes it can feel like gears grinding in the wrong direction. For me, the workplace has been a laboratory for confronting and transforming some of the most entrenched imbalances and blind spots between women and men. 

On the home-front, it’s like my husband and I have been conducting a science experiment for the past 25 years. Here’s the experiment: take two people—a woman and a man in this case—who came of age in the upheaval of the 1960s. Put them in the petri dish of marriage. Oh, and make sure both of them were raised by parents from that greatest of generations that never, ever talked about their inner lives, including their feelings about the rigid roles and expectations for women and men. So, into the petri dish of our marriage, went all sorts of subterranean issues—issues like unconscious male privilege, issues like repressed female rage, issues like blame and shame and frustration and fear…now, add some kids, wait a few years, and as the stuff in the petri dish bubbles over, begin to add new ingredients…Like the courage to communicate about gender stereotypes with patience and empathy and humor and self-responsibility. And lo and behold, observe the daily miracles as the woman and the man take baby steps toward their full humanness. It’s not always a pretty dance. But it’s happening—and not only in relationships. Everywhere you look, women and men are reinventing how they live and work together. By the way, I met my husband here at Omega. We were both fresh off the boat of divorce. He was a single father of a 5-year-old boy. He was a jock and a lawyer and a businessman from Texas—to me, a foreign creature. He had come to Omega to take a workshop led by the author Jean Shinoda Bolen who had just published a book called Goddesses in Every Woman. He told me he was trying to develop his feminine side because he had no training in the relentless intimacy and emotional intelligence that parenting requires. I was impressed. Here was a jock from Texas who was interested in his inner Goddess so he could be a better father. Wow. I have since come to believe that engaged fatherhood is a critical key not only to reversing gender inequality, but also to the on-going evolution of the human species.

I have three sons, and now three daughters-in-law, and what I see happening in their lives and their marriages can only be called revolutionary. This spring I was with my stepson and daughter-in-law at the birth of their first baby. During the labor, my stepson did everything he could to be involved, besides pushing the baby out himself. After the birth he used an app on his phone to help his wife get the hang of nursing.  I’d hear his phone beep and then he’d say, “Honey, its time to change to the left breast.” He is part of his baby’s life in a way that is changing who he can be, who his wife can be, and who his daughter will be. And last week, I was at my oldest son and daughter-in-law’s house, for their 2-year-old’s birthday party. I was hanging out with one of the young men at the birthday party, who was changing his baby’s diaper, as his wife was mingling outside on the deck. As this dad reached into the diaper bag with one hand, and held the squirming baby down with the other, and then with full confidence did the deed, I said to him, “You know, what you are doing here is revolutionary.” He looked puzzled.  

So I explained: “Well, it may seem like all you’re doing is changing a poopy diaper, but I think it’s as important as any social activist or elected official or artist or writer who’s trying to change the world. The way you are being a father is changing the world at its core.” And this young man looked up at me with sudden tears in his eyes and he thanked me. He felt seen. He knew what I meant.  And those two things—a man consciously choosing to be full-on parent, and a man unapologetically allowing his eyes to fill with tears—speak volumes for the gear-grinding changes men are going through today.  I admire the men who are changing in front of our eyes. Who are bucking the tides of the ages, and becoming their full selves.

But let me also give a shout out from my heart to that young man’s wife out on the deck at the birthday party who didn’t ask her husband to change the baby’s diaper; she expected it. She didn’t apologize for being outside enjoying herself while he “babysat.” Instead she believed in a man’s capacity and right and responsibility to be an emotionally intelligent caretaker, just as he believes in her ability and right and responsibility to express herself in the world and to bring home some of the bacon, or the tofu, if that’s your preference.  I don’t want to make it sound like its easy for these young people, or for my colleagues here at Omega, or for any of us all over the world who are trying to undo centuries of imbalance between women and men. This kind of change is not easy, but it is noble, and it is important for the whole human race….

You may have heard this joke…

Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Only one, but the bulb has to WANT to change….

For the past 100+ years, women have been pushing hard for change. Why? Because we wanted to. We wanted to vote, we wanted and needed to work, we wanted to be safe at home and in the streets. We wanted to be comfortable and strong in our bodies, to know our own voice, to dignify our own selves so we could make art, explore, invent, lead. We wanted to become educated in the ways of a world that had been denied to us. And even more than that, we wanted to give birth to a different kind of world. A world that works for everybody.

And so we went against the myths. Ancient myths. Depending on which creation myth you subscribe to—and there are hundreds, from the Sumerian’s Gilgamesh and Ishtar, to the Greek’s Prometheus and Pandora, and of course the Old Testament’s Adam and Eve—there’s usually a part to the old stories that serves as a warning about what happens when women follow their instincts and become empowered—things like apples and snakes and eviction from the garden happen. Or Pandora disobeys. She opens the box and evil spirits are released into the world forever. The myths then trickle down and become social norms—norms that tell women to fear their own instincts because they’re irrational and dangerous; norms that solidify the myth that women are too emotional to think straight, to be strategic, to lead. Norms that instruct men of their superior nature and therefore their role and responsibility to have dominion over women and the whole earth.

But here’s the weirdest thing: these same myths that damn women, also revere women for being the carriers of loving-kindness and the caretakers of generations, and yet those sanctified qualities—loving kindness and caretaking—are seen as second class, weak values in the real world of men. So, for eons women have been on the pedestal and in the prison of being the Madonna, whose role it is to do the heavy emotional lifting for the whole world, to be the soft heart for men, because men are imprisoned on their own mythic pedestal—that of the fearless, daring, hard-hearted warrior. Of course both these roles set women and men up for impossible tasks. When the Great Mother fails at being kind and caring ALL the time, she becomes the witch, the bitch, the scorned woman. When the White Knight fails at being strong and fearless ALL the time, he becomes the weakling, the coward, the momma’s boy. When the whole culture of most of the whole world buys into these myths, what we end up with is what we live in today. A world that denies women of their smarts and men of their hearts. A world that lionizes men’s stoicism and violence, and shames men into upholding the myth. A world that tells women to make themselves small, and shames women who want to live large. You may think these stereotypes are things of the past, but they aren’t. They are alive and well in varying degrees of potency everywhere.

The world is still organized around the myth and the values of the warrior. Those values still set the priorities of our social policies and institutions; they drive the engines of commerce and leadership. This is an important point. It’s a different point than the one about women leaning in, women joining the ranks of power, women becoming leaders. Going back to that joke about the light bulb wanting to change…now both women AND men have to want to change and bring balance to the whole value system that our cultures have been built around. As long as we value the warrior instinct above all other instincts; as long as we characterize loving kindness as a nice quality, but ultimately as a weakness; as long as women and men live within the false dichotomy between strength and softness …the whole human family is held back.   Changing that light bulb is not going to be an easy task. Men in this century are going to have to want to change as much as women wanted to change in the last century. And not to see that change merely as a duty, but also to know it as a benefit that will bring joy and wholeness to their lives.

It may seem that the old myths are too deeply entrenched to make the kinds of changes I am suggesting here. But I’m an evolutionary optimist. There’s a phenomenon in brain science called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. In English that means the brain learns from our experiences and actually changes its structure based on what information flows through it. This is how children learn, and now neuroscientists are proving that the brain remains plastic, pliable throughout our lives. Research shows that even after a stroke or other trauma, the brain can reorganize itself, creating new neural pathways. This is good news for changing that light bulb. Deep neural grooves— also known as ancient belief systems—can be bypassed in even the most rigid of people and cultures, and new pathways, new ways of thinking, can be created. Sometimes I think I can feel the pain in MY head as new pathways are being carved around my own entrenched ways of believing and behaving. I can’t tell you how many times I have encouraged the men in my life to be sensitive, caring, vulnerable, and then when those same men show signs of weakness or self-doubt or fear, I don’t like it, I judge it. This isn’t fair. It confuses men; it messes with the new neural pathways in their heads.

Just like it messes with women’s heads when men encourage us to be whatever we want to be, to go where we want to go, when we want to go there, but then, when women are harassed or harmed, the message becomes, “You gotta be careful; don’t dress that way, don’t say that, don’t act that way, because boys will be boys.”

These are the growing pains of the transition we are in. At the moment, the growing pains are pretty fierce all over the world—the violence, the backlash, the two steps forward, one step back. But I believe there’s no turning back. I remember the first Women and Power conference we organized 12 years ago…I’ll never forget sitting right over there, listening to the venerable Anita Hill, telling her story about being grilled by the Senate committee at the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas.  I watched the audience—about 200 women, and from the first moment Anita Hill opened her mouth and talked about something that was still taboo to discuss among the general public—sexual harassment in the workplace—heads were nodding; people were saying yes! Mm, hmmm! It was like a revival meeting. Women desperately needed that solidarity to finally speak truth to power wherever they lived or worked. The message from our speakers over these 12 years has been this: It’s not enough for women to lean in; we also have to change what we’re leaning into. It makes no difference if a leader is a woman or a man or an alien from outer space if the rules of engagement are the same as they’ve always been—power in service of a few, power maintained through domination and violence, decisions made using short-term, disconnected thinking. Every year, at the end of each Women & Power conference, someone on stage or in the audience would inevitably ask, “So, where are the men? If we dare to say that women want to do power differently, and part of that difference is inclusion, is inter-dependence, then let’s bring men into the conversation.”

And that’s why we are all here this evening. I want to say something about that word, “inter-dependence,” because you may hear it a lot this weekend.  Several years ago, on this stage, Gloria Steinem explained how each human being’s growth moves in an arc from dependence, to independence, to inter-dependence. As kids, we are dependent on parents and other authorities for our very survival. As young adults, we begin the journey toward independence, self-determination, and authenticity. And if we’re lucky, as we age, we get to express our independent spirit in our careers and art and the daily act of living; as we get older, and achieve a modicum of wisdom, we realize our inter-dependence—our connection to and responsibility for all other beings and the earth itself.

It is a basic human urge to travel this arc—from dependence to independence to inter-dependence. Some people rush through a stage or get stuck in a stage—often by no choice of their own. Boys are often rushed through the dependence stage, told to “be a man” long before they are ready to be anything but a dependent little child. This wounds them. Girls are often kept in the stage of dependence, told that for their own good, they must forgo being an independent person in the world. THIS wounds them. Whole groups of people suffer from being obstructed or rushed on the arc.  The women’s movement is the story of one group rising up to confront the barriers to independence. In the light of history, the women’s movement is still a new struggle, and for many women in different parts of the world, the movement has barely begun. And the burgeoning men’s movement, represented by many of the men speaking this weekend, is an even newer undertaking.  So as I bring my speech to its close, I want us to remember our sisters and brothers who like us, long to travel the arc in a natural and healthy way, but cannot. And everyone here in this room is at a different stage due to our age or our culture or our upbringing. But traveling the arc from dependence to independence to inter-dependence is not a race, nor is it a straight line; rather, it’s a messy process that we are all in together. Until each one of us has the opportunity to travel the full length of the arc, none of us can claim true inter-dependence.  I’m going to end with a quote from the speech Gloria Steinem gave at an earlier Women & Power conference. Gloria said this:  

“We can’t get to inter-dependence until we have experienced healthy independence. We can’t skip a stage. But nonetheless, inter-dependence truly is the stage for which women and men are all hoping. Men often get stuck in independence. Women often get stuck in dependence. But we’re all waiting to get to a place where we can be inter-dependent with another human being without giving up ourselves. We are all waiting to give birth to ourselves.”