This post from September 27, 2011 is one of my top five most-read since I started this blog. It’s time I posted it again, this time with three new paragraphs at the end! Enjoy.
When we were in our thirties my husband and I were invited to a party at the home of a couple we’d recently met. Halfway through the evening I was sitting on the stairs when a man I didn’t know sat beside me. As we made small talk I began to realize he was flirting with me. I’m not great at flirting so I was a bit uncomfortable, but he wasn’t saying anything the least bit offensive or inappropriate so I remained open and friendly.
After a time three women walked to the foot of the stairs, sat in a semicircle on the floor, and stared coldly and silently up at me. The hostility emanating from them was visible. I tried to include them in the conversation, but they simply sat and glared. I felt awful. I realized they must be friends of this man’s wife — perhaps one of them was his wife — who were banding together to intimidate this new female whom they saw as a threat. I had done nothing provocative, yet these women were obviously furious at me for attracting his attention.
This seemed so strange. They were not mad at the man, even though their behavior suggested he might have had an unsavory track record. They were mad at me, a woman they didn’t even know. It didn’t seem to occur to them that they had probably been in similar situations. They seemed to feel no kinship with me whatsoever. Our femaleness was not a basis of understanding and compassion, but grounds for suspicion and hatred.
In Greek mythology, Hera, the long-suffering, loyal wife of the powerful, philandering Zeus, was like the women at the foot of the stairs. When Zeus deceived and seduced the innocent maiden Callisto, Hera in her jealous rage turned Callisto into a Bear which she then plotted to have Callisto’s son kill. Zeus got off scot-free. This sort of thing happens again and again in the Greek myths. Why? Because Zeus and Hera represent archetypal patterns.
Of the seven major Greek goddesses that represent feminine archetypes, Hera is the one I’ve always liked least. Her fidelity and commitment to her husband were admirable, but she was so darned jealous and spiteful and their relationship was so filled with hostility and tension that they had no real intimacy. Moreover, her single-minded devotion to her role of wife and her power struggle with her more dominant partner in that one-sided relationship blinded her to the innocence of any woman who might unwittingly capture his notice.
“Hera possession” is a shadow of the Queen archetype. Our healthy Queen represents our potential to be sovereign over our own lives, understanding and caring partners, and cultural leaders who nurture healthy growth in others. But as long as our ego’s fragility and outward focus compel us to conform to society’s level of awareness, we will, like Hera, sacrifice everything — including opportunities for growth, relationships with friends and loved ones, and the most precious truths of our souls — to remain in the dark womb of inertia and unknowing where we can maintain our illusion of safety and status. Like Hera, we may not be very happy there, but we will defend our position to our last breath.
And who will pay for our fearful need to conform? Everyone. Women being jealous of other women, women not liking other women, women not wanting to mentor or learn from other women — this kind of divisiveness among women is not good for anyone, anywhere. Women will never fully break through the patriarchal glass ceiling that tries to prevent us from attaining fair and equal treatment unless we do two things.
First, we need to question and change negative gender-related attitudes by working on ourselves. I can think of at least seven goals we should work toward. If you can think of more to add to this list, let me know:
be more mindful of subtle forms of discrimination against you because of your gender
be more mindful of your attitudes and treatment of men which might unconsciously trigger your negative attitudes and behavior toward other women
train yourself to treat everyone with respect and fairness regardless of gender (or age, skin color, or anything else)
acknowledge your inherent worth and the inherent worth of all human beings
learn to love yourself and treat yourself with kindness, regardless of how others treat you
assume your rightful responsibilities at work, home, and in society; fulfill them to the best of your abilities
ask for the same respect and just treatment you give to others from anyone who denies it to you, regardless of their gender
Second, align yourself with wise and caring like-minded sisters and brothers who want to help. Work with them to achieve the egalitarian treatment everyone deserves. It’s bad enough when others try to diminish us. Let’s not do it to ourselves or each other.
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.