Women, the Feminist Movement and the Need for Balance


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Women, the Feminist Movement
and the Need for Balance

copyright©Anne Baring


This is a delicate and complex subject which has many different sources in past beliefs and social practices. In the United Kingdom, Women’s Liberation began with the Suffragette movement a hundred years ago and was enormously strengthened by women filling men’s jobs in the factories and on the land during the Second World War. This was a huge opportunity for women to discover the variety of careers they were capable of following. Some became pilots; others, with immense courage risked their lives, as Violet Szabo did, to infiltrate enemy lines in France. After the war the emancipation of women was further strengthened by contraception which freed women from endless, exhausting and often unwanted pregnancies. I think we’re still living in the backwash of all this. Catholic and Muslim countries, particularly the poorer ones, have not freed women from having too many children and from the fear of drawing God’s punishment on them if they dare to go against their religious indoctrination. Old social customs and beliefs die hard.

Women, being educated with men but not having access to the kind of work that men have done for millennia – in government, in the law courts, in politics, in academia, in medicine – wanted to discover their own creative gifts and be accepted as equals to men, paid the same amount of money for the same work. The books of three women, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer were powerful influences in this attempt to be equal to men. These books turned women against the “subservient” role of being a mother and against men’s control of their lives. For many millions of women these books were transformative of their lives and their choice of careers. Yet they also created a new problem. It was very, very difficult for women to be confident enough of their own value for them not to enter into rivalry with men or to copy the male model of behaviour since there was nothing in the culture which valued and appreciated the enormous role women had played as mothers and general carers of the old and the young. This was before the NHS or any state-sponsored health care came into being as it did in 1946.

For thousands of years in tribal communities and later, villages, women took on the role of carer to the whole community, not only their own children. Yet, during those thousands of years, they have been regarded and treated by men as the Second Sex, valued only for their role as carriers of male seed. With very few exceptions, they were denied access to education. For nearly two millennia in Christian culture, they have been punished – even burnt at the stake – for daring to pursue their age-old calling as mid-wives, herbalists and healers. Women were the primary dispensers of healing through the use of herbs on every continent until this role was denied them by men claiming to be the sole purveyors of treatment for illness. Women's long-established role as priestess, teacher and healer in ancient civilizations such as those of Egypt, Sumer, Greece and Rome, was banished by the three patriarchal religions. They were not even respected for their vitally important role as mother. They 'belonged to men' and were under their financial control. They had no access to education and those who did seek it between the two World Wars were ridiculed and vilified as "Blue-Stockings". Unsurprisingly, one of the first things the Feminist Movement did was to turn women against the role of motherhood and woman’s traditional role in the home. 

Governments may have colluded in this, seeing an opportunity to extract money from taxation by getting women into work. Although millions of women have benefitted by having access to higher education and discovering, developing and applying their many gifts in a variety of careers that were not open to them fifty years ago, the strain of trying to live two very demanding roles – the timeless role of caring for children at home and the new one of earning a living – has had a negative effect on women’s health and wellbeing as well as on their relationships with their partners and children. The biggest sufferers in this radically new development were children who now had neither parent in the home except at weekends and during the weeks of maternal leave paid for by the government. Particularly in the lowest stratum of society where women could not afford access to nursery schools, children’s ability to learn how to speak and develop a good vocabulary before starting school has been adversely affected. The number of single parents increased hugely as men either couldn’t cope with the “new” woman or women got rid of their partners as soon as they had had children.

Another negative influence was the Christian Church, whether Catholic or Protestant, which was, from its inception, saturated with misogyny. Karen Armstrong’s book, The End of Silence: Women and the Priesthood, explored this in some detail. Chapters 7 & 8 of my book The Dream of the Cosmos explain how the literal interpretation of the Myth of the Fall singled out Eve, in particular, for opprobrium. This hugely influential myth, where Eve, in her disobedience to the command of God, was said to have brought sin, death and suffering into the world, was deeply imprinted on the minds of the early Christian Fathers and on Christian civilization as a whole. It was the primary one which guided religious teaching in the West and persisted into the Protestant Reformation where Luther said women belonged in the home. Sexuality was, throughout the Christian era, contaminated by guilt and sin, even more so after St. Augustine’s infamous Doctrine of Original Sin (418 ce). Although misogyny had certainly existed in Greek and Roman cultures, in Christian culture the Myth of the Fall, together with the disparaging comments of St. Paul, was the origin of the belief that women had to remain silent and be controlled by men—a belief that persisted until the last century and, unconsciously, into this one where women are still afflicted by misogynistic remarks and behaviour both in the workplace and on socisl media. In the United Kingdom, the Anglican Church as well as the political establishment, vigorously combatted the Suffragette movement and giving women the right to vote. Until very recently (2017) it denied women the possibility of being ordained as bishops. The Catholic Church has set its face against any woman holding a priestly position on the basis of the belief that Jesus had no women disciples and that there were no women apostles. In the case of Mary Magdalene, this belief is palpably untrue.

One of the areas where misogyny persists is the world of film. The #MeToo movement has drawn attention to and reacted against the sexual exploitation of women by movie moguls like Harvey Weinstein. But there is another aspect that does not receive nearly enough attention and that is the misogyny reflected in the brutal treatment of women in many of today’s films and TV dramas as well as pornographic material which consistently show sadistic scenes of rape, torture and violence against women. The implication of this theme is that men are in control and as long as this continues, all is well with the world. In popular films, male characters dominate the screen and male directors seem to focus on ritualistic murder of and violence against women as a welcome staple of modern culture. Germaine Greer in a letter to The Times (2019) said that these films existed because women enjoyed them: a statement which may reflect her own preference but certainly does not reflect that of women in general.

This is the social and religious background against which so many women today are fighting for autonomy, recognition and appreciation and for equal pay with men for equal work. This has not been an easy path and I can see what an enormous change has been accomplished between my mother's generation and my daughter's. Women want to act in the world on an equal footing with men, being valued by men. But there is a danger that women may become intoxicated by their access to power and get carried away by it, a pattern which is most evident today in the focus on sexuality and the 'right' of women to have access to the same casual 'liberated' sexuality that men are thought to have enjoyed. The 'liberated' sexuality of women is now appearing in films and TV dramas and women writers have made fortunes extolling this 'right'. But if they were aware of the dangers of succumbing to and living out this pattern, they can avoid it. They may, without realizing it, be taken over or driven by what Jung called the ‘animus’ or the unconscious masculine aspect of their nature which can manifest in their lives as a ruthless drive for power. The most obvious example of this state is Germaine Greer who has recently published a book about rape that trivializes woman's experience of it and makes Greer herself appear to be both ignorant and ridiculous. With her 'in your face' aggression and coarse language, she is a prime example of a woman who is driven or possessed by her unconscious complexes. The defensive wall she has surrounded herself with was and still is an attempt to protect her vulnerable and traumatized heart from further trauma. But she is obviously unaware of this. Although millions of women were encouraged by her example and her writing to 'throw off their bonds', she did not set them an example that would lead them to fulfilment and a complete life because she invited them to reject, as she has done, the whole field of relationships, particularly relationships with men. She is a poor role model for women to follow.

There is now a situation where women are in danger of turning against men and seeing themselves as rivals rather than partners and co-creators with them. The #MeToo movement could run the risk of this. Maintaining the balance between the Yin of the Feminine Principle and the Yang of the Masculine one both within women and men and in society as a whole is essential if women are to move beyond their anger and men beyond their defensiveness against it.

But before this balance can be achieved, there is the huge task of raising woman’s awareness of her intrinsic and unrecognized value and, more specifically, the heart values she has carried for millennia. Even now, the 'unskilled' work of women carers who look after the old and disabled is not valued as highly as the 'skilled' work of women who work in journalism, politics or publishing. Even the title 'unskilled' is grossly offensive to women since their skill consists of the care they give to others. In our society in general, woman’s voice has not been listened to or valued for thousands of years, so putting her head above the parapet is a risk and a challenge. Women need the support of other women and the support of men who are in touch with the feminine aspect of their own nature and are able to give expression to it in their work and their relationships. The Feminine is about holding the caring values of the heart and the importance of relationship with all forms of life; the Masculine is about bringing these values into manifestation in the world. Ideally, these two archetypal principles need to be balanced in both men and women. This was one of the meanings of the alchemical work of squaring the circle.

At this crucial time there is an urgent need for women and men to work together on behalf of the planet and all the life it embraces: to protect the oceans, to recognize the harm our species has inflicted on other species and the planet as a whole. Women's great gifts of empathy, now coupled with their skill in action and effectiveness in the world are desperately needed now. There is for example the need for women to direct their anger at the outrageous sums of money spent by governments on the build-up of weapons, on arms sales and purchases, on war and preparations for war. Currently (2018), the world spends $1.8 trillion on militarization (source SIPRI), whereas just $30 billion would end starvation worldwide and $11 billion would provide clean water for every person on the planet. Collectively, women have hardly begun to address these issues. If, worldwide, they came together to do so, miracles might happen.


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