EDGEWISE: The strength of women can change the world

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, the Hopi prophecy says. Women, wait no more. Our beautiful, battered planet needs our strength and determination now.

We are nearly two weeks into the month-long Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, and I have been thinking a lot about the strength of women. It was on display last weekend among the readers of “Out of the Mouths of Babes: An Evening of Mothers Reading to Others,” in the stories of love, joy and heartbreak they shared.

Vandana Shiva
Vandana Shiva

We saw it in the impoverished Latin American women interviewed in Pamela Yates’ film Disruption, heroically determined to survive against the odds, and to try to make life a little better for their children, as well as in the fierce young Colombian Any Benitez, trying to use the power of the financial services industry to unlock a better future for some of the poorest women in the hemisphere.

We saw this strength in the young women of color speaking their truths in the Festival event at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, taking the risk of sharing their hurts and vulnerabilities in the hopes of achieving greater communication, compassion and connection.

Women’s strength is not usually of the brute force kind. It’s not about bullets and punches. It’s a strength that comes from a place of love — a woman will fight like a tiger to protect her babies, but her rage is born of love, not hatred. You can see it in the endurance of a mother in labor, or in her willingness to give up night after night of sleep to make sure her baby is comfortable and thriving.

Sandra Steingraber. Photo: Wendy Lynn Lee.
Sandra Steingraber. Photo: Wendy Lynn Lee.

We see this same loving ferocity in women activists like Sandra Steingraber, who, leading the resistance to fracking in upstate New York, has been willing to leave her family and go to jail in order to challenge the profits-over-people attitude of the fossil fuel industry and their hired politicians.

We see it in Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, who for many years has been successfully campaigning against the Monsanto regime of GMO seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, which poison the soil, water and living beings from butterflies to bees to human beings. Shiva not only confronts the giant agro-chemical industry, she also quietly shows that another way is possible, founding Navdanya, a traditional farm that grows traditional seed varieties organically, following the ancient practices that have kept Indians alive for millennia.

Women’s strength tends to be creative rather than destructive; we tend to want to talk through conflict instead of immediately jumping to force. Whether this is because of biological differences or social conditioning (nature or nurture, or a combination thereof), there have been many studies showing that gender differences are real. While little girls love to huddle together and talk, little boys love to run around and play competitively, from ballgames to video games. Linguist Deborah Tannen has shown how men and women communicate differently as adults as well, with women more interested in sharing emotionally resonant stories, while men are more interested in action — talking about what’s to be done, rather than about how we feel about it.

Gender is a spectrum, not a binary, and where we fall on the spectrum cannot be entirely predicted by our physical characteristics. But neither can gender differences be ignored. As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant show recently in their excellent series of articles in The New York Times on gender bias in the workplace, women’s different style of leadership can bring great benefits to employers, as well as to communities. “When more women lead, performance improves,” Sandberg and Grant assert. “Start-ups led by women are more likely to succeed; innovative firms with more women in top management are more profitable; and companies with more gender diversity have more revenue, customers, market share and profits. A comprehensive analysis of 95 studies on gender differences showed that when it comes to leadership skills, although men are more confident, women are more competent.”

Lee Strimbeck greeting an audience member after reading at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Photo: J. Browdy
Lee Strimbeck greeting an audience member after reading at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Photo: J. Browdy

On the spiritual side as well, we find many male spiritual leaders — from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the Dalai Lama to Llewelyn Vaughan-Lee and Andrew Harvey — asserting that strong women’s leadership is needed to effect the change in human consciousness that will bring us into a stable, life-enhancing relationship with our planet.

Waging war and calling in the bulldozers is not women’s way of dealing with challenges. Women’s strength is in communication: talking things through, listening to each other with compassion, and finding creative ways to bring people together constructively around common goals.

At its root, this is what the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is all about: opening up more spaces for women and girls to practice their powers of communication in public, inspiring each other to reach out even further, to dare to become more active in our community and our world.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, the Hopi prophecy says. Women, wait no more. Our beautiful, battered planet needs our strength and determination now.

If you need more convincing, come to some Festival events this month. I guarantee that you’ll be inspired by the strength and creative power of the Festival presenters. You’ll come away echoing Margaret Mead, who famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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Author photoThe weekly EDGE WISE column is curated by Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D., associate professor of comparative literature, gender studies and media studies at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and the Founding Director of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. Women writers interested in publishing in EDGE WISE can find writers’ guidelines on the Festival website, or may submit queries or columns to Jennifer@berkshirewomenwriters.org.