Back in the time when the universe was young, so believed the ancient Greeks, there was a primordial goddess, Gaia. Her name means “life” in a version of Greek and she was considered the Mother Earth deity.
Gaia’s qualities of creation, growth (both physical and spiritual), and inextricable connection with all things (what we would now call “ecology,”) were worshipped. But as time went by, these qualities began to be discounted. Gaia faded into obscurity—until re-emerging in the ’60s and ’70s with the environmental movement.
Are "Feminine" and "Power" opposites?
The power represented by a Mother Earth sometimes seems to be contradictory in modern life. For examples, a modern online dictionary defines “feminine” this way:
Feminine: having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness.”
The same dictionary defines “power” like this:
Power: The ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality: "the power of speech"
- The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.
- Physical strength and force exerted by something or someone.
For many, the “power” definitions sound masculine, as opposed to feminine. But today, we’ve begun to ask ourselves if qualities traditionally called feminine, such as empathy, compassion and connection, do not in fact represent a different kind of power—one that is needed more than ever.
The Power Of Empathy
Empathy means the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place; to “feel their pain,” to “walk a mile in their shoes.” Women, as caregivers, have always had to use this quality, whether with a crying child, a despondent spouse, a distraught co-worker or friend, or an aging parent. (This is not to say we haven’t all known women who display no empathy at all. We have.)
But, as a friend of mine recently wrote in an essay she’s including in an upcoming book:
“The friend I run into at the supermarket parking lot at 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday (the witching hour for mommies and elderly-folk caregivers) says, ‘I have to have more aides into the house to help me take care of my mother; she is going downhill.’
“Yes, I say. I’m sorry. I, myself, have recently faced the terrible decision to place my father in a nursing home. Are you able to get in as many folks as you need to help you, I ask her.
“Yes, she says, but I feel selfish. I know, but we’re not, you know. We did the best we could for as long as we could and now illness has dictated a changing direction in each of our lives.
“We looked at each other, two high-school friends in a semi-empty parking lot on a gusty fall New England day and cautiously talked about acceptance and next steps in the care of our loved ones, and of ourselves. Are you staying in town, she asks me. No. I don’t think so. It’s just me now so I can go where I want, where I am needed. She looks at me, nods. It’s not selfish, I say. She nods.” (from an essay by C. Carlton Hughes)
What my friend is describing is a normal occurrence in the lives of most women. We talk, we connect, we help each other through difficult times and help each other celebrate wonderful ones. We feel each other’s pain and joy. And through that, we connect, in a powerful way.
The Power of Compassion
Compassion, by its very nature, implies action. The examples of female compassion resonate through history: Lady Godiva’s famous ride was to save her husband’s tenants from his killing taxation. Harriet Tubman risked everything to help free slaves through the Underground Railroad. The images of Mother Theresa ministering to Calcutta’s poor are iconic. Aung San Suu Kyi stayed under house arrest for years in Myanmar to protest the military government’s harsh rule. (She is now that country’s leader.)
Compassion is sometimes ridiculed as weakness, but in fact, the opposite is true. It takes courage and inner strength to exercise compassion, a classic “female” quality.
The Power of Connection
Just as the goddess Gaia represented the idea of interconnection, women have always “bonded” and relied on each other for support. Female friendships often last lifetimes, whether they’re formed in childhood, or school, or work, or through an organization or group. We talk on the phone or text for no reason; we have experiences that become “life memes,” We laugh about each other’s old boyfriends (or girlfriends or husbands).
In another excerpt from my friend’s essay, she writes:
“There are four of us. We got together as a group and we got together in threes and twos. We went to movies and plays. We had dinner at each other’s houses. We went to funerals together. We went to fundraisers and took long car rides to nowhere just so we could talk.
“Things women talk about at movies, plays (well, not DURING), dinner, funerals, fundraisers and car rides to nowhere:
- How to make lasagna.
- Why isn’t my kid making friends at school?
- Can you proofread this article for me? I don’t trust myself or that spell-checking thing.
- After how many miles do I need to take the car in for a checkup, what’s that rule again? (from the transplanted New Yorker)
- Can you tell us all again exactly what you saw in him? We all need a refresher on his attractive qualities.
- My cat has this funny oozing thing on his ear.
- All right, I secretly like sports more than I let on.
- He is starting to wander at night. I always said when there was a behavior change like that, I would have to start thinking about the safety issues of him being able to stay at home.
- Who’s the most famous person you ever dated?
- I’m never going to be able to sell this house. I’m going to have to pour millions into it just to get it up to code. Hey, now where did I stick that million-dollar bill I grabbed off the counter this morning so we could all go to dinner.
- Can you loan me a million?
- My aunt is doing pretty well a year after my uncle is gone. She is down at the Senior Center, does yoga and then goes to lunch with her posse.
- What are those directions to the city again? I have a job interview.
- Wait a minute, back up. You saw him AGAIN? You didn’t tell us that. No, no, girl, sit down, you’re not going anywhere.
- That job was going to be stupid, anyway. Something better is coming along, we know it.
- He tried to get out of the house last night. I finally called a place.”
These conversations mean you aren’t alone. Someone, or many someones, has your back, will be there for you. That’s powerful.
In today’s workplace, the “feminine” qualities are now being re-examined, especially as more and more women break through glass ceilings in more and more places. Empathy, compassion and connection can lead to better teamwork, increased productivity, and a much better sense of employee buy-in. Competition has its value, too, of course. But as Chinese philosophy expresses it, yang (masculine) must always be in balance with yin (feminine), and together, forces that seem opposite are actually complementary and harmonizing.
Science, too, has made its way back to Gaia, although at times kicking and screaming. In the ’70s, chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis developed what is now known as the “Gaia Hypothesis,” a theory that proposes that “organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.” As science-y as that sounds, it really simply means that “everything’s connected,” just as the goddess Gaia’s worshippers believed.
And don’t we all see a world where more empathy, compassion and connection are needed? That’s real feminine power.