What Is A Woman’s Worth?

Peace, Pink, Power by Canadian artist Cheryl Braganza

My passionate, loving, intelligent mother was told by her father from a very young age that her education was unimportant. She wasn’t worth educating beyond the basics as she was only going to get married and have children. Like so many women of her generation, her options appeared very limited.

She fought this conditioning, however, doing her English A-levels by correspondence from her bedroom and secretly applying to university. Once married she continued her education, finishing a Phd while I was still a baby. She spent a great deal of her life unconsciously driven to prove to her father (and the world) that she was as worthy of love, education and interest as her brother.

In 1979 my father left my mother for another woman. After thirteen years of being a good wife and trying to fit the mould she had been born for, this was a devastating blow. She had ironed his clothes, washed endless dishes, vacuumed, mopped, cooked, cleaned toilets, given up many of her dreams and tended to three young children. My father’s exit from the story, like the IRA bombs of the time, blew a hole in the fabric of my mother’s reality. She became a feminist.

She ran women’s groups. Our house reverberated with (often heated) conversations about equal pay, the oppression of women around the world, the new divorce laws that allowed women to end a marriage just because they wanted to, bra burning, and the myriad ways that women had been treated like second class citizens throughout Western history.

My mother was angry. Many women were angry. They were raised to be wives, but the standard vision of family life had imploded. They were stateless, without the roles they had been bred for, struggling to raise children alone. They had dreams of their own, lives they wanted to lead, a world they wanted to change. Those women railed at the gates of the establishment, demanding equal pay, insisting on being treated the same under the law as men. They were the vital force behind extraordinary and radical changes in the treatment of women.

Thirty odd years later, feminism appears to be a dirty word, tainted by the whiff of rabid man-haters and habitual complainers. Many women are defensive about feminism, scrambling to explain themselves when tarred with the feminist brush. Despite the changes in law that protect and uphold the rights of women (at least in Western nations), we still suffer from an inherent lack of worth, that prompts many of us to apologise for our empowerment.

Nowadays, the women who might have been feminists in the 70’s are turning to the Divine Feminine. Women are seeking to bring balance to an unbalanced world. Feminism is tarred, but the feminine divine is, as yet, unblemished by the disparaging social mores that undermine, and seek to take the power out of, women’s movements. No doubt someone will find a way to ridicule it in time.

Until the veil is lifted, it’s impossible to see cultural conditioning. Six years ago I read The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine by Barbara Tedlock. The thrust of this groundbreaking book is that male anthropologists assumed (because of their conditioning) that all the important people in the culture they studied must have been male. What’s more, because they were male, they were denied access to women’s business, and thus had no idea what roles women played in non-Western societies, beyond child-rearing. Tedlock posits that the first shamans were all women. There is forensic anthropological and anecdotal evidence to support this. When their sons showed promise in the shamanic arts, the mothers trained them, thus creating a male line that shamanism could be passed down.

Her assertion shattered me. I had never considered for a single moment that the first shamans could have been women. I briefly studied anthropology at university without ever gleaning any hint that women played such an important spiritual role in their societies. Shamans were men. I was astounded that I had simply absorbed my cultural conditioning without question. And all this despite being raised by a passionate feminist and encouraged to think independently.

That is the true nature of conditioning. It’s unseen, unseeable, pervasive and very difficult to root out.

The inherent unworthiness of the female began with the story of that ‘wicked temptress’ Eve, and She has been ruthlessly punished ever since. The stories of our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers are also our stories. That basic lack of worth is passed down through our bloodlines and our stories, invisible but present.

Feminism was, and remains, an energy of fighting against the injustice of unequal treatment based on gender. While we still have unequal pay (yes it’s still happening worldwide, including in so-called developed nations like Australia, the USA and the UK), inequality under the law, domestic violence, rape as a tool of war, and denigration of women in organised religion, feminism remains relevant and necessary.

So what is women’s empowerment?

At it’s simplest it is connecting women to their inherent worth. As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic you have a right to be here, and the proof is in the fact that you’re here.”

At the core of every woman is a powerhouse — of love, or nurturing, creativity, insight, radiant ideas, receptivity, social justice, community building, or any combination of the above. Once a woman is aware of, and deeply connected to her true authentic core, the source of her life force, she becomes a catalyst for positive change — within her own life, her family, her social circles and her community. A group of women who are tapped into this core, can (and do) change the world.

Women’s empowerment is not about pushing against anything.

It’s a process of women supporting one another to find that powerhouse at the core and live from it. We no longer need to hold onto the story of our historical victimhood. Instead, we can connect to our inherent power and worth and remake the world.

There’s no secret society to join to achieve this. No complex esoteric procedure necessary. Empowerment comes through the willingness of women to see one another clearly, to listen with presence, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with other women, to share our stories and life experience, to put aside the false idols of beauty and sexy (as determined by our cultures), to stop competing with one another, and to commit to coming together to discover what is truly deeply important to us and acting on it.

These actions lift the cultural veils, allowing us to see the subtle ways that we have accepted our conditioning. Knowledge really is power. And how much more becomes possible in just one lifetime when the veils have been removed and a woman lives from her inherent worth?