Rediscovering the Goddess
Finding the Feminine in Feminism
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic is going to explore something that I think is drastically missing from feminism: the feminine. It’s a complicated topic that has to peel back some sensitive layers, biases, history, and politics to uncover the core of the feminine.
To be a successful woman you must be indistinguishable from a successful man.
This sentence is how I’d characterize the current zeitgeist of feminist theory pervading today’s Western culture. First-wave feminism was focused on giving women legal rights as equal persons. The Second Wave focused on achieving social equality. I believe the Third Wave has actually abandoned the feminine and treated the unique idiosyncrasies of the female as a liability.
Yes, I did just pull the pin and drop that grenade but it’s such a crucially important topic that we need to rip the bandaids off quickly and get into the mess. As background for why I care so much, I’m a father of two daughters and raising them has made me a feminist. But I’m more of a second-wave feminist because I believe we’ve currently lost focus on the value that women bring to the world.
Pregnancy places almost the entire burden of reproduction on women. Once the seed is planted, women do all the work. It’s no mean feat and it is one of the largest impediments to a woman’s ability to compete with men in the workplace. In fact, after adjusting for experience, role, and other variables what we refer to as the gender pay gap is actually a motherhood gap. Women who don’t have children generally remain competitive with men in the workforce.
Yet this entire conversation is predicated on a gross assumption that the way men engage in the economy is, by default, the more valued.
Think about that again.
Almost everything, every profession, any position, any task, is first and foremost measured by how a man can do it and then on how women are able to meet that expectation or not.
Society has subconsciously staked a claim that anything masculine is of higher value than anything feminine. It’s something we’ve poked at a little bit in Eliminating Bias in AI/ML when we found that AI resume readers scored masculine characteristics higher than feminine. Or how Google’s culture is based around nerdy, white, males.
It's not that women were being intentionally devalued. It’s that everyone had just accepted that the stereotypical male behavior and culture was the measure of success. This was clearly evident by the general condemnation of James Danmore and his infamous ‘Google Memo’ that suggested women might not want to work under the same expectations as men. Everyone just assumed that was the best way.
This bias manifests in some crazy ways where we can now prevent pregnancy with birth control and we can mute the menstrual cycle through hormones. The biological difference between men and women has begun to narrow… toward the masculine.1 The narrowing is more than just biology. There’s a burgeoning pop psychology that suggests women need to embrace a ‘girl boss feminism’ that extends beyond ordinary confidence into what some call a ‘lunatic confidence’ creating a bar few women can achieve.
We push women into roles that focus on things and away from roles focusing on people while the science shows a clear preference for the reverse. A female scientist is celebrated; a stay-at-home mother never makes Forbes 30 under 30. No one complains about an overrepresentation of women in healthcare and social sciences but their reduced representation in STEM is called problematic. It boils down to what can be summarized as one very questionable value judgment: We have generally accepted that to be a successful woman you must be indistinguishable from a successful man.
Yet it was not always so. Throughout time and across cultures we celebrated the feminine divine; the Goddesses. These characters played a significant role in ancient myth and the Goddeses were equally the agents of all transformations. Equal but different. Joseph Campbell wrote about the character of the feminine in the book Goddesses - Mysteries of the Feminine Divine:
“The thing to note is that all these female figurines are simply naked, whereas the male figures in all the caves are represented in some kind of garment, dressed as shamans. The implication is that in embodying the divine, the female operates in her own character, simply in her nature, while the male magic functions not from the nature of the men’s bodies but from the nature of their roles in the society.
This brings out a very important point for the whole history of the female in mythology: She represents the nature principle. We are born from her physicaly. The male, on the other hand represents the social principle and social roles.”
If we measure the success of a modern woman by her ability to be undifferentiable from a man, we have abandoned the feminine divine, we have deleted her natural character and garbed her in the value proposition of the man. We have also established the expectation that a woman must manifest herself as the extreme success of the vestments and hierarchies of the masculine.
I don’t have to be much of a feminist to say that this seems like an absurd value proposition. It’s also especially self-defeating because it blindly accepts that the masculine structures are defacto not only better but the ultimate aspiration for humans. Even worse, we haven’t just devalued the feminine, we are attempting to delete it.
But women aren’t men.
And throughout history, they’ve been celebrated because of that difference. She appears as Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter, Persephone, Athena, Hera, Hecate, The Three Graces, the Nine Muses, the Furies, Isis, Ishtar, Inanna, Astarte, and more. Her role is aligned to Gaia - Mother Earth and as such plays a crucial role in saving cultures from the foibles that men got themselves into.
And the feminine power is incredible. Back to the book Goddesses:
In Crete, the principle divinity was the Goddess. She stands with the double-ax in each hand. The ax of sacrifice is called the labrys, after which the labyrinth itself is named. The Labrys is the prime symbol of Crete, a double-headed ax with a lunar curve — you can’t have something new unless something old is going to die. So she’s the goddess of death in the end as well as of birth in the beginning. Death and birth belong together. With the labrys in her hand, the Mother Goddess stands clearly dominant, and the blood spilled in sacrifice is the mother’s, whether it’s animal sacrifice or human sacrifice. The principal sacrificial animal was the bull — always male. One did not sacrifice female animals, as the female is not that which dies and is resurrected: she is that which carries death to resurrection — she is the transformer.
The things men build are simple. They are clear, structured, and knowable. Maybe this is what makes them easy to focus on as things to attain. Yet more time has been spent in philosophy and religion on trying to understand the feminine than any masculine structure. It’s not so neatly ordered and it’s not clear. It’s an enigma that we get but don’t get. It’s an enigma that we are completely ignoring these days. It’s much easier to just ignore the mess, hide it with hormones, psychotropic drugs, and career demands, and pretend there’s no difference.
Reclaiming the Feminine Divine
I wish I knew the answer to this. I want legal and social equality for women. Yet these past 50 years have put a value proposition in place that I just can’t accept where anything masculine is valued and aspired to and anything feminine is more often considered a liability to the former.
Even those women who are successful under that value proposition often yearn for something else. My wife,is an Electrical and Computer Engineer and worked in aerospace before we had children. She was surrounded by strong and capable women. Yet, as her friend group began to have children, these women shifted from aerospace engineering to child rearing where they often became teachers whether paid or homeschooled. Lisa is still surrounded by these strong and capable women and each of them would agree that the masculine-dominated roles of engineering weren’t as fulfilling as what they do now.
There has to be something more to this situation than the cursory, simple, yet often wrong idea we’ve come to accept. It might be more chaotic, it might challenge our preconceptions and what we’ve been told to value, but I think we are losing the feminine in our current zeitgeist.
Right now I think it’s just appropriate to name the challenge and introduce what we may be overlooking. I’m also not a woman to have a full internalization of what this means. I can say, that as a man, I’m confident that we need to reclaim the feminine divine and stop chasing the perverse illusion that masculine structures and vestiments are more valuable.
Lisa's take is more pragmatic. She sees the problem and yet has never felt compelled to chase what she doesn’t want. Why is she a stay-at-home mother? Because she didn’t want to pay someone else to raise her kids. I didn’t ask her to do this. I’ve always ensured she knows that if she ever wanted to go back nothing is stopping her. She has chosen to embrace her nature and is a strong and capable woman, mother, and engineer. (I think she’s a Goddess)
For the rest of society, I think the first step is to start with the value proposition. What do we celebrate today that isn’t masculine in nature? Are we comfortable with the nature of the feminine in who she is? Why do we constantly push the vestiments of the masculine structures on their already complete form? Does our society value the feminine divine?
If you completely disagree I also want to hear from you. This whole study is part of a journey that humanity has struggled with for millennia and so, I’m far from confident we have fully understood it.
1/28/24 It came to my attention after this essay came out that there are other voices on this topic that should also be highlighted namelywriting. I’d be remiss to not append it here.
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