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What does it mean to be a modern woman? What do we want it to mean?

Updated: Jan 2, 2019

March is Women’s History Month, and today is International Women’s Day. And this year, I’ve got an idea to share. It’s time we took control of what it means to be a modern woman. Read on, join me in this discussion, and comment with your ideas!

On Saturday, January 21st, 2017, I was sitting in front of my computer, bawling. My hands and feet were still warming up after a frigid London day spent shouting alongside millions of women and men in the first Women’s March. I felt thawed, watching voices and faces gather around the world, sharing stories, unleashing a united view of what it means to stand up for women’s rights in a modern world. It dawned on me that I wasn’t alone, that being a woman was valued, and that a new energy was rising.

A year later, you’d have to be living in a hole if you haven’t seen the results of this momentum. It’s been a tidal wave, knocking down bad behavior and institutionalized discrimination, a force to be reckoned with. There has been an awakening and a reckoning. Women (and men) have found the word, “No.” Enough. Time’s up. #metoo. There has been a shift, that shift has been expressed, and the dismissed have been heard. Our cultural values are being redefined. Power is changing hands. I have been watching this, fist pumped in the air, mouth agape in awe.

Even so, being a woman today is damn hard. And confusing. We are constantly bombarded by contradictory messages of what a woman is supposed to be; we aspire to the impossible (Gisele’s legs!), then feel bad when we fall short (my legs!). Our mothers exemplified a generation that now feels dated, leaving us scratching our heads wondering what we are supposed to grow into. Messages of inadequacy bombard us: my skin isn’t perfect, my arms aren’t toned enough, my boobs aren’t big enough; I’m not nice enough, I’m too accommodating; I’m too harsh, I’m too indirect; I’m too bossy, or I’m too passive; I work too much, I waited too long to have kids, I am falling short of my potential if all I want is be a mother. We are expected to be feminine and masculine; powerful and gentle; sexy and motherly. We’ve got all kinds of roles to fill: friend, lover, seductress, caretaker, sister, daughter, muse, housekeeper. Society rewards us for the appearance of youth, our attractiveness somehow the source of our power. We are judged whether we want children and marriage or not, have a small window of time with which to make a career or family, and then are asked to balance it all. It’s madness!

I reach for history books to answer how we got here, and am met with the stark reality that underpins the systems shaping our evolutionary brain. Early man won when he conquered and killed, so it was these genes and behaviors that got to procreate. It was hundreds of years before women won the right to vote or own property, so early governing systems were inevitably shaped by men. Brick upon brick, today’s world is built largely by the masculine.

In such an established system, it can be difficult to praise or value the pure feminine. When all of our standard measures of success — money, power, fame — are based in masculine values, feminine qualities may not immediately stand out. At work, I thought it was rude to interrupt a colleague while they were speaking. I value listening. So I often didn’t get the chance to share my ideas, which, even in a relatively diverse and open environment like Google, meant I wasn’t seen as a leader. I am a people person, an empath, preferring to lead people into working together in harmony rather than strike out on my own and conquer. I certainly didn’t sit my manager down to carefully chart my own promotion, feeling uncomfortable lauding my own accomplishments. I learned the hard way. The system isn’t meant to recognize qualities like mine. Promotions are handed to the more aggressive.

This is the tale of two systems, clashing with one another. It’s the square peg in a round hole, the contradiction of trying to fit a feminine energy into the values of its opposite, masculine energy. Asking a fish to climb a tree doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it absolutely doesn’t honor the talents of the fish. The only way to do that, is to actually value what the fish brings to the table. Which is a total rewrite of what we care about, and admire.

But this is really important. Because who we look up to influences who we become. Especially at an early age. I’ll never forget the day I heard a woman named Miriam Gonzalez speak about this issue. I was working in London when she came into the Google office to tell us about her nonprofit, Inspiring Girls. Flabbergasted, I realized that there was a big problem. When girls in primary school were asked who their female role model was, they could only answer their mum, or Beyonce. (Here’s the study; girls this age favor Britney Spears if she’s white, Beyonce if she’s black.) They knew, from that age, that singing and dancing and being attractive is what makes a woman “valuable.” (Miriam’s nonprofit works to address this issue by bringing in women like you and me, showing young girls real examples of what being an adult woman actually looks like. If only I had access to this as a child!)

I mean, have you seen the above video? One study found that only 7.5% of children’s books features a female protagonist. How could a young girl possibly have a female role model, when she doesn’t even have access to the plethora of heroines and their stories?

In ambiguous times, in times of change, leadership and examples are what we need.

We need heroes and their stories. Specifically, we need women’s stories. We need examples of women who are excelling, especially in ways or fields that were not designed by the masculine. The feminine (or Divine Feminine, if you will) transcends these systems, and shows us a new way of doing things. We need only to tune into and exalt it. It exists everywhere, often in the unsung heroes of the women of our every day. Most of these women are not famous today because what makes people famous today is based in the masculine ideal. A notable exception is Malala, who defies the limits of gender. By honoring women like this, by changing what we consider worthy of fame and celebrity, we make clear our values.

By making clear our values, we change the target. And that’s how we change the system.

So here’s where an idea hit me. (And it hasn’t let go!) The more I thought about it, the more excited I got, because it’s one we can actually act on, and solve, online. It doesn’t require money or writing letters to your congressman (both worthwhile activities!). From the comfort of our own homes, we can create a new reality. This is the power of armchair anthropology, of propelling ideas into the sphere of our collective conscious, sharing them, and influencing others. If we define what being a heroine means today, we define what we value, what both men and women can aspire towards, and what we will and will not tolerate. We can make change by ideating a new value.

So what is it that we value?

On International Women’s Day, I invite all who feel drawn to this idea to contribute and help shape the new Feminine Manifesto, for lack of a better term (suggestions welcome!) We need an embodied set of values which can balance and heal this planet. We need a name for this inspiring, but realistic feminine. We need to form and color her in.

So, what do you think? What behaviors, character traits, and values do we admire in a woman? What does it mean to be a modern woman?

The change that we desire will not be given to us. It must be imagined, then created.

The inspired woman is…

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