What Would Happen If Women Were In Charge?
We sit down with author and co-founder of the Omega Institute, Elizabeth Lesser, to talk about her new book Cassandra Speaks, an investigation into how women’s voices have been silenced by traditional fables through the ages – and what might happen if we changed those stories and challenged their assumptions of what it means to be a woman.
Women, Power and Finding Your Voice with Elizabeth Lesser
It’s a very strange time to have a book come out. How do you feel about that?
I’m doing only a virtual book tour, which is different. It’s both good and bad. For example, I’ve having a thousand people show up to a virtual bookstore reading. And if I went to an actual bookstore, there’d probably only be about 20. So, it’s both good and a bit weird.
On some levels, it’s a very apropos subject to these times. Of course, the bigger noise is Covid and in this country [the US] Black Lives Matter and the election. But the story of women’s voices not being heard and believed is in a way very related to it all. But it is a very strange time to have a book coming out. There’s a lot of competing noise.
Who do you think is going to win the US election?
I am energising Joe Biden to win. I can’t even imagine the alternative. So I’m answering your question with a fantasy. I am willing him on.
What’s the inspiration behind Cassandra Speaks?
For most of my adult life, I have run a conference and retreat centre that I helped start almost 40 years ago, when I was in my twenties [the Omega Institute].
I’ve always been fascinated by questions like: if we get our foot in the door of power structures, and we remain true to ourselves, would we do power differently? Are we just trying to get into a system that obviously doesn’t work anymore, or could we actually do it differently? Could we lead differently? Could we create a different structure, since the world seems to need a few different structures?
I’ve been intrigued with those questions and have created these conferences, inviting women leaders from many sectors – whether it’s the arts, or elected officials, or social activists – and then just posing the question: how do women do power differently?
Every year [at the Omega Institute] I would write the keynote speech that would start the whole conference off. And at the end, people would ask me to have a copy of that speech. And my daughter-in-law said to me, stop giving away your speeches – put them into a book. So I tried to weave these years of research and speeches into a book, and that became Cassandra Speaks.
Why are old stories so important?
Humans learn from stories. I know this as a student of history, and as a writer, a storyteller and a speaker. We learn through stories, whether they’re the ancient Bible parables, Greek myths, movies or literature. And stories live on longer than governments. If you look at the way we’re still affected by the Adam and Eve story, or the Cassandra story, or by movies, or books – whoever is the storyteller, they create history. Men have always been the storytellers. Women were left out of telling the ancient stories from our own perspective and needs. And things would have been different if women were also the ancient storytellers.
Did you look at stories from other traditions and histories other than Western culture?
I looked at stories from almost every culture around the world, like the ancient Chinese story, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, that we still look to for lessons about power. And let’s say the tradition of Chinese foot binding, which is so symbolic to me of keeping women helpless, tottering, secluded in the home, and unable to really be ourselves. Every single culture, with some exceptions in the modern world, has examples like this. If you go way back into pre-history, pre-written history, there are many historians who believe that there were matriarchal cultures – there are older stories. But with the advent of agriculture, and other modernisations, those stories are lost, and we no longer believe that they even existed. It doesn’t really matter, because we have been so totally transformed by the stories we do know. But I believe that we can change the ending to these stories. And it’s up to us as women to change them in our own daily lives.
Why is it an important book for right now, in 2020?
It’s fascinating to me how, as things have been changing in the world and women’s standing has been improving in many countries, there’s been an enormous backlash. Look at some of the leaders of our most prosperous countries in the world: my country, your country. Many countries have fallen back into following strongmen.
And to me, that’s all a backlash against this rise of a whole new way of looking at human reality. A more inclusive way, a less violent way. And I don’t think women and other marginalised people, people of colour – as we are seeing in our country and in yours, too – can rest. I don’t think we can think we’re safe. We’re not: those old stories are still really strong. And this idea that men are superior, and that white people are superior – those are two old stories from the past. You see, we could never have enslaved black people if that story of white supremacy wasn’t believed. We could not keep women from enjoying our bodies, our sexuality, our freedom, our leadership, our way of seeing the world, if that story of male supremacy wasn’t still alive. In a small way, this book acts as a corrective for what’s going on in the world today.
Do you think it’s important for us to get men on board as well?
It definitely should be women and men working together. I have a whole chapter in the book about this called In Praise of Fathers. I’m the mother of three sons who all have children now. And what I am seeing them do in their families, the way they are absolutely co-parenting, nurturing and caring, it’s shaping their children’s understanding of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.
We were going to change the world by changing our families, and by changing how each one of us – woman or man – behaves at home and in the workplace. Yes, voting, yes laws. All of that is so important, but I think how we act is equally important. You don’t have to be an elected official or work for the United Nations to change the world for women and men, to work on equalising relationships, respecting each other, and rewriting the stories of what it means to be a fully fledged human being. Of showing that a woman can have masculine and feminine tendencies, and a man can have feminine and masculine tendencies. And if a man is caring and loving, it doesn’t mean that he’s any less of a man.
Who are your personal heroes?
I think it’s really important for us to make the idea of what’s heroic more diverse. In the book I ask: why are all the statues in parks, and all over the world, mostly of warriors and war? What if there was a statue of a woman giving birth? Why is it okay to see a blood-soaked soldier and not a woman birthing a child? To me, the whole idea of heroism, what a hero is and what courage is, can change if we speak the names of different kinds of heroes. I think Ms Rosa Parks, who sat on a seat she wasn’t supposed to, is just as heroic as a man who goes out and fight to war. I would like to see women who made a difference in non-violent ways. They are my heroes.
What should people do after reading your book?
It depends on what stage they are in their life. Perhaps they’re feeling very insecure about who they are and what they can say. Perhaps they’re in the kind of family situation or marriage where their voices not listened to and they’re afraid if they speak up, bad things will happen. Or maybe at work, if they speak up, they’ll lose their job. So I would say, if you are in a strong situation at home and at work, use your voice, use it to protect the unprotected. Bring the best of your womanhood out into the world, if you’re in a situation where you can do that.
If you aren’t, spend some time strengthening yourself and getting to know yourself. Ask yourself, what is that voice in me that tells me I can’t speak up? Is that my mother’s voice? Is that the old stories? Maybe go into therapy, or speak with friends, or join a women’s group. Strengthen your resolve to be true to yourself.
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