An Interview with Elizabeth Lesser at the Omega Institute’s “Women in Power” Conference – September 2009
You co-founded Omega in 1977. The Women’s Institute is a relatively recent addition to what you are doing here. Can you speak about that?
70 to 75 percent of all Omega’s participants are women. Women are more willing to look at their own selves, look inward and ask how can I grow, how can I change, how can I become better? I don’t know why, but in our era, I think it is women who are going to change the world. So it seemed natural to put intention and purpose behind it. That was the birth of our Women and Power Conferences asking the question, what happens when you put these words “women” and “power” together? Would we do it differently if we had more of it? Is there a way to redefine what power means? What’s the difference between power and empowerment? These were all the things we started exploring in the conferences. And it became so popular that we decided to create a wing of Omega specifically about women.
Progressive women seem unable to be able to dialogue with women on the opposite side of the political spectrum, especially on a hot topic like abortion. In the Democratic primary, we saw this when there was a really nasty schism between women who were supporting Obama and women who were supporting Hillary Clinton. Women, lots of times, feel afraid to speak up even within their own contingency.
Let me just get really clear from the outset. Women, as a gender, are not an enlightened group of people. I’m not interested in working for women’s causes because I think, ‘Hey, let’s put women in charge of the world and everything will be better.’ I just don’t believe that, and I’ve seen enough cases where it isn’t true. So my interest in working with women is that I do believe that there’s a core value in most women which is this – and whether it’s nurture or nature, I don’t really care. There seems to be in women a capacity to share and have compassion and empower others, as opposed to domination and violence. It just seems throughout history, women have been less likely to pursue violence than men. Maybe it’s been because women haven’t been in power. We don’t really know. But what I do know is that as a group, women’s voices and values need to be heard.
Now that doesn’t mean that once they’re been heard we’re all going to act like Polyannas. Especially women who have become leaders over the past fifty years. We have had to lead within a structure of male created power. As a woman leader myself, with other men, I learned very quickly that to get something done I had to suppress a lot of my natural instincts of wanting to be nice, wanting to be kind, wanting to include, wanting to care as much about the people in the organization as the bottom line. Very quickly I got that if I come from that part of me, I’m never going to get ahead, because none of the guys care about that. So I have had to develop male type leadership qualities. And most of the baby boomers have had to do it like a man. And that’s okay. We needed to do it to get our foot in. But that’s not the work that I’m interested in now. I’m interested in women of all generations going back and reclaiming exactly who we are, and celebrating qualities that have only been reserved for the home. To take those natural instincts that I do believe live more in women, and make them leadership qualities. That hasn’t been done yet because we didn’t have the luxury to do it. Now that we’ve gotten our foot in the door it’s really time for us to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to be the people we’ve become in order to have power?’ And it’s going to take some gatherings like the one we are at now, women talking openly about how should we do power? It’s going to take generations of us in the male world of business and sports and power and leadership to figure out how to do it our own way. And not do it the way that we have been taught to do it so far.
Do you think that a woman who is “pro-choice” and a woman who is “pro-life” can sit down and have a conversation without killing each other?
Well, three years ago at the Women and Power Conference, I asked that exact same question. I said to myself, ‘If at a women’s conference where I am saying that women have a natural tendency toward dialogue, if we don’t try to tackle in front of the whole group a really hard dialogue, then I don’t want to have these conferences.’ So I invited a group from Boston called Public Conversations, run by Laura Chasin. After violence at an abortion clinic in Boston, Chasin – who is a family systems psychologist – was horrified to watch the women from the left and the women from the right screaming at each other on television across barricades. And she thought, ‘I’ve got to do something about this. This is a dysfunctional family of women.’ All of the women that she was hearing were women who were working in women’s issues, but on the right. They were working mostly with the churches, but they were doing great work in the world. They just happened to be fierce opponents of abortion. This woman [Chasin] was involved with women from the left, Naral, Planned Parenthood, NOW – all the pro-choice organizations. So she, behind closed doors, got together leaders from both sides. And her only goal was, ‘Can we sit in a room together? Let’s not even talk about abortion. Let’s try to get to know each other.’
And over many years, the women became deep and dear friends. They went to each other’s children’s graduations, weddings, and funerals. Not one of them ever changed their mind. But they learned to love each other and respect each other. And know in their hearts that you could be pro-choice and not be the devil. And you could be pro-life and not be the Ku Klux Klan. And they put aside those stereotypes and saw each other as people. And guess what? That is the best we can hope for. Because we’re always going to live in a world with differences of opinion. Different opinions will never go away. And if we can’t learn to hold each other as sacred human beings with different opinions, we don’t deserve, I feel, to say that women would do power differently if we could create a different power structure.
It was interesting. We brought that group of women here. They sat on the stage in front of the audience. And all they did was talk about how, ‘We love each other and we disagree, and we figured out a way to have our conversations civilly.’ Some people in the audience were unimpressed. They were like, ‘So what? So what? They’re still trying to erode my right to have an abortion.’ And other people were much more like, ‘Yes, this is what we have to do.’ I happen to be in the camp of I don’t want to change other people’s opinions, I just want to learn how to treat everyone with dignity so that I too can be treated with dignity.
I think we can do it, but we have to get out of our little corners. You know, especially those of us on the progressive left. We think, ‘Oh, we’re so open-minded. We’re so much against racism and sexism and seeing people as different.’ But we do see people as different. Somebody who’s pro-life, we feel enormous antagonistic feelings toward. So that’s my edge. My edge is to love a Republican!
That could be a full time job!
Well, it should be a full time job.
Do you think that too many women are using the male hierarchical model, and therefore are ending up being as exclusive as men are?
Absolutely, but I have enormous empathy for that because that’s the only model we know. There is no other really acceptable model. And to try to forge a new one in the heat of the battle…It’s really hard to both play the game within the structure and change it while you’re in it. It’s very, very, hard. So, I have a lot of compassion about it. On the other hand, we have to do it. We have to both play in the sand box, but try to change the rules, and be really courageous by calling out behavior all the time that we don’t feel good about.
What can you share with women about bringing up male children?
I have three sons. It’s probably been the hardest part of my life. I grew up in a family of four girls. I grew up in a very female world. Mom, grandmother, great-aunt, they all lived in the house. And then, lo and behold, I had three boys. First of all, I just had to learn their ways, learn their language. It was a really steep learning curve there, but I learned because I was outnumbered. I stopped judging them, and just embraced and loved and supported what they wanted to do. It was diversity training for me, to be a mother to three sons. I really had to go into their world. I think it’s thrilling to be the mother of sons. It’s also made me way less able to just lump men into one category and say, ‘Yeah, men.’ Because those are my boys, those men.
Do you think it’s harder for mid-life women in our society than it is for young women, or is it just a different set of struggles and life lessons?
I think it’s just a different set of struggles. Every generation has its own specific challenges and its own specific blessings. This has been so throughout history. This is why history is so important.
Do you think that mid-life women of the baby boomer generation are going to have an easier time of it than their mothers, in terms of aging in our society?
Well, yes and no. I think we’re going into old age with healthier bodies, and that’s fantastic. One of the problems for our generation is that our families are so scattered. For my mother’s generation there was still some intactness, where people where taking care of their own. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how we do that with our children living all over the place. I think that’s a struggle of ours specifically. I believe in the evolution of human consciousness, so I think that every generation is a little better off in terms of emotional maturity.
Can you talk about your book Broken Open?
It’s often our most difficult times when the strange alchemy happens where your heart breaks, but at the same time you’re kind of super alive. I know I have experienced that in my own life, and some of my hardest times. Divorce, the loss of loved ones, the loss of my parents. There’s a strange thing that happens when you lose and you allow your heart to break. You also feel a lot of other feelings, and often they are feelings of creativity, and love, and life. This is no mystery to wise people throughout the ages. Our hardest times are doorways into self-knowledge, finding purpose, and growth.
In response to any situation we are always faced with a choice. We can either become bitter, reactive, blameful, angry, devastated, or we can use it as a portal into growing and wisdom. In every situation you are given a choice. It’s inevitable that really awful things are going to happen to each one of us, on a personal level and on a global scale. We live in a completely unstable, unpredictable situation called biological life. Yet we expect things to be easy, peaceful. That’s just not the way of the universe.
Everything comes into existence and everything dies. This is life. Whether it’s through catastrophe or old age, these are the rules of life. Use everything that happens as a way of growing.