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How Do We Define Women's Power?

We are living in a moment when women are re-awakening to the concepts of empowerment and equality, and I am inspired. But I am also afraid. Too much of what I read about equality is about making it possible for women to achieve the same things as men, in the same ways. I can't do that. I don't want to do that. I am different. I am a woman.

Something has gone awry in the discourse. Men will never be able to birth children or breastfeed. Men will never be able to live the cycle of fertility that breathes in their bodies. Does that mean that men will never be equal to women?

Last month on Bill Maher, Gloria Steinem – whom I deeply admire – spoke about why she thinks millenial women are not voting for for Hillary. “Men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age. Women get more radical because they lose power as they age,” she said. In an analysis of Steinem's statement, HuffPost editor Emily Peck demonstrates that at a certain point in their lives “women's progress starts to flatline.”

Her article infuriated me. How do we define progress? Peck cites income disparities, and the fact that there are only 20 female CEOs in the S&P 500. She talks about the absence of women in the “upper echelons of business and the halls of politics” resulting in the fact that “women's interests just aren't well-represented.” She laments the lack of government policies that would “actually support women in achieving earning equality...and support men in more successfully taking on their roles as fathers,” such as paid maternity leave and subsidized child care.

Earning disparities are a problem. Women's interests need to be better represented, particularly in political discourse. However, I do not think that a better representation of women's interests will come from closing the wage gap, or even necessarily from electing a woman president. A better representation of women's interests will come from a clearer expression of women's interests – in all realms of society.

Somewhere along the line, we – the women – have lost something essential in ourselves. In a culture where we measure our own progress in patriarchal standards, we devalue that which is different about us. We have forgotten to value women's work – as women. We are valuing women's work when they work like men. Equality is not about being the same. Equality is about equally valuing that which is male and that which is female.

Progress for women is not about leveling the playing field. Progress for women is about changing the game.

Progress for women is about creating a culture that honors the difference between men and women. Our culture recognizes that difference and exploits it. As Beautiful Project student Eliza, 13, said, the media tells us that being a woman means being “brainless, pretty objects for boys to boss around and have sex with.” Is that what we want to teach our girls?!

We have come a long way. We have the right to vote. We can study at the most prestigious colleges and work the most prestigious jobs. Yes, of course, there is much farther to go to achieve true equality for men and women, but that is not about making it possible for women to do the same things as men.

This is not about defending a woman's right to choose to stay home and raise her children. This is also not about creating the possibility for women to 'have it all' – kids and a career – seemingly a step toward equality, though often incredibly challenging. Read Amy Westervelt's poignant essay – “Having it All Kinda Sucks” – she makes the point like none other, working from the day after her son was born. “Instead of changing the systems, we tell women to lean in,” she says. “I am leaning in so far, I am falling flat on my face.”

The economic structure of our society demands of many women that they work, and of course, that means that we must adopt more policies that would support women as mothers, such as paid family leave and subsidized child care. However, if we insist that equality means creating the opportunity for women to achieve as men do, we forget that women's expression, women's work is different from men's. We forget to honor that which is uniquely 'woman.' Instead, we perpetuate a culture that has taught women, or at least taught me, that equality for women means achieving the same things at the same levels in the same ways as men.

I can't do that. I don't want to do that. I am different. I am a woman.

When Gloria Steinem said that “women lose power as they age,” what did she mean? Is power only defined by position on the corporate ladder or the amount of money in a bank account? I look at Steinem, at 81, and I see the embodiment of power. I see a woman who has led others for decades, inspiring generations of women. I see someone whose voice has had and continues to have a very strong global impact. I see someone who has touched many lives. I see someone whose influence will be present long after she is. I see an elder.

Maybe, we haven't had a woman president yet because women's leadership looks different from the structure we see in the US government. Maybe women aren't in the upper echelons of business because power for women is something else.

It's a dangerously slippery slope, this argument to celebrate the difference. Because I am not saying that we can't achieve in the same ways men do. Of course we can. I am questioning whether that is what will bring true equality.

What does it mean to be a woman today? What are women's interests, truly?

We fight tirelessly for the rights of working mothers because motherhood is one of the few remaining elements of femininity that unequivocally makes us different from men. But what about women who decide not to have children? What about young women who have not yet reached that phase of their lives? Motherhood cannot be the defining element of womanhood.

Once, female sexuality was celebrated as the source of life. Now, the female body is completely objectified, and too often girls learn to express their sexuality by objectifying themselves. Once, girls were initiated into womanhood in sacred rituals that honored their fertility. Today, menstruation is a taboo subject.

The list is endless. There are many qualities that make women different from men. But in our race to achieve alongside the men, we have lost our connection to many of those qualities, and thus lost our grasp on what defines us. We have lost a true women's culture.

It may be true that women lose power as they age, particularly in a world that defines power in terms that belong to men. But if you ask me, women's power abounds in our society – we have simply forgotten to identify it as power.


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