A Book Review and Interview with Author Kris Steinnes, Founder, Women of Wisdom Foundation
The Women of Wisdom conference was inspired in 1992 by a vision Kris had of gathering women together to learn from diverse women leaders and their stories, While serving on the board of directors of Seattle Unity Church, she was given the opportunity to establish a committee of women to create the first conference of its kind, a week-long event for women. It was a great success with over 500 attendees and 24 individual events. The spirit and desire of women to gather was so evident that very first year that it was quickly decided to make the conference an annual event, and it has continued to grow and gather momentum each year. This is a special Pacific Northwest event and now women from around the country are beginning to attend as word spreads of its transformative and spirit filled energy.
Kris Steinnes' new book Women of Wisdom: Empowering the Dreams and Spirit of Women chronicles the "herstory" of the well known conference. Since 1993 WOW has brought together women leaders from many fields to share their experiences in workshops and talks. The book is an inspiring collection of keynote presentations from Women of Wisdom between 1995 and 2006, filled with stories, art, poetry and songs by Women of Wisdom participants. Contributors include such illumanaries as Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., Marion Woodman, Ph.D., Judith Orloff, M.D., Isabel Allende, Angeles Arrien, Ph.D., Riane Eisier, Frances Moore Lappé, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Brooke Medicine-Eagle, Nicki Scully and with a forward written by author Jean Houston, Ph.D.
I attended the conference in 1999 and can attest to the high level of energy and excitement I found there. When I chanced to meet Kris Steinnes at a recent meeting of the Seattle Holistic Chamber of Commerce, I leap at the chance to review her new book and interview her, recognizing her importance as a consciousness activist and appreciating the scope of her work. My appreciation grew as I read her book.
Women of Wisdom: Empowering the Dreams and Spirit of Women succeeds in immersing the reader into the WOW experience. Poems, drawings and stories weave a tapestry of a different women's experiences and awareness. Though the diversity of voices we hear a common chord resounding with the creative joy of the Divine Feminine and its appeal to embrace the beauty of the planet, ourselves, and the gift of our embodied existence.
Far from being militantly separatist is its feminism, the over arching WOW philosophy seeks to promote healing through transcending polarizing stances towards unity consciousness achieved through the feminine. Men are welcomed to participate in genuine partnership toward a shared vision of responsibility for personal and planetary health.
Many gems are in the book, many insights. One of my favorites come from author and activist Frances Moore Lappé known for her ground breaking book Diet For A Small Planet and cofounder of Food First and Center for Living Democracy:
"What is our doubt? What keeps us trapped in fear? Our culture tells us of course we can't trust the power of love, the desire for cooperation. So I was just tickled to recently read studies from Emory University in Atlanta, Georga, where scientists had examined the MRI pictures of people participating in the prisoner's dilemma simulation game. This game tests whether "partners in crime" will trust each other to remain loyal, or betray each other for personal gain. The scientists discovered that when people were cooperating, when people were working together, that pleasure centers in the brain lit up! These are the same parts that light up when we eat chocolate. The scientists said, "Wow, this is really surprising. We're wired to cooperate." Of course we couldn't have made it this far if we weren't fundamentally cooperators. I just love it that scientists are catching on."
Through a mutually arrived at email interview process Kris Steinnes graciously offered to answer some questions that were sparked in my mind as I read her book:
In the past 15 years Women of Wisdom has held conferences and hosted many powerful and influential woman leaders and speakers. What mpact do you feel WOW has had on the woman's movement-locally, nationally, internationally?
We've had mostly local impact, although we are known around the country - I meet people in California who have heard of us, which makes me happy. Most people who attend are from the Pacific Northwest.
Regarding how we've impacted the woman's movement, I think it happens through women's individual experiences. People come away from the conference feeling uplifted and inspired to make changes in their lives. When we feel supported and make change inside ourselves, it's going to affect our outside world, and affect society and women in general. I feel that as women are valued and empowered for who they are, it helps women move forward into important positions and make an impact on other women. It builds on itself. We need women role models. One aspect I've witnessed is women stepping into leadership within the WOW community and I've seen them grow over the years.
There's also a spiritual component at WOW that's contributed to a more holistic women's movement - and that was missing before. The woman's movement of the 60's was a great foundation and moved women into new jobs, and freed them from the stereotypical women's roles. But some women now are finding that corporate life misses something, and Women of Wisdom provides the spiritual component that feeds them, gives them strength and support so that they can lead a more full life, and bring more of themselves to their work. When we get exhausted it's hard to carry out what we've been called to do. But as we take care of our emotional, physical, mental and spiritual bodies, we replenish ourselves so that we're not drained and exhausted by our work, whether it's in the home or in a business world.
The name "Women of Wisdom" evokes the Crone, the older woman who has gained experience and awareness in her lifetime. Most of the presenters and many of the conference participants are middle aged and older women. How does Women of Wisdom keep itself relevant to the concerns of younger women and appeal to them?
We have wanted to attract younger women--we've had a teen program in the past. WOW is open to all ages, and we noticed that this last year there were several young people at the conference. Still, right now our main audience is the 35 - 75+ age group. I think that many women begin to search spiritually and become introspective as they grow older. But we do want to empower and mentor young women. Mentoring has happened naturally within our council, (WOW's board of directors) where we've had young women and been mentors to them. And we've discussed how we can connect more with the younger generation--we'd love to be more multigenerational. So we need to go where young women are and learn more about the issues that are important to them. We're still working on this.
There is a commonly accepted idea that in order to succeed in business, politics, or academia, woman need to "act like men." Is there a different kind of leadership the Women of Wisdom espouses? What is that model?
We've created a circle leadership model, based on the Peerspirit model from Christina Baldwin's book, Calling the Circle. Rather than having one main leader, such as a president of the board, we share the leadership, rotate responsibilities and work in consensus. We each have our gifts and mentor each other. For instance, if I'm good at creating programs and organizing conferences I share my knowledge and try to pass that on to others, either through example, mentoring or giving a training. Circle leadership acknowledges everyone's gifts, so we rotate in and out as leaders. If we're having a discussion about marketing, the person with marketing experience may lead that discussion, and the financial person will lead us in finances. But each person in the circle has a voice in the decisions and is allowed to speak.
I agree that women have learned how to act like men in the corporate world or politics. They've had to do that since the feminine model isn't accepted, but from what I've seen it doesn't work very well. The feminine can offer a lot to those worlds if women--and men--would honor it. Taking on a masculine way of leading, which can be more forceful, top-down, and competitive, rather than inclusive and cooperative, isn't innate for most women. So when a woman takes that route she usually isn't respected as a boss, because she may not be leading from her real strengths. On the other hand, if she tries to bring in a feminine model, she might be dismissed as weak or incompetent. So women can get stuck in the middle, feeling pressure to be more "masculine" in order to advance, but not succeeding because their true style of leadership is different.
When we heal as women we can feel confident in our female modality and know we have something to offer. More and more women are making this choice, and now often they're choosing to leave the corporate world and start their own business so that they can be who they are.
In the epilogue of your book you state: "Our vision is beginning to shift from empowering the dreams and spirit of women to helping women embody their dreams and spirit. We realize that we now need to focus on embodiment -fully supporting women to be powerful women and leaders." How you envision Women of Wisdom facilitating this change of focus and direction?
I think we're shifting from simply giving women the tools to change, to inviting and providing opportunities for women to really live out their dreams and spirit, and express themselves as leaders. So it's not just training, but acknowledging and honoring what skills and gifts they have. It's knowing that the person, the leader, you want to be, is already inside you--inside all of us --and supporting that.
We want to ask women to be the leaders and cocreators in our world, not to step back and let others do it. Many women tend to be passive and let others take action. The time is now for all of us to contribute our gifts, not look for the leader to step forward, know that we are the leaders to come. When you see something that needs to be done, perhaps see that as that's your thing to do. When you bring an idea to a group, do you expect someone else to make it a reality? Smart groups say. "that's great, when would you like to start that?" Acknowledge that if you have an idea, it's the universe telling you to do it, not pass it on to others.
Also, I think we have to expand our view of leadership beyond what we normally think of--the one strong person making all the decisions. There are multiple ways to lead--they may not all be extremely visible, but they can still make an impact. You can lead by example, inviting others to join you, and you don't have to do it by yourself. You can do it as part of team and a circle.
How do you define "the Divine Feminine" and "Women's Spirituality"? What distinguishes it from "Men's Spirituality" or human spirituality in general?
The Divine Feminine is very diverse. It can be hard to describe because it is more intuitive--something you know but can't necessarily express in words. But I would say that it's main difference from a strictly masculine spirituality is that it honors females and children, and honors everyone's voices and emotions. Women's spirituality has to do with birth, creating peaceful solutions--the process is different and not so linear, but more intuitive. It's holistic. There's an acknowledgment that the body is sacred and not just the mind, which is the case with a lot of patriarchal religions that devalue the body.
In this critical time of war, economic recession, ecological crisis and food shortages, there are those who might consider a focus on women's consciousness raising and women's spirituality to be self indulgent. How do you respond to such criticism?
Given the situation we're in, it's more critical that women raise their consciousness and spirit to step into leadership to be part of the process of creating solutions. When we're working for the majority of people on the earth to be honored and respected, it's hardly self indulgent. As each o f one of us heals and grows, it impacts others so they can develop their potential and become more conscious of what is needed on our earth.
If the feminine was in balance on the earth plane, perhaps we wouldn't be at war, we'd be taking care of Mother Earth, and making sure all people were fed. We'd be talking, dialoguing for solutions rather than thinking our way is the only way and fighting to preserve our way. We'd have creative ways to resolve problems. It's not self indulgent to want a balance of the feminine, to feel heard and be an equal partner with the powers that control these things - war, economics, environmental issues, food, taking care of children. Our country has less women represented in government than some other western countries, and our record for taking care of the health of our children is lower than many western countries. If women were more represented in government, more focus would be put towards issues like these that will help everyone, particularly women and children. And if they are taken care of, men will benefit as well.
To learn more about Kris Steinnes and her new book Women of Wisdom: Empowering the Dreams and Spirit of Women, as well as the Women of Wisdom conference, visit www.womenofwisdom.org. Also check our ongoing Community Events Calendar in the Natural Choice Directory web page for future Women of Wisdom sponsored events.