Revisiting Helen Luke’s The Way of Woman: Awakening the Perennial Feminine

Kimberly and Jane revisit Helen Luke’s effort to rout out, in her time, a woman’s hidden vein of self-criticism as she competed for accomplishment in society. They aim, one more time, to free the feminine to flow openly into the full appreciation that’s needed to balance the masculine in our world today.

In reading this book of essays published in 1996 before Helen Luke’s death, I was struck poignantly by her message about the state of women in a post-feminist society. The book is a call for women to reconnect with their inherent femininity after largely disconnecting from it through a determination to be equal to men. In fact, she posits that women had strived so hard to prove that they could be (as good as) men, that they’d lost touch with their own unique gifts that could be brought to the table.

 It’s a powerful insight, provocative and courageous. Luke addresses the puzzle of dissatisfaction so many women feel, having gained so much yet left feeling so empty. We pushed off from our mothers who, we thought, suffered from being tied down by the ropes of domesticity. To bring to light that we failed to find happiness because we weren’t on our own side, that we had, in spite of ourselves, found ourselves guilty of being female and were blaming ourselves, holding ourselves in contempt, was a revelation. And it was something we could do something about. That’s the gift of her insight.

Yes, she shows us how our quest for equality had challenged a society in which the world was still unbalanced in its expectation of the male to rule, as a be all and end all, and in doing that, the false delusion that women had “won” some prestigious stance as equal had indeed accomplished the opposite, in stripping women of what really makes them powerful.

Well, it did make us powerful. It was more a matter of taking a look at what we were doing with that power. It was quite a discovery to find out that we entered a world where there was no childcare. Though that wasn’t the time to blame ourselves, we did. We should’ve been able to do it all. Smart, we enlisted the men in our lives to help but they too found the judgment against the feminine leveled at them. Men I worked with bore a strike against them for taking their children to the dentist. “Where was their wife?” The tasks labeled ‘female’ were discounted whether performed by men or women. Oddly, as we’ve become a service industry country, the problem may be finally heading toward transformation. But I digress. We, we as women, didn’t quite realize we were in a battle to balance the whole world. We just thought we had to find our place in it.

Eschewing the internal for the external was causing an undertone of something being lost, and even though women were outwardly achieving the same heights as men, there was left an underlying sense of emptiness. I am interested in discussing this, and also, if we’ve seen any evidence in the last 20 years since this book was written, in our culture, that the feminine has been able to reemerge in the ways that Luke champions should occur in order to restore a more masculine/feminine balance in our midst.

Women are smart. They didn’t and don’t just trade one for the other. They, as you and I have, aimed at an integration of love and work, fighting the good fight to – over and over again – affirm the value of the feminine in every area of life they were in. It took many forms…still does. It’s definitely not an overnight thing. Perhaps that’s the point. Women are above ground now, on the move and being reckoned with. I can remember when the way women psychologists talked was dismissed, not deemed appropriate for academic discussion much less a basis for clinical intervention. Imagine, in a field about the inner world and relationships, women were the lesser, not the greater experts! That’s Luke’s subtle reference. She saw that condemnation of the feminine was built into the way the psyche was regarded in society. And she gave ideas about how to rectify it. Delve into the way C.G. Jung defined animus and get it straight. The animus in a woman is a bridge to accomplishment in the external world, not to be mistaken for a role model. Don’t identify with the masculine, integrate it.

 What do you think about this?

On page 5, Luke states, “Meanwhile, the reflecting, the rebending in search of the beautiful form, must be worked at consciously little by little, again and again, without pride in achievement, without despair in failure. Indeed, then, out of our sight the seed may sprout, the flower may be drawn upward to the light of the sun, and the roots may reach down into the soil to the waters under the earth; and then at last water, sun, soil, seed and flower and the fruit of human consciousness itself—all become the humus of God; and so humility can be born.”

Despite her use of the term “God,” I am intrigued by Luke’s championing of going back inside to search for the “beautiful,” that in doing so, we may slowly start to water the feminine spirit again so that it may emerge with humility to counteract its earlier erasure.

She’s emphasizing the need and importance of inner work. To keep yourself straight in the outer world, have an organizing principle that acts as a guide regardless of activity. We need to feel the connection to our core feminine self and value it. I used to think of valuing the feminine as strengthening a muscle; you’ve got to work at it. We’d like the attention we get from the outer world to mean we’ve valued our core selves but we know better. We have to depend on ourselves and conversations with others, women, and men, to tease out the truth. Once we’ve got the connection, we don’t lose it. We may misplace it but, once we know it emotionally and organically, we’ve got it. The difficulty of feeling alone with one’s truth – well, I don’t know, what do you think? Does it ever go away?

I don’t think it ever goes away. But we need to be okay with expressing it out from within us, not just muffling it inside. On page 12, Luke says it nicely: “…and real liberation from the weight of the inferior status imposed on women lies not in the reiterated assertion that women must now strive to be like men, but in the affirmation, so difficult for us, of the equal value of the specifically feminine.”

I’d go a little further – I think we need the feminine to gain recognition as heroic. A piece I wrote on “The Feminine Hero in The Silence of the Lambs” discussed how the film affirmed feminine qualities – intuition, relatedness, empathy, engagement, responsiveness, to cite a few –within the archetype of the Hero. Intuition is being valued in more and more detective type stories, with female as well as male protagonists, in conjunction with the familiar Sherlock Holmesian, masculinized high IQ. I think we are seeing changes. C.G. Jung said inferior meant the less used, not the less valued set of character traits.

But what does “specifically feminine” mean? If we strip away the traits that have been constructed and imposed onto women by the context of cultural mores or patriarchal society, and rely more on universal themes, we find terms such as: gentleness, empathy, sensitivity, caring, sweetness, compassion, tolerance, nurturance, a wise and discerning ability toward deference (not in a self-deprecating way but in a wise, mediating way), and succorance. Courage, independence, and assertiveness are commonly associated with men. In Luke’s woman, all sets of traits would be equally integrated into a full person, rather than just the masculine.

I think this turns our conversation toward the personal. It’s not the qualities per se but the felt sense of the quality that counts for me. Do I feel it as an integral part of myself and what attitude do I have toward it in myself versus another, in particular a man. If I sense I’m being critical of a trait, I have Luke to thank for getting me to take a closer look. Am I being true to myself or making a deal that will help me accomplish a goal in the outer world? I was once part of a woman’s group that aimed to conquer the difficulty women had making money and assuring security for themselves. The woman who was best at the stock market had little patience with our conversations. For her, it was ‘just do it’. The rest of us struggled with a vague internal conflict that pitted us against ourselves. Making money, somehow, disqualified us as women. It was as if we were betraying ourselves. Now there’s a condemnation in the psyche that’s got to go. It’s what one does with money, not that one has money that is important. Talk about a misguided collusion with a world out of balance! There are many of these lying around, waiting to be routed out, brought into the open and put in right perspective…woman by woman, perhaps. It’s that inner world thing.

Have we seen any examples in popular culture over the last 20 years in which a strong woman exhibited leadership or heroine status utilizing a strong balance of feminine and male traits?

Sure, and men too. When I reviewed the film, Philomena, I was more impressed with the real woman than the woman portrayed in the film. She went to Washington, D.C., got laws changed and made a difference. I’d say that was using her animus for good, never losing her sense of self and giving us an idea of how the feminine looks when she’s working. How about Elizabeth Warren? In a way, it’s actually easier to see evidence in the outer world than the inner. Yet, I believe, they go together.

Luke goes on to give an example of a woman who had catapulted herself to the top of her career, who had come to in fact “have it all,” but who was inwardly depressed and unhappy. This woman had followed the course of her feminist sisters to prove her equality and had in every sense of the word, achieved it, but had done so at the denial of her femininity. She took a hiatus from her prestigious position and went back inside to rediscover all that had once given her joy, although unfettered by accolade. In order to do this, she experienced a break from her ego and re-emerged to create life again on her own terms. This process led her to find prestige again, but in a newly formed container of her own making that integrated the feminine and she finally found happiness if not all the outward acclaim.

She states of this woman, on page 22, “She, then, had returned to her earth as best she could. At first, she felt clumsy, inept, moving in an alien element. Yet she persevered through all her doubts and consented with receptive devotion to employ her animus on work that brought no sense of achievement, to the making of those childlike pictures and fantasies, called by Jung active imagination, which seem to the rational mind entirely pointless.”

Then on page 23 she cites, “Marie-Louise von Franz, in her studies of the feminine in fairy tales, points out how frequently the way of the heroine involves a considerable time of withdrawal from the world, which for us means introversion, when she must go apart and endure the suffering of the silent waiting for the time of her deliverance. “

 The damndest problem is that we know the waiting that Marie-Louise von Franz talks about is not likely to be over in our lifetime…well, not mine. Our granddaughters? Since I have grandsons, I wish it for them too. Validation from the outer world is important and, at least from my work and my life, if I modify MLF’s big word ‘deliverance’ to ‘sightings’, I can lend my voice to her perspective. I have had moments of knowing I’m being seen without feeling the fear of being pushed back under. Better, I know I can stand my ground and not lose my footing because I’m on my own side, after a long life of exercising my belief in being feminine as not only good for me and those I love but absolutely necessary to our planet continuing to spin on its axis.

 I see this feminine withdrawal from the world in the movie Tracks about a girl who wanted nothing to do with her father’s business, but who wanted to be alone with nature and the camels, and to accomplish her journey on her own terms. Can you speak to that?

Absolutely. But this conversation is getting long. How about if I send folks off to my Vimeo link and see if that leads us to another edition of this subject? Girls are amazing. Tracks is based on a true story – you were asking about real life women 20 years after Luke. The Camel Lady is one. But she’s also an avatar for the ancient Persephone whose story of withdrawal got short shrift when the men (the Greek gods) took over, rescued her and never let her tell how she came back from the Underworld. We see her return in Tracks, in our modern century when women are telling their stories of how they’re affirming their feminine as resilient and ready for the challenges ahead.

Moving forward to today, in our world of 2017, we hear the word synchronicity being bandied about regularly. Luke writes in the book, “The synchronicity is impressive; always it is manifest when the spirit is truly at work.” She meant that when a woman relies on the calling within her rather than the calling projected upon her from external forces, then something magical has room to occur. It seems we are beginning to grasp this concept today in the realm of self-help. What do you think?

I think you’ve put your finger on the spirit of hope.

I am reminded of the lovely film Amelie (2001), in which we see Audrey Tatou go about her life in a whimsically, joyous fashion propelled by her delightfully feminine spirit. Yes, she is independent. She lives by herself, supports herself via a job at a local coffee shop, and is certainly, by all means, courageous in her day-to-day life. Though she derives a certain pleasure in composing small adventures meant to either help people (fall in love, rediscover the spark of life, recover from broken hearts) or to realize their shadow behaviors and somehow be brought forth into the light.

 I’m going back and take another look at this film. I have to admit. I like to believe that the pieces of an unseen puzzle of our lives are falling into place and that we don’t have to be working at it all the time to make it happen. It’s a little like the koan question of whether a tree makes a noise when it falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear. Are our lives taking some natural form without our tending – or, perhaps, in spite of our tending? Amelie certainly suggests, and by the fact that she’s a she, that there’s a feminine force afoot keeping us all on the right track even when we see no footprints in the sand. And when I’m a bit too immersed in the ‘suffering of silent waiting’, I think it just to exercise my muscle, strengthen my connection to a rhythm beyond my ability to fathom.

Amelie is all about this connection to natural rhythm. She operates from moment to moment compelled by the love of the world. Her selflessness is not sacrificial and her heart is not in need of anything missing and yet, in the end, she discovers love borne from the fruits of her compassionate efforts, leading her to one of her own kind.

Helen Luke describes this sort of woman who does not seek a man to make her happy as one to whom which, “Maintaining sociability without intimacy is the only right attitude…because otherwise, we should not be free to enter into relationship with people of our own kind. In our terms, to reveal ourselves, our thoughts and feelings to someone who does not understand our basic values is not only pointless—it exposes us to invasion by superficial attitudes and literally corrupts or steals away our energy, dissipating it, or imprisoning it, so that we have nothing left to give to the true relationship.”

 Well, she’s after that social imperative again. She wants to break a woman’s worth away from being with a man, away from fulfilling a role in the patriarchal scheme of things. It’s truly something courageous to challenge oneself to envision a world beyond the one we live in. As a writer of fiction, you know how challenging yet rewarding this is. Perhaps, however, writers have figured out a way to suffer less in withdrawal? I’m making a joke but, perhaps, it’s a joke with teeth. Maybe new visions are birthed from a void created by the gap between participation and alone?

I am a firm believer in that void, a place to be jumped into often in one’s life to shake familiarity and the status quo from our shoulders and to find solace in silence and see what new voice emerges from that silence.

On page 103, Luke states, “an old myth grows into contemporary relevance through the imagination of an individual expressing the unconscious need of his or her time.”

To Luke in 1996, this meant the myth that women needed to be like men to gain equality. I think that myth is dying. We saw a backlash of this in Hilary Clinton. The minute she gained a modicum of power in our cultural psyche she abandoned her headband, cut off her hair, donned her pantsuit, presented a cold and stoic poise in the face of her husband’s infidelity, and turned into a shark for business. This transformation hurt her in the end, and us, as we were delivered Donald Trump and his voiceless, model wife in return. Is there hope in this backlash for a new myth to emerge? Do we have any current examples in our popular culture of women who are successfully straddling connection with both the anima and animus?

Okay, if I let go of Luke talking about myth as if it’s not real, a lie, a fabrication in the service of society, then I can address how “an old myth grows into contemporary relevance through the imagination”. The lie is that women need to be like men to succeed. The mythic myth is that women work in mysterious ways, taking vengeance on men who betray them by starving the earth and forcing the return of respect for the feminine, the ground in which seeds germinate. The humus, the humility for the creation of life on earth. Look beyond individual women to the uprising of voices calling for attention to be paid to people, to the quality of people’s lives, to who the machine serves. What Trump has done, inadvertently, is upset the apple cart of progress without scrutiny. Let’s hope the witch is loose.

Luke explains that “There can be no awareness of the uniting myth without this battle to discriminate and to separate, but if women leave this work to the animus disconnected from their womanhood, then they never glimpse their true story.”

I’m for glimpses. I’ll take whatever I can get. It took me a lifetime to grow up my animus and I’m enjoying a little maturity. But then, it’s a long life and I’m still being surprised. That’s a good thing.

Suggested Complementary Reading List:
Composing A Life
, Mary Catherine Bateson
Goddesses in Every Woman, Jean Shinoda Bolen
Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, Susan Griffin
Way of All Women & Women’s Mysteries, M.E. Harding
Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun
The Pregnant Virgin, Marion Woodman




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