As a woman involved in spirituality, every once in a while I’m asked what I think about female spirituality. I have always thought it a weird question and none of the books I have read about the topic have been particularly inspiring to me. Most people talking about the differences between men and women have very outdated views about what women are capable of. They will, for instance, likely be surprised and in awe at my being a licensed math and chemistry teacher.
However recently I have found that I do in fact have strong opinions on the differences between men and women on the spiritual path. Enough strong opinions that this is likely the first of a few articles about spirituality and gender.
So let me start the first of this (projected) series by saying that I think the biological differences between men and women don’t disqualify women from many professions. We are as likely to be smart enough to study math at a high level as men are, for instance. We are as likely as men are to have leadership skills. We are as likely as men to be able to learn to meditate and inspire people. And I would personally rather have a female doctor for female complaints than a male one. On the opposite side of the fence, I know most men can learn to be as skilled at taking care of children as women, though they may go about it differently.
In my opinion the differences between men and women are relevant, but also far less important than other differences between people. As a culture we should take into account that biology and socialization aren’t as easy to distinguish as we think. That said, I do think there are differences between men and women and how they apply to spiritual growth and here are some starting points.
The following is – as any talk of gender must be – highly generalizing. I hope you all realize I don’t think all men are like I describe here. Nor are all women.
Feminist anthropologists have noted that perhaps the greatest risk in spiritual growth for men is arrogance, whereas for women it is a lack of self-confidence. If that is true – and I think it is (whether due to socialization or biology is hardly important) – it makes a HUGE difference on the spiritual path. Where the traditional teacher will warn against pride, women in the audience (usually the majority) will use that to increase their lack of self-confidence, all the while thinking that they are working on humility. In the meantime men in the audience will likely think it doesn’t apply to them.
When the traditional teacher talks about anger and hatred, women will use that teaching to fight the small germs of independence that might otherwise flower into genuine opinion. They may face up to the ways in which their energy does get charged with aggression and suppress that energy more, instead of figuring out how to confidently, patiently and calmly stand up for what they believe in. The men in the meantime may actually use it to learn to listen and be more patient, something most women have trained at all their lives.
Men are generally better at concentration than women. It makes them likely to be highly focused on tasks once they have decided they need doing and more capable of ignoring other things going on in their lives. One man I know finished his PhD while his first child was a baby, for instance. His wife, also working on her PhD, gave it up and went into college level teaching when the children were no longer infants.
Women are generally better at taking in all sides in a situation. They’re likely to see the mess in the sink, the child needing a wash, and take into account the upcoming dinner. At best our wisdom is all-encompassing. At worst we are scattered creatures. Men at their worst will continue working on his project even while the house falls down around him.
Women usually have more social skills than men. We are also, I think, more likely to have a basic capacity for self-reflection. Men with a lack of empathy will often stand out like a sore thumb when you first meet them. Women with that same lack (and yes, they do exist) will generally come across as functioning normally at first and you won’t notice their limitations until a situation comes up where the difference between empathy and social skill is essential.
I hope it is clear that I don’t think the difference between men and women has anything to do with the womb. Nor is it a way of rationalizing socialized gender-expectations. Instead I think the different challenges women and men face on their spiritual path can enrich all of us. Ultimately the aim is the same for all: growing in compassion and wisdom, balance and inner strength.
Related: Does Biology determine who we are?