At this year’s Women and Power Retreat at the Omega Institute, a non-profit organization that encourages well-being, Elizabeth Lesser welcomed this year’s guests and urged attendees, mostly women, to practice self-care as they care for the world.
As the institute’s cofounder and senior advisor, Lesser has spent much of her career helping women to be their best selves. Her understanding of the need for women to stand in a power of their own creation was informed at an early age. She was one of four daughters born to a bright and ambitious mother who sacrificed a career for motherhood, and a father, who like most men of his generation, was the dominant force in the family.
“We were four girls with a 1960s mom who had gone to college and was really, really smart and gave everything up to be a mom and to be a typical American, suburban housewife and it just didn’t work for her.” The rigid gender roles prescribed by society left an impact on Lesser. “My parent’s roles met up with the changing times of my own generation, and I was fortunate to be able to ask myself: Do I have the courage to know who I am, what I want, what my calling is? Will I follow my own values and destiny, or will I live as my mother did—invalidated and unempowered?”
It’s a question all women must ask—who are we outside of the roles and behavior culture ascribes to us as women? How do we want to identify ourselves? When we defy normative expectations and how will we be perceived? Are we strong enough to forge new territory?
As I spoke to Elizabeth Lesser, I admitted a sense of jealously that I felt the digitalization of activism was responsible for, and that the ways in which we mobilize the movement seems different, and less visible. She contested and explained as women in the 60s and 70s, “we were pushing against something very unequivocal. The starkness of women not really having the influence that we deserved was much more pronounced. So it gave something a little more real to push against. It’s less tangible right now for you. But don’t be jealous! Every era is important, meaningful, and demanding of courage.”
She’s right—we’ve come a long way, but there is still much work to be done. As Lesser says, “There are many places to make change. Whether it is in the family or the workplace or in the world at large, there are injustices to be righted, leadership to be taken, security and fairness to be demanded.” While some women are reaping the benefits of hundreds of years of the American feminist movement, others—living around the world and right here at home—are still struggling with basic human rights.
There is certainly nothing comfortable about fighting for social justice. There is no comfort in feminism, nor is it ever convenient. Lesser makes an argument for this discomfort, however.
“Stay in that discomfort…really, really feel it. It will fill your sails and lead you to be a part of the solution. For your own life and for women everywhere.”