Our planet is seriously out of balance. Just look around: environmental destruction, war, poverty, disease, famine, and power run amok. Nina Simons, a truly original thinker and longtime social entrepreneur, believes we need to elevate the aspects of our natures that traditionally have been considered feminine in order to restore balance. Nina is a living example of how the feminine can transform our businesses, our society, our relationships, and our lives. She’s also a close friend, and we have spent many hours together thinking out loud.
You can see the principles of the feminine at work in Bioneers, the nonprofit she runs with her husband, Kenny Ausubel (bioneers.org). It is one of the best sources of hope I know. Bioneers’ work is growing at the speed of mushrooms after a rain; new projects include satellite conferences, a radio show, and a book series. The group describes its mission as promoting “practical environmental solutions and innovative social strategies for restoring the earth and communities.” In practice, that mission takes the shape of gathering, informing, and inspiring networks of innovators who share the belief that the best way to heal both environmental and social ills is to begin with the wisdom and principles of nature. The two Ninas talked over tea (alas, long distance).—Nina Utne
Nina Utne: I’ve heard you say that you see the world through gender-colored lenses. Why do you see things that way?
Nina Simons: About 10 years ago I saw a documentary film called The Burning Times, which told the story of the 500-year period throughout most of Europe when many women were accused of being witches and killed. Huge numbers of women were tortured and burned at the stake. I was shocked to the core to learn about this momentous event, which I saw as a root cause of our culture’s disease. It seemed to awaken an ancient memory in me.
I began to research, discovering a rich vein of thinking and writing that has informed my perspective, and I learned of several interesting correlations. Prior to this period, women owned more property and had more wealth. Before, women were the healers, the midwives, and the herbalists. Afterward, only men were permitted to practice medicine. During this era many pagan and indigenous traditions were driven underground with the rise of Christianity. I came to see the “burning times” as the hidden history of women and a shadow history of our culture.
I started to see the world differently as I recognized the full extent to which all of the characteristics, values, and qualities that have been associated with the "feminine" have been systematically devalued and denigrated in our culture. Attention to process, relationship building, empathy, intuition, and the collective wisdom of groups have all been chronically derided. I saw that in every social system, and throughout all our relationships, our idolization of “masculine” values has gotten us into trouble. Actions that are decisive, that assert certainty, heroic individualism, aggressiveness, rationalism, and single-minded obsession have been lauded.
I came to understand many of our challenges, including environmental degradation, social injustice, and corporate globalization, as expressions of the gross imbalance between what our culture has identified as “masculine” and “feminine” qualities. I saw that a greater emergence of the healthy feminine throughout our world might help achieve the balance that can restore our social and environmental systems.
NU: How has that worldview translated into your personal practice?
NS: Once I started seeing the world as a dance between complementary qualities, I began to seek in myself traits that might be authentic to a healthy feminine, as well as those that would be authentic to a healthy masculine. While these definitions are continually evolving, there’s great potential for them to heal how we see ourselves and the ways we hold ourselves accountable. We all carry twisted definitions from what we’ve been taught are the “masculine” and the “feminine.”
NU: Can you describe those stereotypes, as you see them?
NS: In a nutshell, we are taught that men are strong and women are weak. Men are purposeful; women are frivolous. Men are rational; women are emotional. Men are aggressive; women are passive. Men are competitive; women are collaborative. One challenge for women over the past few decades has been learning to be strong in the world without adopting a perverted and unhealthy masculine archetype.
NU: It strikes me that the feminine holds a different relationship to power. How do you see that?
NS: Part of that malformed masculine includes a false definition of power. The relationship to power that I aspire to is “power through” and “power with,” not the “power over” that relies on brute strength and dominance. You have to practice humility; you have to remember that the power is not yours. A more feminine definition of power is embodied in the idea of relationships. The more we are connected to each other, to our communities, and to the natural world, the more that power is available to us.
NU: So are you talking about strengthening the feminist to a place of balance with the masculine, both within each of us individually and ultimately in our institutions and social systems?
NS: Yes, exactly. The challenge of how to restore the feminine really comes down to how we restore relationships. At the same time, we need to restore the healthy masculine, which for me has qualities of benevolence and generosity, a playful, flirtatious kind of trickster character, as well as desire, purposefulness, and a capacity for focus and action.
For me, this is a two-part effort: One part is how we, as women, strengthen our voices and our capacity to change the world. The other is how we help everyone regain a balanced, healthy relationship of feminine and masculine, so that we can all become better humans.
NU: Can you share something of your own learning about this gender-balancing process?
NS: On a personal level, I used to believe that a key reason I wasn’t being more public in my work was that my husband was so public, or because he was holding me back. But when I thought about it, I recognized that I was projecting what had limited me—mostly my own fear—onto him. I realized that this was a story I told myself and was not at all substantiated by his behavior.
This realization has sparked recognition of what I call the internalized patriarchy, which is the voice that puts me down before I even start, saying, “You won’t be good enough” or “You’d better not try that, because you might fail.” For me, part of cultivating a healthy feminine means recognizing that if I don’t stretch and make mistakes, I won’t learn as much.
NU: Can you describe how you see this gender rebalancing manifesting in businesses and social organization?
NS: In our work with Bioneers, we see the environment as the mother of all issues and Bioneers as a network of networks that has a life of its own. We have grown it by treating it as a living system. This process involves practicing a feminine principle of relational intelligence. We may chart a course, but we also seek to cultivate active feedback loops, to hear about and learn from what’s working and what’s not, to stay responsive. Sometimes we lead; other times we follow. We try to practice humility and openness, and we set a premium on learning. We operate from the premise that any healthy relationship is based upon mutual respect and reciprocity, that it must serve the good of all concerned in order to be a viable solution.
NU: How would you describe leading from the feminine?
NS: Business gurus are now touting feminine leadership styles, as they often result in lowering employee turnover and improving creativity and innovation while benefiting the financial bottom line. Of course, one paradox is that some female leaders have simply mimicked “masculine” styles of leadership and so perpetuate the status quo. At its best, feminine leadership, which is available to men and women alike, often includes placing a greater value on process. It involves heightened recognition of the value of people’s relationships and contributions. It assigns a high priority to relationships, learning, beauty, flexibility, celebration, collective intelligence, vulnerability, transparency, intuition, and humility.
NU: You’ve talked about moving from fear into fierceness. Can you describe how that might work?
NS: A few years ago, Diane Wilson, whose dazzling memoir of battling polluters in her home town just came out, said that she knows she’s on track when she can smell her fear—and she heads straight for it. When I first heard that I didn’t really know what to make of it. But recently I’ve cultivated a different relationship to my own fear and I’m learning not to give it decision-making authority. In fact, my fears often indicate where my deepest feelings lie.
For example, I’ve learned I have a fear of revealing myself, of taking a passionate stand that reveals my vulnerability or that might make me a public target. Given the urgency of the times we live in, that fear is something I feel a need to overcome. When I stand up and speak publicly and invest myself fully in what I care about most deeply, then my own fierceness emerges in alignment with my purpose.
What we’re all being called to do in this time—and we need a balance of our best masculine and best feminine to do it in the most effective way—is to make a stand on behalf of what we love most passionately and most deeply, to encourage the mama bear in each of us to instinctively and fiercely respond to the urgent call to act in defense of life. For me, that’s where the transition from fear into fierceness takes place, right at the intersection of the masculine and the feminine.