Woman on the Threshold

By Ida Postma
I hold that if women were rightly placed today or if they had rightly placed themselves, realizing their deeper potentialities, their divine possibilities, and their sacred mission -- the world would not be so "all awry." There would be better cooperation between women and men, a better understanding of each other's natures, and a new line of higher living for both. This must come about if the dream of world-reconstruction is to be made a living fact. -- Katherine Tingley (1847-1929)

The year 1975, already in its waning, is the year of the woman, culminating in the U.N.-sponsored International Women's Year Conference in Mexico City last June. Remarkable for some tempestuous sessions, this event was soon overshadowed in the headlines by topics of greater importance. The world population generally has probably been but dimly aware that this year was dedicated to what is roughly half its number. Yet the feminist movement, now supported by at least as many men as women, has been vastly instrumental in the emancipation of the female sex since the middle of the nineteenth century. Initially the focus of hot controversy, for several decades its activities have, at least outwardly, been less flamboyant, and public attention is currently diverted to the Women's Liberation Movement, a group of activist organizations colloquially known as Women's Lib.

In the early 'sixties, her extensive research convinced founder Betty Friedan that commercial interest had created a false image of femininity that forced many women into the exclusive role of housewife and mother, to the neglect of careers they had trained for and, in some cases, to the detriment of health and sanity. Her book, The Feminine Mystique, instantly struck fire in thousands, of "unfulfilled" educated women, "trapped in the comfortable concentration camps" of the American middle-class home. Henceforth they wished not just to be emancipated, but to be liberated from the inferior position allotted to womanhood.

Woman's chances for self-expression, as history shows, have indeed been limited most of the time. Bearing and rearing offspring and serving her husband were deemed her true functions, with little thought to her intellectual or higher creative potential. Opportunities gradually have begun to open up only in the last hundred years or so. Although much social and political progress had been achieved by the late 'forties, a hangover of psychological attitudes prompted Simone de Beauvoir, French author and existentialist, to write an encompassing study of woman, The Second Sex. Her verdict is dismal: from the moment a small girl is dressed up in frills and flounces to prevent her from freely romping with her brothers, society inexorably molds her for her future role. Less powerful of physique than the male, emotionally and mentally conditioned by her upbringing, finally, so de Beauvoir claims, she can only "assume her relationship to man as a slave to his master." She may enjoy some advance compared to her grandmother, but her psyche is still indelibly branded with the age-old marks of inferiority.

Since this work was published, the sexual revolution, the counterculture and women's liberation have sounded their battle cries. Far from bringing solutions, the impact of these waves of change has left many women -- and men -- more confused than before. Young people are often quietly resettling in the old patterns after an overdose of upheaval and 'freedom.' Although most families are not disturbed by the hubbub, and millions of mothers and housewives would not trade domesticity for a career, ours is a time of transition, when hardly a facet of society remains unprobed -- whether or not we feel personally involved. One cannot help thinking that humanity is going through a reorientation process, so that it may enter a new age with fewer trammels and prejudices.

The socioeconomic and political ramifications of the feminist problem are, we believe, more suitably and profitably dealt with on their own platforms, where also the required practical steps can be taken. That such concrete measures are necessary is undeniable. Since social conditions, however, are the reflections of the ideas and ideals of a nation or culture, injustice in any area is in the final analysis the result of a philosophy of life that is awry. Therefore, instead of patching up existing wrongs, our endeavors will be targeted more effectively if we first examine and, when called for, modify prevailing thought patterns; for, having gone to the core of a problem, improvement becomes a matter of time and implementation.

On any particular issue we gain the broadest perspective when we see it in the light of the universal wisdom-tradition, that body of truths represented in the beliefs of many peoples, be they long since vanished, as the ancient Egyptians and Mayans, or contemporaneous, such as the Oriental nations, the American Indians, Polynesians or the tribes of Africa. Much interpretive material is contained in modern theosophical literature, which not only provides useful keys but clearly shows the common system of thought as the base of nearly all these religions and mythologies, much as different branches of a tree derive their vitality from the main trunk.

Against this larger frame of reference, it soon becomes clear that one of the foremost causes of misconception regarding the sexes is the West's myopic view of the real nature of humankind; for both Christianity and modern science agree that man is a one-time phenomenon, though the former does grant him a static and eternal afterlife. In either case, whether that single lifetime is spent as a man or woman, colors it heavily. But while the human race as God's creation was held to be endowed with spirit and soul, once materialism had severed the bond with the Maker, sex drives and urges were substituted as the source of even the noblest characteristics. Consequently the body and the lower psychological aspects have been taken more and more for the whole person, making sex of paramount importance.

The universal wisdom, on the other hand, considers man a composite of different qualities of consciousness of which those most spiritual constitute the inner man. Since this unit could not express itself on our globe without intermediary means, it uses the mental-emotional energies (which we may call the personality), as well as some energy fields of still less refinement, which parapsychology is now beginning to discover and designate by such names as energy-body, bioplasmic body. The physical body is merely the outermost shell. The nontransient element that learns its lessons on earth in a refrain of death and renewal, is sexless, or as the Bible phrases it more poetically: "In Heaven there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage." Whether it is born in a male or female body is a matter of attraction and of the destiny to be fulfilled in that incarnation. After a number of lives in one sex, nature's urge for equilibrium will make the magnetic pull of the opposite pole irresistible, and a change will take place. The real self is never guided by human preferences; from its impersonal vantage point, there is equal value to experience gained as a man or as a woman.

But not only do we human beings embody in either form, the forms themselves are a passing phase, for the sacred literatures frequently hint that originally the race was sexless, then became asexual, still later hermaphrodite, finally to divide into sexes. Plato in his "Symposium," for instance, spoke of a round being with four arms and four legs and two faces. One day Zeus, as this double creature had turned against the gods, split it into two, "as one would divide an egg with a hair" a feat of mythic surgery that naturally chagrined the now incomplete halves. In the end, Father Jove in his pity reshaped each into a whole unit, providing it also with the appropriate procreative organs. In this droll anecdote, seemingly told to amuse the merry company, the Greek sage actually alluded to knowledge taught in Mystery schools of all times and places, classic Hellas not excluded.

Even now, the division line between the sexes is not absolute. Biologists have long suspected that the mammals (including man) may have been hermaphrodite, and we still unite in ourselves both characteristics, one latent and the other predominant. Psychologically this is just as true, for both the super he-man without a trace of gentleness and sensitivity, though often the hero of novel and screen, and the romantic ideal of the sweet, helpless maiden devoid of character or will, are in real life unbearable. The best men and women carry a healthy dose of the attributes of the other sex in them.

If our current condition has evolved from previous forms, by the same token aeons hence the human race may change once more, and develop outer shape and reproductive methods very different from the present one. These metamorphoses are but the outer expressions of man's inherent bipolarity at varying stages of his evolution.

Sexuality as we know it -- and which we have deeply profaned -- is in reality at this point in time the vehicle of our duality and as such a reflection of the very nature of the cosmos. While in the beginning there was only the sexless, unknowable THAT, at the first moment of manifestation there is duality. Invariably described as male and female, or spirit and matter, these poles are complementary and mutually dependent for the creation of their progeny: the universe and all it contains. After Lao-Tzu had "voyaged to the World's Beginning" in deep meditation, he gave this graphic description to Confucius:

"I saw Yin, the Female Energy in its motionless grandeur; I saw Yang, the male Energy, rampant in its fiery vigor. The motionless grandeur came up out of the earth: the fiery vigor burst out from heaven. The two penetrated one another, were inextricably blended and from their union the things of the world were born." -- Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, Arthur Waley, Doubleday Anchor Books.

Even at this cosmic level there may appear to be discrimination, because spirit is regarded as male, active and therefore superior, while matter, female and passive, can only be viewed as inferior. But this is to apply a human yardstick to universal principles whose grand nature is beyond our finite comprehension. In actuality, any distinction between the two is arbitrary, for spirit cannot be without matter to express itself, nor does matter lack spirituality, but rather do the two ever intermingle.

Sages and teachers of mankind, in an endeavor to make abstruse metaphysical concepts understandable, frequently couched them in similes taken from daily life. Those who did not have the key to the heavily allegorical texts of the world's sacred scriptures, could interpret them only on the exoteric level. Since the terminology of love and marriage often served to express esoteric truths, it is obvious that this caused misapprehension also in respect to the relationship of the sexes. The mystery language, for instance, in which the New Testament was written, used certain words to designate certain aspects of the constitution. "Woman" thereby signified the emotional nature of the soul and "man" the mental or reasoning faculties. Thus a somewhat deprecatory text: "Let a woman learn in quietness with all subjection. But I permit not a woman to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness," (Tim. 2:11) had the esoteric meaning: "The emotion-nature must be subject to the dictates of the reasoning mind (man), or truth, justice, equity, peace, mercy, are suppressed in the soul. The emotion-nature must assert itself in an orderly manner, but it is not its function to lead and teach." (Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myths, G. A. Gaskell, p. 822) Similar distortions of outlook must have abounded, especially in times of degeneration when the spirit of religion, and therefore of scriptural passages, was obscured or purposely misconstrued.

It is the established view that during practically all historic and prehistoric times the male sex was dominant, except for an occasional period of matriarchy. These premises are based on the slim spectrum of some six to ten thousand years of known development, fragmented archaeological evidence and anthropological data on current still "savage" populations. But since many of our present-day underdeveloped peoples speak languages of a remarkably complicated structure, and sometimes are the repository of archaic spiritual riches, instead of primitives on the way up the technological ladder, they may well be the survivors of once blooming cultures -- their disregard for worldly goods notwithstanding. In some cases this supposition is confirmed by a study of their moral codes that are of a high standard, and the astonishing fact that the originators of their marriage customs were evidently familiar with heredity and eugenics. Most impressive, however, is the sacredness in which the bond between man and woman is held. Procreation being intrinsically a religious act, it should not be undertaken lightly but approached with reverence. Mere shamanism never could have brought forth such a cosmos-oriented quality, nor could woman be a voiceless sex object in systems obviously inspired by universal wisdom.

The primal truths, though restated from age to age, are immutable, as they have their origin in the laws of the cosmos itself. In the meandering course of its evolution humanity might temporarily ignore these laws, but in more enlightened eras when it did live by their wisdom, there was a recognition of the balance of male and female forces all through the universe; in fact, the whole order of society was patterned on this cosmic prototype.

Wedded to empiricism as we are, it is hard to conceive of such a metaphysical state of mind and of affairs. However, nature's principles operate heedless of our acknowledgment and when we violate them we bear the consequences. Therefore, we may have to learn to obey them and adjust our life-style accordingly, if we are to create better conditions for a new age. That this would include a restoration of the long-disturbed equilibrium between the sexes is obvious. It could well be one of the major challenges confronting our culture, but it might also mean a big step forward.

Social and political emancipation of woman by itself will not suffice -- nor will the kind of 'liberation' that does not go beyond the lower psyche. It will involve a true "consciousness raising," in the sense of a spiritual reevaluation on the part of both men and women. For we will have to look for the gravity point of ourselves in the governing consciousness, and identify with those higher aspects. Instead of an isolated lump of protoplasm, floating fortuitously through the empty vastness of space, man is a child of the universe and shares in every way in its inscrutable but elevated purposes. The implications of this viewpoint are profoundly equalizing, leaving no room for either inferiority or superiority, be it of birth, color, creed or sex, or any of the other purely man-made differentiations.

Once our emphasis has shifted, we begin to see the matter of sex more in its proper proportion. Though no longer a dominant factor in our life, it is a channel of expression for the higher self. As such we should neither deny our nature nor try to transform it into something it is not, but if we use it wisely it will help bring out to the full the quality of human experience.

Woman, who has so much to contribute in every field of endeavor, will make that contribution most valuable if she will imbue it with her own unique gifts. Her rightful dignity regained, the traits long deemed typically hers -- the pettiness, wiles, moods and senseless tears, those weapons of the weak -- will be hers no more. She will be free to be most truly herself and cultivate the higher octave of femininity: gentleness that can be strong at the same time; motherliness, which on a less personal level manifests as compassion; and that direct insight into people and situations -- intuition -- that has its taproot in the spirit.

Conscious of her true worth, woman would share her insights with man for she can supply values that he, unbeknownst to himself perhaps, has been looking for but failed to find in the absence of her inner confidence and maturity. Instead of competition for leadership, there would be a powerful exchange, a mutual strengthening and understanding, and a blending of what is best in both of them. Even in our complex and mechanistic society, man and woman can have an adumbration of sacredness in the knowledge that their relationship is, at its core, a reflection of the workings of the universe. When such perceptions reawaken in more and more people, finally society itself would reap the beneficial results, for it might come a little closer to that "world-reconstruction" that has been the dream of all the leading spirits of humanity.

Perhaps this whole cold and harsh world of ours is yearning for woman to take the first step and cross that threshold to greater awareness.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, October 1975. Copyright © 1975 by Theosophical University Press)

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