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Sacred Marriage, or What Do Men and Women Really Want?

Winter in Wisconsin lasts too long. When Beltane finally arrives, I emerge from my heavy winter coat to feel the soft air envelop me like a lover's embrace, just as the colors and smells and sounds of life inundate me with sensory stimuli. No wonder the ancients celebrated the sacred marriage at this time of year; it may be the most sensual season we experience in the temperate northern hemisphere.

I love Beltane just as I love the season it celebrates. In pre-Christian Europe this holiday marked the union of the earth goddess with her lover, the god of vegetation. In order to celebrate the season, a May Queen and King embodied the goddess and her consort in May Day festivities. The Jack-of-the-Green, as the May King was known in England, made love with the Queen of the May in order to insure that summer came and with it the weather needed for the survival of the village.

If you believe the folklore, other men and women also went out into the woods or up on the mountaintops to have sex, or in earlier versions, to roll in the fields in order to guarantee the fertility of the crops. Many of these couples were not necessarily married nor even heterosexual. In fact, Jack, the god of vegetation, gave his name to any children born nine months after Beltane who didn't have visible fathers. These "Jacksons" were presumed to be especially blessed, as perhaps their descendents are today.

While Beltane's customs brought men and women together in ways that were unusual the rest of the year, as members of a traditional society they interacted in ways that were probably much less complicated than male-female relations today, although I doubt that it was ever as simple as some authors would have us believe. In a traditional society, a person's social station was established at birth and expectations of how the sexes related were passed on from generation to generation. As a result, there were limits on the ways men and women associated with each other. Today, in contrast, we are in the midst of a social upheaval — I would even say a social revolution — in which we are redefining not only what it means to be a man or a woman, but also how we relate to each other. Personally I find this very exhilarating, but there are probably those of you who understand better than I do the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."

I have spent the better part of the past 38 years as a feminist thinking about women and how we deal with men under patriarchy. However normal my marriage may appear to me, it's actually very remarkable, having survived the second wave of the women's movement, unlike many other marriages I know.

At the beginning of the second wave of feminism, I, like many other feminists, thought that women just needed equal opportunities to create a more just society. I still believe this is a large component of bringing about gender justice. But over the last 25 years, my thinking has changed. I've grasped that equal opportunity is not enough. I've realized that if we don't recognize and validate the different ways that women operate in the world (what we call "women's ways of knowing" [BLENKY]), we will never come fully into our own.

One example of this kind of thinking is a recent study by Myra and David Sadker about girls in our schools today. Not only did the Sadkers discover that as a result of ingrained sexism, teachers unconsciously tend to spend more time with boys than with girls, but they also found that learning among girls is furthered by cooperative, small-group learning styles. [SADKER] These modes of learning contrast sharply with the competitive, hierarchical methods used in most schools today, techniques which seem adapted to some (but not all) white, middle-class boys.

What feminists have recognized in the last 25 years is that patriarchy not only puts women down, but it also denigrates those human qualities associated with women.

What feminists have recognized in the last 25 years is that patriarchy not only puts women down, but it also denigrates those human qualities associated with women — the so-called "feminine" characteristics. We also realized that a first step towards true equality is to honor those differences which women (and groups other than white middle-class America) display. What are those differences?

For me, one of the most eye-opening books in this regard was Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering, which I read almost thirty years ago. In her analysis of the early-childhood socialization of boys and girls, Chodorow discovered that because women almost exclusively raise children during their earliest years, when boys and girls start to understand their sexual identity, they experience themselves in remarkably different ways. When a little boy begins to recognize his masculinity, on the one hand, he realizes that he differs from his mother (or other female caregiver). His mother, seeing him as a member of the opposite sex, reinforces this impression. For this reason, he differentiates and separates himself from his primary caregiver. As an adult he ends up seeing himself as alone in the world, independent, autonomous. A little girl, on the other hand, recognizes herself as being similar to her mother, who reciprocates this feeling. As an adult, the girl ends up experiencing herself as related to others more strongly than her male counterpart, since she didn't have to differentiate herself as sharply as he did from his mother. As a consequence, adult women tend to be more relational, seeking greater intimacy and connection in their lives. [CHODOROW]

We all need autonomy, and we all need intimacy. These are human attributes, and each of us needs to develop them.

We all need autonomy, and we all need intimacy. These are human attributes, and each of us needs to develop them. But in a society where the masculine point of view has been ensconced as the sole or superior frame of reference, the feminine characteristics on this continuum are often obscured. I know in my life, I've had ample opportunity to develop my autonomy — when I studied for my Ph.D. at the university, a very competitive environment, and in the work world where independence is demanded of me. But men are only beginning to carve out the same opportunities to develop their relational side, as they care for their children and their elderly parents and take a greater role in creating intimacy in their marriages and other relationships. One place I see this happening is in some feminist men's groups.

Even as we become more fully human by expanding our repertoire on the feminine-masculine continuum, men still tend to be more independent and women more relational. Even my husband Mark — one of the least competitive men I know — displays some of this masculine competitive style. If you see yourself as separate, as alone in the world, as men tend to do, much of what occurs gets framed in terms of conflict or competition — it's me against them, or me against it, or me against the world.

Deborah Tannen in her book You Just don't Understand demonstrates how this competitive approach translates into masculine communication styles. According to Tannen, as an individual fighting for his status in a hierarchical social order, a man experiences himself as either one-up or one-down. "In such a world conversations are negotiations or conflicts in which men try to maintain the upper hand. Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure." [TANNEN] Thus, many men refuse to ask for directions when they're lost; asking would put them in a one-down position.

When a woman brings a problem to a man, wanting understanding and support, she's likely to get advice and a "solution" instead, He's often startled that she finds this irritating. For women, the main object of this kind of conversation (and of conversation in general, according to Tannen) is to create greater intimacy. Women look to their closest relationships as a haven in a hostile world. We women will get around to solving our problems in our own way and in our own time, but first we just want some commiseration and support.

Another aspect of this difference is that men tend to take greater risks, and women tend to prefer safety. I think women's greater physical vulnerability in a rapist culture plays a part here. But our relational and cooperative proclivities also seem to push us towards the creation of safe environments. In planning a class with a male co-teacher, Rick, I wanted to create a supportive, safe environment in which participants could grow at their own pace. Rick, on the other hand, wanted to challenge the class, to make the participants stretch a little, to ask them to take risks. We decided to do both, never quite resolving the push-and-pull between challenge and safety, and as a result, I think the class had a productive tension in which personal growth was fostered.

Rick and other men in my life exhibit an expansiveness in their risk-taking that I find hard to imagine in my women friends. Rick, for instance, still dreamed of being President of the United States after the age of 35 when I had given up that fantasy at 8 or 9. This kind of "hubris," if you will, is hard for a woman to maintain when there has never been a female president in our country. But censoring our fantasies, giving up on our dreams because of the adversity we face as women under patriarchy, is not the answer.

Seeing my life as a great experiment, where there is no right outcome, has freed me to do a number of exciting things that I might have never done, the most important of which was quitting my job to start writing, an act which eventually led to the creative work I now do in music and women's spirituality. So I'm thankful for the human quality of risk-taking which I as a middle-aged woman am beginning to incorporate into my life, as well as for the example of men like Rick who have demonstrated how liberating it can be for them. With the historian Gerda Lerner I have to affirm:

"Perhaps the greatest challenge to ... women is the challenge to move from the desire for safety and approval to the most 'unfeminine' quality of all — that of intellectual arrogance, the supreme hubris which asserts to itself the right to reorder the world, the hubris of the god-makers..."

I have learned from my male friends. But I also believe — probably even more strongly — that men can learn from women and from those characteristics deemed "feminine" in this culture. In a world where conflict is rife and war continues to cut deadly swaths through whole landscapes, I think we would all do well to learn from women's cooperative ways. Active listening, conflict resolution, and respecting others are all interpersonal skills based on a relationality that women learn from the time we are children. It is time for these skills to be validated and to come into their own.

As we celebrate Beltane, perhaps we can see the fruitfulness of expanding our behaviors to include some from the opposite sex. Then we may come to know some of the ancient wisdom of validating male and female experience, recognizing both our differences and our humanity.


  • [BLENKY] Blenky, Mary Field; Blythe McVicker Clinchy; Nancy Rule Goldberger; and Jill Mattuck Tarule. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books Inc., 1986.
  • [SADKER] Sadker, Myra and David Sadker. Failing At Fairness: How Schools Cheat Girls. New York: Touchstone, 1994.
  • [CHODOROW] Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering : Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
  • [TANNEN] Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, 1991.
  • [LERNER] Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. Oxford University Press, 1986.

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