First of a two-part series
Picture if you will, a slice of America. Not a thin slice. A substantial one. One of every 13 people in this country. Add them together and you get 39.8 million. Each of these is a woman and each of these is a baby boomer. And each of these belongs to a new generation of women like none ever seen before. These women are the first generation to rise up against the mythology of the perfect woman in the 1950s. And they gave birth to the women’s liberation movement. They are the first generation of women to truly explore their collective wisdom and take charge of their destinies.
Such is the research of two academically trained women whose work is focused on empowering women. Jimmy Laura Smull, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist with a doctorate in philosophy of human science, is the author of Healing Eve (Ampersand Inc.), which helps women identify and break free from destructive cultural ideologies. Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., is the author of 15 books related to quality of life, and is senior partner with Imago Creative, which helps companies build brand relationships with women of the baby boomer generation.
Together, they have come together to research the wisdom of women of this generation, and the result of their work is the new book, The Silver Pearl: Our Generation’s Journey to Wisdom (Ampersand Inc.) and a networking site for these women at www.TheSilverPearl.com
They spoke with Edge Life in a conference call from their offices on the East and West coast about the wisdom journey of women of the baby boomer generation.
You indicate that you are part of a powerful group of women who are simultaneously waking up to both the need and the potential to take charge of their destinies. How unique is that for a generation of women and what is the catalyst for this awakening?
Dr. Carol Orsborn: It isn’t unique for this generation of women, and by that I’m speaking to baby boomers and perhaps women in their sixties and even some in their seventies who have tended to identify culturally with the Baby Boomers. I think we’ve been doing this all of our lives. The real news here is that we’re doing this again at an age at which society tends to think women ought to be or are invisible, and lo and behold, we’re not going away like we’re supposed to. We’re gathering power and I think we’re changing the perceptions of what it means to be aging in America forever. I don’t think any generation following us is ever going to be the same again.
What is causing this? If you look back historically at people in many societies, the older they get, the more respect they get. In America following World War II, older people in their 40s and up, and younger women, took over the jobs when young men went off to war. When the young men came back, the women and older people were supposed to give the jobs back to the returning veterans. It was considered to be disloyal to keep your job. If you wanted to continue working, you were considered to be eccentric or disloyal. So it’s a fairly recent phenomenon in American history that the elderly are considered to be invisible.
The other factor is that we’re living longer and healthier. We’re reaching our fifties and sixties at a time when in previous generations it was both economically and physically feasible or desirable to retire. We’re reaching our fifties and sixties, and many of us, because of our economic situation, can’t retire – and ironically, we don’t need to because we still have enough physical capacity. We’re healthier than ever. Back in the 1900s, the average woman at the turn of the century was expected to live to age 47. Now, the average person’s going to live two to three decades more than that.
Dr. Jimmy Laura Smull: May I add that we have more medical technical advances that are to our advantage. Also, for the first time with this generation, we’ve been introduced to spiritual and philosophical traditions from other countries. We’re combining both of those things to help us find life mastery, and it doesn’t mean we have to stop.
You mentioned about women being invisible in this generation. Will you elaborate on that?
Dr. Smull: In our studies, we talked to many women who anticipated having the same experience that their mothers had, and some of them have had that experience to a certain degree in their business environments and in certain social environments – the sense of being in the room and not being noticed, and being overlooked professionally. Certainly in terms of the media, you walk to any magazine stand and you’re very unlikely to see any woman beyond her thirties on any cover anywhere. Or on the evening news.
Some women are still having that experience, but we interviewed so many other women who said that they’re only invisible when they want to be. Many women are realizing that they have positional power or spiritual power they can use when they want to and need to, and that sometimes being invisible is actually a superpower. If you choose to be invisible, you can hear things and know things even though people don’t understand that you’re still in the mainstream. You’re privy to more information than you would otherwise be, and you’re still in a position of power. So many women are at the peak of their careers, and they’re finding that if they don’t want to be invisible, they don’t need to be.
Dr. Orsborn: I think it’s been a mindset that we have assumed we would be like the generation before us. We’ve had to break that stereotype.
These are the women that we’ve been talking to. They no longer believe it, feel it, act it, look it. They have the energy, especially once their children have left home, now to find their authentic selves, and that is exactly what they’re doing: going back to school and using all the tools that they’ve learned as they were raising children and being married and everything else that they’ve done. Now, they’re bringing it to the table to have a voice.
And their authentic self may be somebody that they didn’t even know they were up until now.
Dr. Smull: Exactly.
Dr. Orsborn: In a way, it feels like many women report a sense of feeling like they’re coming home to themselves. It’s not so much that it’s foreign to them; they’re giving themselves permission to be more fully themselves.
Our book is a series of spiritual and inspirational readings, divided into three psycho-spiritual stages we’ve identified that women go through. We’ve noticed that women do not advance from one stage to another, on every issue, simultaneously. You may develop more of a sense of life mastery in relationship to parenting grown children, for instance, and not have made peace with health issues. Or you might be in rebellion about relationships, but be totally accepting of issues about beauty. Women are individuals and part of a group, and as a group you can’t say that all baby boomer women are any one thing.
What we do have is a way of organically and gently inspiring women to rise to a higher psycho-spiritual relationship to their lives, issue by issue. And that’s really what the underpinning of the book is all about.
It’s about going full circle. You start at the first stage, where you’re just following the programming like a good little girl, and perhaps caretaking others. It’s a rote sense of being obligated to do it.
In the healthy development model is stage two, a reactivity stage, where you almost have to throw away the rote aspect of it. It’s a knee jerk reaction to stage one. Going through this period looks like rebellion, but it can happen at any age. Some women start it at adolescence and never leave that stage.
Our third stage is what we call wisdom, and we identify it with the silver pearl. It’s getting beyond the knee jerk rebellion and into an embrace of your whole life so that you can retrieve the best parts of stage one, but do it out of choice as opposed to out of being forced into it and not having choice.
Dr. Smull: Women were taught within their culture or families that we are "the nourishers" who negate our own needs for other people’s needs. Now, once they work through our three stages, we hope that they’ll go back to stage one and recover and regroup and find out, indeed, that they always had those skills and gifts inside them. Now they have time to bring them out.
Why is the Legend of the Silver Pearl and the metaphor of the pearl itself important in this discussion with women of the baby boomer generation?
Dr. Smull: We fell upon this wonderful spiritual tradition in the ancient East. A young girl wanted to seek the secret of the meaning of life. She asked her mother how she found out. Her mother sent the young girl to the oldest, wisest women in her village.
The young girl asked, "What must I do to find the treasure I seek?"
As the legend goes, the young girl was sent far away, across the sea, to a mountain cave where she was to retrieve what the wise woman called a silver pearl. When the young girl arrived there, she found inside this cave a large dragon holding the silver pearl, and she could not retrieve it. She went home disillusioned and unhappy, to live her life out fully, falling in love, going to school, raising her children.
And as she aged, she remembered the silver pearl. She once again crossed the sea, crossed the desert and went back to the cave, only to find that the pearl was not clasped by a dragon anymore. It was a small lizard. She easily retrieved the silver pearl.
When she returned home, she then understood that the whole idea was that in living her daily life and meeting her challenges, she had, indeed, attained inside herself this inner strength and stature.
Carol and I looked at the silver pearl itself and how it’s formed in the oyster. A foreign body has entered this oyster. With resilience and beauty, the oyster places a protective cover on this intruder, which then becomes resilient, beautiful and art.
This is exactly what we’re trying to tell the women in our story. It is in the living of your life that you will find the most peace.
Dr. Orsborn: It’s not accidental that this is used as a symbol, because the way we look at it, the silver pearl represents the stages that a woman has to go through to reach a level of spiritual and psychological maturity. A silver pearl is a synthesis of white and black, which is what makes the gray color. Then we say it’s illuminated from within. It is that inward illumination that makes it all work. It’s not a reactivity, but a synthesis.
It’s the inner luminescence that gives it its value and quality.
Dr. Orsborn: Exactly. Right. It would be very dull if it was just gray. The other thing is that, frankly, women love jewelry. They love pearls. And we thought it would go very nicely with red hats, because you know the Red Hat Society is feeding a different need in our society. The Red Hat Society is a place where women go to say, "Hey, you know, I’ve reached a point in my life where I can just have fun and kick up my heels and I don’t care what people think of me."
So the Silver Pearl Network, which is our organization, goes very nicely with the Red Hat Society. We’re really looking at it from a more serious perspective in terms of what gives our lives meaning.
Tell me about the Silver Pearl Network [www.TheSilverPearl.com] and what women are seeking from it and discovering in the process.
Dr. Orsborn: People don’t realize that 70 percent of the people who are online, who are making purchases online, are women – and the majority of those women are of the baby boomer demographic.
Women in their forties and up are hungry for community, and they are finding it online. Our website is very popular with this group. I journal frequently. There are archives. They get e-mails. Jimmy and I also do talks and presentations and workshops where this online community comes together.
We have found an incredible hunger for talking about these deeper issues and an incredible vulnerability and willingness to share very deeply with strangers and to find out that we’re all on the same page in a lot of different areas of our lives. That is so important, because of the media’s lack of visibility for us.
For a lot of us, when we confront issues like caretaking a dying parent or a health issue or having our youngest leave the nest, we think we’re the only one dealing with it. So it’s really critical that women find grassroots means and vehicles to find one another and support one another, because the mainstream media just does not exist to help us through these phases yet.
For more information on The Silver Pearl and The Silver Pearl Network, visit www.TheSilverPearl.com