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WOMEN’S WAYS of Knowledge

Being 70 years old, I have observed or participated in many discussions in mixed company over the years, especially about public issues and philosophical questions. Such discussions take place in classrooms, meetings, parties, family gatherings, as well as on TV, radio, and social media. Over the years, in too many of those conversations I ended up feeling frustrated about the outcome of those talks, often compounded by an inability to discern the source(s) of my frustration. 

Finally, over the last 15 years or so, I was relieved to discover that once I started observing such conversations through a male-female lens, my frustrations have mostly evaporated. More specifically, I can now answer affirmatively and with complete confidence a question that I have been pondering for a long time. Documented in a 1991 book, the question is posed by a spiritual teacher to her female pupil: “Did you know that one of the basic differences between males and females is how they approach knowledge?”

There’s a narrow stream in feminist literature and matriarchal science, mostly subterranean, about “women’s ways of knowing”, which affirms this basic difference between men and women. In addition, matriarchal studies and science demonstrate the centrality of women’s ways of knowing to the survival and evolution of humans as a species. 

Unfortunately, this area of women’s self-study has not been encouraged during the decades of my life, even by feminists. I believe this is largely because the dominant feminist strategy (at least in the U.S.) has been to promote equality with men, not to highlight, practice, and perpetuate women’s unique ways of being and knowing.

My October 2021 blog, To survivors & other women, “I’m sorry,  20th century feminist strategy was wrong”, is an attempt to highlight and disseminate, in a general way, women’s evolutionary role as the center of the species. With this current blog, I will aim to highlight our unique access to knowledge and wisdom, based on my life’s experiences and other women’s writings and observations. My long-term goal is for all women and girls to re-learn how to prioritize our natural ways of knowing so that we can reclaim our women’s public authority — on behalf of all life, including the earth.

A. KNOWLEDGE: How women and men approach it differently
B. THE WOMB: Women’s “magical side”
C. WOMEN’S ISSUES, WOMEN’S WISDOM: from Indigenous North America
D. WOMEN’S BODIES, Women’s Medicine

A. KNOWLEDGE: How women and men approach it differently

Let me start with recounting the bulk of the conversation from the 1991 book, Being-in-Dreaming: An initiation into the Sorcerers’ World, by Florinda Donner, the pen name of a student of Carlos Casteneda. I realize that quoting Carlos Castenada or one of his associates is suspect in some quarters. Nevertheless, when I first read this book (c. 25 years ago), this whole conversation rang enormously true. It still rings resoundingly true today. At one point I laughed out loud at the truth of it; I still chuckle at that point.

To be clear, Castenada is not part of this conversation, which is between Donner and one of her female teachers, Esperanza. Here it is, followed by some other resources on women’s ways of knowing.

From Being-in-Dreaming: An initiation into the Sorcerers’ World (1991)
by Florinda Donner (pen name of Regine Margarita Thal)
Esperanza is one of the “witches” teaching Florinda somewhere in Mexico.

pp. 247ff. Esperanza:  “Did you know that one of the basic differences between males and females is how they approach knowledge?”

…she…drew two human figures. One head she crowned with a cone and said that it was a man. On the other head, she drew the same cone, but upside down, and said that it was a woman.

“Men build knowledge, step by step….Men reach up; they climb toward knowledge. Sorcerers say that men cone toward the spirit; they cone up toward knowledge. This coning process limits men on how far they can reach….

“As you can see, the [other] cone is upside-down, open like a funnel. Women are able to open themselves directly to the source, or rather, the source reaches them directly, in the broad base of the cone. Sorcerers say that women’s connection to knowledge is expansive. On the other hand, men’s connection is quite restricted.”

“Men are close to the concrete….and aim at the abstract. Women are close to the abstract and yet try to indulge themselves with the concrete.”

p. 248 “Men’s incapacity to link themselves directly to the spirit was what drove them to talk about the process of reaching knowledge. They haven’t stopped talking about it. And it is precisely this insistence on knowing how they strive toward the spirit, this insistence on analyzing the process, that gave them the certainty that being rational is a typically male skill.”

“Men’s need to dominate others and women’s lack of interest in expressing or formulating what they know and how they know it has been a most nefarious alliance,” Esperanza went on.  “It has made it possible for women to be coerced, from the moment they’re born into accepting that fulfillment lies in homemaking, in love, in marriage, in having children, and in self-denial.  Women have been excluded from the dominant forms of abstract thought and educated into dependence. They have been so thoroughly trained in the belief that men must think for them that women have finally given up thinking.”

p. 249 “Women are quite capable of thinking,” I interrupted her.

“Women are capable of formulating what they have learned,” Esperanza corrected me.  “And what they have learned has been defined by men. Men define the very nature of knowledge, and from it they have excluded that which pertains to the feminine.  Or if it is included, it is always in a negative light. And women have accepted this.”

“You are years behind the times,” I interjected. “Nowadays women can do anything they set their hearts to do. They pretty much have access to all the centers of learning and to almost any job that men can do.”

“But this is meaningless as long as they don’t have a support system, a support base,” Esperanza argued.  “What good is it that they have access to what men have when they are still considered inferior beings who have to adopt male attitudes and behaviors in order to succeed? The truly successful ones are the perfect converts. They, too, look down on women.

“According to men, the womb limits women both mentally and physically. This is the reason why women, although they have access to knowledge, have not been allowed to help determine what this knowledge is.”

“If knowledge is but a male construct, then why your insistence that I go to school?” I asked.

p. 250 “Because you are a witch, and as such you need to know what impinges on you and how it impinges on you,” she replied.  Before you refuse something, you must understand why you refuse it.”

“You see, the problem is that knowledge in our day, is derived purely from reasoning things out. But women have a different track, never, ever taken into consideration.  That track can contribute to knowledge, but it would have to be a contribution that has nothing to do with reasoning things out.”

“What sorcerers propose,” she explained, “is that men can’t have the exclusive right to reason. They seem to have it now because the ground where they apply reason is a ground where maleness prevails. Let’s then apply reason to a ground where femaleness prevails. And that ground is, naturally, the inverted cone I described to you.  Women’s connection with the spirit itself.”

”That connection has to be faced with a different aspect of reasoning. An aspect never, ever used before: the feminine side of reasoning,“ she said.  

“What is the feminine side of reason, Esperanza?”

“Many things. One of them is definitely dreaming.” 

“You need to act on your magical side,” she said.

“And what is that?”                                         

p. 251 “The womb!” Esperanza repeated.  “The womb is the ultimate feminine organ. It is the womb that gives women that extra edge, that extra force to channel their energy.”

She explained that men, in their quest for supremacy, have succeeded in reducing woman’s mysterious power, the womb, to a strictly biological organ whose only function is to reproduce, to carry man’s seed.

As if obeying a cue, Nelida rose, walked around the table, and came to stand behind me. “Do you know the story of the Annunciation?” she whispered in my ear.

Giggling, I turned to face her.  “I don’t.”

In that same confidential whisper, she proceeded to tell me that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, men are the only ones who hear the voice of God. Women have been excluded from that privilege, with the exception of the Virgin Mary.

Nelida said that an angel whispering to Mary was, of course, natural. What wasn’t natural was the fact that all the angel had to say to Mary was that she would bear the son of God. The womb did not receive knowledge but rather the promise of God’s seed. A male god, who engendered another male god in turn.

B. THE WOMB: Women’s “magical side”

Growing up the 1960s and ‘70s, girls in the U.S. were subjected to men’s descriptors of women’s powers, of femaleness. Words like passive and receptive still pop up in 21st century writing, even in authors who I admire and follow. I have appreciated stumbling across adjectives that resonate with the way I perceive the differences between women and men. While I agree with people who caution against “essentialism” (rigidly pigeonholing men and women), I think girls and women in 2021 can mostly benefit from consciously observing, naming, manifesting, and reflecting on the various authorities that belong to women, that women embody.

Here are some miscellaneous adjectives and resources that have helped me name myself.

Two pairs of adjectives have helped me see and understand the differences between men and women as we operate in the world. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the source of either pair:

Men’s energy is electric, women’s energy is magnetic.
Men’s energy is centrifugal (moving away from a center), women’s energy is centripetal (moving toward a center, gathering).

Of interest re men’s centrifugal energy, I find these two quotes of interest, included by Susan Hawthorne in her book Wild Politics: Feminism, Globalisation and Biodiversity (re-released in 2022 with a new preface):

“If I had to name one quality as the genius of patriarchy, it would be…the capacity for institutionalizing disconnection.”  — Robin Morgan, The Demon Lover (2002, p. 51)

“Disconnection is critical for a system based on profit. By contrast biodiversity relies on connection and relationship.” — Susan Hawthorne, Wild Politics

I find it very hopeful that Native Americans have articulated and modeled a balanced stewardship society, per Barbara Alice Mann, the “twinned cosmos”. This Mohawk quote is one of my favorites: 

“The renewable quality—the sacredness of every living thing, that which connects human beings to the place they inhabit—that quality is the single most liberating aspect of our environment. Life is renewable and all the things that support life are renewable, and they are renewed by a force greater than any government’s, greater than any living thing or historical thing. A consciousness of the web that holds all things together, the spiritual element that connects us to reality and the manifestation of that power to renew that is present in the existence of an eagle or a mountain snow fall, that consciousness was the first thing that was destroyed by the colonizers.”  p. 123
Basic Call to Consciousness
ed., Akwesasne Notes, 2005

This passage from Kay Cordell Whitaker’s Sacred Link describes how the womb works, how the womb is the source of that energy because it gathers, it collects:

p. 178 ”Women are the center. That is what it is to be a woman.”

p. 179 ”I say it because everything comes from a womb. We start there and we return there. You knock the woman out of her place at the center and your world begins to spiral backwards into destroying itself.”

“It means we are the way babies get here no matter what other tasks we find in our path. That gives us a certain way of thinking. Women think in terms of making life continue. In terms of creating. Of balancing.”

“It is in our cells, in our spirits. It is in the design of things.”

p. 181 ”[To be the center] has to do with ability to collect attention and to alter inner atmosphere. And about ability to connect with other beings. Because women bear and nurture the new life they have a greater need to do this. It is a matter of survival.”

Spiritual teachers such as DeAnna L’am are clear that even women who have had hysterectomies still embody the spiritual power of the womb. See DeAnna’s offerings, including many interviews of other women through her Womb Academy and Red Tent Academy. Very multi-cultural.

from Indigenous North America

1. Male constructs of female issues
Like Esperanza in Florinda Donner’s book, this passage juxtaposes women’s perceptions against men’s in two concrete examples: land and identity. While this essay and book is written by Native American women for Native American women, I think that non-Indigenous women can relate to the confusion that arises when men try to interpret issues that are fundamentally female. 

The passage is from Barbara Alice Mann’s essay, Slow Runners, one of the four essays in Make a Beautiful Way: The Wisdom of Native American Women (2008), edited by Mann.

p. 95 Our problems of land and identity all grow from the same root:  The wrong gender has been running the show.

p.  96 …I look at the fine fix Native America is in and realize that this is exactly why the old Clan Mothers refused to let the men discuss anything that the women had not first canvassed thoroughly. In fact, the women even gave the men the preferred possible outcomes of debate, restricting them to discussions of that preset agenda.  Looking about today, I attribute the nightmarish morass of federal laws and “tribal” policies to the fact that they are male constructs of female issues. This upside-down situation will not be righted until women resume taking care of their Mother, which simply will not happen under Euro-American law.

…in the East, anyhow, Native women are the sole, appropriate arbiters of land and identity, for it is women’s feet that always remain planted firmly on Mother Earth, whereas men’s fly up to Brother Sky.  

p. 97 When men attempt to manage Earth matters, like land and identity, they confuse themselves by applying Sky principles of height and distance. The outcome is as predictable as it is disastrous: Flighty rules result from their eagle’s-eye view, obviating ground matters, which look too small to make out from the vantage point of Sky. Unable to feel the rumblings of ne gashedenza (the sacred will of the people), which traditionally originates at the roots of the grass, they grab for the wind and blow hot air.

Women are the ones who feel the vibrations of the growing grass, through the soles of their feet and the waters of their wombs. They are the ones who know their descendants, arrayed by clan, through the generations. It is the women who keep the names and pull the ancestors out of the ground, back into life, even as they pull the crops up from seeds. It is the women who can tell the ordinary dirt from the dirt made of their ancestors, the first five feet down. They can sense the land, for the land is a woman. It is, therefore, the Daughters of Mother Earth who make the best decisions regarding the children and the land of Mother Earth.

2. Rematriation of the Truth
This is another essay by Barbara Alice Mann and is especially relevant during these times of Orwellian speech, where up is down, down is up, and gender identity ideology is trying to erase women as women. According to Mann, “The first step toward sanity is the Rematriation of the Truth. A term coined by the Mohawk poet, Susan Deer Cloud, “Rematriation” retools culture in terms of matriarchal giving. Regarding speech, it means that the Gift of Breath replicates reality; it does not invent some myth convenient to bullies. Rematriation of the Truth means that everyone has access to all the facts, all the time, to facilitate the One Good Mind of Consensus.”

3. En’owkin: Democracy as completeness
In this 2013 article, Let us Begin with Courage, Jeanette Armstrong (from British Columbia) describes En’owkin, a collaborative process by which the Okanagan people reach a decision for a particular problem. After first gathering all the information, no matter how small, questions are put to four sub-groups, the elders, mothers, fathers, and youth. 

“Here, the term elders refers to those who are like-minded in protecting traditions. The group seeks their spiritual insight as a guiding force of connection to the land. The term mothers refers to those who are like-minded in their concern about the daily well-being of the family. The group seeks from the mothers sound advice on policy and on workable systems based on human relations. The term fathers refers to those who are like-minded in their concern about the things necessary for security, sustenance, and shelter. Usually the group seeks from the fathers practical strategy, logistics, and action. The term youth refers to those who are like-minded in their tremendous creative energy as they yearn for change that will bring a better future. Usually the group seeks from the youths their creative and artistic prowess in theorizing the innovative possibilities and their engagement in carrying it out.”

In short, each sub-group offers recommendations based as follows:
YOUTH – innovative possibilities
FATHERS – security, sustenance, shelter
MOTHERS – policy, workable systems
ELDERS – connected to the land

In her description of the process, it seems as if anyone can “role play” any role, but the imperative is “that each person play his or her strongest natural role, because that is how each person can best contribute to the community. Persons speaking usually identify the role they’ve assumed by saying, for example, “I speak as a mother,” and proceed to outline what is understood that mothers are being challenged to contribute. Each role is then valued as indispensable to the unit.”

There is much more to the process, described in detail by Armstrong, resulting in the best possible action, a completeness rarely found in majority rule or our current “democratic” processes:

“The action finally taken will be the best possible action, taking into consideration all the short-term, concrete social needs of the community as well as long-term psychological and spiritual needs, because all are essential to a healthy community and to sustainability. This is where diversity of thought and ingenuity resides. The elders describe it as a decision-making process of the group mind at its best. The word they use means something like “our completeness.” It creates complete solidarity in a group moving in the direction suggested, at the same time opening the door to a collaborative imagination and innovation much more likely to produce the best answer.”

4. “The force of the women who speak and work and write” 
This is the last paragraph of Paula Gunn Allen’s essay, Where I Come from is Like This, probably published in numerous collections. I found it in a wonderful anthology, Face to Face; Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism, and Awakening, edited by Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson.

“Through all the centuries of war and death and cultural and psychic destruction have endured the women who raise the children and tend the fires, who pass long the tales and the traditions, who weep and bury the dead, who are the dead, and who never forget. There are always the women, who make pots and weave baskets, who fashion clothes and cheer their children on at powwow, who make fry bread and piki bread, and corn soup and chili stew, who dance and sing and remember and hold within their hearts the dream of their ancient peoples — that one day the woman who thinks will speak to us again, and everywhere there will be peace. Meanwhile we tell the stories and write the books and trade tales of anger and woe and stories of fun and scandal and laugh over all manner of things that happen every day. We watch and we wait.”


Susun Weed is an elder, a green witch, and shamanic herbalist, founder of the Wise Woman Center in Woodstock, New York. Her latest book, Abundantly Well: Seven Medicines (The Complementary Integrated Medicine Revolution) (2019), seems to be a culmination of a lifetime of study, teaching, and experience. The Seven Medicines is a continuum of intervention, from “Do Nothing” to “Break and Enter”.

This description of the Seven Medicines is taken from a recent essay, People’s Medicine: Herbs for Hags (Sept. 16, 2021). Boldface added.

The safest medicine is Serenity Medicine, also called “Do Nothing.” It includes meditation, sleep, deep relaxation, even idleness. Rest cures, going fishing, and time away from responsibilities are also Serenity Medicine.

The next safest medicine is Story Medicine, also called “Diagnosis.” Here we collect information. Ideally, figuring out the nature of our problem is done without dangerous hi-tech techniques such as x-rays, MRIs, CAT scans, and exploratory surgery. Remember that every story/diagnosis implies and leads to a treatment. The story (and the plan of action) you’ll get from an acupuncturist will differ significantly from the story (and drugs) an MD will give you for the same problem.

Only slightly more dangerous is Mind Medicine or Energy Medicine; some call this “Placebo Medicine.” Anything that engages our mental ability to heal is included here, from flower essences to psychic healing.

Lifestyle Medicine speaks to the ways we “Nourish and Tonify” and, while generally quite safe, is more dangerous than the previous three Medicines. What we eat, what we wear, where we work, how we use our bodies, and how we amuse ourselves are all part of this Medicine.

The first four Medicines build health, even if they don’t cure; and they frequently do cure, while causing minimal harm. The last three Medicines always harm, even if only slightly, even if they can create miracles of healing.

The fifth Medicine is Alternative Medicine; the action is “Stimulate and/or Sedate.” Alternative Medicine includes herbal medicine, naturopathic medicine, chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, and many more specialities. Unless used wisely, these medicines have the potential to do serious harm. At the least, they excite or depress us by using, but not replacing, our core energy.

The sixth Medicine is Pharmaceutical Medicine. Drugs, as we are all aware, are fraught with problems and side-effects. In fact, one of the leading causes of death in the United States is reaction to prescribed drugs. Pharmaceutical Medicine is not limited to prescription drugs, nor to products of the pharmaceutical industry. Essential oils, supplements, and most encapsulated herbs are so drug-like in their actions that they share the dangers of drugs.

The last, and most dangerous of the Seven Medicines, is Hi-Tech Medicine, or “Break and Enter.” While surgery and other hi-tech techniques can work miracles, the harm done by this last medicine can be fatal, permanent, and disfiguring. The amount of hi-tech diagnosis that is currently done is truly scary. Using the first four Medicines not only prevents the need for Hi-Tech Medicine in most instances, it also improves our ability to benefit from — and protects us against the harms of — Hi-Tech Medicine if we do choose it.