I was asked this International Women’s Day about the woman who has most inspired me? I am going to break the rules in answering this question because I couldn’t possibly narrow down the field to a single individual.

At the age of 56, I grew up in a patriarchal society. I learned the rules, how to play the game. I was good at performing. I was competitive and wanted to win, be the best. As a woman I wanted to be an object of desire for men.

A list of inspirational women

First on my list of inspiring women is my mother. Within a patriarchy I intuitively absorbed the dominant cultural values that would serve me well. It has not been until the second half of life that I recognised the more silent values that were really the ‘wind beneath the wings’ of those big bold values that I pursued; striving, winning and achieving.

My mother taught me unconditional love. She demonstrated to me that I was ok, no matter what. If I stumbled, lost or failed, her arms did not close. They gently held me and provided a container, quietly, so that I could fall apart and gradually become more of who I was meant to be. The soft, feminine presence of simply and quietly holding and allowing.

My mother was an ‘ordinary’ woman. It has taken me a long time, too long, to recognize the incredible value of what she provided – warmth, nourishment, unwavering loyalty and steadiness. I took for granted and dismissed the cushioning and buffering that this afforded me, it was pure gold.

An internal authority

In my 20s I was inspired by a woman who founded a spiritual community in Scotland. Her name was Eileen Caddy. I read about how she had formed the community based on guidance from God, an inner voice that unfailingly directed every step. This resonated with me at the deepest level. Yes, I can look within to find my way. I can rely on my inner knowing in favour of the confusing and contradictory messages that I receive from the external environment. I can trust in a mystery that is bigger than me, in the interconnection of all of life. I knew this could be my ultimate authority.

Loving what is

In my 30s inspiration came via the work of Byron Katie. The peace and serenity that I could find when I simply learned to love what is. Simple, not necessarily easy. Byron Katie offers the world a very simple tool of enquiry to encounter and integrate difficult thoughts and patterns that rob us of our best lives.

The courage to be vulnerable

In my 40s it was Brene Brown who inspired me with her acknowledgement of the value of our vulnerability. Her encouragement to meet, greet and welcome fear, guilt, shame and other vulnerabilities without abandoning our inherent and always present human worth. And, to extend this gift to others.

Parody of dominant cultural stereotypes

More recently I’ve been inspired by Celeste Barber. Her use of parody to challenge the dominant cultural stereotypes of women is invaluable. Her authenticity and the lightness that she brings to her work is so helpful in dislodging some of the heavy constructs that do not serve women well.

A new generation of women

And most recently, the incredibly courageous and outspoken younger generation of women emerging internationally and in our own back yard. Greta Thornberg for her ability to stand her ground, at such a young age, in opposition of a machine that is destroying our planet. Grace Tame and Britney Higgins for their incredible bravery in standing alone to challenge and question cultural norms that create toxic and unsafe environments for women, workplaces and institutions. Standing alone, like a lighthouse, a beacon to light the way for new structures.

Qualities over external form

Collectively these women have been my teachers. Their qualities; the courage to speak out and honour an inner authority over dominant and oppressive external power structures, open heartedness and the spaciousness to embrace failure and vulnerability as valid human experiences, the refusal to deny – and a willingness to hold – reality without shame, bringing challenge and question to dominant cultural and systemic values and patterns that do not serve the marginalised, and the recognition of our interconnection and that we heal together and not in isolation.

These characteristics do not belong exclusively to female bodies. They are the qualities that our world is crying out for today. Within a patriarchal environment I believe it takes great discernment and courage to bring these true feminine qualities forward. The risk, and the more common occurrence, is that female bodies simply become co-opted into the dominant patriarchal qualities. A female body is no guarantee of feminine qualities.

A counter-cultural way forward

If we are to heal and bring back balance, all of us are called to embrace and honour these qualities irrespective of our gender. Women are confused about feminine values. So many of us loving without boundaries, or then setting boundaries that reinforce oppressive power structures as we grasp the only form of power available to us.

Can we find a new way? One that is counter-cultural because the culture does not honour or recognise the values that we so need.