Online Symposium – Women and Stoicism (part 2)

Last month, we started the publication of contributions to our second online symposium here in Stoicism Today, the topic being “Women and Stoicism”. Today, to the excellent responses provided in that first post, contributed by Anitra Pavlico, Natasha Brown, and Brittany Polat, we are happy to add two new discussions of the topics by Meredith Kunz and Kathryn Koromilas. We hope to have yet more contributions coming in the third installation sometime in either April or May.

The general question proposed for this online symposium was “Is Stoicism something equally useful for men and women?” In my call for contributions, I suggested a set of more specific questions that the authors might consider addressing, which included:

  • Does Stoicism seem to appeal to men more than to women in the present?  If so, why?
  • Are there challenges women face that Stoicism would be particularly apt or helpful with?
  • Does modern Stoicism have a “women problem”, in any sense one would like to give that term?
  • What should we make of the emphasis upon traditional gender roles of some of the Stoic authors (e.g. Epictetus or Seneca)?
  • Can one be equally a feminist and a Stoic?  Are there important tensions that have to be addressed?
  • what should we make of the use of Stoic authors and texts to promote misogynist “red-pill” movements and attitudes (sometimes called “broicism”)?

So again, with no further ado, here are the next two contributions to this new online symposium. Comments are welcome, and a great way of adding to the conversation, but do make sure to give the Comments Policy a read.

Kathyrn Koromilas

2018. It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It was the year of “angry” women, it was the year of “stoic” women. It was the year of rage, it was the year of reason. It was the season of “trivial whinging” and hysteria, it was the season of “moral outrage” and bravery. It was the winter of abuse and censor, it was the spring of hope, dialogue, and empowerment. We had 19 million women before us, roaring loud and clear: #metoo, me too, me too.

The #Metoo Movement began in 2006 as a relatively quiet campaign to encourage empathy and sharing amongst women, mostly from underprivileged backgrounds, who had experienced sexual abuse. Just over a decade later, the movement erupted, when a much broader, louder, and angrier spectrum of women shared stories on social media and beyond. The movement has since produced countless written, spoken, and visual commentaries, plus a handful of full-length books which argue that anger—this dark, disorderly, and dangerous emotion—can be and ought to be harnessed as a political tool, a political emotion, and the super-powerful voice of activism. Women, now, had a moral duty to be angry.

At the same time, however, women were appearing in the public arena dressed not in armour but “wearing a stoic demeanour,” instead. Hillary Clinton was “stoic” watching the Trump inauguration. Alyssa Milano was “stoic” while watching the Brett Kavanaugh testimony. Anita Hill was “stoic” when delivering her own testimony. Uma Thurman was “stoic” when she announced her #metoo story. Olympic champion, Aly Raisman, in her own testimony, “exude[d] a level of composure that […] register[ed] as stoicism.” Australian Edith Cowan has always been a “stoic advocate for women’s rights.” Even Rose McGowan, the “fearless hero and flame-throwing narcissist,” was “stoic” during a hearing.

I don’t know about the private work these women might have done and might continue to do to make a judgement about whether their public look of “stoicism” might not, in fact, be “Stoicism,” but whatever private anger they carry, the public rhetorical force of the #MeToo movement is ordered, regulated, and controlled. More, it is based on the clearly communicated, pure in spirit, and reasonable principles of gender and social equity. Seneca would not call this “anger” at all.

According to Aristotle and Theophrastus, anger first manifests as some sort of complex bodily change that produces, unconsciously almost, a painful sensation or thought or desire. The unconscious response is the result of a feeling that some insult or injustice has occurred. The bodily response—the blood boiling and the altered tone of voice—comes before the judgement that an insult or injustice has occurred. For the untrained mind, this bodily response is almost Darwinian in its helpfulness. I remember now, as a 13-year-old, I had my first of many #MeToo moments and it was my body and senses that raised the red flag before my mind could articulate “injustice.” In my school uniform, on a crowded bus, the person behind me grabbed my bottom. Before I knew it, I’d turned around to face this person and punched him in the belly. Then, I turned back around to face the front of the bus. (Buses, injustice, and activism—there’s a theme!) It was years later, after a solid liberal arts education and after many more similar experiences, that my rational faculties caught up with a cohesive and reasonable view on the matter.

I can appreciate the Stoic’s “zero tolerance” stance on anger. We simply can’t have 13-year-old girls bearing fists on school buses! But when the stakes are so high, when there is systemic and epistemic injustice, abuse, and violence, that needs to be flagged and addressed, and if it is anger that first flags an injustice, oughtn’t we keep it? Is Stoicism then the unethical choice in our times, at least for women and their allies?

Anger is linked to activism. The motivating inception of the #MeToo Movement, for example, was found in the “deepest, darkest place” of founder Tarana Burke’s soul, presumably, the place where her anger dwells. From that same place, however, emerged a clear-headed vision for a principled programme of advocacy and change. Anger might be the enemy of reason, notes Seneca, but both anger and reason dwell in the same place.

Activist Charlene Carruthers, in a conversation with Anxy, talked about helping people use anger to fuel the activist work they do. “Not angst or anger for anger’s sake,” she clarifies, “but how do we transform that energy into something that builds?” Here, Carruthers echoes Aristotle, and Martin Luther King Jr. who spoke of organizing and uniting people “so that their anger becomes a transforming force.” In a study of the psychology of peace activists, “in one autobiography after another we find the same story—the initial action for peace and justice is motivated by anger against injustice.”

This is a familiar story and a familiar approach to anger. It is Aristotle’s. Make good use of your anger; moderate it, and direct it to the right cause, to the right persons, at the right time. Seneca’s approach to anger is also familiar. Don’t go there, resist it, it’s just too difficult to control, and your head can’t work properly if you’re angry.

Aristotle: Your head will work just fine. Just control your anger—use it as a solider not a general.

Seneca: But, if your head can control your anger, are we still even talking about anger?

Seneca thinks not. If we can control and impose limits to our anger, and then transform it to do good, moral, rational work, then it “ceases to be anger,” which Seneca understands to be “unbridled and unmanageable.”

So, maybe we just need a new word for anger. In any case, I think it’s important to keep Aristotle in the conversation here. As civic-minded souls in the contemporary world, the Aristotelian approach to anger is familiar, desirable, and legitimate. I think I am right to say that we all want the political and social freedom to express our moral outrage in a reasonable and sane way, in the right manner, to the right persons, for the right reasons. This is especially important for women right now, because for so long our emotions have been, at best, ridiculed, and at worse, demonized. Reclaiming anger is also, it seems, a way of redressing another injustice—the inequality of legitimate access to our emotional spectrum.

At the same time, we know that access to this emotional spectrum, especially that madness called anger, can be so destructive to our internal tranquility and also to the tranquility of our relationships in our social circles. Seneca makes a good point that while other vices can be “concealed and cherished in secret,” anger shows itself openly and just makes one look and sound disgusting. And there’s no shade of lipstick that goes with that. Thus, we want and must manage our anger, and of course, where it is of no use at all or where there are no rational grounds for it, banish it.

In my reading on anger, activism, and #MeToo, I was struck by the potential of a statement, made by Harvard scholar Moira Weigel, on finding anger most productive in private life. “Really private,” she said, “as an individual processing emotions. And in activist settings with feminist friends.”

This reminded me of Marcus Aurelius and all the private work he did processing his own emotions in his “notes to himself.” Over and over again, he continually writes about the same problems, anger being one of them. In the privacy of his own journal, he is able to address and re-address his Stoic convictions and control, moderate, or even banish his anger.I wonder, then, whether private Stoic practice, Stoic journal writing, or practice in small mutually supportive groups might be where the Aristotelian work of anger moderation and transformation (or, yes, even banishment) might take place. And what about activism without rage? There is a suggestion, in the article in which Weigel is quoted, that private anger, or anger expressed in small mutually supportive groups, is what is driving political change.

Meredith A. Kunz

Today, women are seeking to reverse centuries of being excluded or held back from leadership roles. From a Stoic point of view, we know we cannot snap our fingers and change externals. But we can and should acknowledge the wider context for women’s actions and choices in society.

Others’ judgments—the evaluations by hiring managers, bosses, voters, etc., that determine whether women advance—are unequally tough on women. On the one hand, we may be seen as too accommodating and nice, and therefore not leadership material. On the other hand, we may be perceived as too demanding, “bossy,” and difficult to work with.

On top of that, working women also juggle responsibilities that are not always equally shared by spouses and partners. Women shoulder much of the caretaking and the “emotional labor” of ensuring that our kids, spouses, and elders have the support and help that they need. This kind of work is exhausting in and of itself. And if we have young kids, we can find ourselves placed on the “mommy track” in professional roles, where advancement isn’t an option.

But the picture for women at work is not completely dark. We are living in an era where opportunities for women to lead have started to increase at many levels—as an employee, executive, politician, parent, volunteer, and citizen.

Stoic life philosophy teaches us that know we can’t control how others respond to our efforts to contribute to society, but we can focus on our strategies for engaging productively and living by our principles.

Growing women’s leadership co-equally involves men as they help advance women’s roles. For women to become leaders and role models at work and in government, both women and men can adopt Stoic-inspired strategies to help shape a more just future.

Here are a few Stoic-inspired ideas for empowering women in the workplace, the community, and everyday life. These are the approaches that have helped me as a professional woman:

Grow mental fortitude in dealing with criticism. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “Reject your sense of injury and the injury disappears.” Stoicism teaches its followers to ignore insults, since others’ opinions are externals that should be indifferent to us. In ancient times, philosophers subjected themselves to ridicule to cure themselves of being bothered by it. 

This is much easier said than done. Criticism often feels very personal and evokes a deep fear: “I’m not good enough.” Instead of spiraling into negative thoughts, we can recall our core principles when critiques rain down. If we know we’re making good judgments based on the virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, self-control)—if we know we are using our inborn spark of reason—we can tap into a renewed confidence.

This too is easier said than done. In a previous job, I worked on a project for an internal client. In a meeting, the client got very upset, calling the half-finished work “the worst website I’ve ever seen,” and ranting about lost time and effort. Though my blood pressure rose under the assault, I did my best to patiently discuss the limitations surrounding the project that resulted in the curtailed product. I distanced myself from a sense of injury.

Looking back, I am still amazed at that extreme reaction, and I’m glad I didn’t return the emotion in kind. The workplace is filled with many passions, and we owe it to ourselves to reject our impressions of hurt and pain.

Persevere. Stoicism teaches a discipline of “bear and forebear.” Feminists have adopted the motto, “Nevertheless, she persisted.” This doesn’t mean ignoring bad behavior, but pushing forward with just principles.

Business research has indicated that women business leaders must try multiple methods to reach their goals compared with male counterparts, and many goals still prove elusive. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and continuing to develop allies along the way.

Follow your ruling center. Be unafraid to share your ideas. Another way to say this is “be yourself, even at work.” For a long time, I tried to be someone that I thought others would respect or value. I’d worry about every word and gesture, trying to guess how others were judging me and criticizing me in their heads.

After adopting my current life philosophy, things changed. Now when I’m asked for my opinion, I make a concerted effort to share honest thoughts. I can’t control how my coworkers react, but I know that from my perspective, I’m pursuing a reasonable course. Stoic thinkers emphasized expressing and living by what is just and right, even if others disagree. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.”

Use reason and our sense of justice to expose and combat bias against women (and other discrimination). Justice is one of Stoicism’s core virtues. We can all keep that in mind as we look for ways to diminish unfair work practices and bias.

Some bias can be hard to spot. For example, studies have shown that bias creeps in when certain resumes have female names at the top, and others appear to be males. As soon as names are removed, judgment of the candidates becomes more fair.

I challenge everyone to notice how you treat both men and women in meetings and in interactions online. Are you listening to people of different genders and backgrounds in the same way? Are you responding in equal ways? Would you say the same comment to a man?

Another approach here is to work to elevate the women colleagues we respect into role models, inviting them to speak in front of groups, lead committees or initiatives, and become managers.

Question self-doubt, self-sabotage, and the “imposter syndrome.” Women in our culture are taught from a young age that they should be perfect, kind, and sweet beings who focus on pleasing others. Speaking up and engaging in work conflict can seem foreign and wrong. And with fewer role models and a habit of turning to others as authorities, women fear that they don’t deserve the position they are in, and that somehow people will find out that they aren’t qualified.

From a Stoic point of view, this is clearly a mistaken emphasis. But it’s hard to defeat this kind of thinking, and it affects people of all levels. It saps confidence and drive.

Stoic philosophy can be a good antidote. Stoic-inspired concepts reveal what we can and can’t control, which helps to realign our thinking, especially when coupled with cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques. We can question self-doubt, perfectionism, and “imposter” thoughts, and employ more rational means to understand our strengths and skills.

Support more and better provisions for childcare. One of the most tangible ways that women’s leadership is held back is by women’s need—and their desire—to take time to give birth and raise young families. Workplaces and communities that support maternity and paternity leave, childcare benefits, and new ways to organize work for parents are desperately needed to propel women’s success in the wider world.

There’s an element of justice and fairness here too that’s not just for women, but for socio-economic reasons. Right now, only affluent families have access to the highest-quality childcare, and many parents struggle to find any kind of acceptable arrangement, even part-time. (A related note: Ideally, we should also raise the value of caring for our children by paying childcare workers better. This kind of work calls out for more funding from foundations, nonprofits, and governments.)

Many of these are systemic issues in our society. But one of the best things about Stoicism is its potential to scale. Marcus wrote, “Live out your life in truth and justice, tolerant of those who are neither true nor just.” There will always be some nay-sayers. But if one person adopts these points of view, and then another, and another, a critical mass could start to shift. Reason- and justice-oriented concepts could lead to a broader group of people ready to do the right thing, and to reap the benefit of working with and advancing the millions of talented women in our world.

Kathryn Koromilasis a writer who leads the Stoic Writing Scene and The Stoic Writer, and participated in Stoic Week 2018. You can read her stories and find out more about her work at her website.

Meredith Kunz is a Northern California writer who works in communications in the tech industry. She is the author of The Stoic Mom blog. Follow her on Twitter at @thestoicwoman.

3 thoughts on Online Symposium – Women and Stoicism (part 2)

  1. Kim Wade says:

    Enjoyed both articles very much. Koromilas’ proposal for a new term for anger provoked a thought for me. Raw anger is messy and useless. Refined anger based on reflection and application of reason is a better basis for actions. As a woman. I really appreciate reading items by women on stoic philosophy.

  2. oengus says:

    acting on legitimate anger is different than acting from anger
    acting justly from anger indicates i can deepen my stoicism, but the action is still just
    anger is an internal state
    it is an organic and healthy response to injustice
    to be grabbed uninvited from behind is an injustice (and battery as well)
    a defensive return punch is a good response from a responsible party
    the muslim warrior ali (son-in-law to mohammed) with raised sword had an opponent to ground in battle
    in desperation, the downed man spit to the face of ali, who immediately sheathed his weapon and withdrew
    when questioned, ali explained
    ‘before the man spat, we were in battle and i would have slain him; when he spit i became angry and it would be wrong to act from my anger’
    perhaps the ideal or perfect stoic would no longer experience anger, just or unjust
    can we find such a stoic?
    meanwhile, stoic practitioners can profit from the distinction between an internal state and what we choose to express regarding it

  3. Ronald Pies says:

    As a psychiatrist and a student of Stoicism, I, too, enjoyed both these essays. On the matter of “anger”, I have a few thoughts from both the psychological and ethical perspectives. First, I think Kathyrn Koromilas is right in calling our attention to the “emotional spectrum”, along which “anger” lies. We can envision, on the “light” end of the spectrum, feelings such as annoyance and irritation (as when someone cuts ahead of us in line). On the “heavy” end of the spectrum, we can place “rage”–a much less constrained emotional state, in which our entire physiology and physiognomy are noticeably altered. I think nearly all students of psychology would agree that, with rare exceptions, outright rage is not a helpful or constructive emotion. (For visible expressions of rage, we have only to look at the faces of the extremists and bigots at their hate-filled rallies).
    From the ethical perspective, the term “indignation” has an important function. The term is defined as “anger aroused by something unjust…or unworthy” (American Heritage Dictionary). This type of anger, when properly modulated and carefully directed (thank you, Aristotle!), serves an important motivating and activating role in confronting injustice. And in so doing, we are challenged to avoid raw vengeance, which often leads to violence. Here, we find an interesting convergence between the sages of Judaism and those of Stoicism. Thus, the rabbis of the Talmud asked, “How should a person take revenge of his enemy?” They answered, “By cultivating new virtues in oneself.” [I am paraphrasing]. Similarly, Marcus Aurelius counseled, “The best revenge is not to become like the one who wronged you.”
    Best regards,
    Ronald W. Pies, MD

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