Authenticity by Beth Bartlett

The leaves have finally begun to turn. I’ve been longing for the trees to reveal their true beauty in all their colorful array, and am glad for this beginning. Soon the woods will be filled with the golden, amber, scarlet, and orange glow of the maples, aspen, birch, and oaks of the northern forest.

Hawk Ridge

It is the time of year I would take my Women and Spirituality students to a sacred spot on a ridge high above Lake Superior to explore their spiritual connections with the earth. They would share a particular way they felt a connection to the natural world – often a lake, or a place from their childhood, a tree they loved to climb, their dog, or a stone they carried.   We would circle the large pine and invoke Starhawk’s “Open-Eyed Grounding” practice.[i] They would read and comment on their favorite passages from the readings – selections from Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature and Carol Christ’s “Rethinking Theology and Nature.”[ii] Then they would disperse across the ridge for their solo encounters with nature, before gathering together again, each returning with something they had discovered during that time.  Then we would talk about the changing colors of the leaves surrounding us and talk about how these were the true colors of the leaves, finally emerging now that the chlorophyll that had disguised them in green was beginning to wane. Taking our cue from the leaves, we would talk about authenticity – about their coming into their own true colors. For that is the work of spiritual growth and transformation — to emerge as our own true selves. Yet, how often our unique and precious beings are taught to mask our true color, blend in — be “green” like everyone else.  What a vivid and beautiful world when we come into our own and share our unique gifts and being with the world.

In her The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir claimed that one of the three reasons women have failed to refuse to be the Other and claim themselves as subjects of their own lives is that in seeking “to forgo liberty and become a thing” they thereby “avoid the strain involved in living an authentic existence.”[iii] What is the strain of living an authentic life? It is to carry the full responsibility of one’s choices in life, whether to refuse or to embrace the proscribed role, but only as it is fully and freely chosen, not the mere following of what is expected, or in Audre Lorde’s words, living “by external directives.”[iv] And this, said Lorde, “is a grave responsibility . . . not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.”[v] It can be a heavy burden.  

In some ways, de Beauvoir’s characterization seems unfair. As a woman with privilege, educated, able to earn her own living, living authentically may have cost her parental and societal approval, but she was relatively safe from poverty, imprisonment, and violence for her beliefs, actions, and words. But most women living under patriarchy, as Adrienne Rich pointed out, have always had to lie to those who have power over them for survival — in order to secure a husband, a job, their children, or the blessings of the patriarchal church and God. Depending on one’s situation, race, class, culture, the strain of living an authentic life may vary considerably. One does what one must to survive.

As Gloria Anzaldúa wrote: “The dark-skinned woman has been silenced, gagged, caged, bound into servitude with marriage, bludgeoned for 300 years, sterilized and castrated in the twentieth century. . . . Many times she wished to speak, to act, to protest, to challenge. The odds were heavily against her. She hid her feelings; she hid her truths; she concealed her fire.”[vi]

But at some point, the strain of living an inauthentic life becomes greater than that of living an authentic life. As Mai Thao said of learning to become the “perfect Hmong woman – wordless, humble, obedient,” “my silence killed myself.”[vii] So a time comes when the need to remove the mask is greater than the need to hide behind it. “We women of color strip off the mascaras others have imposed on us,” wrote Anzaldúa, “see through the disguises we hide behind and drop our personas so that we may become subjects in our own discourses.”[viii]

To become one’s authentic self as a woman in a patriarchal culture is to enter what Mary Daly called “the journey of women becoming.”[ix] This journey to become oneself, beyond imposed gender norms, is a gift we can help to facilitate in each other. In the words of Radicalesbians, “together we must find, reinforce, and validate our authentic selves.  . . .  finding our centers inside of ourselves. . . . We feel a real-ness, feel at last we are coinciding with ourselves.”[x]  Coinciding with ourselves – a sense of integration, of integrity – empowers us to go through life whole and grounded, secure in our beings, clear.

To live authentically, or as Lorde said, “from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic. . . ,”  is to honor “the lifeforce,”“the yes within ourselves.”[xi] Though not without fear, it is the guide that empowers our choices and opens us to our capacity for joy. 

In her ode to nonconformity, “Warning,” Jenny Joseph declared:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat, that doesn’t go, . . . .

And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

Living an authentic life is a lifelong process that may glow even brighter with age, but one needn’t wait until elderhood to embrace it. As the then 25-year-old Joseph wrote in her last stanza, . . . maybe I should practice a little now.

Perhaps the trees have reached the age where they too can wear purple, red, orange, and yellow, living out their best lives in their true vibrancy – inspiring us to do the same, at any age.


Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

______, ed. Making Face, Making Soul: Hacienda Caras/Creative and Critical Perspectives by Women of Color. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Ed. and trans. H.M. Parshley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.

Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.

Joseph, Jenny. Selected Poems. Hexham, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 1992.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outside: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1984.

Plaskow, Judith and Carol P. Christ. Eds., Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1989.

Radicalesbians. “The Woman-Identified Woman.” In Kolmar, Wendy and Frances Bartkowski. Feminist Theory: A Reader. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 2000. 195-198.

Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose: 1966-1978. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1979.

Starhawk. The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.

Thao, Mai Kao. “Sins of Silence.” In Kesselman, Amy, Lily D. McNair, and Nancy Schniedewind, eds. Women: Images and Realities: A Multicultural Anthology. 2nd ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1999. 17-18.

[i] From Starhawk, The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature: 52-53.

[ii] From Plaskow, Judith and Carol P. Christ. Eds., Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1989.

[iii] xxi.

[iv] Lorde, Sister Outsider, 58.

[v] Ibid., 58.

[vi] Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera, 22-23.

[vii] Thao, 17-18.

[viii] Anzaldúa, Making Face, Making Soul, xvi.

[ix] Daly, 1.

[x] Radicalesbians, 219, emphasis mine. This was the gift of consciousness-raising groups.

[xi] Lorde, 55, 57, 58.

BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion.  She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.

6 thoughts on “Authenticity by Beth Bartlett”

  1. WOW, this analogy really doesn’t work for me or for nature for that matter….I have to say that I find it really strange to portray trees (that embody community in ways humans can’t begin to comprehend) as not being authentic when they are green – they are in a continuous greening process moving from lemon -lime – to emerald – forest green -( (during the spring and summer their leaves have been providing us with the oxygen we need to breathe) and then the letting go begins…as the evergreens begin to take over more photosynthesizing. When we move into fall what does happened is that as chlorophyll recedes the other pigments begin to shine…. If any Living Being is authentic in all stages it is the 400 million year old tree.

    With that much said I found this article to be excellent reading bringing to mind womens’ writings that have affected me deeply.

    I experience authenticity as a continuous process of becoming that doesn’t end until death ( I think Mary Daly was headed that way)… at each stage we see the world with new eyes ears heart etc and hopefully are able to embody what we learn…

    In this culture even today I think we have to work very hard and be willing to endure in order to stay with our own truths as they evolve.

    I do keep an online journal and off line dream journal and going back to read what I wrote and dreamed helps me to see what changes have been wrought and at what price..


  2. Thank you, Sara. I appreciate your perspective, and yes, certainly trees are authentic beings. I’d love to know what women’s writings have affected you deeply.


  3. This wonderful post makes me think of all the people, women and men, I have known who have made the most positive changes not necessarily through what they have done, but through who they were. Many of them were on lifelong, sometimes traumatic, journeys to feel comfortable with who they felt themselves to be, but their quest for authenticity gives such power to the compassionate, creative ways they live their lives. I love how you bring in the thoughts of so many women – it’s like sitting in on a conversation among all these wise women!


  4. Thank you so much for your comments, Carolyn. I loved what you said about the people you know who have made such positive contributions through who they are. I often think of these writers as being in conversation, so I’m delighted that you experience them that way. (It was even a typical final exam question in my feminist theory course — “Imagine a conversation among….”) Thank you.


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