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Iron Butterflies: Women Transforming Themselves and the World

Iron Butterflies: Women Transforming Themselves and the World

by Birute Regine

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Iron Butterflies weaves together the stories of over fifty successful women from all walks of life and throughout the world. Author Birute Regine spent several years in eight countries, interviewing dynamic female role models: a congresswoman, a governor, a former prime minister, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a winemaker, CEOs,


Iron Butterflies weaves together the stories of over fifty successful women from all walks of life and throughout the world. Author Birute Regine spent several years in eight countries, interviewing dynamic female role models: a congresswoman, a governor, a former prime minister, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a winemaker, CEOs, artists, doctors, nurses, and many others. Forging their leadership from an amalgam of masculine and feminine skills, all these "Iron Butterflies" have transformed themselves, and in doing so they are contributing to a larger social transformation.

Iron Butterflies convincingly demonstrates how traditionally feminine skills and values— inclusion, empathy, relational awareness, emotional strength, and seeking a holistic perspective—can be applied to empower more people than ever before. Like the many women profiled, leaders in the twenty-first century will paradoxically embrace vulnerability and durability to create better working and living relationships for us all.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Consultant and developmental psychologist Regine (coauthor, The Soul at Work) compiles wisdom drawn from several years of original interviews with 60 successful women around the world, including CEOs and businesswomen, U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Johnson, former Prime Minister of Canada Kim Campbell, and others whose "achievements demonstrate how feminine power is changing our businesses, our organizations and our world into better places to work and live." In flowing, occasionally dense prose, this intellectual and dynamic treatise on women in the modern workplace demonstrates convincingly how empathy, emotional and strength and an embrace of vulnerability are changing traditional, male-dominated management models. Declaring the Era of Women, Regine celebrates big picture thinkers as well as mindful feelers, a powerful message reinforced by the impressive professional biographies of each subject.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Prometheus Books
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Read an Excerpt

IRON butterflies

By Birute Regine

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 Birute Regine
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-169-1

Chapter One


Earning My Wings

I am iron butterfly ... I am she/we of flesh and iron and silk wings, healing, flying into a gentle blue sky. Janice Mirikitani, from Love Works

As I stood on my deck overlooking the Contoocook River in Hancock, New Hampshire, a gossamer mist, like gauze, shrouded the trees, the river dock, the ferns. The scent of sweet pine and the pungent dampness of river water filled the morning chill of early autumn. Having spent several days immersed in reading the transcripts of the women I had interviewed for this book, I was filled with their many insights, their heartfelt truths, and felt honored that these amazing women had entrusted me with their stories, their legacy to future generations of women.

In the midst of the morning stillness, the power of their stories suddenly hit me, and I felt an unexpected rush of vulnerability. These women's lives had deeply moved me-moved me to tears, tears of love and gratitude. They gave me such valuable gifts: their candidness, their generosity, their firm conviction and clarity of mind, their compassionate presence, their humor, their iron will. Something emerged from their collective voice that embraced me and validated me. Feeling their support also revealed paradoxically how much I had unknowingly isolated myself while writing this book. You know the feeling-like finding yourself navigating through a dense forest alone but determined to tough it out and keep your chin up. You don't even realize you feel lonely until someone places a gentle hand on your shoulder, utters a kind word, or offers you a drink of water. Suddenly a hidden reservoir of vulnerability opens up and you collapse into your own quiet softness.

As I walked down the wooded path toward the river, sunlight split the clouds, splintering the mist. Suddenly, all around me, I saw hundreds of spider webs. Some were draped like hammocks between diminutive princess pines. Others hung like upside-down parachutes suspended from twigs or nestled in ground cover, the mist captured in their delicate weaving. Orb spider webs, beaded with dew, dangled from trees like sparkling gems in an exquisitely strung necklace. Single threads, like silken tightropes, spanned the trees, forcing me to duck my head to avoid breaking them. Though I had walked down this path many times, I had never seen such a spectacle. The dispersing fog caught in emerging morning light had revealed a community of webs, an amazing world hidden in plain sight.

Those webs called to mind the women's stories I had gathered for this book. Their stories had also revealed an amazing, ever present, but often unseen world. With little fanfare, women around the world are weaving a reality filled with compassion, cooperation, and grit that challenges the status quo and transforms the meaning of power, leadership, and success. Their achievements demonstrate how feminine power is changing our businesses, our organizations, and our world into better places to work and live. Like the webs exposed by the sun refracting the mist, these women's stories reveal a social revolution hidden in plain sight whose time has arrived.


Since 9/11, the world has seemed tipped off its axis, and not just because our planet has been visited by the attack on the World Trade Center, a devastating tsunami, earthquakes, floods, fires, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Preemptive military strikes, unilateralism, corporate scandals, violation of human rights, murder and assassinations, genocide, wars, torture, world poverty, pedophiles in religious institutions, environmental degradation, violence, sex slave trade, terrorism and roadside bombs, global economic havoc-all have conspired to silence people who would speak out for peace and safety and love. Such acts share one common denominator: the urge to dominate, to exert power over others, an urge all too deeply embedded in human society. However, this approach has reached its limits; no longer can we resolve the world's complex problems only by brute force, by imposing our will, or by flexing our muscles and unleashing our weapons. Instead we should strive to find a better way, a more humane, civilized, caring, and loving way, to resolve differences of opinions and conflicts of interest. My travels, my interviews, and my research have convinced me that a better way lies just around the corner. By encouraging strong women to step forward, speak out, and display the power of their inherent feminine skills, we can, I think, bring some much-needed balance to a masculine-infused world and restore humanity and safety back to our torn and ravaged planet.

We can sit around feeling depressed or helpless about the sorry state of the world, or we can do something about it. The women leaders I met and interviewed while writing this book have done something about it, either in their own small, local world or on the broader world stage. Their life stories and their work gripped me because their selective wisdom seemed to be saying, "We can create a better place."

Imagine such a place. Women gathering in vast numbers to create cooperative webs of connection that replace the old and tired domination approach of conquer, control, and coerce; women no longer restricted by sex discrimination; the end of the sex slave trade and other forms of violence against women; women unafraid to walk the streets at night; eliminating the feminization of poverty due to the devaluation of all the caring and care giving that women worldwide provide for free; an equal number of women sitting at the power and peace tables that decide our future; women collaborating with each other rather than competing; families with plenty of resources for childcare and proper training of childcare workers; a greater investment in other professions long associated with the feminine, such as teaching and nursing; quality care for our elderly and educational opportunities for everyone; and women uniting for peace and justice in a world that does not need any more wars and violence. In their gathering and connecting, women are already weaving another way of living and working together that does not rely on hierarchies devoted to exercising power over others, but rather evokes a world of working together. Although their efforts have been largely off the radar screen in a world where the sensationalized media preoccupy themselves with celebrities and bad news, it is out there and it's a potent, ever-increasing presence, with sufficient power to shift our world.

I have seen women from all walks of life all around the world mid-wifing, in small and large ways, a different reality, based on cooperation, inclusion, and power with and for others, serving the greater good, and bringing out the best in people and the humanity in us all. They are nurturing a higher level of consciousness that transcends greed, self-interest, and survival. They are bound by their caring, in the service of progress. They are igniting a feminine consciousness.

When we engage a feminine consciousness, we think about our children's future for seven generations ahead, as the Native American Mohawks do; we care for Mother Earth as a way of caring for ourselves; we learn from each other and work together globally to find better solutions to common problems; we reject short-term gains in profits driven by ego-interests that harm and limit long-term aims for improving the community; we wage peace through education and healthcare and the eradication of poverty; we heal traumatic wounds inflicted by the violence of domination with compassion and love, and break the seemingly endless cycle of violence and revenge.

Women around the world are engaging in social transformation. And they are doing this one person at a time, one relationship at a time. They showed me a different world I could believe in; they filled me with hope.


A prophecy shared among indigenous Mayan and Mongolian people, despite their geographical separation, predicts that, in 2010, the 5,400-year cycle known as the Era of Man ends and the Era of Woman begins. I would amend that to the Era of Women, because women's unrealized power is a collective power. Unlike the Era of Man that revered such masculine role models as Superman, John Wayne, and the Lone Ranger-powerful, fearless, strong men who epitomized individuality, autonomy, and independence-the Era of Women respects and values feminine models, be they men or women, who embrace the power of a collective effort, community, and interdependence. Unlike the Era of Man that excluded women from circles of power, in the Era of Women, men and women work together as global citizens and pool their resources and skills in service of the greater good, such as redirecting impulses of aggression locally and globally. You'll meet many of these new models in the pages ahead: from Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada, and Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to Australian aboriginal elder Violet and Cynthia Trudell, former CEO of Saturn cars.

The prophecy affirmed what I came to believe after coauthoring my last book with Roger Lewin, The Soul at Work: Embracing Complexity Science for Business Success, that women are in a position to lead in the twenty-first century. In a complex environment and an interconnected world, skills associated with women will prove more and more effective and keenly pertinent: their holistic view of the world, their ability to see interconnections among things, their relational intelligence, their tendencies toward collaboration and inclusion, their ability to empathize. Daniel Pink made this prediction in his book A Whole New Mind: "The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind-creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people-artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers-will now reap society's richest rewards and share its greatest joys." In other words, the future belongs to people, regardless of gender, who embrace their feminine power, and we need to move in a direction that emboldens women to step forward and speak their mind and truths in a world begging for a different kind of leadership.

The Era of Women ushers in a time for high-touch, right-brain, feminine aspects of our psyche to come fully into play. We associate these qualities with women, but unfortunately, in the past, leaders in the realm of politics, business, and media have disdained, marginalized, or dismissed these qualities as frivolous, ineffectual, and touchy-feely. Seldom were feminine skills ever granted authority. That attitude consigned women to a subordinate position in business and government organizations. Now, however, the very qualities that have kept women out of the mainstream are the very same qualities that empower them to lead in the Era of Women.

The Era of Women calls us to be open and not afraid, to find the courage to take back our power. As Gloria Steinem insists, "Power can be taken, but not given. The process of taking is empowerment in itself." Throughout history, when women took back their power, they created change-the abolitionists freed the slaves, the suffragettes won women's right to vote, the feminists created equal opportunities for women and control over their own bodies. When we take back our power, we place value on the abundant fecundity of feminine power that sustains and nurtures life in all its diversity. When we take back our power, we bring balance to the world. Whether women act or don't act, women will make the difference in shaping this new Era of Women. Women's role is to rescue society from abusiveness, competition, and violence created by men holding unchallenged dominance. But not just for women. For men as well. As philosopher Richard Tarnas urged, it's high time for men "to enter into a fundamentally new relationship of mutuality with the feminine in all its forms. The feminine then becomes not that which must be controlled, denied, and exploited, but rather fully acknowledged, respected, and responded to for itself. It is recognized: not the objectified 'other,' but rather source, goal, and immanent presence." Without the feminine counterbalancing the masculine, the human spirit languishes as a one-winged creature unable to soar.


The women I met during my global journey represented a wide range of ages, races, nationalities, and occupations. In talking to them, I discovered that although many of these women were very public personalities, they often felt alone in their work. I wondered if I should coin a phrase that would convey the qualities they all shared, something memorable that would not only describe them but would also serve to unify and honor them as sisters and kindred spirits.

When I interviewed Janice Mirikitani, poet laureate for San Francisco, she gave me a book of her poetry, Love Works. The book fell open to the page with the poem titled "Iron Butterfly," which opens this chapter. My first thought was of the rock group from the seventies of the same name. As I read her poem, the two words conjured up a beautiful feminine image that also captured strength and perseverance, a powerful metaphor for the essence of feminine power these women displayed. For me, the term captured their individual resilience and fragility, their conviction and poignancy, their inner beauty and outer strength.

And of course, the butterfly symbolizes life reinventing itself, an image of transformation. A once crawling creature, enclosed in a cocoon of its own becoming, miraculously emerges as a winged creature, unfolds its wings, and takes flight. The wings of an Iron Butterfly may consist of gossamer threads, but her heart beats like an iron drum, a drum tempered by life's hard lessons and her own deep reflections. Iron Butterflies deploy their natural, even vulnerable, feminine gifts while maintaining an unbreakable will.

The Iron Butterflies in this book come from many parts of the world: the United States, Canada, England, Italy, Colombia, Australia, Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq. They are married with children, have lost children; are single mothers, single women, divorced, married once, twice, three times; and are straight and gay. They come from all walks of life and include doctors, artists, a federal judge, a novelist, businesswomen, a governor, a wine maker, a priest, CEOs, lawyers, a professor, a housewife, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, nurses, a congresswoman. As mostly middle-aged American women, they struggled through the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the Vietnam peace movement, and they fought for equal access to education and job opportunities, and for reproductive rights.

These women have achieved a certain status in their communities. We often read about successful women when they have reached the top of the ladder. But we don't often hear about their struggles, their fallibilities, their journey on the rocky road to becoming strong women. The Iron Butterflies in this book have earned their successes. They are also forthright about the obstacles they have overcome. They have been neglected or, sexually, physically, or emotionally abused. Some have been robbed, assaulted by fist or gun or knife, and raped. Others described themselves as having been anorexic, bulimic, alcoholic, drug addicted, neurotic, or depressed. Think of any weakness or victimizing situation, and they have "been there, done that." But no matter how grave the injustices and hardships they have suffered, they have in their brilliance never let it turn them into victims. Rather, they have become kinder, stronger, and wiser.


Excerpted from IRON butterflies by Birute Regine Copyright © 2010 by Birute Regine. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Barbara Kingsolver
I think this is such a worthy project because I would like a lot of people to read and think about the fact that there are modes of leadership that are not part of the machismo model and are more successful. (Pulitzer Prize winner Barbara Kingsolver, novelist, essayist, environmentalist)

Meet the Author

Birute Regine (Cambridge, MA), a developmental psychologist, is a partner in Harvest Associates, a writing and consulting company, which she founded with her husband, Roger Lewin. She conducts workshops across the country, speaks at business and women’s conferences and colleges, offers life and executive coaching, and writes books and articles. She is the coauthor with Roger Lewin of the critically acclaimed The Soul at Work: Embracing Complexity Science for Business Success (reissued in paperback with the title Weaving Complexity and Business: Engaging the Soul at Work).

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