women's religion
October 13, 2003 10:56 AM

Quite possibly in response to my snit last week about goddess feminism, Morgaine raises the question this week on WHB about the same: Is there room for women's religion in the women's movement?

I have to get a few semantic issues out of the way - responses to the wording, not the meaning of the question. First off, my feminism is not just a women's movement. It's feminism, the belief in equality of gender/sex in all its variations. Men and transfolk are totally and completely invited to this party (I know from the rest of Morgaine's writing that she agrees with this, but I'm calling out a semantic clarification). And second, I think the question implies that paganism is more representative of women's spiritual leanings than other religions, which tends to discount the experiences of women who believe in other traditions.

Personally, I believe that my spiritual beliefs are the most feminist - as I'm a fervent atheist and therefore have no implications of gender whatsoever in my deity. I have no deity, la.

But I won't go so far as to argue (whatever I may actually believe) that this makes atheism the uber-equality-aligned religion. Marx already went there. Well, after a fashion.

Anyhow, I will go forth and answer Morgaine's question from the perspective that what she's really getting at is whether goddess-worshipping religion deserves the respect and acceptance of feminists.

Do all religious practices deserve acceptance from feminism? Hell, yeah. Every religious choice one makes is a choice, and feminism has to defend those choices. All religions practiced by women are women's religions, as Kerri so eloquently pointed out. Every religion has the capacity for gender equality within it. You do not need to reject Judeo-Christian tradition to embrace equitable spiritual and social values through your religion. HOWEVER. For many people, embracing old pagan traditions and creating new traditions (see the Unitarian Universalists as well as Wicca) provides effective answers without the struggle with what they've experienced as a confining church tradition. So be it.

Do all religions deserve respect? Inasmuch as respect, to me, equates to recognition of the validity of the sociopolitical beliefs implicit in your religion, I don't think so. No, I do not respect the sects of neopagans (mostly Wiccans) who elevate motherhood to divinity (I don't buy that belief from Catholics, either). A lot of Western culture is built on the concept of duality, of divine mothering, etc. - so it's not a surprise that Wicca and other religions would reinforce this. Nevertheless, it's polite and just generally good form to allow people to express their religious beliefs and argue their points.

Does sisterhood extend to our spirituality as well as our politics?

Ladies, ladies, ladies... Sisterhood does not extend to my politics. The truth is that women's experiences aren't always universal, that we don't share an agenda, and we don't always need to be open and supportive. Politically, we are not sisters.

That does not mean we are enemies, not at all. But sisterhood - as the sharing of experience and purpose and just general acceptance of each other - is a concept that makes more sense in contexts other than the political. There is sisterhood at my belly dance class, there can be sisterhood in your religion, your birthing experience, any number of places. In the political sphere, there must be room for other women to be wrong, for us to argue our points and focus on the things we agree on at the moment. Sisterhood is a social phenomenon, not an intellectual one. And I admit to a certain disdain for politics that emphasizes the social (i.e. likability, sentiment) over the intellectual (i.e. justice, economics).

I suspect that, for most women who participate in religious communities, a feeling of community - of which sisterhood is an element - is a big part of it, whatever their beliefs may be. Seems fine to me.

Are Goddess Feminists welcome in the Women's Movement, or are they a distraction? An embarrassment?

Too often, they're a distraction. Too many of the implications of even the most equitable neopagan religions come back to this notion of the goddess figure as various archetypes of femininity. Which would be okay if the archetypes could be accepted as a whole picture - masculinity, femininity, all various points on a continuum of gender. The problem is that too many neopagans, mostly Wiccans, focus either on exhaltation of the "feminine creative principle" as applied only to women (i.e. "girls rock! the goddess told me so!") or fixate on the application of maleness to men and femaleness to women (i.e. "i must be a mommy! the goddess told me so!").

I blame Karl Jung, quite honestly. Jung and the feminists who expanded his man-focused archetypal principles to make more sense to women gave us all these archetypes that, at their simplest level, reflect the virgin/mother/whore division we're all used to. A lot of neopagans draw on oversimplifications of Jung and anthropological study of pagan traditions (because oversimplifications are always the easiest to come by and the easiest to turn into elegant aphoristic statements); Wicca is the worst offendor - many Wiccans don't even seem to recognize the fact that their religion is, you know, 80 years old.

Wiccans, particularly, seem to focus more on rejecting the Judeo-Christian tradition than on adequately researching the next thing they adopt. So, they're choosing a community that feels warm and open, and they equate that feeling of community (aka sisterhood) and the notion of a goddess instead of/in addition to a god with feminism [These ideas aren't anti-feminist, they're just - well, not quite enough, are they?]. Given that, there are a number of Wiccan feminist witches whose ideas seem anything but feminist (at least, by my definitions) - they seem to advocate a lot of the same gender divisions as the chivalric tradition. Being a southern woman who's been working to inform people about issues with southern "gentility" (basically the same ideas) for years, this is desperately frustrating.

As with any movement, feminism has its share of less-informed (I call them stupid, but that's not necessarily true) proponents.

This is not to say paganism is a breeder of idiots. Quite the contrary! Just as the Christians get the Gnostics, neopagans have a number of representatives among them who look at a broader, more complex vision of faith - and because so many neopagans are serious seekers of truth, there are many individuals who bring a deeper sense of equity and psychological truth to paganism.

Does the fact that the Judeo-Christian faiths practiced by the majority of Americans subordinate women to varying degrees mean that we should avoid the subject altogether?

Many women who practice within the "standard" religious traditions don't find them at all subjugatory [Er, if that's a word.]. Just as two women may have vastly different experiences of neopaganism, so might they have the same experiences of Christianity.

Yes, the dogma of Christianity is paternalistic, and women are something of an idealized sidebar, but is that how most people experience their religious communities today? I would suggest not. Even the Catholic Church has made concessions to contemporary life, and many Christian sects have done quite a bit to equalize their practice based on gender and sexual preference - The Unitarian Universalists (who are mostly loosely Christian in the south), Episcopalian and Methodist churches are all among these.

I suspect that those churches changed because their members demanded it, or because their members started leaving. And some of those members were feminists, whether they call themselves by the name or not.

So, no, I don't think we take religion off the table as a feminist conversation topic, but we need to approach it not from the standpoint that any one religion is more or less feminist than another, but from the social standpoint of holding our institutions accountable to change to meet our needs - and keeping in mind that ultimately, it's the members of the church, its people, who will change religion to suit their own changing views. In many ways, if feminism works on a social level, religious change will follow automatically.

How do you feel about President Bush stating that it is not a religion?

Hey, Republicans breed idiots, too. Whatever I may think about various forms of neopaganism, there is no doubt in my mind that all spiritual practices should be granted the same protections. Religion is in the mind of the practitioner. Period.

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your wicked thoughts

Brava. Well said.

these are the thoughts of Dorothea Salo on October 13, 2003 02:11 PM

Wow! You held my attention for the entire post. Good work there...(can I be your sister?)

Also, thanks for making the point about Wicca being a fairly new religion. I had this discussion with my boyfriend and his roommate last month. Neither are Wiccan, and I found it entertaining to say te least to listen to them discuss a 16 year old they know who is convinced the religion is thousands of years old. The newness of it doesn't matter to me, but few practicers of it will admit that it is not ancient.

Oh, and in class tonight I had to explain to classmates that "feminism is about equality, not about elevating one gender or sex above the other." It never ends....

these are the thoughts of Kerri on October 13, 2003 11:21 PM

I think the problem with confusion over "feminism" meaning EQUALITY between genders... is that most people don't bother to look it up in the dictionary. Maybe the word is outdated now. Back when, it was a matter of securing civil rights (like the right to vote, go to college, pick a career, etc.) Now it's mainly about being treated fairly... Maybe it's time to change the word for just that reason.
And I'm so glad to hear someone else express reservations or discomfort with some of the Wiccan issues that I myself have been rubbed the wrong way by for over a decade now. It's not that I have a problem with people being Wiccan, but like any other religion, I can see issues that some people seem to be blind to, that are not exactly "fair" by my standards.
And I'm speaking as a woman who believes in TRUE equality. In other words, I see nothing amiss with women being single parents & doctors, but I also see nothing wrong with a woman being a stay-at-home mother - so long as these choices are ones that the women are okay with, and are being treated with respect and fairness.

these are the thoughts of Chloe on October 16, 2003 04:58 AM

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