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The New Feminist Spirituality

 Witchhead Nebula and Feminist Spirituality 

Editor’s Note: A reader's recent tip reminded us about a collection of articles from the October/November 1986 issue of Utne Reader about Halloween, contemporary witchcraft, and feminist spirituality. In celebration of the holiday, we’ll be posting a few of our favorites online through the 31st.

When I left the Catholic Church at 20, I was certain of two things. One was that God the Father, with his heaven and hell, was pretty ridiculous. The other was that there were forces in the universe larger than our lives. While there was plenty of support for the former belief in the left of the 1960s, there was little for the latter. I didn’t know where to look for a structure to accommodate my deep, but vague, spiritual beliefs.

Politically, I moved from the left into the women’s movement. By this time I’d separated my spiritual beliefs from my political ones, and there was nothing at first in the women’s movement to suggest I should do otherwise. I took a class in parapsychology and read a bit about Easter religions, but nothing seemed to offer any framework for my spiritual hunger. Recently, however, I’ve discovered a spiritual tradition which, if it hasn’t given me all the answers I’m looking for, has at least helped shape my journey.

The feminist spirituality movement began to emerge in the mid-1970s and has become one of the largest submovements within feminism. It’s amorphous, blending radical feminism, pacifism, witchcraft, Eastern mysticism, goddess worship, animism, psychic healing and a variety of practices normally associated with the occult.

Witchcraft especially seems to appeal to feminists on a spiritual quest. It is a women’s religion, a religion of the earth, vilified by patriarchal Christianity and now, finally, reclaimed. Witches seem to embody all that men fear and hate in women—strength and potentially destructive (to men) forces. Feminist historians have added another more poignant dimension to our understanding of witchcraft: Witch burnings have been revealed as a form of genocide whose victims were old women, odd women, influential women, sexual women and healers.

When I first discovered the feminist spirituality movement, I was both intrigued and put off. Political activists I know expressed disdain for women who, they felt, were substituting new versions of old religious mumbo jumbo for useful actions. I couldn’t blame them. When Susan Saxe, a former member of Weather Underground and a self-proclaimed feminist, was arrested and sent to Boston for trial, the feminist community there rallied to her support. Spiritual feminists formed “energy circles”—sitting in a circle, holding hands, projecting empowering thoughts her way.

“That’s all fine,” one of Saxe’s harried defense committee members told me bitterly, “but why don’t they use their ‘energy’ to help raise money for her defense?”

I sympathized with my friend on the committee, but I also felt there was more to what these women were doing than we understood. So I set out to explore feminist spirituality. I took a class from a Boston spiritualist, Diane Mariechild, and learned how to meditate, to look for people’s auras, to discover my past lives and to invoke the goddess.

The goddess, I learned, is central to feminist spirituality. But few see her as the literal equivalent of the Judeo-Christian god. Starhawk, currently one of the movement’s prime figures, describes the goddess in her books The Spiral Dance (Harper & Row) and Dreaming the Dark (Beacon Press) as “immanence”: all living creatures—male and female, human, animal and plant—have the goddess within them. Others see the goddess as being both within living creatures and outside us. Karen Vogel, co-creator of the magnificent Motherpeace tarot deck, told me recently, “I feel there’s something in us, but some outside creator too—some force that’s inexplicable. We all come from something and it starts out female, the Mother.”

Feminist scholars examining early history introduced the images of goddesses we now use. Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman (Harcourt Brace Jobanovich) and similar works have provided a historical and an anthropological basis for assuming that God the Father was a relative newcomer to theology. The assumption that goddess worship went hand in hand with matriarchal female-dominated societies has been debated among feminist scholars, but feminist spirituality seems to accept it as a given—at least metaphorically.

Feminist spirituality rejects the traditional Christian notion of living this life in anticipation of the afterlife, but most of it adherents talk in terms of cycles of life, death, and rebirth. “I always believed in reincarnation,” says Starhawk, “long before I’d even heard of it.” Years later, when she started studying witchcraft (“witchcraft has a far more complex theology than most people know”), she was pleased to learn that witches believe in reincarnation. “It’s a very different version of reincarnation than Hindus believe in,” she says. “It’s not about working through till you can get off the wheel [of life]. It’s about being reborn among those you know and loved before; it’s about your connection with the planet. This world is the domain of the spirit; this world is paradise, or at least its potential.”

A large part of feminist spirituality involves the use of “tools” to reach the psychic/spiritual depths. Many of these are also used in the occult arts; astrology, palmistry, Tarot cards and gems and crystals. Along with the tools for psychic journey go rituals. Hallie Iglehart, author of Womanspirit: A Guide to Women’s Wisdom (Harper & Row), says, “Human beings need ritual; we need practices that stimulate our senses, help us move into that spiritual place. Ritual helps us transcend our egos. For Starhawk, ritual provides “a very powerful means to communicate, to come together to make changes and transformation. It’s not that ritual is wonderful per se—it’s what you use it for.”

Perhaps the strongest criticism of feminist spirituality is that it takes energy away from political work and puts it into forming energy circles or praying to the goddess. It’s an accusation that draws equally strong reactions in the spirituality movement. They acknowledge that religion can be used as an opiate of the people but deny that it usually functions that way.

Starhawk notes that the notion of a spiritual/political dichotomy is a middle-class Western notion. “If you look into the cultures of people of color, you find that magic, spirituality, and politics aren’t separate from each other.” She discovered on a recent trip to Nicaragua that the Christianity of the workers was different from that of the church. “The Christ they invoke is an immanent Christ. The Missa Campesino [Peasants’ Mass] says, ‘Jesus is the truck driver changing his tire; Jesus is the man in the park buying a snow cone and complaining that he didn’t get enough ice.’”

Other women point to Gandhi, to the black Christianity of the U.S. civil rights movement, to the Quakers in the suffrage and peace movements and to the Maryknoll nuns killed in El Salvador. Many feminists view spirituality as the force that can make continued political struggle possible—a counter to the growing problem of burnout. Iglehart describes the rituals she has participated in at the end of violence-against-women conferences, when participants were dealing with and the enormity of the task of fighting it. “People who were drained would be energized and focused through the ritual, with a very clear idea of what they were going to do.”

Reva Siebolt, who is active in feminist electoral politics, says she needs spirituality to enable her to continue her work. “The energy of Washington is so brutal I go numb. I’m learning to listen to my inner voice, to get ideas from deep inside me, not just from some logical structure outside.” Iglehart warns: “If there isn’t a back and forth between political activists and women in spirituality, the political women are going to get burned out, and the spiritual women are going to be out in spaceland.”

Other problems in feminist spirituality reflect those in the larger feminist movement. Spirituality has been accused, with some validity, of being a white woman’s concern, centering on white pagan traditions and goddesses. But as more women of color have become involved, their traditions have changed feminist spirituality.

Pat Camarena, a Mexican-American feminist involved in witchcraft, sees that involvement as an extension of her heritage. “The difference between Mexican and pagan witchcraft is that Mexican witchcraft isn’t in opposition to Christianity—it takes the Virgin as its central figure. When you do a spell, you invoke Mary.” She sees the Virgin as a manifestation of the goddess, and feels a strong connection to the spells and rituals her grandmother used when Pat was a child and those she herself now uses.

Women in feminist spirituality are often involved in political work other than feminism, especially anti-nuclear and environmental issues. They see this as an extension of feminism—men own Mother Earth as they own women. This parallels a complex phenomenon in the women’s movement as a whole: The feminist newspaper New Women’s Times suspended publication last year, attributing its difficulties in part to the “large-scale movement of women from feminist activism to peace and antinuclear work.” Whether this is a hopeful or alarming phenomenon, it’s clearly not limited to feminist spirituality.

I’m not sure what place feminist spirituality has or will have in my life. I’m not wholly comfortable with the goddess. The image has power for me, but I don’t see it justified by any superior female goodness operating in the world. Female nonviolence seems to me chiefly a function of being deprived of the tools of violence, and I’m not sure the Mother would end up being any less abusive than the Father has been. Whatever the creative force is, it’s too large to be encompassed in human imagery.

Nonetheless, the existence of the movement is important in my life—and I suspect it’s important to the survival of feminism itself. More and more, I see in women and men around me, as I’ve seen for so long in myself, a spiritual hunger. When political movements are new, or when they’re making obvious or dramatic changes, that need can become submerged in the thrill of discovery or accomplishment. When the struggle is long and old and riddled with defeat, the strength to continue must come from deeper places. Feminist spirituality offers one way of reaching for those places. Even for women who may not choose it for their path, it offers the assurance that there are paths, and nonpatriarchal images to bring to other existing spiritual modes.

Last spring, I went to a daylong workshop Hallie Iglehart ran in Boston. There were about 30 women, ranging from their early 20s to their early 50s and from lesbian separatists to suburban homemakers. The rituals and meditations were fairly familiar to me. But this day gave me a taste of transcendence. Why that happened in this particular group I’m not sure. But some of it was the extraordinary combination of women who seemed to know, at that moment at least, that differences of lifestyle, needs, personality had nothing to do with who we were or what we were creating there.

I know now that if I can’t accept the goddess as my image of the creative spirit, I can at least accept her as a wise and valued friend—a useful companion who has opened doors to places I might never have seen without her.

Excerpted from Ms. (Dec. 1985) and reprinted in Utne Reader (Oct./Nov. 1986). 

Image: Rigel, M-42 (Orion Nebula), Horsehead and Witch Head Nebulas by Darron Birgenheier, licensed under Creative Commons.