The New Feminist Spirituality

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Editor’s Note: A reader’s recent tip reminded us
about a collection of articles from the October/November 1986 issue of
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

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.

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

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