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Feminism and Spirituality
by Feral

Beltane 2002, Vol 1-3
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symbol, some women's groups
Digital Illusstration
© Copyright Feral, 2002.
All rights reserved.
The Organizational Mysteries

Like many of us, I've spent much of my adult life in one group or another, doing moneywork or heartwork*. Most of my heartwork groups have been populated by feminist women -- and given heartwork, feminist, and women, I've had high expectations of these groups. Again, like many of us, I've had some wonderful and some mighty surprising and painful experiences in these groups. This column begins to deal with the enduring puzzle.

the woods
Courtesy of

The Cauldron
Let's walk into the woods behind an archetypal medieval woman hurrying to her moon circle. We don't know much about her, but it's easy to guess that she would hold the other women's lives in her hand, and they hers. They would share a common belief, purpose, and secret within the circle, and a common fear of those outside. That combination is a superglue for human groups.

The members of that circle would follow their leader's lineage in the craft. Each step in that lineage would likely be generational, as would membership in the circle, for the most part. Leaders would probably lead until they were claimed by infirmity or death.

The politics in some of those groups would be fierce, with grudges and dependencies lasting a lifetime. But those women, leaders and followers alike, would share a great incentive to stick together: Any one of them, if pushed too far and angry enough, could bring horror down on all of them.

The Centrifuge
By contrast, our 21st century groups (in the U.S., at least) are to some degree safer and more public. We expect to live longer, move around, live several lives in a single lifetime. Maybe as a result, our groups attach with post-it glue: strong enough to bond, but peelable. Each step in our spiritual path has its own lineage, such as: "I was raised Lutheran, then I got into Buddhism for a few years, then I became a feminist, then I read a feminist book of shadows, joined a mixed coven, went to a Goddess conference, started a Dianic coven…."

Many of us -- as leaders and followers -- have this sort of hopscotch lineage. We don't often name all our teachers and their teachers and theirs, even if we know their names. It's too complicated. We could be judged or at least categorized. Maybe some of our past allegiances are embarrassing or painful to recall, as ex-loverships can be.

love comes & goes
Courtesy of
Microsoft Design Gallery Live

A Sequence of Commitments
As with a new lover, in a new spiritual group we submerge our differences to feel closer. We romanticize the others' characteristics. We don't take in any information that would contradict our image of the group -- or we decide to work to change the reality. What follows over time depends on the quality of the group and our commitment to it. When it works, there's progressive understanding, acceptance, and shared energy. When it doesn't work, there's progressive disillusion, disappointment, grief… and a search for another spiritual home.

It's no coincidence that this sounds like the trajectory of contemporary relationships. The same centrifuge works on our partnerships and on our spiritual communities, spinning faster and faster, separating us into like and unlike. Each of us has that longing to be "like"- - but we're part of a mainstream culture that trains us, from infancy, to prize our individuality above all.

The leader of the medieval moon circle could count on the cauldron of shared belief, purpose, secret, and fear of the outside to keep her group whole. The job of our contemporary leaders is much harder. There's more competition for the followers' time and energy. And there's always too much to do.

The Romance-Based Organization
Any leader must be tempted to go for the glamour, the romance of beginnings, and keep the group in that state in which (as in new-lovership or, for example, software development) there's energy to burn, little need for sleep or regular meals, and lessened focus on the other parts of life. The only way I know to maintain a group in that state is to keep bringing in new members and somehow nudging out the old members as they get tired or critical.

jet plane
Courtesy of
Microsoft Design Gallery Live

In love, this manifests as the two-year maximum. Most of us have at least one friend who does relationships like a flight from Chicago to Detroit: steep ascent, steep descent, landing -- no level flying time. In the software development business I've seen this short-sighted approach succeed in getting the product out, making money for the company. The nudged-out developers are pretty burned-out, though, and bitter, and often ill. That's also true of those nudged out of a romance-based spiritual organization.

If you've ever been in a romance-based group, you may have noticed that there doesn't seem to be any connection between a member's value to the group -- her energy, ideas, and contribution -- and the likelihood that she'll be nudged out. In fact, the ones full of ideas and energy often do get nudged out because new ideas are viewed as criticism of the status quo. This is truly crazy-making for the nudgee, who can go on for years trying to make sense of her experience. It also has a chilling effect on most other members of the group: Suddenly it seems that there's a circle within the circle, where the decisions are made without them.

Some for-profit organizations are baldly honest about being romance-based (though they don't call it that). A customer service manager once told me, "Nobody stays in this group more than two years, and I don't want them to -- by then they're cynical and burned out." He said this to every job candidate, so the people he hired would know what they were getting into.

girls' group
Courtesy of
Microsoft Design Gallery Live

If what we're looking for is an intense learning experience, an openly romance-based spiritual group could be just right. But as far as I know, such organizational self-awareness is rare. Maybe because we carry that archetype of the medieval moon circle, the lifelong community with its mutual secrets and trust, most of us seem to be looking for organizations that grow long-term supportive communities. If that's what we're seeking, we can save ourselves time and pain by learning to recognize the romance-based organization. These questions may be useful:

  • Are diverse opinions welcomed and processed in the organization?
  • Are there pro-active efforts to keep members from over-committing and burning out?
  • Do experienced and respected members leave without much explanation?
  • Even if the organization is officially committed to increasing membership, does the actual membership count stay about the same or diminish over time?

* I learned these terms from my friend and teacher, Sharon Cogbill.

Graphics Credits
+ symbol, some women's groups, Digital Illustration © Copyright Feral, 2002. All rights reserved.
+ forest, Ian Britton,
+ love comes & goes, jet plane, girls' group, courtesy of Microsoft Design Gallery Live
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