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Feminism and Spirituality
by Feral

Imbolc 2002, Vol 1-2
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women's symbolHard Times Trying to Walk That Talk

The word feminism is one of the most reliable firestarters of our time. Spirituality has a longer history: people have been killing each other over the most refined differences in that concept for centuries. So what happens when feminism and spirituality come together?

For one thing, today a woman minister presides over the Lutheran church in the tiny Wisconsin town down the road from me. And women rabbis, ministers, chaplains, and theologians are at work all over the U.S. The radicals have "made the middle move over a little," (1) in religion as in other areas.

As an ex-Catholic rationalist feminist living in the '70s, I regarded spirituality as a distraction from the work at hand. But I couldn't help admiring the wild bravado of those women who were making a Goddess religion out of nothing more than fragments of statues and stories. That's all I knew about it then.

Now I've been a feminist for 28 years, a spiritual seeker for 12, and a witch for 8. When I ask myself what comes from the interaction of feminism and spirituality in the Goddess communities, I have a bunch of conflicting answers: Astonishing, life-changing insights. Deeply moving rituals. A sense of authenticity, continuity, and community crossing time and space. Religions, more or less organized. Bitter arguments, shunning, schisms, burnout. Lifelong friendships begun at conferences, or broken at conferences. A continent of talk, and some hard times trying to walk that talk.

I intend to write on this subject for a while, biting off as small a chunk as I can for each column.

What Our Consensual Reality Needs

Building consensual reality is basic to our magic and our everyday balance. To keep that reality flexible and creative, what's needed is some consensual ambiguity -- an agreement that there are many ways to perceive a person or situation and these perceptions may conflict and yet be true and valuable.

I try hard to live by this principle, which I've found best expressed by novelist Sheri Tepper (2). She invents a species the humans call "viggies," who live in troupes and sing their perceptions and experiences. The viggies welcome a song that conflicts with what they know, because incorporating it makes their complex music ring more true.

Consensual ambiguity is practiced here and there in the mainstream culture. High-school journalists learn that if five people witness an event they'll tell five different stories about it. "Happy Holidays" is a favorite greeting-card message because it can be sent from anybody to anybody. Political opponents in Congress are allies on one issue while "agreeing to disagree" about another - after all, they'd say, "it's nothing personal."

For feminists, the personal is political (3). Maybe that's why we have such a hard time agreeing to disagree, much less embracing conflicting viewpoints as a means to greater understanding. Or maybe we react to the pressure all subcultures undergo: to maintain consistency within the group so it can stay distinct from the mainstream. This can involve shooting the messenger who brings bad news, sometimes until there are no more messengers.

As witches we're part of a subculture that's trivialized or demonized by a lot of people, so strange vibes are aimed at us. We've internalized some of those attitudes, inevitably, so we sometimes send strange vibes toward each other. We struggle against paranoia and we try to shield. We feel safe in a group of women "of like mind." In this situation, it's no surprise that dissent can scare us into shooting anybody who might be a messenger.

But for feminist witches, intention matters. Whether we practice magic or just acknowledge chaos theory, we believe our intentions, as well as our actions, can change reality. The Catholics called this a "sin of thought"; Orwell (4) called it "thoughtcrime"; and I consider it the hardest responsibility to accept in becoming a witch.

This is my intention: Whether the song I add to our music is harmony or discord, I need to be as sure as I can (as sure as meditation and mindfulness can make me) that my intention is to help the music ring more true. When I hear someone else's dissonant song, I need to consider her intention, not assuming she intends to destroy. In spite of all the fearful or protective impulses arguing for fight or flight, as feminists, as witches, we're committed to changing reality for the better, not silencing the messengers who may contribute to the change.

In that spirit, please email your comments to me at farrellwords@yahoo.com.

  1. The Women's Room, a novel by Marilyn French, published 1977.
  2. After Long Silence, a novel by Sheri S. Tepper, published 1987.
  3. For an interesting set of opinions about who coined this phrase, see Women's Studies Online Resources (http://research.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/pisp.html).
  4. 1984, a novel by George Orwell, published 1949.
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