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book coverTransforming Feminist Practice: Non-Violence, Social Justice and the Possibilities of a Spiritualized Feminism

Transforming Feminist Practice:
Non-Violence, Social Justice and the Possibilities of a Spiritualized Feminism
by Leela Fernandes
Aunt Lute Books, 2003

Just as the word “feminist” and the concept of different waves of feminism are controversial, the subject of spirituality within feminism has a long and divided history. In a recent blogpost, Judith Laura[1] writes that the prevalent attitude of the second-wave 70s feminists was “that a focus on religion was a diversion from the real work of feminism, which was seen as ‘political.’” Although some brave feminists forged ahead and found ways to weave spirituality and feminism, this divide has continued, particularly, I suspect, in academia.

Laura continues, “Another trend I’ve noticed is growing interest from academics in the part religion has played in society’s oppression and repression of women.” In this book, Rutgers professor Leela Fernandes demonstrates clearly the trend that Judith Laura mentions.

Transforming Feminist Practice is an incisive social critique that addresses these issues without ever naming any particular formal, institutionalized religion. Leela Fernandes instead lays out her basic definition of spirituality as “… an understanding of the self as encompassing body and mind, as well as spirit. I am also referring to a transcendent sense of interconnection that moves beyond the knowable, visible material world.” (10) In a departure from more mainstream feminist thought, Fernandes offers solutions for students, social justice activists, and others who believe that all persons are entitled to the fulfillment of basic human needs. In the book, the terms “feminism” and “social justice” are used interchangeably — an idea I find tantalizing. In her introduction, Fernandes writes:

In effect, this book departs from conventional social and feminist analyses by taking the realms traditionally classified as the sacred, the spiritual, the divine and this mystical as real.

Reclaiming the sacred in this way is not simply a new linguistic or symbolic strategy for feminism. It goes to the heart of feminist struggles for social justice and can provide a critical foundation for social transformation. At one level, feminism becomes a means for the decolonization of the divine. (11)

These words drew me into the book and its ideas. Fernandes believes that spirituality, in contrast to religion, is direct and doesn’t need to be mediated. She posits that mainstream feminist analysis in its rejection of spirituality has ceded “the space of spirituality to conservative religious and political forces.” (9)

Like so much of 21st century literature, Transforming Feminist Practice considers the radically different world we inhabit after 9/11. In the fear-based milieu of the United States, Fernandes is uneasy about how secular social justice movements have relinquished spirituality to right-wing interests which, with their considerable funds and tight organization, have been zealous in their efforts to change society.

Fernandes argues “that social transformation requires an explicit engagement with questions of spirituality.” She asks “… how feminist approaches to questions of social justice would change if the existing dichotomy between the material/political/social and spiritual realms were to be set aside. How would central feminist discussions of questions of identity, practice and knowledge be transformed?” (11)

I found the author’s examination of identity, practice, and knowledge to be engaging and challenging reading. I needed a dictionary and I felt my lack of formal education in women’s studies. Nonetheless, I found that this small volume offered thought-provoking ideas and a much-needed perspective.

Identity politics is a frequent hot-tub discussion topic at my house.

Identity politics is a frequent hot-tub discussion topic at my house. My circle rebels against rigid definitions of ourselves and others. I have noticed how people seem to be strongly inclined to categorize other people or to hold tightly to narrow identities for themselves. Perhaps it is these uneasy times, or perhaps it is the personality of the “progressive, liberal” town we live in. Fernandes admits that in academia, “identity has served as an often deeply polarizing subject.” (24)

She states, “The problem that identity poses for activists/thinkers is that it presents a paradox in the struggle for social justice.” Fernandes agrees that identity is important and will and should not be discounted. She believes, however, that “identity cannot provide an adequate political basis for lasting social transformation. Identity-based movements, while effective for short-term political or material gains, end up with restricted constituencies and visions of social justice. Such restrictions ultimately serve as an obstacle to social transformation.” (25) I wonder how that applies to Goddess spirituality?

We often hear the binary distinction between theory and practice. (Buddhist teacher Tara Brach quips, “That’s the thing with those Buddhists. When are they going to stop practicing and do something?”) For instance, many of the participants in a Goddess Scholars elist I’m on make a distinction between academicians and practitioners — a duality I find fascinating. The spirituality that Fernandes thinks is necessary to feminism/social justice stems from people having a personal practice that encompasses humility, being willing to work with their integrity, and taking responsibility for their own experience.

The Practice chapter contains direct, unrelenting examination of ethics:

“For any form of social activism or feminist practice to represent a form of ethical practice, it must begin by linking the dailiness of an individual’s behavior with her or his more public, formal activity that is engaged in service of others.” (55)

In a 2004 radio interview[2], Fernandes discussed everyday violence, or violence of the spirit; for instance, how people speak, drive, and treat their peers.

Fernandes’ chapters on Knowledge and Spirituality are likewise provocative. She examines the ways in which present-day scholars or spiritual seekers, in their quest for knowledge, can exploit or marginalize other women — particularly indigenous women from countries outside the United States.

Fernandes takes a hard look at the

…serious risk of spirituality being transformed into yet another consumption practice for one’s own personal well-being and comfort, another commodity that is meant to alleviate the stresses of living without the discomfort of challenging any of the structures of power that shape the world…. Spirituality is mistaken for a kind of privatized safe space that should not be contaminated by the muddy realms of politics and power. Yet it is precisely this assumption that has allowed spirituality to become hijacked by conservative, repressive movements across the world. (110-111)

These are issues I’ve been thinking about for years, brought into focus. I recommend this book to any open-minded feminist who is willing to see social justice and spirituality from a new perspective.


  1. Judith Laura, “Trends in Feminist Spirituality,” 7/11/2008 post in the blog Medusa Coils. This post garnered many responses in the blogosphere.
  2. Leela Fernandes interview, GenderTalk, 5/31/2004. Available at

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MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
is a seasonal web journal (zine) for Goddess Women and others interested in Goddess Lore and Scholarship, Goddess Religion (ancient and contemporary), Feminist Spirituality, Women's Mysteries, Paganism and Neopaganism, Earth-based Religions, Witchcraft, Dianic Wicca and other Wiccan Traditions, the Priestess Path, Goddess Art, Women's Culture, Women's Health, Natural Healing, Mythology, Female Shamanism, Consciousness, Community, Cosmology, and Women's Creativity.

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