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Weaving Tradition - A Conversation with Ruth Barrett

September 27, 2006

Overcast, pending rain, clouds rolling in. I am here with Ruth Barrett, creating a conversation for the Matrifocus webzine.

S: I guess the first thing I want to talk about is the focus of why we're talking today, and that is to look at the connection between feminism and Goddess-centered women's spirituality…. Which came first in your life: feminism or Goddess spirituality?

R: For me, Goddess spirituality came first. I began really being touched by Her, my first [memory] of writing poetry to Her is about age 12, possibly even earlier. So, I didn't know from feminism, I was going to elementary school [laughs]. That would have been in the early 1960s….

S: Right, okay. So, first came the Goddess …

R: First came the Goddess, and She came to me through writing, through poetry. She came to me in dreams. I began to hear Her, and I didn't know what it meant, and there was no Goddess movement to tell me I wasn't crazy, so I would go and pray to the moon. This was all intuitive, although I had read a lot of mythology; the Greek and Roman mythology, I was a voracious reader when I was ten and eleven. I lived out of the country, and there was no television, so I read instead. And that's what I read.

So, I must have known about the Goddesses, and the Gods, they were in the stories. Of course, at that time I didn't know they were already patriarchal rewrites of earlier stories, but I loved them. … I had an attraction to anything on TV or movies that had a toga in it, including "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules." [laughs] I saw it five times.

S: After you felt an awakening to the Goddess, how did you come into the feminist movement? Or did you? Would you consider yourself part of the feminist movement?

R: I became part of the feminist movement, well, I mean, it was late sixties / early seventies. I graduated high school in 1970 or 1971, and so feminism was in the air. … I went to UC Berkeley in 1974, as a religion major, and a year later I was at UC Santa Cruz, and it was there that I began to learn more about feminism, but I was primarily following my interest in folklore and Goddess religion.

It was there that I connected with Shekhinah Mountainwater, and began to study with her weekly with her very first group of women circled, to meet every week for about four hours, and really it was there that feminism and Goddess religion [were] very much intertwined.

So, we would talk about myth, and psychological things related to mythology, we would chant and we would cast spells. And we created what we called a Pact of Sisterhood. And it was through the creating of this Pact of Sisterhood that feminist principles began to be articulated. And then at the end of our time together we drew it up, we each created our own version of it, and we signed it with our menstrual blood. You know, it was quite radical at the time [laughs]….

S: Is it important to incorporate feminism into Goddess Spirituality? Do you think it's necessary?

R: I think it's necessary because we live in an environment that is not feminist and it's not Goddess-centered. I don't think it's possible to practice anything in a vacuum. … We are who we are because of the culture we live in. … And if you're conscious of the effects of the dominant culture, than that to me is what makes you a feminist — the extent to which you have that analysis. And then become responsible for what to do with that.

S: How have you seen feminist spirituality change, over the course of your lifetime and… how have you tried to influence that?

R: First of all, "feminist spirituality," Z Budapest coined that, and I did not meet Z Budapest until 1976. I had been studying with Shekhinah prior to that. Because my fate happened, and I connected with these two teachers early on, [feminist spirituality] was all I knew. I really was not involved in a lot of the other, emerging Pagan movement that was happening outside of feminism, even though I had an interest in Paganism that came out of folklore….

There were so many different paths that eventually led me to the same place. But, they weren't as well connected as they are now, earlier on. You know, you could be a Witch and not necessarily be Goddess-centered at all. And you could be a feminist and be a Christian. How I've seen it change is that… Goddess, or actually women's spirituality, has become more mainstream. … The idea that the Creator could be understood as female, metamorphosed as female, is huge, and it's radical; and it's become more mainstream. That's the biggest thing I've seen. And more public, out of the broom closet, people and groups; Pagans and Witches are now involved in … interfaith groups…. It is not just: we have our own groups and we have to be quiet all the time. That's still true: there are many, many people who would lose their jobs because of ignorance and people being afraid, that is still going on, but it's still not as secret and fear-based at this point in time.

S: Are there any changes that you've seen that you have concerns about, or that worry you, in the feminist spirituality movement, or in the women's centered, Goddess movement specifically?

R: Yes. I have been watching over time a lot of New Age, or what I call New Age practices and beliefs enter into the Craft. And especially in the Goddess movement, which comes out of feminism. Practices have been so diverse, and so, kind-of, practice du jour, the practice of the day. Sometimes all these different systems are being mixed up together … without thinking about where do these systems come from, who made them up, … whether those practices and systems support a cohesive practice. I just wonder about that.

And I get concerned, again because of New Age practices, with the emphasis on the Light, and its impact on Goddess spirituality. I still see a lot of women afraid of the Dark Mother, the Goddess that is a part of the life cycle, associated with deconstruction and destruction that serves life…. I see, "The good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black." I see a lot of that seeping in, and more of an emphasis on the voluptuous Maiden or Mother, and not so much on the Crone or the Aging Woman. … Feminist spirituality says to me it's about honoring all the phases of the Goddess; not just the sexual or limited to one phase only, or two phases only, but the whole cycle of life.

S: … We come from two very different generations, you approaching your Crone years and me still in my Maiden years. How do you think that your generation really influenced the feminist spirituality movement: what were the strong points and maybe some of the challenges, and whether you still see those challenges in the movement today?

R: That's a great question. Well, when I think about my personal life, what did I do… my challenge after being ordained as a High Priestess was to take the things that I appreciated from growing up with Reconstructionist Judaism (to have a tradition, and especially to have a living tradition), and to make the religion relevant to the time we're living in. This is a Reconstructionist philosophy: that "tradition," even though it's a word associated with something being fixed — if a tradition didn't breathe and move and if you weren't constantly evaluating our practices and making them relevant to the times that we're living in, it would not serve. That philosophy I brought into my understanding of the craft and my teachings.

I decided that I wanted to flesh out a lot of things that were not present in what I had been taught because I wanted something to endure, something that would allow enough freedom of expression, but have enough fundamental practices and understanding so that women could make their variations from a place of strength and cohesion and have things in common with each other. That became my mission: to create enough foundation so that women could actually practice really well together in a ritual….

I brought a lot of the teachings from Shekhinah Mountainwater that I appreciated, about Women's Mysteries, and really helped to overlay them on the Sabbats, the seasonal celebrations, which were in the works of Z Budapest but not quite in the ways I felt Shekhinah had worked with that material. I brought that in and interwove those much more strongly in the community that I was a part of, which is the very first Dianic community in the United States.

The challenge, for women of my generation, [was] that we were experimenting with everything. I think that out of that experimentation came a lot of really wonderful discoveries about how to be, how to work magick together, how to work ritual together; so that women who are later coming in, whether they are young or old and just didn't know about it, they have the benefit of a lot of things already being worked out; even though we're still improvising and we're still letting things breathe, there is still a lot that has formed a foundation.

The drawbacks have perhaps been, I would say, not enough emphasis on conflict transformation, really teaching and practicing within communities on how to get along when conflict comes up, and that's what I would say about that.

S: … What are some aspects that you want to see continue on after your lifetime? If you could pick three things that you really want to see carried on, what would they be?

R: What they would be, in terms of my teaching - which has really been focused on ritual, ritual making, ritual practices — would be that women really think about why they're doing something instead of just doing it because they were told to by someone. That part of it has always been a stickler for me. If you don't know why you're doing something, why are you doing it? And if you don't have an answer to that question, because someone hasn't informed you, then make up an answer. It's just as valid in my opinion, to make up a reason, so then you can put your authentic energy behind it. If it's like going through the motions, then we might as well go back to church, where people are doing things and they don't know why they are doing them. [Magick is] about being conscious, about why are you doing this, what is the meaning, what's important about this, how is this changing your inner life? When you change your inner life, you change your outer life.

The other thing is being more mindful about magickal practice and energy. I have experienced real magick in my life, not just metaphorical or wishful thinking. I'd like to see women really take that on, which is the practice, a practice of magick; not just eight times a year, the holy days, and occasionally on the moons, but magick in the everyday, looking for opportunities to practice: influencing life, finding out what can you influence, and what do you need others to do to then co-create a different reality.

The third would be that women continue to realize that what we believe on the inside, in our heart of hearts, is how we act in the world: to be very mindful of that, to be examining, "What do I really believe about how I can affect the dominant culture, or how I can heal myself, or help heal others? What do I really believe about that?"

And, the power of being honest. Working to examine how the dominant culture has affected us, and work to heal from those affects. Because I believe, if you're not vigilant about how we are affected by the dominant culture, than we act it out unconsciously. That's not how a new world is born.

S: What is your response to young women, to women who are Maidens, coming into the feminist spirituality movement, to the Goddess movement? …

R: I don't come into contact as much as I believe I'd like to with younger women. … I'm concerned about young women getting gobbled up by television and the Internet, to the exclusion of the real world, meaning Nature and relationship with people and creatures and trees. Sometimes I go, "My gosh, how do I communicate" with women who have not had the struggles, who have been born later?

I know we're not actually in a post-feminist movement, contrary to the propaganda, but there's so many things that younger women have been advantaged, that they take for granted, I believe. If they don't keep awake, those rights — whether they are reproductive rights, etc. — will be gone, and they won't even know what hit them. So … I feel inspired when I meet young women who actually know something about feminism, the early movement, and are thinkers. … I want them to be awake and stay awake and challenge the dominant culture, challenge the different modes of thinking. The main thing is that they're thinking, even if they challenge me. …

S: As you come into your Crone years, how do you see your own spirituality changing and manifesting itself as you turn your own wheel? …

R: Since the time I was 45 (I'm 52 now), I really began to focus on what do I leave behind, sort of a legacy, and documenting as much as possible; again, for posterity, for future generations — if they care. And I don't know if they will. I think that there are things that I have attempted to do, because I felt that they were important. …

I have been concerned with creating a religion, not just a spirituality. I think of spirituality as the individual expression, your own relationship between your self and Goddess, and religion as being that which you share with others. So, I hope that we have religion, as well as spirituality; they both need to be there together.

My personal practice, I'm thinking more about doing less "public ritual," and focusing on my teaching, in the Spiral Door program through Temple of Diana, and anywhere that people invite me to come and teach. And deeper integration with the Mysteries. I am ever humbled by the Goddess, the cycle of life, and I like the idea of eventually just being a resource person, letting other people take up the ball, or not. Hopefully, the women coming up will continue the work, learning from the Elders and hopefully creating their own path.

Graphics Credits

  • Ruth Barrett © Ruth Barrett. All rights reserved.
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