Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Rise of Radical Feminism in Mainline Churches: A History # 6

Women’s spirituality groups grew out of and along side of the women’s liberation movement which had fostered consciousness-raising groups. The women’s spirituality groups shaped not only the Wiccan groups coming to the United States from Britain but also affected many women in leadership in mainline churches.

Cynthia Eller documents many aspects, including the history, of the women’s spirituality movement in her book Living in the Lap of the Goddess: the Feminist Spirituality Movement in America. As stated earlier, some of the movement’s beginnings happened in the consciousness-raising groups.11

Much of it was among lesbians seeking recognition and empowerment. Eller writes, “This pattern of entry into spirituality through radical feminism was particularly marked in the lesbian community, where for many women religion came as an unexpected but natural outgrowth of their experiments in radical feminism.”12 The push toward feminist spirituality based on the lesbian point of view can be seen in the history of an Evangelical women’s organization.

What began as The Evangelical Woman’s Caucus in 1975, a group seeking equal rights for Evangelical women, split in 1986 during a council meeting when a resolution asking for acknowledgement of “the lesbian minority within” the EWC and “protection for homosexual persons,” passed. Nancy A Hardesty, a lesbian and one of the founding members of EWC writes that by 1990 the group’s name had changed to “Evangelical and Ecumenical Caucus,” and that in more recent conferences we have chosen to include women of other faiths.”

Hardesty goes on to state, “if we are to be salt and light in the world, we must expand our vision and our experience of the Divine.” In the same speech, Hardesty does expand her vision of God opining, “we need to know that behind the ebb and flow of waves and water there is a Power, an Energy, a web of Wisdom we call God, …”13 The women’s spirituality movement was evolving from many different directions; even the secular would become the spiritual.

The first understanding of witch in the women’s liberation movement included a secular definition of the word. Witch was defined as an aggressive, independent and rule breaking woman. Eller writes about those secular groups that used Witch in a secular manner. “In New York on Halloween of 1968, a collective of women named themselves WITCH, an acronym standing for ‘Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.’”

Eller goes on to write that “These first feminist witches did not gather to worship nature, but to crush the patriarchy, and to do so in witty, flamboyant, and theatrical ways.” The word ‘witch’ was to become an acronym for several activist groups, including “Women Infuriated at Taking Care of Hoodlums” and “Women Incensed at Telephone Company Harrassment.”14 Still, the women in the movement soon enough discovered a religious movement which supposedly flourished before written history and worshiped a goddess.

Ronald Hutton, in his history on witchcraft, explains that in Britain most groups involved in witchcraft gave loyalty to both a god and goddess and ritual included the importance of a polar tension between male and female. This was often worked out as sexual ritual within a circle. When this evolving religious movement entered the United States during the sixties and seventies it collided with the women’s liberation movement and the newly developing feminism.

Hutton documents Mary Daly’s and Andrea Dworkin’s embrace of witches although still without their religious aspects. He writes, “The emphasis was far more upon witchcraft as an obstacle to patriarchy, however, then as a system of religion; to Dworkin the witch trials were simply ‘gynocide,’ while to Daly witches were women who had remained true to themselves and to sisterhood."15

Hutton explains that in the United States the early development of a feminist witchcraft, with a religious content and ritual was begun by Zsuzsanna Budapest generally known as Z Budapest. Between her coven, which she named Susan B. Anthony, and her book, The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries, as well as the books of Mary Daly the myths of an ancient goddess religion which were thought to be the cornerstone of a pervasive matriarchal society existing at the dawn of time became firmly established in many women’s circles. A great emphasis was placed on the “burning times,” the supposed time in medieval Europe when it was thought church men had burned at least a million if not nine-million witches who were simply healers.16

From Budapest’s thought came a new form of Wicca called 'Dianic.' It either eliminated the god or simply exalted the goddess above any god. Men were not welcome in this kind of witchcraft. Diane Stein, activist in the Woman’s Liberation Movement, a lesbian activist as well and deeply involved in women’s spirituality, writes about some of the differences between Dianic groups and the more traditional covens.

Not only does Stein point out that only women may take part in the rituals of Dianic covens, she also points to their differences in decision making. Stein writes that in the traditional coven a priest and high priestess oversee the ritual and the priestess “either writes the full ritual or draws it from her own handed-down tradition.” She goes on to explain that the Dianic covens are more apt to use, “consensus and improvisation,” than the traditional coven. Stein writes:
Consensus is not always reached quickly, but once it is, everyone participating is happy with the decisions. Where no one has had to give in to a majority, everyone is willing and the group operates in peaceful balance.”17
Although covens and circles would once again open to both genders, the goddess remained the more visible and honored deity and most circles stayed centered around the female. As the feminist spirituality movement evolved from the Dianic type and took on activist views that centered on justice and peace movements some feminists within the church connected with the new goddess theology. Carol LeMasters writes that the softening of women’s spirituality led to “a more ecumenical dimension.” She further states:
Coming together to work for the same causes, Christian feminists began talking extensively with Goddess worshipers who a few years earlier might have dismissed them as dupes of a ‘patriarchal’ tradition. Words like ‘embodiment,’ ‘nurturance,’ and ‘connectedness’ became part of the lingua franca of women’s spirituality, Christian and Pagan alike.18
And, indeed, for many women, whether they embraced witchcraft, were simply involved in some form of women’s spirituality or even stayed within the fold of a monotheistic religion such as Christianity or Judaism their view of the divine took on the trappings of some form of female deity. Having discovered a religion with a female deity they incorporated some form of her into whichever faith they held. New sacred female names flourished: Kali, the Sacred Feminine, Sophia and the Creatrix all have evolved from the women’s liberation movement and women’s spirituality groups.

Picture by Stephen Larson

11 Cynthia Eller, Living in the Lap of the Goddess: the Feminist Spirituality Movement in America, (Boston: Beacon Press1993, 1995), 43.

12 Ibid., 42.
13 Nancy A Hardesty, “Blessed the Waters that Rise and Fall to Rise Again,” “Echoes from the 2004 EEWC Conference: Saturday night plenary address, part 1 & 2. At: http://www.eewc.com/Update/Fall2004Blessed2.htm &http://www.eewc.com/Update/Summer2004Blessed1.htm
14 Ibid., 53.
15 Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, (New York: Oxford University Press 1999), 342. Hutton cites, Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father, (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1973), 63-8, 146-59, and Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1978), 172-222; Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (New York: Dutton, 1974), 118-50.
16 Ibid., 344-45; To understand the error of radical feminism’s assertion about the burning times go to the posting: The Rise of Radical Feminism in Mainline Churches: A History # 4 17 Diane Stein, The Women’s Spirituality Book, (St Paul: Llewellyn Publications 1986), 60-61.

18 Carol LeMasters, “The Goddess Movement: Past and Present” Gnosis: A Journal of the Western Inner Tradition No. 48, Summer 1998, 46-47.

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