Feminist organizational fall-out

About a year ago, I was initiated into the feminist branch of witchcraft, known at Dianic Wicca.

I’m talking with a friend who was recently initiated into that same tradition* just a few weeks ago, and is rapidly becoming disillusioned with many of the same things I did in the organization. I ended up leaving over the summer. I am still a woman in tune with the goddess and her mysteries, but I wander. I don’t know that I will ever find a spiritual community to call home, despite longing for one.

I have been studying paganism for about 10 years now, after dabbling in atheism prior to that and being raised a born-again (read fundamentalist, read evangelical, read bible-thumping Hallelujah Save me Jesus from all that is Satanic on this eath Christian as a child). What I like about witchcraft, in particular, is its recognition of the seasons, and how my own internal body clock resonates with the earth’s circadian rhythm. In dark months, what we wicce call the dream time, I sleep earlier, heavier and longer. In the lighter, warmer months, I rise earlier, stay out longer and enjoy the feel of summer nights’ heat on my skin. In a real way, my own body reflects the seasonal changes; my bipolar mind mimics the bipolar nature of the winter/summer dynamic in Wisconsin. I like the way witchcraft honors and recognizes these changes: I feel as though I am honoring myself.

I came to feminist witchcraft because I got real tired of being in co-ed circles where I was clearly just being paid lip-service about the equality of women in the religion. Sure, the men talked about how powerful the goddess was, about goddess love, about exploring the feminine side of their spirit and body. And yet the feel was still very, well, sexist. I can’t tell you the number of circles I was in where the women were simply sexual object for the men. Where women were honored because they were fertile, because they were voluptuous, because they cooked well, because they crafted well. I read a book, written by a male author, where women were to give up their body as the altar to men in the circle, e.g. women witches were supposed to allow men to have sex with them in circle so men could feel what it was like to have sex with the goddess. There was no mention of what women were getting out of this experience. They simply were the vessel, literally, for the men’s experience. I was disgusted. Clearly, separate spheres still existed in wicca that seemed absurd. After all, a woman was supposed to co-chair this religion, right? And yet women were still not equal to the men. How could this be?

So I moved to feminist, women-born-women only wicca. It would be non-hierarchical. It would be powerful. It would be healing. It would be grand.

And it was in a certain way. Through feminist wicca, I laid the groundwork for body image recovery. I learned that in prehistoric and in ancient cultures, women like myself were revered and worshipped as goddesses. Yes, fat, fat, fat women like me were carved out of marble, into bas reliefs, drawn as pictographs, shaped into stone sculptures and worshipped. It was immensely restorative to my spirit, mind and body to know that the culture we live in is transient. What is de rigeur now will not always be so.

It was beautiful to connect with women who were also going through many of the same issues surrounding their bodies, as well. So many of them had the same challenges that I faced, and through ritual and talk and meditation, we healed together. There is power in numbers. There is joy in ceremony.

But the more entrenched I became in the organization, the more I saw it for what it was.

And here is where I may piss a lot of people off.

Many feminists say that if women were to rule the world, the world would be a better place. It would be egalitarian. It would be non-hierarchical, it would be a utopia of social order, civility and peace. It would be the Garden of Eden, in a certain way, but without a patriarchal God blaming everything on Eve. She WAS framed, after all.

I’m not sure it is that simple.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a raging, pretty much radical, feminist. Have been for half of my life.

This organization was the first that I was a member of that branded itself as feminist and was women-born, women-identified only. I have been a member of many feminist-leaning, leftist, radical organizations, but never a woman-only organization.

There was infighting. There was sexual scandal. There were power trips. There was a hierarchy. I questioned the organization’s politics on gender tolerance and acceptance and hierarchy, and I was no longer welcome. There were rules about what people were allowed to practice sexually, and if the rules were broken, you were anti-feminist and out of the organization (read: BDSM is anti-feminist). People were questioned for their religious adherence. People were kicked out for mental health issues.

In a real way, witch hunts were (are) occuring fairly regularly.

Folks, this is a feminist organization. Now, I know that feminists are going to argue that these women’s consciousness’ had not been raised properly. That they are allowing the dominant culture to affect the group politics.

The elders, leaders of this organization are founders of the Second Wave of feminism. They attended Michigan Women’s Music Festival, Year 1. They are well-known for their practice of wicca and their practice of feminism.

My argument is that absolute power corrupts, absolutely, regardless of the gender who holds the power. I’m not sure how other women-only organizations run — if they face the same problems. It’s my estimation that these aforementioned issues are ones of human nature, not gender nature.

In a certain way, it’s been a real eye-opener for me, and yet in another, it’s been a real depressing affirmation that women can’t do it any better than men. Where do we go from here? I’m not quite sure.

*”tradition” is the same as “denomination”

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15 Comments

  1. Shinobi said,

    February 11, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    I’m sorry that feminist Wicca didn’t work out for you. I was fascinated with it growing up, but I’m just to skeptical to go for any religion I think. I think that female only organizations can often offer false hope, I participated in an all woman gaming bboard for a while and I had to leave. I didn’t know you could be both progressive and a fascist. Alas, we’re all human, no matter what gender we are.

    My hope has always been that men and women can do the best we can together as equals. It’s the equals part that gets hard sometimes.

  2. weightlessone said,

    February 11, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    So many of the reasons you outlined are the exact reasons why I keep solitary. (I’m not Wiccan, but on an uncategorized Pagan path.) Every time I have sought out a circle-even those that are eclectic in nature-I have run across those who believe power is an external force that must be exerted over others in the circle. I, however, recognize that true power is internal and was never meant to be exerted on another to accomplish selfish acts (like getting your house cleaned by your covenmates).

    I still crave being with other Pagans and there are a few festivals in my area in the spring that help me satisfy my need for drum circles and other like-minded people. I miss large group circles, and sometimes I still attend one here and there, but I’ve found a one-on-one personal relationship with the Goddess has been so rewarding compared to the infighting I’ve seen in so many circles.

    You’re definitely not the only one who has experienced these things within a group-regarless of the group’s gender. Unfortunately, they are all too common.

  3. Tari said,

    February 11, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    This is why I have avoided Dianic circles (well, in addition to my personal beliefs about gender-fluidity and my distaste for traditional dualism). In fact, I have avoided heirarchical traditions full-stop, though I think it’s hard to actually manifest a truly non-heirarchical group of human beings when most people are hard-wired to sort themselves into a pecking order.

    I sometimes despair of finding a true spiritual community, because my beliefs are so strongly rooted in my own personal power – and so many communities seem to have spoken or unspoken structures that encourage people to hand that power over to some leader or other (male, female, or otherwise). What’s even more sad to me is that I tend to be the kind of person people want to hand that power over to….and I don’t freakin’ want it!

    I think, for me, these sorts of power dynamics are a human thing, not necessarily tied to gender. I think people have trouble really claiming their own power and the consequences and impacts of that power, especially in contexts where dominant cultural trends are already being bucked.

    Really lovely entry.

  4. Sandy said,

    February 11, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    I have an idea what you mean. Even though I didn’t join a group…I actually helped form one…I was totally disappointed with the way my group ended up. It started out as just 3 of us eclectic pagan ladies. We met at a Meetup group. It was just the 3 of us for over 2 years. It was great. No leader…we all brought something to the circle…the was no lead. We planned everything together.

    Then we started adding people. At first it was ok. We were able to keep it the way it had been. Then we got a few people in there that were very judgmental…then we got a person in there who decided she wanted control. It was subtle at first and we didn’t know that it was happening….though 2 of us (me and one of the other “founders”) had reservations. Less than a year later it all came to a head, the one “founder” began to make excuses to not participate because of the hatred. I found I no longer felt safe and comfortable with the changes that were being made without my knowledge.

    At one circle they actually verbally attacked me and the other lady…though they made it out like it was a “cleansing” to “make us realize our faults and fix them”. That was the last circle I went to and I haven’t talked to them since.

  5. Bri said,

    February 11, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    I have worked closely with several of the “big names” in Dianic witchcraft and wouldn’t give you a dime for either of them. I have been a part of a large online goddess centred study group that was successful for a long period of time and then fell apart. I have since been with an intimate, much smaller, goddess centred online study group and wouldn’t be without that in my life. I think the issues you mentioned (and others) come up no matter if the group is co-ed, feminist or purple people eaters. It is the nature of people.

    I used to be a die hard Dianic. But in the last 10 years I have moved towards a broader spiritual practice, although I am still goddess centred. But now I can comfortably circle with men and honor the gods.

    I would like to say I have been enjoying your blog very much. I haven’t commented much (if at all) but I read every entry and often find myself nodding along with what you are saying. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Bekbek said,

    February 11, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Egads, this is so why I keep solitary/pair as well. I think the problem is that despite any high-flown ideas, we still come from monkey stock, and the monkey wants everyone to have a place and know it once you get more than a few people together. I think it’s important to acknowledge this and plan for the eventuality, or just avoid it by keeping the numbers tiny.
    I go to a camp for festivals periodically that is going through a huge witch war right now because of similar problems. The whole thing makes me pretty sad.

  7. Orodemniades said,

    February 11, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    I hate that ‘if wimmin ruled the world there would be no war’ crap. Puh-leeze. If women ruled the world there would still be wars, fewer of them, natch, but they’d be a lot more vicious.

    Although I read a lot about Wicca, I don’t play well with others and ultimately decided that being a solitary eclectic who occasionally joins in the various public celebrations suited me much better than being in a coven.

    Because I distrust covens for exactly all the reasons you state above. Just because you’re a feminist and participating in Dianic Wicca, that doesn’t mean all that girly gamesmanship and crap doesn’t still apply. If anything, it might apply even more as there’s added passive aggression and presumptions and assumptions about who you are and why you’re Dianic or Wiccan in the first place.

  8. kira said,

    February 11, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    I’ve found this to be all too true in just about any type of organization, religious or otherwise. We’re human, and with that comes a variety of foibles, issues, and personalities, and every group I’ve become involved with – progressive, feminist, religious or otherwise – ends up falling victim to power struggles, even when all members are professed egalitarians and working towards the same goal.

    As others have said above, this is one of the reasons why I’ve never been able to follow or join in any form of organized religion – along with my innate scientific cynicism and skepticism, and tendency to question orders and authority. I’m really drawn to Wicca in many ways, and my spiritual beliefs are closest to pagan; I’ve read and loved most of Starhawk’s books and have meddled in some of the practice on my own. But I could never totally “buy” into it, and the (admittedly few) groups I looked at seemed more driven by their own group dynamics than by the spiritual path. But I admit that I’m naturally solitary, especially when it comes to communing with nature – for this same reason, I’ve always enjoyed hiking alone rather than with groups sometimes, because I can focus more on connecting with the earth around me. Having others around detracts from that experience for me; I feel a need to focus on group rather than spiritual interactions.

  9. hotsauce said,

    February 12, 2008 at 2:35 am

    I agree that the idea of a war-free world under women is nonsense. Too simplistic. I believe that the state of the world has more to do with the personality of the leaders than with the gender. At the royal palace of Prague Castle, when you first walk in, there’s a huge great hall that (if I remember right) was commissioned by the king they nicknamed King Good. He was in power for nearly 50 years (maybe more — sorry about the bad memory!), and in all that time there was not a single war. Unheard of. The audioguide we were listening to said that although that king did nothing to expand the borders of his empire during his reign, he’s considered one of Bohemia’s greatest rulers. My husband and I looked at each other, like, yyyyyep, no shit! Anyway, my point is, that this was a guy. Now look at various women in gov’t power positions. Catherine the Great? Margaret Thatcher? Uh, Condoleeza Rice?

    By the way, I also identify with your spiritual issues. My dad is Catholic and my mother has never linked herself with any religion. She says she gets her spirituality fix through gardening and yoga. Growing up, I tried to please daddy by memorizing three verses of Silent Night and letting my communion wafer dissolve on my tongue like a good girl. But I never believe any of what I was taught, and today I’m very much against what Catholicism preaches (aside from a few general “Don’t be a shithead” ideals). I spent a long time not pursuing anything, although read a lot of stuff that could be considered spiritual study, mostly Eastern things. In the past year I’ve felt a pull to want to be part of a community, but only because I really like talking about spirituality and throwing around ideas and musing about the universe and I didn’t really have anyone to shoot the shit with about all that. I looked into Unitarianism and went to a service of the nearest congregation — almost 2 hours away. It was okay. I really enjoyed the discussion after the short service, but I don’t know, there’s something about services that I just don’t like. I’m more interested in talking about things, not lighting candles and singing. Ceremony doesn’t do it for me because it just seems fake to me. That one time was the only time I went, and now I think I’m just going to be getting my spirituality fix through everyday things like yoga and hiking and just plain breathing and thinking. Also, in the midst of my short-lived little quest, I started having a back-and-forth with a friend of mine about religion/spirituality. Still going. It’s a good discussion. We have different ideas about things, but he’s a smart cookie and fun to debate.

  10. hotsauce said,

    February 12, 2008 at 2:37 am

    PS – Like you, I know some people will argue that Catherine the Great et al. were just playing the men’s game. And I say those people are full of shit. Women are not all sugar and spice.

  11. JoGeek said,

    February 12, 2008 at 7:37 am

    Honestly, that’s why I and a small group of friends cut ties with the Pagan community altogether several years ago, even the name. If someone asks, I might say I’m a rational anarchist, or “a little bit of everything.” Sometimes I’ll identify as a witch. I never saw the kind of back-biting power-tripping politics anywhere like I saw amongst Pagans. Maybe it’s geographical, but I have a much lower tolerance for drama now that I’m quit of the local crowd.

    Don’t get me wrong, I did find a very few really good, intelligent, self-aware human beings in the mix, but the chore of putting up with the rotten apples in order to work with the good just stopped being worth it. Now I’m content to work occasionally with the five or six that have split away. We’re from radically different paths, but our energies work well enough together that we’re effective in ritual. Path-specific practices we tend to just study by ourselves.

    I actually believe that magical people are not designed to be pack animals. There’s a reason for the stereotype of the lone practitioner in so many traditions. When too many Pagans get together, there’s politics. It’s one thing to rally around a particular cause (i.e. someone needs healing, a law needs fighting, etc.) and work together temporarily, but it’s a very rare group that can stay together without careful and constant conflict intervention.

  12. thoughtracer said,

    February 12, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Wow Jo Geek, I never thought of it that way, but I think that is probably true, about the magick folk needing to work alone.

    It’s so funny to me that I write this blog about witchcraft and so many people have had similar experiences within their own pagan community. I’m getting to the point where I just think all religions have a cult-like tendency toward power tripping, controlling, fascist regime-erism. Any pagan group I have been involved with has been full of drama, and it’s been embarassing to me, to the point where I have felt like I have had to step away and be like: Um, I am not like them. Of course my very involvement in the group points to a certain likeness, but it all gets so ridiculous I end up throwing my hands in the air and saying: Screw it! On the solitary road I go!

  13. Tari said,

    February 12, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Gotta say, it’s good to know that my instinct to run screaming from community entanglements isn’t yet one more way I am a total anti-social freak.

    This reminds me of my experiences being in bands, too. I say it all the time, and I really think it’s true: pagans and musicians are completely crazy, and getting them together in groups bigger than two or three is just asking for trouble. 😉

  14. thoughtracer said,

    February 12, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Herding cats is the phrase that comes to mind.

  15. Di said,

    February 12, 2008 at 11:56 pm

    I am Wiccan, and feminist, and more of an overt subversive. I’ve gone all the way to third degree initiations twice, in covens that were mostly women but that weren’t expressly feminist only but who definitely believed women were the better stewards of power. I’ve worked within women’s organizations, including a telling seven months of my life working for a women’s shelter. The problems inherent in women’s groups have everything to do with female on female politics – remove the men and we still have our own innate competitions to deal with; I’ve also all too often seen “feminism” used as an excuse for not behaving like an adult. It’s perfectly adult to control emotions to keep discourse civil; weeping and making a scene because it’s what “unopressed” women do isn’t just nonsense, it’s a way of manipulating others through temper tantrums – not a great stride forward in women’s equality.

    I for one didn’t have trouble with the men in Paganism treating me as a sex object until later years, and then it was the same men, and I never attributed their stupidity to any fault of the ideals of the religion. I’ve had the pleasure of being around men who have the sense to keep their hands and comments to themselves. I have heard unfortunately of far too many women having to deal with what you have, however. At least yelling “What the hell is wrong with you?” is acceptable in Pagan circles when some moron gets handsey.

    I’m also curious about what book you read that suggested women were supposed to just lay down and let the men have their way with them? It sounds like LaVey, which isn’t Wiccan, but I came into Wicca at a slightly calmer time – post Alex Sanders and pre the Craft, so maybe I just sidestepped a whole lot of the crazy just by virtue of when I came in.

    There are functional feminist covens out there. Really. There are functional coed groups, too. I hope you find a path that works out for you in any case, because I can tell you from experience, the Goddess couldn’t care less if you’re covened or not.


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