I was born a member of an old Mormon family, a family stretching back to upstate New York and the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As a result, I spent many years within the church and still have many family members there. At a fairly young age, I knew that membership in the church was not conducive to my sanity. The limits placed on the female were too many to count. They are also too well known for me to need to enumerate them here. Suffice it to say that they were killing me, mind and body. However, it took many years and several false starts for me to shake off not only this particular religion, but religion, in general. One of those false starts was a turn to the Wiccan religion.
Wicca (and Neo-Paganism, in general) is an attractive option for so many women who are trying to find their way in the world, experiencing the failures of organized religion, but still needing the comfort of a Greater Power. Its celebration of the Goddess and belief in a time before patriarchy are so important to women who need to believe that there are examples of a better way in the distant past. I’m certainly not one to claim that, once upon a time, the status of women was not greater than it is now. (In fact, I actively believe that.) Goddess worship may well have been a sign of that. However, we can see goddess worship lasting well into the age of male oppression of females, all the way into modern India. It is not enough to simply point to the goddesses in a pantheon, and say that women have greater status in Culture X.
The most problematic aspect of modern goddess worship is not where it came from or whether those cultures were patriarchal. The most problematic aspect is how it represents “masculine” and “feminine” in the modern world. In my personal Facebook feed today, I came across a shared status update from another page. It spoke of the shortcomings of the “pragmatic, male oriented reality”, while singing the praises of the “great female powers of intuition”, the “receptive powers of the female shield”, and the “feminine trait of contemplation”. *
Within the Wiccan ritual, there is a very strong belief in gendered forces. Certain characteristics and natural forces are related to the feminine, while others are related to the masculine. This is often played out during ritual by plunging a ceremonial blade into a sacred chalice. In Wiccan writing, there is repeated reference to feminine qualities of the Goddess versus masculine qualities of the God. The feminine is related to intuitiveness, caregiving, protection of children and the hearth, nourishment, and magic. Motherhood is all. The masculine is related to more active concepts, like hunting and protection of the group and the woman.** These gendered forces must be balanced, but they are still there. In addition, the argument is that both the feminine and the masculine live within each individual, regardless of sex. Why they must, then, be referred to in gendered ways isn’t explained.
So, what’s wrong with that? Well, a lot of things, if you believe (as I do) that there are only human ways of acting, feeling, thinking and being. There is no innate feminine or masculine way of experiencing the world. There is no “brain sex“. This gendered way of categorizing human actions and characteristics is patriarchal at its very core; it can’t lead us from patriarchy, because it’s steeped in it.
I know many women find solace in Wicca, especially Dianic Wicca. There are still things that I appreciate about it, such as the belief in the “interconnectedness” of life and other forces in the universe. I still believe in those things, although my belief and appreciation of that connection is scientific instead of magical these days. I also believe strongly that goddess imagery can help women who are constantly bombarded with the solely male representations of the most important, powerful, divine forces in the universe. Having the strictly male images of divinity constantly before you, while being told that humans are in “god’s image”, is psychologically devastating. This is especially true for a young girl. I still hold dear to goddess imagery for this very reason. However, I don’t believe that we can be liberated by engaging in magical thinking. I don’t think we can be liberated by investing in ideas of feminine traits versus masculine traits. The essentialism will always backfire on us. We need to put our faith in the strength of real women, not in goddesses or “feminine” qualities.
* I am not linking to the post or directly mentioning the page for two reasons. The first is that the link leads to someone’s personal Facebook profile, and I don’t want to directly criticize this particular woman or put a link to her profile in a blog post. This isn’t about a single individual; it’s about an ideology. The other is that I have interacted with the owners of the page who shared it on several occasions. They are kind, good-hearted women. They have shared things from TLSOF more than once. I’m not writing about this to criticize them or “out” them in any way. Again, it’s about the ideology.
** There are a few exceptions to this, such as Athena and Diana, but they are rare.