New Internationalist

Fundamentally Female

Issue 210

new internationalist
issue 210 - August 1990

Past power: early Ethiopian goddess image.

Fundamentally female
Fundamentalism usually keeps women in their place.
But Celia Kitzinger argues that feminism
may be spawning its own equivalent.

At a feminist conference in Arizona earlier this year, I took time off from workshops on bonding rituals, ecological engagement, midlife rites and dances for spiritual renewal to look around the exhibits. The craft stalls were selling crystals with magic powers, menstrual goddesses made of red clay, and meditation stones 'to hold full moon aspirations'. The bookstalls were crammed with self-help books on wise-women lore, mystic herbalism, reincarnation, auras, witchcraft and psychology manuals urging me to get in touch with my real self, heal my inner child, and reclaim the powers of the Great Mother within.

Dizzy with this concentrated and relentless insistence on my untapped female potential, I decided to turn down an invitation to attend a women's healing circle in which participants 'share herstories, rituals and healing dreams, reclaim the loving power of the goddess, bloom forth in the eternal dance of cosmic circles renewal', with facilitator Sonia Ganz PhD. Ganz describes herself as 'Keeper of the Flame, weaving her Golden Net of Great Mystery and Magic she calls and invokes the Wise Woman Within You'.

Although it flourishes best in the individualistic hothouse of affluent North American culture, this type of matriarchal feminism crops up in Britain too. In the classified ads sections of feminist magazines women's spirituality and psychic development workshops vie for space with New Age therapies - a 'Feminist Shaman Healer offers a Snake Power Weekend Workshop' or a 'Neo-Reichian psychodynamic therapist with spiritual orientation' sells her therapeutic wares. The Women's Peace Movement worldwide draws on some of the same images of the power of women's creative and nurturing bodies, of our uniquely female connectedness with Mother Nature - in touch with the cycles of the moon, the seasons, and all life on this planet. The female spiritual values of care and connection are contrasted sharply with men's fear of intimacy and the male values of competition and domination.

It's seductive, this heady mix of feminist pop-psychology, spirituality, witchcraft and goddess-worship, and it's important to understand why it appeals to so many women. Much feminist writing focuses on women only in relation to our oppression, as victims or survivors of abuses men have perpetrated against us. But these images of female victimization and helplessness are replaced by a celebration of women's power and potential when we 'discover' ancient gynocractes and venerated goddesses. Suddenly we white Western women can remember (or invent) our own empowering symbols to replace the whiteman god, to give us a sense of tradition and a place in the cosmic order of things.

In defiance of a male-supremacist world which shrouds menstruation in shame, medicalizes childbirth and talks of women's bodies with contempt and loathing, we honour the power of our own bulging, bleeding, gestating, labouring and lactating bodies. We make links among women across centuries when we reclaim the herbal wisdom of the eighteenth-century midwife or the spiritual powers of the mediaeval witch. And we make links across cultures when we recognize our sisterhood with women of other nations and ethnicities and draw on their symbols and rituals, their traditional crafts and skills.

Refusing to be divided and conquered, we replace mother-blaming with veneration for motherhood and the Great Mother, replace patriarchal fear of old women with positive images of the wise Crone. Reclaiming our power as women, celebrating that which is uniquely female, this type of feminism inspires, invigorates and seems to offer more than merely a politics of opposition.

Most important of all, I think, this type of feminism invites us to speak of ethical concerns. It urges us to consider our basic moral values and goals as feminists, and to imagine the kind of world we want to create. And for these very reasons, we need to consider more carefully the underlying assumptions upon which such theories are based. Implicit or explicit in much of this literature is the assumption that women are, by biological definition, morally or spiritually superior.

Genetically superior
I don't like the term 'feminist fundamentalism' - feminism isn't a religion, has no sacred texts - but it does seem to me that there is a parallel between religious fundamentalism, with its clear distinction between the saved and the damned, and those brands of feminism which contrast women's essential, innate female goodness with men's moral turpitude. Women are good by biological fiat, virtuous because of our XX chromosomes, and our reproductive capacity. Women are the genetically superior race.

We should, in this post-Holocaust era, know the dangers of biological determinist arguments like this. When others generate parallel arguments we are ready to challenge them - eager to disprove the notion that boys are 'naturally' more mathematical than girls, that heterosexuals are biologically superior to homosexuals, or that white people are innately more intelligent than black people. How is it, then, that some feminists still feel able to draw on biological determinist arguments (sometimes using research evidence' culled from the most oppressive of male theorists) to claim that women are naturally, biologically, innately, superior to men?

According to Elizabeth Gould Davis, author of The First Sex: 'Maleness remains a recessive genetic trait like colour-blindness and haemophilia, with which it is linked. The suspicion that maleness is abnormal and that the Y chromosome is an accidental mutation boding no good for the race is strongly supported by the recent discovery by geneticists that congenital killers and 6riminals are possessed of not one but two Y chromosomes, bearing a double dose, as it were, of genetically undesirable maleness.'

According to this argument, biology is destiny. Men's violence is the inevitable result of the Y chromosomes (therefore outside their control and responsibility), and women are biologically pre-programmed to be nice.

Biological explanations of 'female nature' ignore the social and political structures which shape that 'nature'. There is no uniquely feminine essence, existing above and beyond social conditioning, which makes us creative, empathetic, intuitive, nurturant, nonviolent and at one with Mother Earth. It is worrying to find feminists reiterating the virtues traditionally assigned to Western women -including defining us in terms of our capacity to give birth.

In The Once and Future Goddess, Elinor Gadon says: 'I believe that women's wombs are their power centres, not just symbolically but in physical fact. When we say we act from our guts, for our deepest instincts, this is what we are speaking of.'

The infertile woman, the woman who undergoes hysterectomy, one who chooses abortion, the lesbian who refuses heterosexuality and motherhood - are we deemed incapable of spiritual power and insight because we do not use our wombs as Nature is supposed to have intended? Attempting to revalue motherhood, these feminists reinforce and revere the myth of the 'maternal instinct'. The dangers of this should be obvious - motherhood is an enforced identity for women, even by default: the terms 'childless man' and 'nonfather' sound absurd and irrelevant. Glorification of the Great Mother fails to address the enormous ambivalence many of us feel about our own mothers (and about our role as mothers). And it is often curiously unrelated to any political action which might help women with the far from glamorous everyday problems of being real live mothers.

Flaunting the goddess
Therapeutic language demanding that we look within for the source of our power -our 'authentic natural female self', 'the inner child', a free spirit untouched by social oppression - ignores the political structuring of the self. In a hostile political climate, it is easy to see why an oppressed group might lay claim to 'internal' spiritual or magical power. Generally this power is understood to be figurative rather than literal: we cannot stop rape, murder, sexual abuse or oppressive legislation simply by flaunting the symbol of the goddess.

their own words...

'God represents the necrophilia of patriarchy, whereas Goddess affirms the life-loving being of women and nature.'

MARY DALY IN GYN ECOLOGY

But when women's personal power is seen in literal terms, it leads, logically enough, to victim-blaming: if you're so powerful then whatever happens is your own fault. This reaches its most absurd and terrifying proportions in the self-help literature claiming that 'we are each 100-per-cent responsible for all of our experience ... we create every so-called "illness" in our body': if you have cancer it's because you hate yourself, AIDS because you suffer from sexual guilt, and you can cure yourself through the power of positive thinking.

This form of feminism promises a glorious future for those prepared to believe in the goddess within and claim their own spiritual power. In protesting against its assumptions it is easy to feel like a spoilsport, restricting feminist politics to a gloomy recital of male abuses. It seems terribly pedestrian to insist upon an examination of the material realities of women's oppression, the actual structural and political possibilities for transformation. And yet this, I believe, is what is necessary - and matriarchal, biologically determinist, psychobabble-style feminism is obstructive of that enterprise.

It is not useful to naturalize history, or to biologize the social phenomena through which our oppression is expressed: this serves only to obscure the political processes at work. It is unhelpful to disguise the social and political sources of power by focussing on internal personal power. It is destructive to sentimentalize women in other cultures or to romanticize women of past eras.

No women, no men
Just beneath the attractive surface of this brand of feminism lurk all too often the reactionary implications of biological determinism. Instead of simply inverting the idea that 'female is bad' with a feminist version of 'female is good', we need to step outside of this debate and challenge patriarchal definitions of 'men and 'women'.

Perhaps, as some radical feminists suggest, we need to jettison the concept of 'woman' altogether, on the grounds that it is not a natural given but a political (patriarchal) category. Just as the concept of 'race' was constructed only with the socio-economic reality of black slavery, so too the concept of 'women' functions only as marker of otherness and subordination. In selecting and glorifying those aspects of the 'myth of woman' that look good, these feminists are still imprisoned in the categories of sex, in the idea that there is a 'natural' division between women and men which has always existed, and always will exist.

As Monique Wittig argues: 'The function of difference is to mask at every level the conflicts of interest, including ideological ones. In other words, for us, this means there cannot any longer be women and men, and that as classes and as categories of thought or language they have to disappear, politically, economically, ideologically. Can we redress slave? Can we redeem nigger; negress? How is woman different?'

In struggling against male supremacy we cannot afford to be diverted into celebrating our culture of oppression or 'reclaiming' the traits associated with our persecution. Eschewing a celebration of our bondage, we need to engage in explicitly political struggle to end it.

Celia Kitzinger is a freelance writer who teaches psychology in London.

 

1 The First Sex, Elizabeth Gould Davis (Penguin 1973).
2
The Once and Future Goddess: A Symbol of Our Times, Elinor W Gadon (Harper & Row 1989).
3 You Can Heal Your Life, Louise Hay (Eden Grove 1984).
4
Monique Witlig 'One is Not Born a Woman', reprinted in For Lesbians Only: A Separatist Anthology, edited by Sarah Lucia Hoagland and Julia Penelope (Onlywomen Press 1981).

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