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Integrated healing: an argument from history and gender

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This post was inspired by reading about the second Pagan Health Survey, and I encourage all readers to go participate!

For me, being Wiccan means that I value the feminine and the metaphysical, two things that have been derided, often on the same terms. The history of healing is an interesting case study in how responding to both does not mean reversing that derision and eliminating what has been valued in the meantime (the masculine and the scientific) but restoring the value of what has been missed, finding balance and ideally integrating them both. This does not depend on me seeing myself as the literal or spiritual descendent of the medieval wise-woman or accused witch; it is an argument about current understanding of the best ways to re-enchant the world. Thus I think that the argument advanced in Ehrenreich and English's pamphlet Witches, Midwives, and Nurses about not throwing out science in order to destabilize patriarchy is equally valid when we look at it from a spiritual perspective.


I haven't had the chance yet to read in detail the results of the first Pagan Health Survey, which I very much want to do, but a couple of interesting questions on the second one made me think about this particular work. Now republished in a second edition, it presents an interesting dive into the history of healing and gender. The authors argue that there's a continuity over time of men trying to gain control of the healing professions stretching all the way from the witchcraft accusations of the medieval period to the marginalization of midwives in the last century to the subservient image of nursing as a female profession in this century. I am not vouching for its historical accuracy when dealing with the medieval period, but the way the healing professions have been segregated by gender in recent centuries is well-documented, and their discussion brings up some points that we should be thinking about today.

The authors were not writing, as far as I am aware, with any connection to the esoteric scene in the 1970s or now. Their argument about medieval witchcraft and female healers hinges on the undeniable fact that women people accused of witchcraft were sometimes accused of healing that was in various ways illicit. Some modern-day Pagans have anchored a piece of their mythology of themselves on this same basis, arguing that they are in some senses the descendants of the wise-women healers. I am also not going to go into the accuracies and inaccuracies of these types of claims in this post. My point is that when we are working to overcome a hierarchical system of privilege, the best way to proceed is not necessarily to try to reverse the hierarchy, whether it is one of male vs female or science vs spirituality.

I refuse to believe that there is an essential feminine nature that makes women inherently either less or more suited for healing; at the very least, we shouldn't pre-judge ourselves that way. I think it is equally foolish to assume that there is a spiritual kind of healing and a materialist kind of healing, and to assert that one kind is necessarily better than the other. The nineteenth century set up these dichotomies and insisted that they were innately linked - that materialist healing was a masculine profession - true medicine - and was inherently better than the feminine, spiritual, nurturing which just qualified women to be nurses. We do not need to abide by these dichotomies, and just as I don't think feminism calls for the dominion of women over men, I don't think that my spirituality calls for the assumption of spiritual healing over medicine.

Interestingly, one of Ehrenreich and English's main assertions about women healers accused as witches is that they were feared and maligned by the male practitioners of the time because the women were less dangerous and more effective, in part because the women of the time were more empirical than their male counterparts. (Barbara Ehrenreich  and Deirdre English, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (New York: The Feminist Press, 2010. Originally published 1973), 16) This turns on its head the idea that male science replaced female superstition. (27) Again, I am not vouching for the historical accuracy of all of their work, but the assertion is an interesting one.

The most convincing part of their argument is that lay healers in the medieval period almost certainly used herbal cures of varying quality and efficacy, while the more educated healers' work was grounded in theories that were fusions of magic and science, as those intellectual disciplines had not yet really diverged. Thus the theory of the four humors - wholly grounded in the theory of the four elements so familiar to many magical practitioners today - was the basis for prescriptions of bleeding and violent purgatives, much more likely to do harm than your average herbal compress or tisane. (51-53) The possibility that the lay healers using herbs had a better grasp of the empirical effects of their work seems to me to be a hopeful extension of these facts, but the fundamental argument that someone relying on herbs usually did less harm than someone with a bag full of mercury and leeches is likely true.

The historical grounding of the authors' work is much firmer in the nineteenth century, and at that point it is certainly true that one, men gained a nearly-exclusive hold on the professional practice of medicine well before the medical profession had much in the way of accurate science and healthful cures to offer, and two, the campaign to eliminate women healers was explicitly gendered, often on the basis of arguments so inane that today (I hope) they would elicit nothing but laughter.

In the medieval period, Ehrenreich and English argue, empiricism was part of what made these women dangerous to the church and the establishment powers. This requires, first, believing what the persecution accounts have to say about the accused in some areas (but not others), and second, a complete anti-empirical stance not just in the church but all privileged areas of society. I am not sure that this can be sustained, especially not up to a late enough date that it slides seamlessly into the more genteel exclusion from professional practice. But the key point is an interesting one: the reasons for excluding women changed over time in ways that suited those in power.

This leads to one of Ehrenreich and English's conclusions: "Witches were attacked for being pragmatic, empirical, and immoral. But in the nineteenth century the rhetoric reversed: women became too unscientific, delicate, and sentimental. The stereotypes change to suit male convenience - we don't, and there is nothing in our "innate feminine nature" to justify our present subservience." (100, emphasis original) It is interesting to note that by "present subservience" they mean both the power differential between the male physician and the female patient and the differential between male physician and female nurse. The authors are out to empower women in all areas.

This leads directly to what I consider their most important conclusion: "Men maintain their power in the health system through their monopoly of scientific knowledge. We are mystified by science, taught to believe that it is hopelessly beyond our grasp. In our frustration, we are sometimes tempted to reject science, rather than to challenge the men who hoard it. But medical science could be a liberating force, giving us real control over our own bodies and power in our lives as health workers." (100-101)

If we as Pagans think that the metaphysical aspects of healing are important, this should be our argument, too. We should not aid those who try to exclude us from the discussion by buying into their us-vs-them framing. The more we work with mainstream healing in integrated ways, the more we will have opportunities and power to treat ourselves and to remedy the basic idea that healing can happen without taking emotional and spiritual matters into account.  

If you think materialist science as applied in healing has often gone too far towards ignoring the metaphysical - from the basic emotional needs of the patient to more complex spiritual approaches to healing - then the best solution is not necessarily to discard everything stemming from this source, but to bring it back into balance. I personally think that many of the instances where modern medicine has ignored or denigrated the patient and these more complex parts of healing can be directly traced to instances of capitalism interacting with medicine to push it towards extremes not necessarily dictated by the best medical practices. This suggests an approach of re-valuing various aspects of healing and working to bring them in balance with each other - much as feminism is about re-valuing people as individuals, allowing them to find the balance within themselves and within groups on their own terms, rather than imposing masculinity and femininity from the outside.

This is why my Paganism and my feminism do not drive me to devalue modern medicine in favor of spiritual healing. They encourage me to question the boundaries between the two and to pursue an integrated approach to health that uses all available modalities. If and when I offer healing as part of my spiritual practices, I will strongly encourage anyone who consults me to do the same. For now, participating in the Pagan Health Survey and having these kinds of conversations in our communities is an important part of shaping our understanding of and relationship with both science and medicine.

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Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the history of magic with the support of her husband and four cats. Please note that all opinions expressed here are Literata's alone and do not reflect the positions of any organization with which she is affiliated.


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