Third Wave Witch: Feminist Spirituality, Spiritual Feminism

Third Wave Witchcraft explores the intersection of feminism, Witchcraft, Goddess Spirituality, and feminist activism. A place to explore how to make our spirituality more feminist, our feminism more spiritual, and our world more just.

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Visiting the Past to Find Hope for the Future

This post was originally posted at my WordPress blog, Priestessing the Dream

I've been on a bit of a feminist thealogy/feminist spirituality history tour of late. It feels like the moment is ripe for a whole new wave of Goddess Spirituality to be born, with the resurgence in interest in Witchcraft born of the #Resistance, plus the newly visible nature of the feminist movement due to the Women's March. The work of W.I.T.C.H. in Portland and Chicago has also been a reminder of the rich intertwining of feminist politics and witchcraft that gave rise to the Goddess Spirituality I practice . Even though I part ways with many of the movement's founders on issues of trans inclusion, biological essentialism, cultural appropriation, and more, at my core Goddess Spirituality and Witchcraft are what shapes my life and work and gives them meaning.

I've been re-reading The Politics of Women's Spirituality (1981), edited by Charlene Spretnak. Many women who would become leading lights in the Feminist Spirituality movement, including Carol P. Christ, Merlin Stone, and Starhawk, appear in this volume. Many of them were just starting out their careers as the Feminist Spirituality movement was being birthed -- Carol P. Christ's "Why Women Need the Goddess" had been published just 3 years before, and Starhawk's The Spiral Dance came out a year after that. The move to reinsert women into the male-centered historical narratives that underpin Western history was still young, but in full swing. Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority had yet to appear on the cultural scene. It had been less than a decade since Roe v. Wade.

mini-altarI have to keep reminding myself of how long ago this book was published (though not really that long), and of all the things that had yet to happen and shape American culture and feminist thought when it was published. It is, in many ways, a book of a specific historical moment. It relies on language, largely binary and heavily steeped in biological essentialism, that the feminism I know and practice rejects. But it does so because that was the language of its time -- and while many of the women who contributed to Politics have ultimately shown themselves to be trans-exclusionary and essentialist in their thinking, others have gone on to use more inclusive language and practice. I fall (as you know) into the second camp, advocating for a Goddess Spirituality that is inclusive and affirming of all women, and which does not rely on biological essentialism for its central narrative. So I occasionally do find myself annoyed with the language in some of these essays, until I remind myself to take them as a product of their times. (I let myself eye-roll at the writers who I know to be consciously exclusionary, though.)

Even with the problems, however, I think this book is so important for people in the Goddess Spirituality community to read. It is one of the germinal texts of our movement, and the thinking laid out in these essays helps us understand where we have come from and, hopefully, where we are going.

And what strikes me above all is how hopeful these writers were. They truly believed that a better world was on her way. Not just through Goddess Spirituality, but through the building of a women's culture (however problematic that term might be), through the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (which never has been ratified), through the groundswell of feminist thinking and activism they were witnessing. The flowering of feminist publications, of consciousness raising groups, of social change like Title IX and laws against sexual harassment in the workplace -- it was all such cause for hope. They couldn't know about the backlash against feminism that was just a few years down the line. They couldn't know about the Reagan years and the growth of the anti-abortion movement. They certainly couldn't know about Trump. They believed they were the Amazons come to change the world.

It's easy to look back at that know and find it all kind of hokey and cliche -- even the late Margot Adler, in her 2006 update to Drawing Down the Moon, said she looked back on her essay about Feminist Witchcraft in the original and found it a bit idealistic -- but I think we should be careful here. Yes, the New Amazon Way did not come to pass -- or has not come to pass yet. But the hopefulness, the fierceness, the imagination, and the dedication that the founders of Goddess Spirituality brought to what they did is worth emulating. They may not have enacted culture-wide change, but they left us with an amazing legacy, and the rise of the more general NeoPagan movement in the US owes much to Feminist Witches.

I don't want to see us return to essentialist thinking about gender, and I want to see us move beyond the TERF thinking that mars our community. I want to see us build a Goddess Spirituality that does help to change the world, and does so in part by welcoming and affirming all those who hear Her call. And I want to channel that hope, that optimism, that I find in the pages of The Politics of Women's Spirituality so that I can work to create the next generation of Goddess Spirituality.

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Susan Harper is an eclectic solitary Feminist Witch from Irving, Texas. She is a professor of Anthropology, Sociology, and Women's Studies, with a focus on gender, religion, and sexuality. She is also an activist, community educator, and writer. When she's not making magick or fomenting social change, Susan is the head soapmaker, herbalist, and aromatherapist for Dreaming Priestess Creations. She shares her life with her partner, Stephanie, five cats, and two guinea pigs.


  • Michelle Gruben
    Michelle Gruben Wednesday, 01 March 2017

    I'm always amazed at how fresh The Spiral Dance feels. Amazing that it's creeping up on 40. I think there is a wonderful amount of inspiration to be found in the authors you mentioned. Even though, yeah--some of their predictions were wrong and their naivete can be embarrassing in hindsight. Glad you're willing to overlook that. I'm a lot more worried about the Pagan leaders who still treat Paganism as a gender-essentialist fertility religion than a bunch of well-meaning writers who are, indeed, products of their time.

  • Susan Harper
    Susan Harper Wednesday, 01 March 2017

    Right? I feel that way about Carol Christ's "Why Women Need the Goddess" -- it moves me every time I read it, even though I've now read it dozens of times. It still feels profound and True each time.

    Like you, I am far more worried about the leaders in the community who promote gender essentialism, transphobia, racism, and xenophobia than I am about folks who were writing in the language of their time and who have since grown past that. (I mean, I don't know that I'd want something I wrote when I was 20 to be judged by present day standards!)

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