Altars to an unknown goddess

sisterhoodsymbolI have always been fascinated with intentional religious communities and the New York Times ran a news feature on one the other day that was very well done — with one serious gap.

In “My Sister’s Keeper,” we meet a community of women in the heart of Bible Belt Alabama that has no trouble maintaining its doctrinal standards, even while bumping into Southern Baptist neighbors. You see, these women are true separatists, practicing their own brand of fundamentalism.

It’s clear that reporter Sarah Kershaw knows that the religious angle is present, because the stream of religious images is constant in the body of the story. When a community needs to establish its own hospice-care system, you know that it is dealing with ultimate issues.

The name of the community is Alapine and here’s the heart of the story:

They called it a lesbian paradise, the pioneering women who made their way to St. Augustine, Fla., in the 1970s to live together in cottages on the beach. Finding one another in the fever of the gay rights and women’s liberation movements, they built a matriarchal community, where no men were allowed, where even a male infant brought by visitors was cause for debate.

Emily Greene was one of those pioneers, and at 62 she still chooses to live in a separate lesbian world. She and 19 other women have built homes on 300 rural acres in northeast Alabama, where the founders of the Florida community, the Pagoda, relocated in 1997.

And what about the future?

The communities, most in rural areas from Oregon to Florida, have as few as two members; Alapine is one of the largest. Many have steadily lost residents over the decades as members have moved on or died. As the impulse to withdraw from heterosexual society has lost its appeal to younger lesbians, womyn’s lands face some of the same challenges as Catholic convents that struggle to attract women to cloistered lives.

“The younger generation has not had to go through what we went through,” Ms. Greene said. She and other Alapine women described leading double lives when they were younger, playing the role of straight women in jobs and even marriages. “I came out in the middle ’60s, and we didn’t even have the word lesbian then,” Ms. Greene said. “We are really going to have to work at how we carry this on,” she added. “In 20 to 25 years, we could be extinct.”

This implies that these communities are preparing for some kind of evangelistic effort among the the young lesbians of America and female bisexuals who have yet to made adequate professions of faith.

But here is the mystery, to me. While the story is saturated with religious images — the sisters in this secret, hidden, gated community live on streets named after goddesses, like Diana Drive — there is no specific content about organized religion. Are the sisters agnostics, pagans, a mixture of various liberal mainline faiths? Are they feminist Catholics? Are any of the sisters ordained? We are not told. They are driven by very religious motivations and they are practicing strict, strict, strict doctrinal separatism. But we do not know if these beliefs link to organized religion — other than faith in radical feminism and to the vows that define their corner of the sexual revolution.

Most of all, these womyn are driven by one doctrine, which is that womyn are uniquely free of sin. Men, you see, are at the heart of what is wrong with this violent, fallen, sinful world. As one sister says:

“To me, this is the real world,” she said. “And it’s a very peaceful world. I don’t hear anything except the leaves falling. I get up in the morning, I go out on my front deck and I dance and I say, ‘It’s another glorious day on the mountain.’ Men are violent. The minute a man walks in the dynamics change immediately, so I choose not to be around those dynamics.”

Like I said, this is strong reporting and it’s clear that the Times team knows that the religion question is there.

But I found myself wanting to know one more detail, one extra layer of facts to put this community in context. Here’s my question: This is clearly a religious community. Do the sisters know that? What is the doctrinal content of the ties that bind?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dave

    Some questions about religious attitudes could indeed have produced some interesting answers. When lesbian separatism was a thriving movement among the young there was a serious division. Women who did the organizing usually wanted no truck with any religious language or practice, having gotten nothing but pain from churches and wanting nothing to do with them. Others, in the Women’s Spirituality movement, were taken up by a strong devotion to the ancient Goddesses and practiced rites that generally ripped those deities out of the patriarchal pantheons in which they were historically embedded. It would be fascinating indeed to see what mix remains in this noble, stubborn remnant.

    BTW as an eclectic Pagan I regard Women’s Spirituality as sisters in the faith, even though they would never invite me to one of their Circles.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Fascinating story – thanks for the link. For another religious angle, note that the academic consulted by the reporter is from Hope College, a Christian (RCA) college.

    I would have liked the perspective of a former member who left the community or one of the community members’ relatives. The article mentions ex-husbands, children, and grandchildren. They have been more profoundly affected by the community than has the nearby town.

  • Judy Harrow

    Terry

    Thank you for the respectful tone of your post. As a Pagan, I read the article in question with interest. I think the religious angle was ignored because of the writer’s personal discomfort. What jumped out at me was the snarky way she put “community full moon circle” in scare quotes. How can you really understand or interpret a community’s beliefs if you think even their communal worship is silly?

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  • Dan

    I had much the same reaction and the same questions when I read the article, although one can pretty well guess the answer: I would bet that the New Age, Wiccan, “A Course in Miracles,” and things of that sort reign among these “womyn.”

  • Ivan

    In the accompanying slideshow on the NYT website, members of the community are seen praying at mealtime… To whom?

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Men are violent. The minute a man walks in the dynamics change immediately, so I choose not to be around those dynamics.”

    Of course, violence is not reserved only to males. Have these women never experienced violence among themselves, or things which fuel violence or other dysfunction, such as addiction to alcohol or other substances? What about just plain old drama? This has not occurred? How were the perpetrators dealt with? Or were these women able to successfully screen out potential troublemakers ahead of time? If so, how did they do this? How do they support themselves?

  • Peggy

    Does any one need to explain to these women why their movement is facing extinction?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I wanted more discussion of what seemed some pretty obvious Pagan influences and rites. It was a fascinating read and I only wish the story could have been longer.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Also, for some reason I kept wanting to call the community Equalia — Lisa Simpson’s awesome fantasy world from a recent Simpsons.

  • Dave

    I kept wanting to call the community Equalia

    I don’t see why. Men and non-lesbian woman are excluded. Even bisexual women are not welcome. Unless we assume that the only way for lesbians to be equal is to separate, and the germane population seems to have voted otherwise with its feet.

    Of course, I don’t watch the Simpsons. :-)

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  • dalea

    The tradition here is generally called Dianic Witchcraft. All the visual images shown are NeoPagan. At least that is what it looks like to me.

    http://www.thissideofsanity.com/dianic/dianic.html

    The founder of Dianic Witchcraft is Z Budapest.

    http://www.zbudapest.com/

    (I can’t get the link function to work.)

    This form of NeoPaganism has been around since 1974. It continues on, but without the separatist practice in most cases. Centers like this often feature festivals for the general women’s community. There are NeoPagan gathering spaces like this all over the country. Some have evolved into Senior Communities.

    tmatt asks:

    there is no specific content about organized religion. NeoPaganism is not an organized religion; it is more a practice of reflection and inner exploration.

    Are the sisters agnostics, pagans, a mixture of various liberal mainline faiths? It seems to be a general NeoPagan Dianic group with each individual tailoring their practice to their own needs.

    Are they feminist Catholics? Strongly doubt it.

    Are any of the sisters ordained? NeoPagans do not ordain, we initiate. There is no distinct clergy in most NeoPagan practice. Offices are held for a season, or until someone promises to do all the work and then she gets to be High Priestess.

  • dalea

    Alapine has a website:

    http://www.alapine.com/

    There is one picture showing some women in ritual robes. Nice site, and they do seem to setting the stage for larger gatherings.

  • bruised

    From their website listed above:

    “We are a diverse group of women who celebrate many spiritual paths,”

  • R.S.Newark

    With the womyn doing all this all what are the myn doing?

  • labyrs

    There is no indication in either the website or the NY Times article that these women share any specific religion or faith path. Just because the streets are named after Goddesses doesn’t mean they are Goddess worshippers. And just because they are lesbians doesn’t mean they are Dianics. These are big assumptions. I would only assume that they are all lesbians. That’s it.

  • dalea

    As someone who has been involved in NeoPaganism for over 30 years, the photos clearly show all sorts of fairly standard NeoPagan styles and objects. And, Dianic Witchcraft is the religion whose political expression is Lesbian Separtism. There are Dianics who are not separatist, but I have never ever heard of a separatist who was not also a Dianic. All the separatist literature comes from the Dianic community. So, for a Gay NeoPagan. it is fairly easy to recognize Dianic practice when I see it.

    The article seems to show the confusion reporters have in dealing with both gay and lesbian people and NeoPaganism. What has always struck me that unless the story is about gay conflict with organized religion or gay coming to terms with mainstream religion, the press just becomes confused. Among activly religious gay and lesbian people, a large number are either NeoPagan or NewAge. These almost never show up in the press coverage. When it does, it tends to skip the religion as in this article. Or decide that a Shamanic Spirituality movement, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, is street theater.

  • Dave

    dalea:

    When I was following the political literature in the 1970s and ’80s there was no such connection between separatism and religion. I would refer you to the periodical off our backs between the ’70s and the ’90s, for example.

    Z Budapest in The Grandmother of Time describes how difficult it was to get Goddess material included in the offerings of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival due to the hostility toward any religous expression on the part of what she describes as the “lesbian bureaucracy” in charge of the thing.

    The members of Alapine go back to those days, and could be of any persuasion.

    That being said, I must agree with your second comment. I have yet to see a competent MSM treatment of Dianic Wicca or the Metropolitan Community Church.

  • dalea

    Dave: in my experience, in the Midwest in the 70′s and 80′s, as a gay man and a Pagan, every separatist I ever knew of had some sort of connection to Dianic Wicca. Drawing on personal experience. Everyone I knew who attended the Michigan Womyn’s Music was a NeoPagan. So, I am drawing on experience which may not be very helpfull.

    Thanks for the agreement. I have never seen any useful MSM treatment of gay religion.

  • Iamcuriousblue

    Notice an obvious parallel with the Shakers?

  • Satsuma

    These are lesbian separatist communities, and so they are not only Dianic Wiccans, but also they honor goddess in the names of streets and their imagry. Just about all lesbians of a particular era were inspired by Z. Budapest, and other visionary lesbian spiritual leaders. I think the purpose of the New York Times article was to get the information out into the world that lesbian land and traditions is still a viable alternative to malestream rapistist/porn culture.

    I know I view men as inherently violent, or at best condescending towards women’s freedom on women’s terms. Spiritually, I would regard it as a waste of time to do rituals with men, and never do. Men are oppressors of women, and they are dominators. Why would spiritually evolved lesbians want to waste time dealing with men? Makes no sense to me.

    On feminist websites, lesbians were very excited that these places still exist, and many younger women mentioned that they would love to live in these communities.

    They are not catholic in any way. Lesbian separatists have a much more open ended idea of worship and spiritual community, and so all beliefs are welcome there. The New York Times reporter would have to be awfully well informed and perceptive to really get the subtext here.

    Most lesbians of a certain era do view men as oppressors at best and rapists at worst. Men like to believe they are loving and spiritual, but I have yet to see men get outraged over the toxic level of rape, pornography and trafficking in women and girls that has become so prevalent worldwide. We think men don’t care and are unwilling to end rape worldwide. …

  • Dave

    Satsuma writes:

    I have yet to see men get outraged over the toxic level of rape, pornography and trafficking in women and girls that has become so prevalent worldwide.

    Some young men in the 1970s did get exercised over what’s been called the worldwide war on women. I suspect that they dwindled as part of the general loss of male support for feminism in that decade, which I attribute to the categorical hostility some feminist writing exhibited toward men.

    If the NYT article was to get the word out about the continued existence of such communities, I hope they succeed in drawing younger women in. I would hate to see this alternative die of old age.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    And, of course, the current movement to fight trafficking is a fascinating blend of feminists and the Religious Right. That’s one of the most interesting chapters in “Blind Spot.”

    See: http://www.tmatt.net/2008/10/29/that-global-blind-spot/

  • Dave

    Terry, earlier still — in the 1970s and ’80s — opposition to pornography joined the energies of feminists and religious conservatives but afaik they never coordinated their efforts — no leadership discussions over coffee and bagels before going back to their offices to oppose one another on other issues. IIRC the Indianapolis city council, pondering the McKinnon-Dworkin anti-porn bill, scheduled testimony from the feminists and the religious conservatives on different days so they wouldn’t have to encounter one another at City Hall.

  • Satsuma

    I often thought that the feminism-right wing conservative “alliance” of the 80s over anti-porn ordinances was somewhat of a red herring. The truth is, women are prostituted and used in brutal violent pornography, and men just sit by and largely say or do nothing about this from left wing perspectives. People like Larry Flynt of Hustler are made out to be champions of the first amendment. I have always noticed that the big defense of first amendment “rights” have to do with male speech, not women’s right to critique male supremacy.

    It doesn’t really matter whether feminist women are pleasant or difficult to work with, what matters is that liberal men don’t give a damn that pornification of women and girls is a human rights outrage, and that porn itself is an instruction booklet for men who want to abuse prostitutes who are as young as 13-14 — the average age women are recruited into prostitution in the U.S. by the way.

    The male left’s silence on this issue makes a mockery of human rights. When I see men with the passion of Catherine McKinnon doing battle against the violators of women worldwide, I’ll have some respect for men. But I don’t see them doing a damn thing from a left perspective. Leftist men are constantly attacking feminist blogs for being “sex negative” — I guess that means men think it’s ok to put girls age 14 into a life of prostitution. This is the dirty little secret of left wing anything in America, and thank the goddess we have feminist blogs who seriously address this issue worldwide.

    The day I see men get outraged over human rights violations of women AS women, is the day I’ll believe men care about the human rights of women. Right now there is only outrage if men are included in the mix — Apartheid in South Africa vs. gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia is a very good example of this double standard of human rights. I believe men will defend to their dying day their right to pornify and degrade women as part of their sense of sexual entitlement.
    It’s why women need a country of our own where this sort of thing would be outlawed.

  • Dave

    Satsuma (#26), the red herring is framing pornography as instruction. You might as well frame spy fiction as terrorist instruction.

    I have always noticed that the big defense of first amendment “rights” have to do with male speech, not women’s right to critique male supremacy.

    Hugh Hefner’s willingness to go to the mat with the US Postmaster General about what could go through the mails in the 1950s opened the door to the flood of feminist discussion in mail-distributed magazines of topics like lesbianism and menstruation in the ’60s and beyond. One of the the biggest hypocrisies in feminism is its failure to acknowledge what it owes to defense of “male speech.”

    The US did not oppose Apartheid because it discovered that men were affected. The change in US policy came when the African countries around South Africa switched from colonial to majority rule, and it was clear that Apartheid was on the losing side of history.

    That said, I agree that not enough is done to relieve the particular burdens of women worldwide. But I watched the domestic debate during seven year of the War on Terror, waiting for feminists to notice that the bad guys relative to abuse of women had a strong overlap with the bad guys in the War on Terror — waiting for feminists to laud what Bush was doing to patriarchal regimes overseas and support him. Did they do so and I just missed it?

  • ocelot

    Dave, Mr. Hefner was hardly chapioning something out of the goodness of his heart – like Flynt, he wanted to make money with his publication.

    As to Bush’s acts being “lauded” by feminists, first off, perhaps many feminists did not believe the war was just, whether it had the secondary effect of reliving some women from partiarchist oppression (which was neither a permenant state nor even one of Bush’s particular goals). Second, why on earth would feminists then have to “laud” the action? Supporting women’s issues with an expectation that someone will come along and give you a nice big ribbon and a cookie is exactly the kind of attitude feminists complain of.

    One should not expect congratulations for opposing that which is oppressive towards half the human race.

  • Dave

    Ocelot, I am a Cynic — note the capital C — in the old Pagan sense, in that I expect everyone, including Hefner, Flynt and feminists, to act out of self-interest at some basic level. That Hefner wanted to profit from his publication is no rebuttal as far as I am concerned.

    Supporting actions of other people that advance one’s agenda is the way things get done in the real world — ie, it’s how politics work. I’m not saying feminists were obligated to do this; I just note that afaik they didn’t.

  • ocelot

    It’s certainly a rebuttal when you’re trying to use him as an example of a man sticking up for First Amendment rights, which weren’t really the issue, anyway. Men not being active in opposing oppression against women was the actual issue.

    I’m familiar with the real world, having lived in it for quite some time. I think your view of “politics” is sadly lacking in diversity of viewpoint and knowledge of feminist theory, and is in itself an example of something many feminists reject and would wish to change.

    The very fact that you couldn’t address the criticism without stooping to a condescending explanation about “the real world” almost proves the point.

  • Dave

    My view of politics is that of a grown-up.


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