Seekers and Guides: Some Essential Books for Women’s Spirituality Groups

Seekers and Guides: Some Essential Books for Women’s Spirituality Groups November 30, 2015
Roman Goddess Statue (public domain image).
Roman Goddess Statue (public domain image).

So for the past couple of weeks, due to the fact that I’ve been tied up with National Novel Writing Month, I’ve been trying desperately to put together book lists similar to my list of Books I Think that Every Witch Should Read, largely because books have been on my mind, and because (I’ll be honest) they take less time than coming up with a full column.  But I’ve been stuck.  The problem is that when you recommend a book, you recommend its message.  Because I spent a significant part of my training as a Dianic witch, I’ve been working on the essential Feminist Witchcraft book list, and I’m stymied by a realization: many of the books I have read on the subject that were so important for me in coming to terms with my own body, my own gender identity, and my relationship with Goddess as well as God, have a lot of baggage associated with them.  The problem is that much of the material is outright misandrist, gender essentialist, and transphobic.  And now that I’m a little older, and have a different grasp of intersectionality and kyriarchy than I once did, I just can’t agree with those messages. I think it’s a deeply ingrained problem.

Apothecary by Sable Aradia.  Copyright (c) 2015.  All rights reserved.
Apothecary by Sable Aradia. Copyright (c) 2015. All rights reserved.

I believe the patriarchy needs to be destroyed, like any other feminist.  However, I have come to different conclusions about the patriarchy.  I believe that it hurts everyone who isn’t a patriarch, and that includes most of the men in the world, especially young men.  It is also especially harmful to LGBTQ+ people and, most of all, to anyone who challenges the gender-binary. Most of the classic books that I know of on women’s spirituality speak of “men” as if they are the enemy.  it’s ridiculous and offensive to assume that men are all one thing. I think that’s shooting ourselves in the foot.  This sort of language is what makes people think that feminists hate men by definition; which of course is completely false.  I think that kyriarchy is the enemy.  It has nothing to do with men vs. women; that’s a distraction.  It’s about keeping the haves and the have nots separated, and it succeeds because some men (especially white, middle-class, heterosexual cisgender men) are taught to believe that they are patriarchs-in-waiting, just as we working class folk are taught to believe that we are all temporarily embarrassed millionaires.  This belief encourages some to support a system that oppresses all of us; though people of all genders do see through this.  Understanding this, I believe it’s not in our best interests to talk about male privilege (which, yes, is a thing); instead, we should be pointing out how a very few rich (usually white) males run things by controlling our behaviour and pitting us against one another.

"Proserpina" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Proserpina” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I also disagree with what I feel is a disturbing undercurrent that runs through a lot of women’s spirituality literature: which is that sex, and women being sexual, is a bad thing.  I am sex-positive and I think that full control over one’s sexuality, as a woman, is a fundamental necessity to achieve true gender equality.  That, to me, means that we must support the right of women to wear whatever the hell they want, even if we think of that article of clothing as a symbol of patriarchal oppression; we must defend, without exception, the right of people of all genders to do whatever the hell they want in the bedroom that happens between informed, consenting adults; and we must support the right of people of all genders, but especially women, to sell what it is perfectly legal to give away, rather than trying to “rescue” them from “exploitation”.  To do otherwise suggests that for a woman, submitting to sex at all is lowering oneself in some way, which perpetuates the myth of virgins and whores.  In my opinion that’s the last gasping ghost of controlling women’s fertility to separate the classes, and it’s completely outmoded in our society in which birth control has been readily available for two generations.  If someone chooses to sell a sexual act, one is choosing to sell a service, not oneself nor ones soul.  We must stop using this demeaning language, which is ultimately a method of controlling people’s bodies.

So, understanding that these are my feelings and biases, I’m going to cautiously recommend the classics in the field of Feminist Witchcraft, and a few you may not be familiar with besides.  I’m going to tell you why I think they need to be on this list, and I’m also going to offer you my critique; which I think can be described as being centered somewhere between a Third and Fourth Wave Feminist viewpoint.  Some of these books have been around for a long time; others are newer.  Some are not books on spirituality at all; they are books on ideology or politics.  I won’t apologize for including them; the three are often wedded in Feminist Witchcraft.

I believe that we need a new feminist witch manifesto.  We need a new way of embracing the Goddess Within.  If there are good books out there that anyone has read that align more consistently with a Third Wave Feminist perspective or even a Post-Feminist perspective, please let me know so that I can expand my horizons and offer a Women’s Mysteries series that more accurately represents the variety of beliefs that make up modern Feminism and modern Feminist Witchcraft.

Consciousness-Raising

Politics and Feminism by Barbara Arneil — This book outlines the essentials of feminist theory, how it applies in particular to politics, and takes a good, hard look at the merits and flaws of all such approaches, touching on First, Second, and Third Wave Feminism.  It might make a good read for anyone trying to understand the different shades of feminism, and confusing issues such as why some feminists are trans-exclusionists and why some of us think that view is a completely anti-feminist stance.

The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess by Starhawk — Still probably one of the best books on the topic, and one that is fairly inclusive for people of all genders; though because of the language that addresses male privilege, and a distressing tendency to preach that men are wired for war while women are wired for peace, heterosexual cisgendered men sometimes feel marginalized when reading it, and I can totally see their point.  Still, start here, after (or just before) you’ve read Politics and Feminism.

Dreaming the Dark by Starhawk — I highly recommend this book, which is all about using magic and activism to fight the kyriarchy.  The appendix even explains her theory of how enclosure led to capitalism which led to the kyriarchy.  A very important and powerful book about consciousness-raising and its importance.  The same hard-wired assumptions that are present in The Spiral Dance are present in all of her writing, however.

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf — This is one of my personal soapbox issues.  This is the foundational book that pointed out how a quest for an artificially-created, impossible standard of beauty, is used to control and discriminate against women.  I think this is one area that also directly affects the queer, trans+ and intersex communities.  Although Wolf speaks almost strictly of women and their relationships to men, which does not effectively consider the LGBTQI+ perspective, ultimately I think it’s a very important book.

Cunt: A Declaration of Independence (Second Edition) by Inga Muscio (editor) — This is an essential Third Wave Feminism consciousness-raising book about reclaiming the word “cunt” and all that goes with it.  Get the second edition, not the first, because a special point was made to include trans women’s perspectives in the second edition (which was missed in the first).  As an anthology with a variety of different writers, perspectives can vary considerably from piece to piece, and some of that writing is clearly very hateful and angry towards men.  It’s too valuable not to recommend, but I certainly can’t say that I support all of the views expressed here.

Psychology

Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women by Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen — I still recommend Dr. Bolen.  The truth is that we women do still grow up in a patriarchy (though kyriarchy is a word I like better because I think it grasps the issue more effectively,) and we often find ourselves emulating cultural myths.  Granted, it is pop psychology, but we need to understand the limits of those myths and embrace their strengths.  It is limited in that it tends to approach things from a white, Western-culture point of view, and may not be as valuable to women of colour or women who did not grow up in Western cultures.

The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Dr. Harriet Lerner — I feel that women are still taught by our culture to deny our anger and put on a happy face, in life and especially in our relationships.  This classic confronts that and tries to find more positive ways of dealing with it.  I think it’s still as relevant now as it was when it was published.

Thealogy and Ritual

When God was a Woman by Merlin Stone — This is a really great book for connecting with the Goddess.  This book is a popularized adaptation of Marija Gimbutas’ Ancient Matriarchy hypothesis.  Don’t expect scholarly precision, but do read it in order to embrace the Feminine Divine.

The Languages of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas — These are the scholarly works.  The first one is prefaced by Joseph Campbell, who supported Gimbutas’ work and was quoted as saying that he wished he’d had her research available when he was writing The Masks of Myth.  Her hypotheses are now contested by some modern scholars, particularly the Kurgan Hypothesis, which claims that a patriarchal warlike culture came out of present-day Turkey to sweep in and destroy the ancient matriarchies; assigned rules to women’s sexual behaviours on pain of death in order to control patriarchal inheritance, and thus war became glorified over peace and patriarchal society and religion became the norm.  I remember when I first encountered this idea and how excited I was about it, because it made things which otherwise boggled me about our society make sense.  It was like a light bulb going off in my brain.  But I don’t believe it any longer.  I think the patriarchs use the control of women’s fertility to divide the classes and preserve property and inheritance.  It was about separation of class, not oppression of women; that was simply a by-product.  Also, Gimbutas tends to assign goddess symbolism on what is sometimes thin evidence.  But it’s powerfully moving to know that there were goddesses worshiped in ancient cultures, and they weren’t always subservient to the male gods despite the tendency of historians to paint things that way.

The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries by Zsuzsanna Budapest — You have to read this book because it is the alpha source of the movement.  But I hate it.  I have always hated it.  Z. Budapest has received a lot of justified criticism over the past few years for her misandry and transphobia.  I can see the point of the argument, and it’s not wrong, that we women had to pass through a state of anger in order to realize how unjust our culture actually is towards women, and in order to motivate ourselves to demand that those inequalities be addressed.  But I don’t think the path to achieving that is to make war on men in general.  And I don’t believe for a moment that trans women are trying to assert their “male privilege” in women’s-only space (which was Z’s famous argument for excluding them at her PantheaCon women’s ritual a couple of years back.) But it’s kind of scary that nobody really noticed this attitude before.  There’s a ritual in this book for a coming-of-age for young men, in which they are made to go to all the women in the group and apologize for being male!  I raised three boys, and I cannot emphasize enough how terrible I think that could be for their developing self-esteem and adult identities.  Still, it has a lot of powerful and moving rituals for women to allow them to connect with the sacredness of the Goddess Within, and the women’s herbalism section is absolutely outstanding as a starting point for further research.

(Thorson’s) The Way of the Goddess by Ann-Marie Gallagher — These Thorson’s “Way of” books seem simplistic, but this one is less so than most.  I’m currently using it as a foundation for the Women’s Mysteries course I’m trying to put together because it’s written from a modern feminist perspective.  It’s also a really great essential how-to on Dianic witchcraft and Goddess religion.  If you could only choose one book on this list, choose this one, because it covers everything else in at least a cursory way.  Which is odd, because it doesn’t appear to be in print anymore.  That’s a shame.

Casting the Circle: A Women’s Book of Ritual by Diane Stein — This book lays out an excellent grounding for a tradition of creating women’s ritual.  She offers rituals of her own, but, more importantly, she offers all kinds of excellent principles of ritual theory that allow you to create (primarily “Wiccanate”) rituals that are meaningful for yourself.  Really, if it weren’t entirely focused on women I would recommend it as an excellent course in ritual theory for all witches.

The Chalice & the Blade: Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler — I want to recommend Riane Eiler.  I think she has a lot of great things to say about how we need new mythologies that admire peace as much as our current myths admire war.  But I don’t think this has anything to do with “masculine” or “feminine” nature, and I think that gender essentialist philosophy is not only simplistic, but also mistaken.  War is not a masculine urge; I am a warlike woman.  Peace is not a feminine urge; my husband is a peaceful man.  And what of those who are non-gender conforming?  It’s true that our culture teaches us to admire the conqueror; teaches us to believe that the one at the top deserves to be there (because otherwise why would we put up with their bullshit?) but that has nothing to do with the oppression of women, other than, as I have already said, division of class.  This idea is poisonous because the kyriarchy uses this false belief as justification to keep women, and people who are non-gender conforming, out of war and politics.  So if you read it with that caveat in mind, it is excellent food for thought.  This book used to be hard to find; when I read it back in the late 90s I had to get it on inter-library loan.

The Maiden King by Robert Bly & Marion Woodman — Marion Woodman is a Jungian feminist who writes about those myths that drive our psychology, but she embraces a more holistic view; she even wrote this book with Robert Bly on balancing the masculine and feminine and coming to terms with both.  But even here there’s little attention given to those who are non-gender conforming.  Still, it examines how women and men are portrayed in fairy tales and mythology, and confronts that head-on.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley — This is an excellent example of the problems facing us in this field.  This popular novel was extremely influential, especially in the wildfire growth of witchcraft in the 90s.  Thousands of women became witches after reading this, and it sparked rituals and recreations of some of its myths all over North America.  Unfortunately we are now aware that Bradley was an accuser abuser and child molester.  The question then faces us: where do we draw the line between the work and the writer?  It’s incredibly important because of its influence, but you can’t forget the source either.

There’s about a zillion books out there on understanding the Goddesses within a Goddess Spirituality viewpoint.  Really, just pick the ones you like.  As long as you have at least two, you’re covered if you’re putting together your essential reading material.  But two of my personal favourites are:

The Storyteller’s Goddess: Tales of the Goddess and Her Wisdom from Around the World by Carolyn McVickar Edwards — Not the most scholarly source, but it offers tales of a variety of Goddesses from a variety of cultures that can be easily read as part of any circle without bogging down the whole ritual, organized according to what the book blurb calls “the seven healing Goddess principles.”

Eternally Bad: Goddesses with Attitude by Trina Robbins — This is a fun, modern look at some of the “bad girl” Goddesses and Their stories.  Also suitable to be read in circle without bogging down the whole ritual, and very entertaining for the listeners!

Health and Rites of Passage

The Wise Wound: Menstruation and Everywoman by Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove — Developing a positive attitude and a body-respect for menstruation was very good for me, and if you menstruate regularly, I think it’s an excellent practice to develop to learn to be aware of the holy mystery that is your body.  The techniques described in the book to align your body to the cycles of the moon work, and I find the process improves my quality of life.  But what of trans women?  What of trans men who still experience menstruation?  What of women in menopause or especially, premature menopause due to cancer treatment or hysterectomies?  What of women, like me, with fertility problems?  Finding the sacred in menstruation is good for some women and not others, and might be just as relevant for people of all genders who menstruate.

Our Bodies, Ourselves by Boston Women’s Health Book Collective — The defining book on women’s health and sexuality.  It advocates a DIY approach to women’s health because, at the birth of the Second Wave Feminism movement, it was very difficult to for women to get unbiased, respectful care for women’s health and sexuality issues (and it still can be sometimes.)  As a result, it’s strongly influenced by both First and Second Wave perspectives.  When it came out in 1971 it created quite a stir because it talks frankly about lesbians and lesbian sex, and it speaks of abortion as a reproductive choice.  It still gets bad reviews on Goodreads for this.  They try to keep it updated so get the updated edition (most recently publication: 2011).  This is one I can recommend unequivocally.  I can’t fault these ladies for transphobia; they have a website that details their non-profit work and they have a whole section for sexual orientation and gender identity.  Apparently their work led to a related book called Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, which is a similar resource for transgender people, and that is obviously still desperately needed in our present culture.

Woman at the Edge of Two Worlds: The Spiritual Journey Through Menopause by Lynn V. Andrews — Okay, I’ll be honest.  Mostly I have little respect for Andrews’ work, largely because I think her brand of shamanism is a study in cultural appropriation.  But this book approaches menopause as the process of a spiritual Rite of Passage, and it does it well.  As a forty year old woman just beginning to see the signs of peri-menopause, I’m ready to embrace it.  You might also want the companion Workbook, which gives you exercises, questions, and rituals for the process.  If you are not entering menopause it will have no meaning for you.

The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom & Power by Barbara Walker — This view on empowerment through the wisdom of age is a foundational concept in Goddess spirituality, and it’s important because our historical model of older women is poor. You may also wish to check out her Women’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, her Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, or her book on Women’s Ritual, because they are excellent; but I don’t think they’re essentials.  They are, however, helpful.

The Pagan Book of Living and Dying: Practical Rituals, Prayers, Blessings and Meditations on Crossing Over by Starhawk, M. Macha Nightmare and the Reclaiming Collective — In addition to being, bar none, the best book out there for looking at a Pagan approach to death, it’s a very community-oriented, feminist and inclusive view on death and dying.  It has a ritual for women to come together to wash and care for the body of one of their number who has passed on.  It includes mourning rituals for miscarried and aborted babies that helps a woman to come to terms with child-loss.  Who else has ever even thought of that?  The idea that a would-be mother might need to grieve for the baby she felt she could not give birth to; nobody ever talks about that.  Except Starhawk and M. Macha Nightmare.  Seriously, get this book.

Well, that’s my list!  I expect to be lambasted in the comments because I know that a lot of what I’ve said is controversial.  And that’s fine, just keep it respectful.  If you think I’ve missed anything, or if you have anything to add, don’t hesitate to recommend it.


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