Do Women’s Circles Actually Matter? By Molly Meade

“We need rituals of memory…because a political movement, the public policy and tactics of our movement, does not come from our ideas, but from the bloody and joyful substance of our lives. We need to be conscious about what our lives have been, to grieve and to honor our strength, in order to break out of the past into the future.” –Minnie Bruce Pratt

I’ve been feeling depressed and discouraged lately after reading some really horrifying articles about incredible, unimaginable violence and brutality against women in Papua New Guinea who are accused of being witches as well as a book about human trafficking around the world (I wrote about this book in a recent post for Pagan Families). Then, I finished listening to David Hillman on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, in which he issued a strong call to action to the pagan community and to “witches” in the U.S. to do something about this violence, essentially stating that it is “your fault” and that rather than spending energy on having rituals to improve one’s love life (for example), modern witches should be taking to the streets and bringing abusers to justice. And, he asserts, the fact that they don’t, shows that they don’t really “believe”—believe in their own powers or in their own Goddess(es).

This brought me back to a conversation I had with a friend before our last women’s circle gathering…does it really matter that we do this or is it a self-indulgence? We concluded that it does matter. That actively creating the kind of woman-affirming world we want to live in is a worthy, and even holy, task. I’ve successfully created a women’s subculture for myself and those around me that comes from an ecofeminist worldview. However, is that actually creating change? Or, is that just operating within the confines of a damaging, restrictive, and oppressive social and political structure? Last time I facilitated a Cakes for the Queen of Heaven series, I made a mistake when I was talking and said, “in the land that I come from…” rather than saying, “in my perspective” or “in my worldview.” This is now a joke amongst my circle of friends, we will say, “in my land…that isn’t what happens,” or “let me tell you what it is like in my land.” I have to feel like that DOES make a difference. If we can share “our land” with others, isn’t change possible? Doesn’t “our land” have inherent value that is worth promoting, protecting, and populating?

I asked the woods and they responded…

February 2013 065

“Statement of Faith”

What can I do to save the world?

Saving the world is a Christ complex
an illusion of superiority
a delusion of grandeur.
Or is it?

Is it instead
a description
of what it is like to care?

Be awake
Be sensitive
Be present

Keep reading
Keep reading
Keep reaching
Keep laughing

Raise sons and daughters
who love themselves
and each other
and the earth

Say no to violence
in home
in thought
in act
in deed.

Say no to microaggressions
and to micro-spending decisions that support oppression
Say yes to micro-acts on the side of love
Say yes to not giving up on macro vision
and big picture thinking

Always be willing to dig deep
to think hard
to feel strongly

Rise up
stand tall
say no
be counted
hug often
hold your babies
hold your friends

Circle often
stand together
refuse to give up
when defeated, rally once more.
Persist in a vision of the way things could be
and take action
to bring that vision into reality.

Hug well
laugh often
live much

Speak your truth
tell your story
stand up for the silenced
speak for the voiceless
believe that hope still has a place

Hold steady
hold strong
hold the vision
hold each other.

(3/1/2013)

When I came back inside from my woods visit, I added another Kiva loan to the three I already have going (two of which represents pooled monies from my women’s circle members). I chose a women’s cooperative in Pakistan with a craft business. I paid for the loan using my profits from selling my own goddess art. I also signed up to sponsor a woman in the Congo via Woman to Woman International. Maybe this isn’t “enough,” but it is something. I work hard to support women in my own community in a variety of ways and I have for many years.  I write all over the place…maybe that isn’t “real” help or maybe it is, but I can’t stop doing it.

With regard to my women’s circle and the questions my friend and I asked of ourselves, I returned to part of a past assignment for one of my Ocean Seminary College classes:

In The Politics of Women’s Spirituality, Rush observes, “the rituals being created today by various women are part of the renaissance of women’s spirituality, that is, of the ultimate holiness or life-sacredness of women and the female creative process. Within a world which for centuries has tried to brand women as ‘unclean,’ as ‘devils,’ or as ‘immoral corruptor of man,’ this healing process is a vital one.” She also states, and I deeply agree, that “reforming patriarchal religions…is not possible, just as reforming capitalism is not possible. The very institutions are contradictory to feminism. Women need to once again create new theory and practices for ourselves in order to reunite the spiritual element with the social-political” (p. 384).

She then says, “…it does seem to me, though, that it may be possible to create women’s religions within this culture even more the rest of the institutions have caught up with them, and to use these spiritual groups as vital centers for creating radically different ways of living. Women’s spirituality groups can become birth centers for social change” (p. 384).

Diane Stein in The Goddess Celebrates, while not using the same language, definitely draws the same conclusion in her observations that women’s self-empowerment is central to the women’s spirituality movement and in women’s rituals and that these rituals, “…create a microcosm, a ‘little universe’ within which women try out what they want the macrocosm, the ‘big universe’ or real world to be. Within the safety and protected space of the cast circle, women create their idea of what the world would be like to live in under matriarchal/Goddess women’s values…The woman who in the safety of the cast circle designs the world as she would like it to be takes that memory of creation and success out into daily life…A woman who in ritual meditation heals herself and the wrongs of the world, who sees herself whole and the planet clean and free, leaves the circle with a greater idea of what is possible and what it would be like. She has a greater impetus to take that microcosm into daily life and accomplish it on the earth…By empowering women through the microcosm of the ritual’s cast circle, change becomes possible in the macrocosm real world.” (p. 2-3)

I believe that gathering together as women and connecting over our belief in the value of women and of the value of the Goddess as a symbol is a radical and subversive act. To have the courage to come together in a circle that names women as holy and Goddess as “afoot” (whether literally or metaphorically), is a profound political, social, and cultural statement. And, it is how the personal becomes political. We gather in our homes, we celebrate our rituals and our rites of passage, we wear our Goddess jewelry, we write our articles and share our thoughts, we have the courage to link feminism with matters of the spirit, we speak up in public, we advocate and participate politically, we raise our children in female-affirming homes, and it is in this way that change is born and grows.

It starts with these private ritual and personal connections and then, as Stein explains, “A group of five such like-minded women will then set out to clean up a stream bed or park in their neighborhood; a group of twenty-five will join a protest march for women’s reproductive rights; a group of a hundred will set up a peace encampment. The numbers grow, the women elect officials to government who speak for their values and concerns. Apartheid crumbles and totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe end, disarmament begins, and laws to control polluters are enforced. Homes, foods, and jobs are opened to the world’s homeless, and often begins in the microcosm of the Women’s Spirituality ritual circle” (p. 3).

I do think one reason political feminism trends towards distancing itself from spiritual feminism (aside from perhaps thinking that a spiritual component prevents people from taking a movement seriously) is as Rush describes in Politics on page 384: “It stands to reason after so many centuries of brutal religious persecution, that women today should have a deep fear of conceptualizing our own spirituality. Women who try are severely penalized…Because of all this, it is essential that we do create our own spiritual practices. Our spiritual beliefs define what we respect, what we love—and what we ultimately perceive as our highest values. For a feminist, or for any woman, to perpetuate a patriarchal religion and to worship a male god is for her to deify her oppression” [emphasis mine]. This is powerful stuff, the impact of which cannot be denied or ignored. The symbolic value of ritual is extremely important as well. To many women traditional religious rituals and symbols have lost meaning and feel hollow or emotionless. I feel that women’s spirituality rituals bring heart, soul, and passion back to what has become rote in modern practice. Women’s rituals usually honor women’s bodies and women’s feelings and the phases of a woman’s life. They also typically use feminine images of divinity and Goddess language and imagery, which is a powerful antidote to the patriarchal culture in which we live. While on the surface or from afar, a woman’s ritual may seem like an innocently simple affair, in the context of patriarchy it is a radical and subversive act and statement for change.

Molly is a certified birth educator, writer, and activist who lives with her husband and children in central Missouri. She is a breastfeeding counselor, a professor of human services, and doctoral student in women’s spirituality at Ocean Seminary College. Last summer she was ordained as a Priestess with Global Goddess. Molly blogs about birth, motherhood, and women’s issues at http://talkbirth.meabout thealogy and the Goddess at http://goddesspriestess.com, and creates goddess art and jewelry at http://etsy.com/shop/BrigidsGrove.

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Categories: Ecofeminism, General, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Goddess Spirituality, Thealogy

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30 replies

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I had a conversation rather like this with my co-priestess after teaching a feminist Witchcraft workshop last weekend.

    The struggle for justice is daily work, and always has been and always will be.

    Revolutionary / Salvationist eschatology – the idea that a single change, whether a revolution or a change in law is our goal, is in any way sufficient – is the most dangerous barrier to change which we face, because it’s inside us.

    Goddess time is cyclical, not linear. Women’s value rises, and falls, and rises again. Justice rises, and falls, and rises again. Knowing this, we keep love and strength alive in our circles and in our connections. A movement which has no inner work is hollow.

  2. Dear Molly, what wise, lucid and moving words and a call to action! Yes, many women I know are being called to live in and out their spiritual lives, as a basis for a more just society where women are valued, listened to, nurtured, and not just seen as provider for the family. 6,000 years ago, Goddess worship was the norm, according to Merlin Stone’s book “When God was a Woman”.

    I believe that the central reason for many women’s anxieties and deep depression is in not having a place to go to nurture and value themselves along with other women. So all power to your circles! As a practising Christian (some 10 years), I see clearly how much we do for the church, and yet receive so little back. Nonetheless, I value and support other women wherever I travel in the world, and like you, sponsored an young woman through university (in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia). I wrote a book to help raise funds for water projects, even when many told me I was “mad.” (It sold in 21 countries, but unsurprisingly, publishers didn’t want to know.) But it has weaved its magic in many hearts and helped 3 communities in Ethiopia with SUSTAINABLE water/sanitation supplies.

    These are the real birth years of the women’s movement, back to when women first got the vote. But spirituality comes first for us, and it is in the deep rooted gnosis that we can create, develop, share and commune with others from all traditions, offering prayers, rituals and a safe place to grow when our husbands and sons also call us “mad” or “deluded.”

    If we never begin, then how on earth and in earth, will things ever change to the more peaceful, collaborative families, businesses and nations that we so crave? So, begin we must……
    Blessings to you!

  3. I don’t know who Hillman thinks he is criticizing. Certainly not Starhawk or me or you or most of the Goddess feminists I know. We need to practice on many levels. We don’t need him to tell us that. Spirituality and politics go together. On the other hand unravelling the integral system of patriarchy is no easy task. We know that too. Thanks for a great post! PS I suppose he has not even heard of Z Budapest’s ritual hexings of rapists?

    • Oops, I should clarify a bit–Hillman was specifically talking about child abuse in the Catholic church, not about the Papua New Guinea situation (and, yes, I see now that I made a mistake in the spelling! Dang.) And, he was specifically talking about workshops of the “what color of candle should I use for my prosperity ritual” variety and critiquing “modern pagans” as a group. It was an interesting, and challenging, talk. His specific area of interest is in ancient Greek goddesses/gods and his remarks come from a context of how would those deities look at the current expression of paganism—What Would Aphrodite Do, if you will. I took his comments as both a call to action AND as an opportunity to recognize and explore how very much I, and other members of feminist spirituality movement, already DO.

      I do think that, while there is significant overlap, there is also a *huge* difference between the “modern pagan” community (whom Hillman was critiquing) and the women’s spirituality community. Feminist spirituality recognizes the intimate connection between the personal and the political and always has, that’s where we come from. I don’t know that all modern pagans have a similar understanding of the connection between personal and political and that was one of the primary subjects of the conversation between Hillman and Karen Tate on Voices of the Sacred Feminine (which I adore, btw). I actually have a blog post brewing about the differences—while the Goddess might be represented in both movements/circles/ritual formats and more, the path, evolution, herstory, and purpose of Goddess spirituality is distinct. I think many people lump “Goddessians” under a broad pagan umbrella without a complete understanding and I find that frustrating. Though, then I wonder why it bothers me and why I feel like making a distinction. Maybe there is more value in all working under the same umbrella instead of fragmenting, or being picky about labels, etc., etc. But, while I do recognize myself and my beliefs in *some* definitions of “pagan,” I’ve never felt at home with the pagan label and vastly prefer to call myself a Goddess feminist or as a practitioner of women’s spirituality. My politics and my spirituality are deeply entwined. I was a feminist *first* though and my interest in the Goddess was first political and THEN personal.

      (Oh, and I’m WAY more interested in Paleolithic and Neolithic Goddess imagery than I’ve ever been in the Greek pantheon.)

    • David Hillman spends a lot of time criticizing witches and pagans, and especially the feminist ones, without having much idea of what we have actually done. I can’t take him seriously, and second Carol Christ’s comment. The counsel from the woods in your poem is the voice of wisdom, and many of us are walking this path.

  4. OK…….I will probably disturb and offend a lot of people by what I’m going to say, but for me, as a hands-on pagan and witch, there is a very simple way to deal with male violence, which is the age-old response of the curse.

    Its true that curses work one on one, rather than addressing the problem at a social or political level, but they do work and are very effective both as an emergency and long term response. Any woman has the deep down ability to curse any man who threatens her or her dependents with violence: its the way that nature balances things between the sexes.

    Male created religious institutions across the world have done everything possible over the last 2,000 years to stamp out women’s magic and a lot of women have been complicit in this.
    Witchcraft empowers women but women have been brainwashed by the mullahs and priests and rabbis into abandoning their profound, ancient, Goddess given power of life and death. I mean real witchcraft, not the hysteria in Paupa New Guinea or that milk and water Wiccan stuff (Wiccans don’t curse).

    Women will get respect when they themselves learn once again to respect their own, ancient womanly power.
    Trust me, men don’t mess with real witches.

  5. I am all for feminine empowerment and affirmation but I am also studying the biblical stories of who did what. How do we as women relate to Judith cutting off Holofernes head, or Jael stabbing Sisera with a tent peg, or a woman throwing a millstone down on someone’s head, or Deborah calling Sisera a sissy and ordering him to go to battle? How do we explain as Goddess worshippers that a young male should be sacrificed yearly to ensure fertility, that children should be sacrifice to fire in religious rites, that sexual rites or, if you will prostitution, should go on in temples in honor of the Goddess, that lifeless objects should be worshipped? I am retrieving other, more positive feminine biblical stories, but we women need to be fair and not condemn males for everything. I keep saying that the Bible needs to be studied as a story/history of the early struggles that humanity was having with its deeds, ethics and concepts and those deeds and concepts were for and against things just as we today argue against war and violence and then say we must go out and retaliate against perceived wrongs like the twin towers, or hostages, or embassy killings. Peoples in biblical times were struggling over many of the same issues we confront today – including how to deal with lecherous old religious men. Once one has tried to straighten out some of the translation changes and retrieve some of the discarded or distorted material the Bible gets to be a pretty interesting book for women. That knowledge will help to empower women and maybe also to reach the conclusion that what is needed is some kind of mutual respect and balance between the sexes. I’m not saying to not hang tough in requesting equal validity for women, but we do need to keep the big picture in mind.

    • I do believe that the emerging feminine spirituality is NOT about condemning men, but trying to create a better, more inclusive future for everyone. We see with different eyes to men, who to be fair, are brought up to regard Success as the ‘be all and end all’, so that anyone who fails, who is vulnerable, disabled, or has any infirmity is judged as “unsuccessful”, so unworthy of help. We can begin to right these wrongs, and we also need to do so in the language of men, as any talk of rites, passage, circles is largely dismissed as ‘clap-trap’. The more practical our actions, the more we share them, the more we progress as humanity……

  6. Great enlightening post, I had no idea Papua New Guinea’s oppression…it’s sickening to see how they’re demonizing women and torturing them. I think donating to Kiva Loans and Women to Women International are great steps…I read in the book Half the Sky, that more people need to take direct action by investing in women and girls through business in addition to advocacy around women’s rights and abuses. I’m so sad to see that article. In terms of the women’s circle, I do a midnight sharing circle with teen youth I work with at a UU church, and it’s almost always the most powerful form of practicing spirituality for us…they have a safe space to express their joys/sorrows, and it’s healing. I hear about rapes, abuses, bullying and other issues they’re dealing with through the sharing circle…I don’t know if it at all relates to what a women’s circle looks like….but to me having a sharing circle creates community, a safe space for youth and healing. :)

  7. PS: I think this article from Ms. Blog is also interesting…it’s a movie review about Oz the Great and Powerful, and how it perpetuates stereotypes about women being witches and wicked. I can’t imagine what some people in Papua New Guinea would thing would they to watch this movie.

  8. My answer is YES ~ I asked the same questions to myself as Molly did in the article. It is necessary and it is my life. I need women’s circles as a way to heal myself from the abuses of the world around me. I will continue to attend and facilitate women’s circles, even if not one single woman comes ~ I will light a candle, say a prayer and do a meditation ~ I still need to sit and have ritual ~ women’s empowerment and joy is my main focus, my own empowerment and joy is my main focus ~ healing the hurts of women’s lives is my main focus ~ healing my own hurts is my main focus ~ finding joy (and some wonderful silliness) with my sister friends, there is not one single action in my life that can compare. Other events that I attend and of course, my children and husband bring me so much joy, but it is different.

    I love my circle sisters.

  9. It can get overwhelming when you listen to all the awful abuse that is happening to women all over the world. However, we have to believe that each of us is making a difference and we are.

    I am sure that when women originally fought for rights for women, it must have looked so impossibly futile. They must have thought that their efforts were like a tiny drop of dew in a huge ocean of patriarchy. It was not for nothing! Our girls go to school and have careers; we can buy houses and rent houses, we can have loans, the list is endless. Yes, it is nowhere near finished but it began with an idea and an action.

    Every little piece of action that each of us makes brings the possibility of a world that values women as equal just that little bit closer. I believe that if we could see the whole web, right across the world, of all the things that women are doing from their wee corner, we would be amazed and our voices would rise in joy and emotion and hope. Such that it would strengthen our resolve and bring the new world into manifestation even quicker.

    Little drips will break the wall down, and then, in a gush of rushing, wild, tumbling water, women will rush into their new world. A world of their creation, that thinks not just of the self but of everyone in that world. She will rise and bring joy and wildness and love and peace into the world and her name will be written in the stars. From the core of the earth, into the great oceans and rivers and out into the vast universe her song will be sung forever.

  10. Women’s circles (and solitary rituals, too!) are all a valid part of the quest. Energy, focus, and coming out the other side of ritual to act: where else do women get the strength to go on resisting?

    Loved all the comments, my favorite being yours, June: “Trust me, men don’t mess with real witches.” (Is that available as a bumper sticker?)

    I also loved the link (thank you, Sana!) to the movie review. As a childhood devotee of the Oz books, I will definitely skip the entertainment industry’s latest grasp for the big bucks. (One question: do I have to get rid of my green makeup?)

    And you’re right, Carol: spirituality and politics DO go together. Absolutely. There will always be a certain tension between what traditional Christianity would categorize as the “active” and the “contemplative” life, but that friction is where some of the energy originates.

    Great post, great discussion!

  11. It’s not an either or. All the pagans I knew were very politically active feminists, lesbian feminists. Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes is one of my favorite stories, and Artemesia Gentieschi painted masterpieces on the subject. Men do hate women, and patriarchy is about a huge global abuse of power. That is statistically true. I am in the position of self defense, and women’s circles are great, because I don’t like to second guess. That said, the moderates and liberals are always going to try to “win over” men, even when I see that they like the world of male supremacy and are fine with it. The radical solution is women

  12. believe liberalism works. Women have yet to use feminism for its true purpose which is to end male tyranny and overthrow patriarchy

  13. Late responding, sorry … anyway, just a huge thank-you for this gorgeous, vibrant essay. At nearly every major turning point in my adult life, I found a women’s spirituality group (often stumbled onto it! thank Gaia!) wherein the circle, the ritual, the energy supported me into re-envisioning the possibilities of that moment.

    Much love and bright blessings!

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