It twists my gut like an intestinal bug when people use the term “feminine divine” or “divine feminine” when what is meant is female deity. I keep thinking that like many gut bugs, it might just go away on its own—but no such luck.
Here’s how I see the history, the herstory, of this linguistic corruption. From what I remember, “divine feminine” (or “feminine divine” or “sacred feminine”) came into usage sometime in the 1980s by people, some of them authors, who wanted to refer to a female deity (or female deities, or female aspects of the divine) but didn’t want to use the word Goddess or wanted to talk about the subject in a non-religious, even not specifically spiritual, context. Often they also didn’t want their views to be construed as feminist. Sometimes these were participants in the New Age movement or people approaching the newly emerging Goddess movement from a psychological standpoint (“it helps women feel better” or “it helps women find themselves”). It was not unusual for them to speak of the “feminine within” for women and the “inner feminine” for men. For women, what was usually meant was that they had an outer feminine and an inner feminine, and that the inner feminine was spiritual. For men, there was the implied constraint that their feminine part was of course tucked away “within” where only they would be aware of it. These ideas seem to be rooted in the Jungian anima-animus concept.
Though I think that helping women “feel better” or “find themselves” may be a worthy goal and is part of the picture for some interested in Goddess, it is not by any means the full picture and it diminishes the power (and empowerment) of Goddess by making the role of the divine less than in other religions or spiritual paths.
What Does ‘Feminine’ Mean?
As far as men finding their “inner feminine,” well that brings us to: Exactly what do we mean by “feminine?” For just a dictionary definition, “feminine” means female-like. But like many dictionary definitions, this doesn’t go far enough and gives only a hint of its meaning in actual usage. In current usage, “masculine” refers to traits a culture attaches to males/men and “feminine” refer to traits that a culture attaches to females/women. It’s not clear whether these traits are from “nature” or “nurture”; that is, whether they are linked to biology or to cultural conditioning.
Since it is very difficult at this time to tease out nature from nurture in gender traits, I think it’s most sensible to assume that these traits are all culturally contrived because this allows the most freedom to the individual person. So, to take a common example in patriarchal cultures regarding children, a fondness for playing with toy guns has been defined as a “masculine” trait, while a preference for playing with dolls has been defined as a “feminine” trait. This attitude is generalized into the stereotype that “active” or “aggressive” actions are masculine and “passivity” or “gentleness” is feminine. While some will say that testosterone (a “male” hormone) is related to belligerence and aggressiveness and estrogen (a “female” hormone) to passivity and nurturing, the actually biology is much fuzzier because both men and women have both testosterone and estrogen, though in different proportions.1 So that even if there is some biological link, it hasn’t been proven that it is stronger than the acculturation of men and women to behave in certain ways.
Importance of Embodiment
Most of the culturally-defined traits attached to “masculine” and “feminine” do not refer to body parts or embodiment at all. Yet when I use the term “Goddess,” what I mean is the embodiment or personification of the divine as female. To me, “Goddess” implies that the totality of the divine can be imaged as female. Whether you believe “Goddess” means concrete deity(ies) or a metaphor, or some abstract state of being, or the Earth, or the Universe, the term Goddess implies that these can be represented by female images that have female body parts, by biologically-linked experiences and activities, such as menstruating, giving birth, and the female experience of orgasm (which is not the same as the male experience—and if you don’t think that the male ejaculation has been used to characterize deity, including the biblical God, I refer you for starters to the book, Circle in the Square by Elliot Wolfson).
As I hope you can see, what I am describing is quite different from the image of a deity that has both “masculine” and “feminine” aspects. Yet I think there are some instances in which talking about the “feminine” and “masculine” divine may be appropriate. For example, in Judaism, the figure (or idea) of the Shekhinah could be termed “feminine divine” when it is spoken of as the feminine aspect of the Godhead as long as you are not embodying her; that is, not giving any physical characteristics either to her or to the Godhead. Though this may often be the intent, in actuality, this seems to be rare, and with the increasing inclination today to image Shekhinah more concretely, even this usage is becoming more female than feminine.
Some people who do not intend to imply cultural traits fall into using the term “divine feminine” because they heard it somewhere and it slides kind of easy off the tongue. It has (in their minds) a certain lack of specificity which allows them to sidestep questions about whether their position is feminist. Some may use this term because they think more men will be attracted to their groups or workshops or books if the men can talk about their “inner feminine.” Others use the terms “divine feminine” (or “sacred feminine”) because they feel that using the word “Goddess” would place them outside a Christian or Jewish framework; “Goddess” is, to them, crossing the line. As someone who at first (in the 1970s—but not now) didn’t like the term “Goddess” because I felt the -ess ending was a diminutive, I can sympathize with the search for another term. But “divine feminine” isn’t it! At least not if you’re talking in terms of personification or embodiment, whether that divine embodiment is a woman’s body, the Earth’s body,2 or the entire body of the Universe.
Searching for Other Terms
If you’re not comfortable with the word “Goddess,” what other terms can you use to avoid the misunderstandings that the use of “divine feminine” engenders? Some people use “Great Mother,” although limiting divinity to maternal imagery has distinct limitations. Jenny Kien, a Ph.D. neurobiologist, uses the term “Divine Woman” in her book, Restoring the Divine Woman in Judaism. Others use the term “Divine Female” or “Divine as Female” or “Divine Embodied as Female.” Glenys Livingstone, a Ph.D. social ecologist, in her book, PaGaian Cosmology, uses several different terms including “Female Metaphor,” “Earth-Gaia” (meaning Earth and the entire cosmos), along with Goddess and a number of specific Goddess names.
If you are now using “feminine divine” or “divine feminine” because it’s easy, not because it’s what you really mean, you might consider using instead one or more of these alternatives. Or like Livingstone, as well as others including Carol P. Christ, a Ph.D. theologian, in She Who Changes, and me in Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century, you might consider redefining “Goddess” to eliminate the implications you dislike and incorporate more modern meanings.
1. Tracy V. Wilson, “How Women Work,” howstuffworks.com/women.htm and “How Men Work,: howstuffworks.com/men.html; accessed 6/16/11.
2. See, for example, Rachel Pollack, The Body of the Goddess, Element Books 1997, for an elucidation of this point of view
This post is excerpted from Judith Laura’s book, Goddess Matters: The Mystical, Practical, & Controversial, (Open Sea Press 2011).
Judith Laura has been involved in Goddess spirituality since the mid-1970s. In addition to her latest book, Goddess Matters: The Mystical, Practical & Controversial, from which this post is taken, she is author of Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century: From Kabbalah to Quantum Physics, the second enlarged edition of which won the USA Best Books Award in the comparative religion category (2009); and She Lives! The Return of Our Great Mother, now in its third edition. She is also founder and list owner of the Yahoogroup, “Asherah,” and a novelist and poet. Her website is judithlaura.com
11 thoughts on “Why Not ‘Feminine Divine’? by Judith Laura”
Thanks for an excellent analysis Judith, I could not agree with you more.
Here is a link to an essay on the “Sacred Feminine” that sounds pretty good, even respectful of women, until you read it more closely. In the Neolithic women invented agriculture, weaving, and pottery. This required a lot more than intution, it also required practical, logical, and rational intelliegence. Most advocates of the Sacred or Divine Feminine would attribute advances in “culture” to the masculine or even the Sacred Masculine. But it was women who “advanced” culture in this case and they did it because they were able to combine body wisdom with practical and logical rational knowing. They didn’t just plant “when it felt right.” They watched the length of the days and tracked the migrations of birds in order to “know” when it was right to plant.
You don’t mention Jung, but of course he popularized the terms feminine and masculine and he was no supporter of women’s liberation, in fact he called women who were “too smart” “animus ridden” which meant bitches who got in his craw.
The problem here seems to me to arise directly out of monotheism. If you have only one god, and if you want to humanise, personify and address that god, you have to decide whether your solitary deity has breasts or a penis. If, however, you are relaxed with the idea of lots of deities, the issue doesn’t arise. You can have your god, and I’ll have mine (including some who are neither male nor female).
Alternativly, you can have a purely abstract deity, but in practice this rarely works out as the boys very quickly start refering to It as Him. Besides, I like a humanised, personified, gendered deity. She looks beautiful and She’s kind.
As I have said elsewhere on these pages, I see no reason whatsoever why we all have to worship at the same altar. And that men are less threatened by gods while women are happier with goddesses seems entirely reasonable to me.
For myself, I have no problem at all with the beautiful word ‘Goddess’ . And I have no problem with monotheists abbreviating ‘Goddess’ to ‘God’ if that’s what makes them comfortable: remember, ‘Goddess’ is only a diminuitive if we all agree that ‘God’ is the default setting. Monotheism and it’s traditions is not a matter of historical (and so political) necessity. It’s just another option.
In many ways, I think the pronouns we use in referring to Deity are more problematical than simple nomenclature. Monotheists of various persuasions will tell you that the word ‘God’ is gender neutral and then get very uncomfortable if you refer to ‘Him’ as ‘Her’. Among monotheists, the pronouns for Deity are by default He, His, Him, and so on. If you have any doubt about how entrenched such usage is, try replying – ‘I’m sure She will’ next time a monotheist says ‘God bless you’. The use of use of feminine pronouns for Deity is entirely natural for many pagans: it is also is a powerful and radical way to get everyone to question how they think and talk about divinity both within and without their own faith practice.
Carol and June, thanks for your comments. Carol, I’m no fan of Jung. I think his “archetypes” are stereotypes, or close to it. At the close of the 2nd paragraph of this post, I write: “For women, what was usually meant was that they had an outer feminine and an inner feminine, and that the inner feminine was spiritual. For men, there was the implied constraint that their feminine part was of course tucked away ‘within’ where only they would be aware of it. These ideas seem to be rooted in the Jungian anima-animus concept.”
June, I agree that the concept of deity as male (God He) does arise out of Abrahamic monotheism (especially for those of us raised in Abrahamic religions). I’m not sure, though, that people have to be polytheists in order to personify the divine or sacred as female. I explore some of these other ways in the book from which this excerpt is taken, and also in my book, Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century. However, I also think that if having any number of deities of various genders is what works for you, go for it! I don’t think that everyone’s belief system has to be the same. In fact I don’t think this will ever happen, nor would I want it to. What I would like to see happen is the incorpoation of the divine as female into as many religious paths as possible.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Although I have used the term in the past, I always felt unhappy about it, but I thought it was due to the fact that English is my second language. Your article clarified my own feelings about the term “feminine divine”. Thank you for your analysis.
Incidentally, I have a similar problem with the “Abrahamic religions”. It seems to me that this term has replaced the term “Judeo-Christian” to include Islam. In her writings Asphodel Long repeatedly criticises the term “Judeo-Christian” as offensive and inaccurate and I believe her comments are valid to the“Abrahamic religions” as well:
“Throughout the course, we shall not use the phrase “Judaeo-Christian”. This is now recognised as offensive to Jews, and historically inaccurate (von Kellenbach 1994: 124).” In: Female Aspects of Deity: Searching for Lady Wisdom
“Finally in this section, it is important to say I shall not at any time use the phrase ‘Judaeo-Christian’. Although it appears to be convenient, in fact there is now growing acceptance of the understanding that it is both inaccurate and imperialistic. Inaccurate because Christianity owes a great debt to Hellenistic cultures as well as to Judaism, and imperialistic because it implies a progression from Judaism to Christianity, with the latter taking over from the former. This is not the case.” In: The Goddess in Judaism – An Historical Perspective
You’re welcome, Andre, and thank you for your comment. I don’t use the term Judeo-Christian either, for the reasons you and the late Asphodel Long present. The term “Abrahamic” may have been coined on a mailing list in the 1990s called Esoteric-L ( or something similar). As you indicate it was and is meant to include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The reason “Abrahamic” was chosen as an umbrella term for all 3 religions was that they all trace their roots back to the patriarch Abraham. I’d be interested in knowing why you object to it.
LikeLiked by 1 person
No, I have only one Deity, my beloved Goddess. My point was that in monotheistic systems the Single Deity will always end up male. You need a lot of gods to make room for a Goddess !!!
Thanks for clarifying your meaning, June. Please excuse my misunderstanding.
I don’t like Abrahamic either. Perhaps because it foregrounds a patriarch. Of course the religions are patriarchal but they also are the religions of Sarah and Hagar. Instead of J-C I always speak of Biblical religions.
Judith, as always, very excellent work. I know what you mean about word endings–what just sprang into my mind was “godditrix” (analogous to “aviatrix”) as an example of one of those demeaning words. Thank Goddess (thank goodness) we don’t need a word with a feminine ending to indicate a diminished deity. Goddess works just fine, either referring to the Great Goddess or to any of the female deities.
When I talk about the patriarchal religions, I’ve always called them the standard-brand religions. Well, “always” since the mid-1980s.
Thanks for writing this provocative and provoking blog!
Thank you for your response Judith. From an historical, Jewish and feminist perspective: Judaism has always followed a matrilineal descent, so defining it in a universal patriarchal term doesn’t seem to make sense. In the same way as many Jews would not use the more traditional term ‘New Testament’ or ‘A.D’.
Also thank you for your definition – this really helps. History has shown that often, when a new religion emerges, with a leader or an ideology, that desires world domination, it seeks to “trace its roots back” to a much older religion or belief system to establish its credibility, lineage, legitimacy and claim to be the spiritual heir and successor of the older one. This in turn, gives them the ethical and moral rights to justify invasion, subjugation, forced conversions, etc… Throughout history, Holy Scriptures in both Christianity and Islam claimed to have a divine mandate for their conquests and missionary activities.
These concepts are alien to the Hebrew bible and to Jewish thinking. The mandate of the biblical Jews has been clearly restricted to specific borders – about the size of Wales. Missionary activity in Judaism is prohibited. Additionally, throughout the centuries Jews have experienced the violent face of Christianity particularly – so for all these reasons, many Jews would have great difficulty with any “umbrella term”.
Asphodel Long’s generation and family has had a firsthand, personal experience when a new religion – fascism – decided to “trace its roots back” to Tibet and India in 1938-39 to justify their legitimacy. (See: Himmler’s Crusade: The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race). They have adopted the swastika, the ancient sign of Goddesses, including Kali and the Greek Goddess Artemis, also a symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism.
With the now common and shared symbol of Kali, Artemis, Krishna, Buddha and Hitler, one could justifiably suggest an “umbrella term” – perhaps ‘Swastika Religions’? I would not be surprised if followers of Kali, Artemis, Krishna, and Buddha would find it offensive.