Essentialism Reconsidered by Carol P. Christ


carol mitzi sarahIn my Ecofeminism class we have been discussing essentialism because some feminists have alleged that other feminists, particularly ecofeminists and Goddess feminists, are “essentialists.” They argue that essentialist views reinforce traditional stereotypes including those that designate men as rational and women as emotional. I too find essentialism problematic, but I do not agree that Goddess feminism and ecofeminism are intrinsically essentialist.

Goddess feminists and ecofeminists criticize classical dualism: the traditions of  thinking that value reason over emotion and feeling, male over female, man over nature. We argued that the western rational tradition sowed the seeds of the environmental crisis when it separated “man” from “nature.”

Goddess feminists and ecofeminists affirm the connections between women and nature in an environmental worldview that acknowledges the interconnection of all beings in the web of life.

This view has been criticized as essentialist. Is it?

Essentialism is the view that “essence precedes existence.” Essentialists (who are Platonists or crypto-Platonists) say that the “idea” or “essential qualities” of a thing (a table, a horse, a woman, or a man) precede the “existence” of any individual in the group to which it belongs; these qualities are universally—always and everywhere—expressed by members of the group.

Goddess feminists and ecofeminists have been read as saying that it is in the nature of men to be separated from nature and that it is in the nature of women to be connected to nature. What we were actually saying was something more subtle: that men, especially dominant and powerful men, have imagined that they are separate from nature; and that women, who have been identified with nature, are more likely than men to recognize the human connection to nature.

Goddess feminists and ecofeminists also said that emotions and relationships are valuable. We argued that rationality was wrongly defined to exclude feeling. We suggested that feelings for human beings, animals, and all of nature should inform our worldviews and ethics. We have sometimes spoken of a way of thinking that includes feeling as more likely to be practiced by women.

Goddess feminists and some ecofeminists have argued that women need the Goddess as a positive image of female power and have suggested that the image of Mother Earth be included alongside other images.

Still operating within binary dualisms, critics read Goddess feminists and ecofeminists as repeating the “old story” that men are rational and women are not. They fail to see that Goddess feminists and ecofeminists are calling for a reintegration of reason and emotion, mind and body, humanity and nature–and that we find “intelligence” in nature. While many of us wish to celebrate the powers of the female body and the positive values associated with mothering, few of us have argued that women are only bodies or should be restricted to nurturing roles.

Most Goddess feminists and ecofeminists reject the binary dualisms that characterize essentialist thinking—even when the tables are turned to benefit women. Thus we are puzzled to be categorized as essentialists. Like others, I had to turn to the dictionary to make sense of the charge that was being leveled.

I don’t think there are any “essential differences” between women and men or between males and females. There may be some small differences between those with male and those with female DNA. Testosterone has been associated with slightly more aggressive behaviors than those produced by estrogen. These differences are statistical, but not true for every individual. Male and female bodies are different, but then so are small bodies and tall bodies.

However, I would not consider these differences to create an “essential difference” between women and men. An “essential difference” is one that inevitably determines the way we experience and respond to the world. Studies of traditional and matriarchal cultures suggest that cultures can override whatever tendencies are found in our genetic makeup. Men don’t have to be aggressive or violent–they can be as loving and generous as their own mothers. In nonhuman nature too there are nurturing males: some male birds sit on eggs; bonobo males are not as aggressive as chimp males.

While I think that the (blanket) anti-essentialist critique of ecofeminism and Goddess feminism is wrong, I am suspicious of terms like “the feminine,” “the divine feminine,” and the “sacred feminine” that are widely used in new age thinking and in some parts of the women’s spirituality movement. I suspect these terms are chosen in order to avoid the “affont” to systems of male dominance provoked by the “f” word (feminist) and the “G” word (Goddess).

“The feminine” is associated with an often not clearly defined set of qualities that include “more emotional and intuitive, more loving and nurturing.” “The masculine,” again often without clear definition, is understood to be “more rational, assertive, and sometimes aggressive.” Most of those who use these terms acknowledge a debt to Carl Jung.

Jung defined “the masculine” as rational and conscious and “the feminine” as unconscious. Jung had great respect for the unconscious, and he believed that western culture had devalued “the feminine.” However, this does not make his thinking feminist. Jung was personally uncomfortable with women who got into rational arguments with him or other men. He and his followers called such women “animus ridden,” a code term for unfeminine.

The notion that “we all have our masculine and feminine sides” does not resolve the problems inherent in these terms. That Jung and his followers could speak of strong women as animus ridden suggests that his theories were inherently patriarchal. When he identified the feminine with the unconscious, Jung was reaffirming (though perhaps in a more palatable way) the traditional view that women are less rational than men.

I am a woman who is highly rational and highly emotional. (I have my sun in Sagittarius and my moon in Cancer.) I do not view my rational mind as my “masculine side.” To do so would be to acknowledge that it is “unfeminine” to be rational. My mind is as much me as my emotions. And both are part of my female self. Similarly, I would not want to tell a nurturing man that he is “feminine”; this would suggest that caring is not “masculine.”

There are other problems. Jung viewed Goddesses as reflecting the unconscious and Gods rational consciousness. His follower Erich Neumann stated that it was necessary for Goddess cultures to be overthrown in order to the rational individual to emerge.

I think that this whole way of thinking about “masculine” and “feminine” qualities and behaviors is essentialist; and I agree that essentialist thinking should be rejected by feminists.

At the same time, I think it is important to elevate the qualities that have been associated with the female in order to provoke a re-thinking of the dualisms that have shaped western (and other) cultures–to the detriment of women and those considered “other” by “rational man.” Symbols of Goddess and Mother Earth can have “metaphoric power” to upset familiar stereotypes, transforming of the way we think about the world.

We also need to affirm that all individuals are intelligent (rationality being only a part of that) and that individuals have the capacity to feel the feelings of others and to care about others. This applies to female and male human beings, as well as to all other individuals in the web of life on this planet and in the universe as a whole.

Process philosophy states that “feeling and feeling the feelings of others” is fundamental in all of life: human, animal, cell, atomic, and divine. From this perspective we can see that when it divorced rationality from feeling, and designated women and a whole host of others as deficient in rationality, western philosophy took a massive wrong turn. This wrong turn that has been used to justify great injustices and threatens the future of life on this earth. Goddess feminists and ecofeminists are among those who see this clearly.

Carol is looking forward to the fall Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete–$150 discount for anyone who signs up for the fall 2014 tour–www.goddessariadne.org.  Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.

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Categories: Ecofeminism, environment, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

26 replies

  1. Thank you for this essay, Carol. I think most people (at least the ones I interact with) are essentialist. Many folks, though, don’t bother to give the subject much thought believing that “this is the way things are,” ascribing “the way things are” (sexism) to nature, God, evolution, or whatever. You make a succinct and compelling argument here–something I’ll refer to when we have our section on goddess/feminism in my introductory religious studies class this Fall.

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  2. As regards — “Most Goddess feminists and ecofeminists reject the binary dualisms that characterize essentialist thinking—even when the tables are turned to benefit women. Thus we are puzzled to be categorized as essentialists […] I think it is important to elevate the qualities that have been associated with the female in order to provoke a re-thinking of the dualisms.”

    What a powerful post this one is, thanks Carol. Interesting that for the ancient Greeks the self, that is, the “mind,” or immortal “soul” or “spirit,” is Psyche (Ψυχή), a winged girl, like Persephone, who transcends her own mortality. Thus the whole journey — not only of birth, but also of rebirth — is thereby keyed to the feminine, to Psyche’s domain, her management of immortality as a process, resulting in an elevated concept associated with female gender. And we might look even deeper at this amazing goddess Psyche as representative even of spirituality, itself, as a woman’s domain.

    “Surely I dreamt today, or did I see
    the winged Psyche with awaken’d eyes?”
    ~ John Keats

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  3. Thank you for these thoughtful and critical distinctions, so clearly and thoroughly articulated. It is also helpful to me to know such conversations are taking place. Thanks for a clear window onto this world of discourse.

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  4. Excellent blog. As usual. I think Jung and Neumann were both nuts (and so Freud) in giving the anima less value than the animus and seeing Goddess cultures as inferior to God cultures. Like you, I’m “rational” enough to have been at the top of my class in graduate school and emotion enough to let a few tears fall at sentimental TV commercials. Process philosophy seems to make a lot of sense…..and be very pagan.

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  5. Thank you for clarifying all of this for me! So helpful. Love you!

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  6. In reading your post, I began to think about where Western empirical science, particularly genetics and assessment of risk-taking behavior, would fall into your definition of ‘essentialist’. There are a lot of recent studies that show that risk taking behavior (of which so many men seem proud of) is not based on reason. There is a growing interest and research into intuition (often called ‘right brain thinking’- by passing your masc. and fem categories). And then there’s the geneticists, who acknowledge an ‘essential’ DNA code but must also recognize the vast depth of genetic diversity, effect of environment (oh that nature interaction!), and the ability of genetic systems to overlap functions and adapt to new uses. They call them ‘selfish genes’, not a very ‘rational’ name.

    Where would you put cognitive science researchers?
    Where do the geneticists belong?

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    • Next week I am going to discuss Franz de Waal’s animal behavior studies. The selfish gene people are generally instinctual behaviorists and I think they miss the boat–stay tuned next week. Other scientists are beginning to recognize that cooperation is the key to survival.

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  7. Thank you, Carol, for the clarity and coherence you present here. In preparation for a lesson today in my bioethics class, I was revisiting Carol Gilligan’s work and the claims of essentialism made towards it. We were discussing the relevance of care, compassion, and other virtues in medical practice and the authors of one of our textbooks credited Gilligan and others with the insight that how medical professionals conduct their tasks and which motives and feelings underlie them have moral relevance. I found myself trying to address my students’ responses in a way that advocated inclusion of a “different voice” that centers on care and relationships but steered clear of essentialism. I found it challenging to affirm two different tendencies in men and women without unintentionally suggesting they are inherently biological or that one should be normative. I appreciate you for making the distinctions clear, especially where you write: “Still operating within binary dualisms, critics read Goddess feminists and ecofeminists as repeating the ‘old story’ that men are rational and women are not. They fail to see that Goddess feminists and ecofeminists are calling for a reintegration of reason and emotion, mind and body, humanity and nature–and that we find “intelligence” in nature.”

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    • We alll want a simple answer. But to try to undo an ensconced binary dualism, we have to use a nuanced language, and with it critique the binary dualism. In the early part of the women’s movement we tried to do this by distinguishing “female” (a catetory of nature) and “feminine” (a cultural category). But, of course, mainstream culture conflates the two, and that’s where our work needs to concentrate w.r.t. these dualisms.

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    • Nothing in the universe is separate from nature and therefore religion is not separate from nature. The practice of religion by an intelligent species is part of the natural evolution of that species, just as intelligence is a natural evolution of a particular species.

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  8. Excellent post, Carol. I love your clear thinking.

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  9. Love it and saving it to come back to for a more complete reading/digestion soon.

    This in particular: “I think that this whole way of thinking about “masculine” and “feminine” qualities and behaviors is essentialist; and I agree that essentialist thinking should be rejected by feminists.” Very important! There is nothing that turns me off faster than an argument/discussion/point/essay that comes from an unquestioned assumption and acceptance that we all have a “masculine” side that needs to be “embraced” or that a woman is “too much in her masculine and needs to reclaim her feminine.” Even though the other opinions expressed by these advocates may be female/woman-honoring and respecting, there is a built in assumption that feminine = “soft” and “receptive” and “nurturing.” I reject that dualism. And, I actively reject the idea that I have a “masculine” side. I am a human and I have human traits. If I am assertive and ambitious, those are not my “masculine” traits coming out, those are parts of my own, personal, female personality, thankyouverymuch.

    I find it very unpopular in more New Age-oriented female-positive circles to challenge or disagree with the “canon” of Jungian masculine and feminine archetypes, but I have no interest in promoting or supporting the idea in my own practice, habits, or writing.

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  10. Excellent! This is by far the best article I have read on this topic in at least a very long time, but probably EVER. Thank you so very much, I will be sharing widely.

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  11. Yes, yes, yes! You have brilliantly articulated some ideas that I’ve had difficulty unpacking. I enjoy quite a lot of Jung’s ideas, but I have always been thoroughly uncomfortable with his notions of masculine/feminine, and the animus/anima. The distinction between expressing the need to reintegrate what has been considered “masculine” with what has been considered “feminine” as opposed to simply maintaining those boundaries and switching focus to the “feminine” is particularly apt. Thank you!

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  12. A smart piece of work. Carol Christ shows her sensibility and wisdom throughout this analysis .

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    • Women ARE different than men. Period.

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      • We may be different in some ways, but in all “essential” ways, we are the same, we are all born of woman, we are all embodied, we are all relational individuals, we are all interdependent in the web of life, we are all capable of love and violence, we will all die.

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  13. Thanks, Carol. A wonderful exposition of the problem of binary dualisms. I’ve though a lot about them (before I wrote my current book with my daughter, I was working on one about how binary dualisms create difficulty in our culture). I agree with you that “Symbols of Goddess and Mother Earth can have ‘metaphoric power’ to upset familiar stereotypes, transforming the way we think about the world.” I hope you will say more about how these Goddess symbols undercut the familiar binary dualism that set the parameters of our culture.

    I understand why some feminists have been attracted to Jung’s work, although I agree with you that Jung is sexist. He was an early thinker to at least take seriously feminine characteristics (in his concept of the anima), traits which our culture disparages. But that’s dealing with at most half of the problem.

    For me, the guts of this article was this statement: “What we were actually saying was something more subtle: that men, especially dominant and powerful men, have imagined that they are separate from nature; and that women, who have been identified with nature, are more likely than men to recognize the human connection to nature.” This is a CULTURAL statement, not an essentialist statement of what (human) nature is like. The problem in Western culture is that as soon as you start talkinga bout nature, especially in conjunction with women, people hear NATURE, i.e. that you’re talking about what is “natural” (i.e. essentialist), and tune out the nuaces of what’s being said. I guess we just have to continue repeating this message over and over again until it’s actually received and the words are parsed correctly.

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  14. Thanks a lot Carol. It’s helpful when somebody clarifies the difference between essentialism and inclusiveness, and that ecofeminism involves relating to the whole web of life rather than pushing a partisan agenda.

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  15. Carol you have done a brilliant job of explaining the problems with essentialism. I’m definitely going to save this article for future reference!

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  16. Metaphoric power is generational. The power of the written and spoken word, to transform lives through seeing and believing, the “taking in” of what is experienced through reading and hearing, allows for changes to be real and life-long. My personal spiritual journey challenged me when I saw that Goddess metaphor had been playing out in my life journey. It was, and it, true and powerful.

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  17. INteresting article and I pinned it to my pinterest board. BUT Goddess feminists and Eco-feminists are two very different things. It is insulting to lump them together. Even if an Eco-feminist practices the Craft it is not through goddess worship which is just a reversal, although healthier for women who need gods rather than archetypes. Eco-feminists are Pantheists spiritually and practice the Craft separate from any religion.

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    • Not sure what you are saying here. What I was saying is that critics often lump ecofeminists and Goddess feminists together. They do tend to share some common views about women and nature, but there are many differences. Here I was arguing that affirming some kinds of connection between women and nature does not necessarily make you an “essentialist.”

      On your broader question. Though most Goddess feminists are ecofeminists, not all ecofeminists are even spiritual, and some spiritual ecofeminists are are Jews, Christians, Buddhists, etc, as you suggest. As for the Craft (which itself is not one thing), not all Goddess feminists practice “the Craft,” and not all of those who practice “the Craft” are feminists and some focus on Gods as much as or rather than Goddesses, as the wide variety of opinions on PaganSquare demonstrates.

      Thanks for the pin.

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