The Power of Female Friendship: Remembering Karen McCarthy Brown by Carol P. Christ

Karen Brown 1985

News of Karen Brown’s recent death came via email from a mutual friend of ours, Christine Downing.

There are many things that can be said about Karen’s life and career, including that she won prizes for her life’s work Mama Lola in scholarly associations in the fields of religion and anthropology, that her work has been influential in bringing the study of Vodou into the scholarly mainstream, and that it has been inspiring to women of color.

Here I will focus on the years when our friendship provided crucial support for our audacious scholarly work. I first met Karen through the New York Feminist Scholars in Religion, a group Anne Barstow and I organized in 1974 that nurtured work on women and religion for many of us, including besides me and Karen, Judith Plaskow, Naomi Goldenberg, Ellen Umansky, Lynn Gottlieb, Beverly Harrison, Nelle Morton, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza.

My friendship with Karen was sparked by the explosion that occurred in the New York feminist scholars group when Anne Barstow and I spoke in the fall of 1976 about our attractions to the Goddess. Our presentations evoked a great conflagration, which I remember as coalescing around Beverly Harrison’s authoritative and authoritarian statement that there can be no ethics in Goddess religion because ethics comes from a transcendent source—not from nature. Karen was among those who responded tentatively that she was not so sure Beverly was right.

In the discussions that continued over the academic year, Karen and I exchanged meaningful glances, supported each others’ comments, and finally met for a few longer conversations shortly before I left New York to take up a new teaching position in California. Karen was then in the process of leaving her husband and moving into the magnificently quirky loft apartment that she would decorate with Haitian art in Tribeca on the lower west side of New York City.

I offered to do a house blessing for Karen’s new apartment, and she agreed. We blessed the thresholds and the corners of each room with salt and water and incense, and Karen spoke of the new life she hoped to begin in her new home. Later Karen told me that Alourdres (Mama Lola) insisted on blessing the house again and that the rituals were nearly the same.

During the years Karen lived in the Lower West Side from 1977 to 2001 or 2002, I stayed with her several times a year when conferences and lectures brought me to and through New York and on my way back and forth from teaching in Greece in the summers. During that time we had many long and intimate conversations in which the details of our lives were interwoven with the details of our work.

Carol Christ & Karen Brown 1985
Carol Christ & Karen Brown 1985

Our friendship was important to both of us, not only because we were pioneers in the study of women and religion, but also because within it we were becoming a minority within a minority as our work took us outside an  increasingly Christian-dominated field. Our conversations ranged fluidly around many subjects including: leaving Christianity; the importance of female symbolism for divinity; whether we need male Gods of war or not; religions that focus on the divine and human connection to nature; similarities and differences between Goddess and Vodou rituals and altars; healing; female leadership styles; the experience of living between cultures; and our common struggles to find a voice in which to write about what we were discovering.

Karen and I were in the process of rejecting the dispassionate voice of scholarly objectivity and searching for a way to write that combined scholarly research with the passion to know the world more deeply and to think about it clearly that inspired our work. Our conversations with each other were a lifeline, as we had no role models for the personal paths we were exploring or for the new ways of writing our scholarship with which we were experimenting. We quite literally “heard each other into speech” to quote the phrase Nelle Morton used to name the importance of our female conversations.

I happened to visit Karen shortly after she underwent her initiation into Vodou, which was at about the same time that I experienced what felt to me like revelation at the temple of Aphrodite in Lesbos. We both felt that we must incorporate these moments into our writings, but we also were afraid to do so because we feared that others would call us heretics and dismiss our writing as unscholarly. Karen and I spoke publicly of these experiences on a panel organized by Rita Gross at the American Academy of Religion in 1985 that was published in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 3/1 (1987).

Karen received more scholarly recognition for her transgressions than I have. This is in part due to a greater interest in difference among anthropologists than among theologians. However, Karen often told me that scholarly recognition is not the only way to judge the importance of feminist contributions and reminded me that my work has had a major impact within and outside the academy.

One day Karen and I were discussing whether she could fully embrace Haitian culture and whether I would become Greek. Invoking the Vodou concept of living “between the worlds” of the spirit and ordinary reality, she said that this was how she understood herself: she could never be nor would she want to be Haitian, but neither would she ever be fully American or Christian again. She added that one of the reasons she felt comfortable living between worlds was that she had never felt comfortable in her own culture.

In the intervening years, I have thought about this conversation many times. While there was once a time when I wanted to become Greek and leave my American culture behind, I have come to realize that this is not possible. Like Karen, I live between worlds and find my greatest comfort in belonging to two worlds and to neither. This insight is only one of the many gifts I gained though my friendship with Karen McCarthy Brown.

Remembering Karen, let us bless the Source of Life, and the cycles of birth, death, and regeneration.

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–space available on the spring and fall 2015 tours.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions; and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photos by Martha Ackelsberg.

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

15 thoughts on “The Power of Female Friendship: Remembering Karen McCarthy Brown by Carol P. Christ”

  1. I’m going to respond with a poem because the ways of expressing what you refer to as ‘moments’ or revelations are for me best expressed in poems. Carol, like you, I have been reading feminist critiques of patriarchal religion since the mid-70s and in order to really be able to read the past I’ve studied ancient Greek, Sanskrit and Latin. It has given me an entry point that I really value. But all the language in the world is never quite the same as the experiences you have in places you visit.

    This was written in Sardinia after visiting an ancient site which has all the wrong names attached to it. It was an extraordinary revelatory place that caused me to do things I never do:

    Diana laughs

    wind lifts her hair
    Curatrix has transported us to Sardegna
    on the windy heights
    rocks and more rocks

    Diana absentmindedly picks artemisia
    growing by the path
    she’s chewing on berries
    and her dogs have sniffed out
    the truffle patch

    no words are needed
    old stone women
    atop the mountains
    talk while sheep
    graze the hillside

    when we reach
    the tempiettu
    silence drops over us
    I touch my hand
    heart to forehead

    we visit the rock wombs
    big enough to birth us both
    fully grown
    bones red painted
    ready for the next life

    wind howling
    we are reborn
    on the far side of the hill
    on the outside an archaeological site
    on the inside something more

    It is in my book ‘Lupa and Lamb’


  2. I am very touched by this piece! Feeling strong resonance with the concept of “living between the worlds”. Thank you and condolences at the loss of your friend.


    1. Like Peg, I was deeply moved by this post Carol, and appreciate your sharing of your friendship with Karen, and of a time in history I know little about. May you be surrounded with friends who bring you comfort during this time.


  3. Thanks, Carol. What a fascinating exchange that must have been between commitments to Vodou and Haitian culture and living in Greece!! And New York seems part of your journey together, too.

    Drew University, where Brown was professor emerita of the anthropology and sociology of religion, has a marvelous tribute to her life and career, along with a brief outline of her understanding of Vodou, basically, it seems, as a religion of healing?


  4. I’m sorry for the loss of your extraordinary friend.

    I liked the analogy of “living between worlds”, but I think friendship (such as you shared with Prof Brown) is a way of anchoring us, because sometimes navigating between those two worlds can be rather stressful. I thought of a tightrope, but that is not quite the right analogy. Is there anything in ancient Greek sailing that helped sailors steer their ships through difficult stretches- mediating the correct balance between land and water?


      1. I thought about anchor, but you both kept moving, and an anchor implies stopping.
        The best word I could find (applies to motor boats) is “trim tabs” Trim tabs are paddles (but not rudders) used to improve the boat’s ride in rough seas, correct for listing, and can help in navigating shallow water. I just don’t like the name very much, but I think that is what a good friend does- helps made the ride easier.


  5. Thank you for this remembrance of Karen McCarthy Brown and of your friendship and interwoven lives. I am sorry for your loss and grateful for the gifts you both have shared with the world.


  6. Lovely post. Re the photo from 1985–were any of us ever that young?? You and the other women you name did some extremely important work in those days. Brava to all of you.

    Two of my dearest friends died in the 1990s, one of stomach cancer, the other of lung cancer. They left unfillable holes in my universe. You must feel the same way. Blessings to every woman who has lost a girlfriend.


  7. Thanks for this remembrance, Carol. You capture so much of what Karen and so many others of that early period were about–bold, smart, creative, connected, pushing the boundaries, paying the price.
    Gratitude in abundance for all. MEH


  8. This is such a helpful essay, not just because of the pleasant glimpse into a wonderful friendship, but because it gives a sense of what the earlier struggles in feminist theology/thealogy were all about for those of us who were not a part of them. Thank you, Carol.


  9. Carol, I LOVE YOUR POSTS! They speak to me on so many levels. Today’s post brought up so many thoughts for me. My first thought was that I was jealous of your group, the New York Feminist Scholars in Religion. Hanging out with Karen Brown, Judith Plaskow, Naomi Goldenberg, Ellen Umansky, Lynn Gottlieb, Beverly Harrison, Nelle Morton, and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza must have led to exciting conversations (I’m a conversation junkie). But then I started to remember my own exciting conversations about the same topics, and my jealousy turned to joy at my own remembered experiences. I remember talking with friends in Women’s Studies during the middle 1970s about how to couch our scholarship, so that it didn’t partake of the illusory “objectivity” of patriarchal/sexist scholarship, and of how hard it was to invent a new language to do that. And then trying to write like that later in the 1970s in my dissertation. I remember what my friend Barbara Waugh and I called “planning the feminist revolution” during our weekly meetings in the summer of 1975, she with a more radical feminist take on our lives and I (at that point, but no longer) coming from a more Marxist feminist perspective. I remember the Feminist Criticism Collective, created in summer of 1973 with members who were graduate students or junior faculty in the literature departments at the UW-Madison. We had ongoing discussions of what a feminist literary criticism would look like and then started doing it. And the Women’s Studies Pedagogy Group here in the later 1970s, where we discussed what a feminist teaching style might look like. But even earlier than that, I remember my first consciousness-raising groups in 1969 in Boston and then 1971 in Madison. We were creating theory about women’s lives under patriarchy just by talking about our experience of living those lives, and it was the most exciting discussion I could imagine. And I remember talking (and doing ritual with) my best friend for the past 3 decades about all things feminist. I hope she survives the pancreatic cancer that she’s going through now. In all of these conversations, we “heard each other into speech.” And I think we do that to a certain extent here on FAR (despite the somewhat depersonalized medium we’re using). Our conversations here have been wonderful for me as well. In thinking about all of this, I realized again that feminist friendships have been and continue to be the most vitalizing in my life.

    I LOVED “Mama Lola”! What a great book. I’m so sorry to hear that its author is gone. Too young, I’m sure, with much more to add to our knowledge.

    I think all feminists under patriarchy live between the worlds, although as someone who has lived 3 1/2 years in Germany, I know what you mean in terms of living between two geographical worlds as well. Living at the margins gives us all a perspective that no one else can bring to the topic of women’s lives under patriarchy. It may not be easy or comfortable, but it’s useful ultimately for all women and at least sometimes can be framed as “exciting”!


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