As I read Carol Christ’s post, This Is How Liberal Democracy Dies, I was reminded of the women with whom the bulk of my research time lately has been spent—the Madrians, a Goddess movement that flourished in Britain and Ireland from the early 1970s until the mid-1980s. Like Christ, the Madrians believed that society was headed in a self-destructive direction and could best be reoriented through women’s wisdom. Like Christ, they admired Greek culture and looked to matrifocal Old Europe for inspiration. Like Christ, they found in both their experience of womanhood and in the model of that past a blueprint for a radically different kind of politics, but a politics that could scarcely be more unlike Christ’s.
They were environmentalists, pacifists, critics of capitalism, teachers of universal salvation, and often proudly-identifying lesbians, who advocated for women’s leadership in the home, in government, in education, and in religion. They were also Traditionalists, monarchists, and nationalists, who advocated for the fourfold social order, obedience to ecclesiastical authority, and the use of corporal punishment. Regularly seen at Goddess conferences and in the pages of magazines like The New Ecologist, they identified as feminists during their initial years, but by the early 1980s their writings self-identified as anti-feminist, offering a considered critique of a movement they had come to see as aligned with policies of the left which they believed robbed women of agency and sublimated them to a neutered, Enlightenment concept of the citizen that presumed masculine traits and values as its normative ideal.
Their alienation from the feminist movement reminds me of the similar exile into which so many feminists of faith were sent at that same time. Indeed, one of the Madrians’ most recurring complaints about later feminism was what they saw as its complicity in the process of secularization. Both religious and right-wing feminists were frozen out of large portions of the movement and its discourse, told that their views were incompatible with basic feminist principles, and accused of false consciousness. Religious feminists, unfortunately, all too often are still subjected to such treatment, notwithstanding the tremendous strides that have been made in the acceptance of authentic religious feminisms of many kinds, to which FAR so ably testifies.
Yet even as feminism is being unyoked from secularism, its absolute codependence with liberalism and democracy has gone largely unchallenged. The idea of a reactionary or antidemocratic feminist is generally treated with the same risibility as the idea of a Mormon feminist was only a short time ago (and in many quarters, still is). The existence of the Madrians, however, reminds us starkly that such a thing is possible—a reminder needed now, when the old, stable constellations of political opinion are coming unglued, and new combinations of ideas are becoming possible. In the United States, Republican senators cast votes for Hillary Clinton while an openly gay European man—Milo Yiannopolous—became a darling of much of the party’s disaffected base. In France, the candidate of the National Front—Marine le Pen—is the polling choice of liberal French voters anxious to keep their social insurance. English retirees living in Spain voted for Brexit, while Scottish separatists stoke a narrative of Scottish difference in order to maintain EU membership and keep their country open to immigration. If there is any truth to the claim that it is not the strongest, but the most adaptive to change, that survive, now is the time to consider new adaptations.
The Madrians are, perhaps, a relatively extreme case in some respects, but I still hear frustration and disappointment from women even far to the left of them, but still to the right of what is presently the feminist mainstream. Too often, these women feel as though their sisterhood is unwelcome. Besides the injustice, one senses also a lost opportunity.
For nearly a century, the orthodoxy of the sociological and policy establishments was the “secularization thesis”—affluent societies would become less religious over time, leading eventually to rational, Gene Roddenberry-esque utopias devoid of religious conflict and culture wars. The past few decades have exploded this thesis, with religion vehemently reasserting itself as a factor in public affairs all over the world, even in the überaffluent West. Where would the feminist movement be now, I wonder, if it had not found a place at the table for religious feminists whose voices carry into the discourses of this new reality?
Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” is now being shown to be just as fragile as the secularization thesis. For well over a century, the onward march of liberal democracy has seemed to most to be the concluding crescendo of God’s composition, but that assumption, too, may be about to be overturned. In Brussels, liberals turn to increasingly antidemocratic means to maintain the open society of the post-War world, while in Washington, London, and Paris, democratic politicians fire up their bases with increasingly illiberal rhetoric. Meanwhile, and perhaps more momentously, a resurgent Neoconfucian élite in China whispers that everything old is new again, and that the way out of the impasse may lie in the example of the Middle Kingdom.
In such a world as this, there is real danger to the gains made by the feminist movement over the past fifty, or even one hundred, years. If we wish to secure those gains over the next hundred, we cannot afford to discount allies whose voices carry into the discourses of the right, where the voices of left-aligned feminists go unheard, ignored, or even ridiculed. Feminists of the left need not countenance such voices’ views on systems of government, class relations, or the geopolitical order to see the value in supporting their call for full and equitable dignity, opportunity, and autonomy for women within the movements of the right, so that those movements, now resurgent and reënergized, are not left an easy prey to patriarchalists. Perhaps the time has come to make room at our table both for those feminists fighting to save liberal democracy, and for those feminists who will shed no tears when it passes.
Race MoChridhe is a FAR intern, a Filianist, and an independent scholar of religion with special interest in the intersections of feminism, new religious movements, and Traditionalist thought. More of his work may be found at his website, www.racemochridhe.com, and at his devotional blog, Apron Strings.