Years ago, in an early postpartum blur, I took a crack at writing a piece on an old personal blog about the question of an at-home mother’s claim to the feminist label. The process of writing it was really an opportunity for me to work out some of my own thoughts about my lived feminism within the framework of my life at that moment as a mother who was at home full time with three young children; a toddler and a brand new set of infant twins. I was completely unprepared for what happened in the comments section of my personal online musings.
While many self-identified feminist mothers seemed to resonate with the underlying personal themes of my post, many, many other feminists felt the need to comment on what they saw as my harmful attempt to justify choice feminism; a feminist theory they felt needed to be forcefully shouted down. While some of the comments were jarring, to say the least, they did serve to introduce me to the concept of choice feminism and the critiques surrounding it. I did not necessarily agree with the style or content of many of those comments, but they did deepen my thinking around reconciling my lived experience of at-home motherhood and my ethical commitment to feminism.
My twins will turn eleven this summer and I am still mulling this all over; especially now that I belong to a spiritual tradition that holds as probably its most important thealogical tenant, the sacred nature of a woman’s quest for Sovereignty.
Articulated in the Sisterhood of Avalon’s Core Beliefs is the statement that “Our community operates with the foundational principle that we are each working to obtain our personal sovereignty, while we seek to honor the personal sovereignty of others.” In my personal practice and service to my Sisters as a member of the SOA’s Council of Nine, I seek to honor this core belief on pretty much a daily basis. The Quest for Sovereignty is a deeply embedded part of my lived experience as an Avalonian woman. But, similar to that long-ago personal blog post, what I’ve found myself examining lately is the potential comparisons and/or contrasts between that spiritual quest for divine feminine Sovereignty and the thought-provoking critiques of choice feminism.
Before proceeding further with this particular exploration, I want to take a brief moment to do two things. The first of which is to clearly state that the thoughts I wish to share today & the discussion I am interested in initiating are my own and do not necessarily reflect any official thealogy or policy of the SOA. The second is to take up a tad bit of space to define terms for this particular quest within the Quest.
Choice feminism is a term that has come to refer to the idea that any choice a woman makes, by virtue of being her own choice, is a feminist one. Arguments in support of choice feminism often revolve around a reclamation of more traditional gender roles strongly eschewed by the Second Wave, such as full time at-home motherhood or homemaking. Women proudly declaring their choices to commit to at-home mothering, as I did on my personal blog years ago, may or may not be also laying claim to an ethic of choice feminism. The primary critique of choice feminism is that while the freedom to make choices previously denied to our foremothers is generally a positive thing, choice feminists often ignore or discount the forces of misogyny and patriarchy that are still narrowing the field of options from which they make their choices. This is precisely what the comments on my old blog accused me of doing – not acknowledging and critiquing the forces present in our culture that constrained my choice to become an at-home mother.
Sovereignty is a popular concept within Celtic-based Pagan traditions and a well-researched theme among Celtic Studies scholars in which the story of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle is often used as a cogent example, although many older examples of sovereignty tales exist in even earlier Celtic & Arthurian literature. In the tale, King Arthur is challenged to discover what it is that women truly want. In his quest to solve this riddle, he meets a haggard old woman named Dame Ragnelle who promises she can deliver the answer to Arthur, but only if one of his knights promises to marry her. Sir Gawain agrees to take one for the team and marry the Loathly Lady. To his surprise, in their chambers on their wedding night, Dame Ragnelle transforms into a beautiful young woman. She explains to Sir Gawain that she is under a curse. She can only appear as a beautiful woman for half the day. The other half the day, she must live as a hag. She asks him what she should do — live in the daylight as a hag and come to him as his beautiful wife at night? Or accompany him through their days as beautiful and sleep next to him each night as loathly? Sir Gawain is distraught and struggles to answer Dame Ragnelle’s question. Eventually, he turns to her and tells her that she should choose whichever option she wants. And the curse is broken. For what a woman truly wants is her own sovereignty.
The modern dictionary definition of sovereignty as a self-governing state echos both the Celtic/Arthurian concept of sovereignty and what Sisterhood of Avalon founder & Morgen, Jhenah Telyndru calls “fully actualized self-determination”. It is this Sovereignty that women of the Avalonian Tradition are questing for in our lives.
So, how is the quest for Sovereignty different from choice feminism?
It has been my experience that the difference lies in our keen awareness and acknowledgment of the strictures that narrow our range of choices as women on a daily basis. We strive to make sovereign, empowered choices in our lives. We push ourselves to discover what a fully actualized and self-determined life might look like for each of us. But, we also often work to pull myriad cultural, familial, social, professional, and political oppressions out of the realm of Shadow and into the Light where they can be acknowledged for what they are, confronted out loud, and hopefully eventually dismantled or at a minimum, mitigated as much as possible in our lives.
I wrote that essay about the feminism of at-home motherhood before I came home spiritually to the Sisterhood and looking back, I suspect it is this quest for Sovereignty that I was after before I had the necessary vocabulary to fully articulate it. The work of this quest is what empowers my choices, even as I struggle against misogyny and oppression.
What I wish I could have articulated to some of the more vitriolic feminist comments on that long-ago blog post, is what I believe to be a fundamental need to honor each other’s’ quests for Sovereignty, even when they look very different from our own. What I wish for the feminist movement is very similar. I wish for us to learn how to acknowledge and resist misogyny and oppression, while not requiring of each other that our visions of a fully actualized, self-determined life be identical. Cultivating a spiritual understanding of Sovereignty is perhaps one path that may lead us to the fulfillment of that wish.
Kate M. Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon. She is also a current resident of Heartwood Cohousing in Colorado & a homeschooling mother of three. Kate hosts seasonal women’s gatherings, priestesses labyrinth rituals, and facilitates workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. During 2017, she will present at the SOA’s annual online conference, AvaCon, & at the second annual Ninefold Festival this autumn. Kate is a contributing writer at One World Herbal Community and is also published in Flower Face: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Blodeuwedd and The Goddess in America: The Divine Feminine in Cultural Context.