Choice Feminism & Celtic Pagan Spirituality’s Quest for Sovereignty by Kate Brunner


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.

Sir Gawain & the Loathly Lady by Juan Wijngaard

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.

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Categories: Feminism and Religion, Goddess feminism, Goddess Spirituality, Sovereignty

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12 replies

  1. Hear, hear!! That we are able (some of us at any rate), to have choices rests on the hard an heartbreaking work of feminists that came before us. Thank you to them. Feminism in the first place was/is about the sovereign ability to choose. I happened to have heard a radio interview with Gloria Steinem. An at-home mother phoned in defending her choice to stay home and bring up the children. She affirmed/confirmed that it always has been about choice. Loved your post!

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    • Thank you! I am often after women to “know your Herstory” and learning about all the women over the centuries who have struggled and are struggling to continue to broaden our range of true, sovereign choices is a HUGE part of that. There are many moments in my life and work where I feel like I am a feminist “between waves” because I’ve never seemed to fit neatly into one. My personal critique of younger, later waves is their failure to duly acknowledge the incredible work of previous, older waves. We can have the debates we’re having now, and push the boundaries we are pushing now thanks to the efforts of those who have gone before. I believe that can and should be honored at the same time the limitations of their efforts are critique, challenged, and expanded.

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      • I also find I don’t fit into any one particular wave of feminism. I love your pov of sovereignty, live and let live. Heck, it’s difficult enough getting through one’s day …

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  2. Well said, Kate! Thank you! I love the story of Dame Ragnelle. I have been pondering sovereignty a great deal this year. The sovereignty of tribal nations was a core issues at Standing Rock. Then there is the sovereignty of the earth itself. What would sovereign water, soil, air look like? The quest for sovereignty, the stand for sovereignty in all cases is connected. Thanks again for this stirring post!

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    • Elizabeth, have you ever seen photos of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, Australia? If you’re not already familiar with it, I highly recommend you read about it and do an image search for photos of it. The word SOVEREIGNTY stands in large letters around the fire there. Visiting the Tent Embassy when I was in Canberra was a powerful experience.

      I am writing a larger work right now that digs into some of the issues and power around reclaiming one’s sovereignty while also cultivating relationship with the sovereignty of the Land. It is a topic near and dear to my spirit, my bones, & my heart. Blessings on your own quest with this.

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  3. Good for you! Why should any woman be kept from choosing by men or by herself or by some group of women or men? I was unfamiliar with the term “choice feminism” until now, but it sure makes sense. I chose to be an at-home mother……for about three years. But then (a) I needed income and (b) I was bored. So I started my Ph.D. studies. I guess I’ve been the sovereign of myself ever since. Or maybe before ’cause I’ve been a rebel all my life. I’m glad you chose to write this post and I’m glad I chose to read it this morning. Brava!

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  4. excellent post – the right is to choose unfortunately – often excludes or dismisses at home mothering. If that’s what is meaningful to you it is important that you follow your muse. On the other hand it is easier not to see/deal with misogyny etc when you are not living it, so I can still see both points of view – and both are valid, I think.

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    • I think it is perhaps a misconception to assume at-home mothers do not see or deal with misogyny. “At-home” is a problematic term and that may be part of it. At-home mothers don’t really stay in their homes all the time. They are still out in the world, where misogyny is still experienced. The things people thought they could say to me or ask of me as a mother of infant twins were incredibly offensive and never would’ve been asked of a father out with his babies. In fact, they never were. My husband never had to deal with the invasive and objectionable comments & questions I did any time I set foot out into the world with my children in tow. And that’s only some of my personal experience. It doesn’t even begin to address the effects of our domestic violence epidemic on at-home mothers.

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  5. Kate,
    I love this article. As a Second Wave feminist myself, I heard a lot of grief from women when I chose to stay home and raise my two kids. If I were being honest, I would also state that some of that grief came from myself. Sometimes the choices we make are right for us, while still making us constantly question ourselves. My questions, and then my own response to those questions, was that what I was doing was right…..for me. I do not now, nor then, feel it is my place to tell others what they should, or should not, be doing. I stayed at home with them until my youngest was in high school and then only worked part-time to still be home. This worked for me and I was fortunate enough to be able to have, and make, this choice. I agree with Barbara; I had not heard the term “choice feminism” until I had seen your post yesterday. There are those feminists out there who feel they have the right to tell other women the right way to live to be a “true” feminist. To me, this type of attitude has more in common with the misogyny and patriarchal culture we live, than feminism. The idea of Sovereignty which we learn about and strive for within the Sisterhood of Avalon is just one of the many things that drew me to it in the first place. I believe we can strive for our own personal Sovereignty, while letting those around us choose theirs. Very well said, Kate; and thank you.
    Blessings,
    Susan Morgaine

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  6. I adore this post – thank you, Kate! Even though I never had children, when I decided to leave office work and an independent income in order to be a homemaker, healer, and writer (with my husband stating always, these past 14 years, “I love you and want you to be happy; do what you want/need to do”), many women I spoke with derided my decision, finding it a betrayal of feminism. Yours is a compelling portrayal of how each of us needs to honor the other’s path. As you pointed out in one of your comments, I was still subjected to misogyny and addressed it through my own nature via animal rescue work, animal healing, and writing in my own voice (even if it is not accepted by others, I keep writing). My latest novel (will be a multi-generational series if I ever get to all of the pieces) addresses this need for personal Sovereignty more directly than anything I’ve written in the past. Your quote “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.” is, indeed, the core of this work. Thank you many times over for your sharing and may your journey be blessed.

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  7. It’s so frustrating that this battle is being fought still – it was raging when I had my son 24 years ago and still goes on. What is most frustrating is that those who would divide us are still succeeding – as long as we are arguing with each other over what the most feminist choice is, we aren’t working together to make sure that all women have the opportunity to make whatever choice they like, that women have the economic equality to do what is right for them and their families. I don’t know any parent – mother or father – who doesn’t make their child care choice based on the needs of their child rather than politics. That is noble and caring and it makes no difference if the choice is to be at home or work outside the home — what we all need to work for is a world where every parent is able to make the best choice for their child and is not economically or socially or otherwise constrained by misogyny, racism, prejudice against newcomers, or anything else that limits choices. Brava – a wonderful piece.

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