The recent backlash against women and feminism, highlighted by the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, has left many people asking: Is feminism dead? Or if it isn’t dead, is it lost? The decision dealt a blow to one of the most basic freedoms of women—control over their own bodies. In the rush to protect the life of embryos and fetuses, the lives of millions of women will be compromised if not lost altogether, especially poor and BIPOC women.
The Court is inflicting its right-wing views on a country that does not share its values; a majority of Americans support a woman’s right to abortion. “The “triumphal right,” says Susan Faludi in an interview with Michelle Goldberg, “has taken the gloves off and is pursuing a scorched-earth campaign against women’s most fundamental rights.” [i] And although the feminist movement cannot be reduced to the fight for reproductive justice (with issues such as maternity leave, equal pay, childcare, healthcare, etc., still on the table), banning abortion has become the tip of the patriarchal iceberg.
As the backlash gains traction, feminist authors increasingly report a retrenchment of the movement. Kiara Barrow and Rebecca Panovka write, “For a long time now, we’ve had the sense that feminism is in trouble.” They point to a lack of vitality, a sense of stagnancy, in the movement. “We’re quite alarmed to see that the people around us…are by and large quite disaffected and maybe considered themselves feminists five years ago but now don’t want to anymore.” [ii]
With so much antipathy toward feminism from the backlash, as well as the apathy that coexists, how can feminism be revitalized to regain its momentum? The answer may lie in the distant past, long before the modern feminist movement as such took form. The “fierce goddesses” of ancient times represent an archetype of female rage against injustice. This archetype has been laid down in the deep recesses of our psyches—in what psychiatrist Carl Jung calls the collective unconscious. If we allow our psyches to explore the dark, or shadow, side of the unconscious, images of the dark goddesses can emerge. These dark, or so-called fierce, goddesses carry a primordial energy of destruction of those systems and paradigms that no longer serve us. The dark goddesses challenge paradigms that need to be destroyed, especially patriarchy, which has effectively pushed them into the shadow. They also have the power to create new non-patriarchal structures that promote wellbeing and align with justice. The dark goddesses of ancient times have been submerged in our psyches, but they serve as a repository of fierce energy, of female rage against injustice, which, if tapped into, can rejuvenate the flagging women’s movement.
One of the most well-known of the dark, or fierce, goddesses, is Kali, a Hindu goddess who is a manifestation of shakti, the primordial energy of the universe, which can be creative as well as destructive. Depicted holding a scimitar in one hand and a severed head in another, with a necklace of skulls and a skirt of body parts, Kali is an archetype of female rage.
Women in India have been worshiping Kali for thousands of years. Their current situation is so dire and injustices so pervasive that a vigilante group called the Gulabi Gang has sought justice for women when the legal system has failed them. The gang, composed of half a million women between the ages of 18 and 65, clad in pink sarees, fights for the education and safety of women in the Uttar Pradesh province. These women warriors seek justice primarily through dialogue, protests, and hunger strikes. When violent crimes against women are committed, the gang turns perpetrators over to police; but when authorities fail to take action, the gang swoops in with sticks, or rods, thrashing the wrongdoers to teach them a lesson. Authorities have lauded the gang’s work, noting that it has brought a new awareness of women’s rights and accelerated the fight against women’s exploitation.
Nishita Jain, filmmaker of a documentary about the gang, claims, “It is ironic that in one of India’s most backward regions, women are forced to become ‘masculine’ and aggressive in their fight against machismo and patriarchy.” [iii] Such claims are often leveled against women who stand up to and fight against injustice. Women who are assertive or aggressive are often said to become like men, abandoning their feminine “virtues” of meekness, accommodation, and people-pleasing. Such sexual stereotyping assumes that women’s pugnacity cannot be part of their true nature but must be the result of imitating men. This assumption misconstrues the inherent nature of women, depriving them of their own capacity for experiencing righteous anger/rage and acting upon it. Women who refuse to be passive victims are not behaving like men but rather plumbing the depths of their own psyches, owning their own anger at being victimized and exercising their own agency in creating a society free from such abuses. Kali as feminine archetype represents the inherent rage and destructive power women possess, that are not solely in the domain of men.
It’s important and healthy for us as women to reclaim our anger, using it to protect ourselves and fight for our rights in systems that are oppressive. Owning our anger and rage against injustice will put us in touch with our shadow side and the dark goddesses such as Kali who will assist us in our struggle for a just society that recognizes our rights. These goddesses are sending a message for feminists today that transcends time, if we are willing to listen. Their sacred rage against injustice can be used as fuel in the fight for our rights. We need to honor and listen to the wisdom that the dark goddesses can impart to us today. Doing so will help infuse the feminist movement with the fierce energy needed to rise up, with renewed vigor, and throw off the yoke of patriarchy.
[i] Michelle Goldberg, “The Future Isn’t Female Anymore,” New York Times, June 17, 2022.
[ii] Kiara Barrow and Rebecca Panovka, “What to Do About Feminism,” The Drift, Issue 6, January 31, 2022.
[iii] Shweta Desai, “Gulabi Gang, India’s Women Warriors,” Al Jazeera, March 4, 2014.
Image credits linked within images.
Susan Foster received a PhD in philosophy and taught philosophy at Wellesley College, where she also taught the first women and gender studies course. She left academia to enter a postdoctoral retraining program in clinical and community psychology at Boston University Medical Center. She currently has a private practice specializing in women’s issues. She founded and led the Women’s Spirituality Series for 13 years at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Andover, MA, which featured speakers such as Starhawk, Margot Adler, Mary Daly, Margaret Starbird, and Donna Read, among others. She is an active member of the UU Congregation in Asheville, NC, where she leads pagan rituals and serves on the Board of the Blue Ridge Spirit CUUPS chapter. She is currently writing a book entitled “Is Feminism Dead? The ancient fierce goddesses have a message for women today,” from which this blog is adapted.