Last May I had a vision in the shower. It wasn’t the kind of vision I like to have—where the Goddess and I dance across a meadow with flowers springing up as we pass and cool breezes bringing sweet fragrances. This was the kind of vision I’d rather not have, but probably needed to. This is from my journal.
Something happened during my shower recently that feels relevant. As I stepped into the shower, a phrase thrust itself into my mind: “I was forced to watch them die and it was all my fault.” As I ‘stood’ there with water pouring over my body and that statement vibrating in my brain, it attached itself to a scene where I was the spiritual leader of a community that came under attack. I was forced to watch the women and men who believed in what I taught as they were executed. Many of them were friends and relatives. I was restrained and couldn’t intervene to save them, or join them in execution. Having to witness this was part of my punishment. Instead I was carried to a bigger town, publicly humiliated and beaten, and then executed in some painfully unpleasant way I can’t recall–probably because I don’t want to.
As I am blessed with an excellent therapist, and a close friend who is also a shamanic practitioner, I immediately sought counsel from both. Since then I’ve been working on understanding and accepting the significance of this vision, and using it to expand my understanding of how women are brainwashed by patriarchy into complying with cultural expectations that are not in our best interests.
One of the things that still haunts me about this vision is the way that I immediately jumped to a position of self-blame. “They all died and it was all my fault.” I’ve come to realize that this assumption of blame and responsibility has been a life-long pattern. Whenever anything goes wrong, my immediate response has been to accept the blame, apologize, and begin to problem-solve. Endless repetitions of “If only I had …” reverberate in my head. Major or minor issues, my default response has been to accept the blame.
I notice this same response from women in mystery novels and crime shows. If a woman is the victim of some kind of criminal activity, it is almost a given that at some point in the narrative she will bemoan the fact that it is all her fault. If any member of her family commits a crime, it is also all her fault.
As I’ve continued to reflect on “It’s all my fault,” I’ve come to understand that this is a learned patriarchal response that goes back to Eve of the Hebrew Testament and Pandora as the ancient Greek poet Hesiod writes of her. Here we have two stories, drawn from two of the primary mythologies that undergird what we call western civilization: the Bible and the ancient Greeks. In each story, the ‘first’ woman exercises her natural curiosity, and thus disobeys the reigning patriarch. In doing so, she releases every kind of suffering, and death, into the world. As the stories are told, it is literally all Eve and Pandora’s fault for failing to be obedient to Yahweh and Zeus.
Although well over two thousand years old, this toxic narrative continues to guide and frame the stories of millions of women across this country and around the globe. If failure to do what you have been told to do brings negative consequences, then it is all your fault. If you dress too provocatively and attract a rapist, it’s all your fault. If you try to exercise a modicum of personal power within your relationship with your abusive partner and your injuries send you to the hospital, it is all your fault. If a less competent male is promoted over you, I can guarantee that the boss has found a reason to make it your fault.
My therapeutic and shamanic work over the last few years has gifted me with two mantras that are helping me cope with this patriarchal onslaught of blame and guilt. Perhaps they will help you too
This whole blame the woman narrative leads to my first mantra: That’s patriarchy speaking. Patriarchy speaks with a loud, insistent voice and tries to dominate every interaction through sheer arrogance. When talking about Pandora in Cassandra Speaks, Elizabeth Lesser writes “Hesiod’s storytelling is yet another smear tactic against females—woman as scapegoat, someone to blame for the very fact that life is difficult, … that illness and death befall each of us.”
But I’m not listening to patriarchy any more. Instead I’m listening for the voices that guide and support my journey towards wholeness. And I’m listening for the places where I can hear patriarchy trying to direct my path, or thwart my path, and I’m naming those voices. If patriarchy is speaking, then I am not listening.
I use the second mantra regularly: It’s not my fault and I can do something about it. Culturally, women have been manipulated into accepting the blame for everything. But women are rarely to blame for the bad things that happen to them, or for the epidemic of violence that feels so omnipresent these days. Abuse of any kind is not the fault of the victim. The number of women who accept blame without even questioning it says oceans about how ubiquitous patriarchy is. It has created a world in which men can act out in violent and immature ways and women will accept the blame for their actions.
But it’s not my fault and I can do something about it. Often the something I can do makes no immediately noticeable change in the outside world. But each time I say it I feel stronger. Each time I say it I give myself permission to step away from the blame game patriarchy wants to play and begin defining the world in which I want to play. Lesser writes “It’s time to tell stories where no one is to blame for the human predicament and all of us are responsible for forging a hopeful path forward.” I couldn’t agree more!
‘Pandora’ is used by permission of the artist Rebecca Guay (http://www.rebeccaguay.com/).
Two of Air is from the Gaian Tarot and is used with permission of the artist and creator Joanna Powell Colbert (https://www.gaiantarot.com/)
BIO: Mary Gelfand is an ordained Interfaith Minister and a Wiccan High Priestess. As a Unitarian Universalist, she has served in both local and national leadership roles, including five years as national board president of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS). She is an experienced teacher of Cakes for the Queen of Heaven—adult education program focused on feminist thealogy and the Great Goddess. A practicing Pagan, her spiritual life is rooted in the cycles and seasons of the natural world which are so abundantly visible in New England. She reads, teaches, and preaches about feminist theology, the Great Goddess, mysticism, and the mysteries of Tarot. As a fiber artist, she enjoys weaving tapestry and knitting gifts for strangers and friends.
6 thoughts on “Women, Blame, and Patriarchy by Mary Gelfand”
Oh how I appreciated this post….” I’ve come to realize that this assumption of blame and responsibility has been a life-long pattern.” BINGO this is the beginning of breaking the cycle of self abuse – and yes we have taught, continue to be taught by a toxic culture to blame ourselves in literally a million ways…. now when I hear myself self blaming a red light goes off in my brain… or I get a headache… or stomach ache -if I am still not paying attention. Warnings I heed – but sometimes it takes a while…. what I find tricky is what happens when i really do have to behave heroically because there is no one to help – then the Little Red Hen syndrome sets in and I go until it’s too late. I have just come through a difficult/traumatic month – and finally I was stuck down with mindless headaches which FORCED me to stop doing – when I look back I see there was no blame to be attached to any of these actions – I had to do them – BUT my body will only go along with stuff for so long before I am struck down by something – physically or mentally. I now see this as a gift as well as a time to thank my body for her help.
Thank you for your comment Sara. I’m sorry you’ve had a difficult/traumatic month and hope you are blessed with some peaceful and grounding time ahead.
I’m convinced we can unweave the toxic patriarchal culture that is so uniformly oppressive to all beings. But it will take the united efforts of thousands and thousands of women, men, and children to accomplish, over many decades. But we begin to break the cycle, as you mentioned, when we name the source and refuse to participate–to the extent we can.
I would add a third possibility to tell myself, “It’s not my fault and it’s not my call to fix it.”
Yes, you are right Penelope. It is not always our call to fix it. Certainly it is not our to fix everything. But I’m a fixer by nature and it is helpful to me to feel I can do something, even if that something is an internal process. Every time I can see what is happening and step away from the patriarchal blame game, I am empowered to become more fully my authentic self, and that is something I can do, even if I’m the only one impacted by my action.
My mother was very fond of this quote from Reinhold Niebuhr: ‘May I be granted the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ I’m working on developing that form of wisdom.
Thanks for your comment.
“It’s not my fault and I can do something about it.” I love this mantra and I’m going to adopt it! So much of the work our generation needs to do is name all those assumptions we, especially as women, have been taught so that the next generation grows up without having to realize how these assumptions rule their lives and consciously evict them, and blaming ourselves is at the top of that list. I have been lucky to have been part of work teams, usually led by women, where the culture was “let’s forget blame, let’s just fix it” and those are so much more effective. I almost think that because we have to consciously stop blaming ourselves, women can better and more quickly see how blame and guilt get in the way of finding solutions, but first we have to do as you have done, and see that it isn’t our fault. A wonderful post!
Thank you Carolyn. I love that you see–as I do–that part of the work of our generation is to work to unroot these negative assumptions we’ve been taught so the next generation won’t grow up with the same assumptions. How lovely to be part of work teams that can set aside and disempower blame and just work on solving the problem. I’m sure you contributed to creating that energy.