Non-Hierarchy in Covens

July 11, 2014

Photo Oxfordian Kissuth
Photo Oxfordian Kissuth

I was discussing hierarchies with a friend of mine last week: where the ideal of the nonhierarchical group comes from, why it usually doesn’t work, what women mean when they promote the idea of the nonhierarchical coven.

In my experience the woman with the most urgent need for a “nonhierarchical” women’s group, and the type of woman who promotes the idea most emphatically, is the woman with highly controlling tendencies who is uncomfortable with her need to control and wishes to change. She will declare the group “nonhierarchical” and proceed to run it, insisting to herself and others that there is an equality of leadership. Needless to say, this is a recipe for a series of power struggles down the line.

The other type of woman who emphatically promotes the concept of a nonhierarchical group is the highly controlling woman who finds herself in a group where another woman is in charge. If she perceives this woman as a strong leader she will accept the situation or go elsewhere; if she perceives her to be a weak leader she will attempt to wrest power without admitting to herself or others that this is going on. “Non-hierarchy” provides a means of self deception. Usually other group members are under no illusions about what is happening, but since they do not hold power in the group they remain silent and resentments simmer under the surface.

The nonhierarchical controller commands a women’s spirituality group in a number of subtle ways. The first controlling gesture is to declare the group nonhierarchical without discussion. No group can be nonhierarchical without a common understanding of what this means and a discussion of the pros and cons of this arrangement. The nonhierarchical controller also decides what is nonhierarchically to be decided and what is just the natural correct way for the group to flow. Another classic way of controlling the group is for the non-leader to be habitually inflexible about her schedule, expecting others to bend and accommodate when arranging meeting times. Of course, job schedules, parenting, and other responsibilities often dictate the amount of flexibility a woman has, but maintaining inflexibility about scheduling is still a common way of asserting dominance. The non-leader will often control under the guise of “taking care of my needs.” It is true that we all have the responsibility to assess and assert our needs, but if a group is habitually adjusting to the needs of one particular person, that person is running the group. In a truly nonhierarchical group, members sometimes have to put their own needs secondary on minor matters and make compromises. This brings up another telling characteristic of the nonhierarchical controller: there are no minor issues. If another member challenges a point or seeks to do something a different way, the nonhierarchical leader digs in her heels and argues for her way. When she inevitably wins the point, she tells herself that she is not dominating, but in the right.

Once the nonhierarchical controller has decided the meeting time, the place, and how long the ceremony will be, she characteristically stands back and asks for group consensus on how the directions will be called, where the altar will be, which deities to invoke, and other details. The problem with this arrangement is not so much that one person is running the show, but that there is deception around what is happening: a person cannot control a group outside of the formal ritual structure without holding the energy in ritual space as well. In this situation there can be no equality, only dishonest leadership.

The root of this challenging dynamic is not really with one particular personality, no matter how controlling. Where there is strong leadership in place, the woman with a high need to control will either accept the situation or go elsewhere. The core issue is that humans are herd animals, who like any other herd animals do not function well outside of hierarchical structures. Only in a limited set of situations do nonhierarchical power structures work. Where there is no clear leadership, stronger personalities usually step in to fill the vacuum, sometimes causing the group to suffer as they jockey for position. In large groups a more stable form of supposedly non-hierarchical control will sometimes be established by unacknowledged agreement. This happens in some social activist groups where power on the basis of economic or educational background is consciously eschewed, only to be replaced with a power system based on political correctness.

In my observations, I have found the covens in which a nonhierarchical structure works best to be those which are small, those which are all women, those in which all members are willing to do an equal amount of work, those in which all members have known each other for some time and get along well outside of coven activities, and those in which all members have a similar amount of experience doing magical work. There’s a lot of ifs here; the stars have to be exactly right. If the coven is strongly dependent on one woman, rather than many, a truly nonhierarchical situation cannot be established. This would be the case if one woman has a great deal more experience, if the group believes they cannot function without meeting on property held by one particular woman, or if one woman holds prestige that the group relies on for attracting new members or holding power in the larger religious community.

Must a women’s spirituality group be nonhierarchical? Our ideal of this type of group is usually based on the early Neolithic matriarchies, where based on the size of houses and the distribution of grave goods it appears that resources were more or less equally shared. For those of us today who have only known a world of class-based patriarchy, these matriarchal societies can easily be characterized as nonhierarchical. But perhaps we should re-examine this assumption. In the matriarchal aboriginal societies that have survived into historical times, there is always, to my knowledge, a clear structure of leadership. One man explained it this way: “We are led by the old women, because they listen to the people and can tell the chief about the desires of the group.” This provides some insight into the nature of the problem. Perhaps we need to stop promoting the abolishment of hierarchy and instead examine better group power structures and models of leadership.

What are the women’s mysteries?

June 20, 2014

Statue of Greek mother goddess Demeter from the British Museum, 4th century b.c.e. Demeter had her own women's mystery cult in ancient Greece. It is hard to find an intact statue of this beloved goddess because the Christians were particularly zealous in their destruction of her statues and religion.
Statue of Greek mother goddess Demeter from the British Museum, 4th century b.c.e. Demeter had her own women’s mystery cult in ancient Greece. It is hard to find an intact statue of this beloved goddess because the Christians were particularly zealous in their destruction of her statues and religion.
No, we’re not talking about Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky here. Women’s mysteries echo back to the Greek mystery schools, which were religious groups centered around a deity or group of deities connected by an epic story. To become a member of the mystery school a person had to study and undergo a complex initiation ceremony. The mystery schools emphasized knowledge that could not be comprehended solely by intellect but could only be understood through certain religious experiences–these were the mysteries.

The most famous of the mystery schools was the Eleusinian mysteries, which flourished well into Christian times and had initiates of many ethnicities from across the Mediterranean world. Other mysteries were more obscure, and it was possible to be an initiate in more than one school. There were separate mystery schools for women and men as well as schools open to all. Probably there were schools that had other requirements for admission. While the word mystery has a Greek origin and our knowledge of the mystery schools comes from the Greeks, the concept of mystery schools itself is much older and more universal.

Today women’s mysteries refers to Goddess-focused ritual that acknowledges women’s bodies and life cycle. This is expressed as the stages of maiden-mother-crone. Maidens have not yet taken on the burdens of adult responsibilities, but are preparing for the important mother phase that comes next. Mothers bring forth physical life or use their womb-energies to nurture in other ways. Crones accept greater responsibility for leadership in the community, as their wombs are no longer constantly preparing for conception and childbirth and this energy is freed to move in other directions.

Women often ask how hysterectomy impacts participation in women’s mysteries. Removal of an organ from the physical body does not remove it from the etheric body and women are still able to participate in the mysteries post-hysterectomy. Cessation of menses is a necessary requirement for cronehood but age is also important, and a woman who experiences early menopause does not automatically become a crone. However, cessation of menses, whether through hysterectomy or natural means, is a critical life event that is honored through ritual within women’s mysteries. Mystery schools are experiential, and our religion is closed to males because the experience of “bleeding for days without dying” is integral to the knowledge we carry.

Some women say, what if I don’t like my body? What if I hate my period? Women’s mysteries are especially important for women who dislike their bodies or women who have difficulty coming out of their minds to fully inhabit their bodies. We are spirits who have chosen to occupy this women’s body that is such a source of pleasure and pain. We don’t have to always like it, but the goal of women’s mysteries is to gather wisdom from it.

A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians, by Gunlog Fur (Review)

November 8, 2013

I think this book adds some needed information about the intersection of gender, women’s status, and religious/spiritual perspectives.

Gunlog Fur says in her preface, “I did not set out to write a book about gender. In fact, I was not particularly interested in the topic at all. What did interest me was trying to understand as much as I possibly could about how Lenape Indians lived their lives around the time that they first encountered people from across the great sea and how that encounter altered their society and the world they knew….Thus, I stumbled on my subject by chance, or so I thought, caught by the nagging notion that I was observing a picture where one object stood out of place. The problem I had with the picture I was beholding was that it contained only men.” As Fur began collecting scraps of information referring to women, a new picture of Delaware/Lenape history and society emerged, one with a complex understanding and expression of gender which the Eurocentric mind has difficulty comprehending.

Researching colonial history of the Delaware peoples is a challenging proposition, because these nations were among the first to encounter European explorers and traders, and the location of Delaware territories, which were highly strategic from the point of view of seafaring Europeans, meant that the Delaware peoples came in contact with many nationalities. Early accounts were written in Swedish, Dutch, French, and German, as well as English, so a facility with all of these languages is necessary to examine first-hand sources. Many European traders spoke one or more of the principal native languages, making the language in which discussions occurred and the degree of comfort of the observer with that language an important piece of information. Fur’s knowledge of the languages of early written sources lends credibility to her analysis.

A question I had when I first ran across this book was whether the author had enough understanding of the structure of the Delaware languages to make any inferences about gender. Although it is axiomatic that concepts do not necessarily translate easily between languages, where gender is concerned these conceptual difficulties are magnified. My concern was probably unjustified. Although Fur does not claim to be fluent in any Delaware language, she appears to be aware of the structure of this language group, enough to question the primary observer’s account in places. Fur emphasizes throughout the book that her sources are unreliable. They are thoroughly patriarchal and view interactions with American Indians from the prism of their own agenda – usually commerce, land acquisition, or religious fervor. She compensates for this by examining the wide range of written data for congruencies and anomalies.

I will present a summary of Fur’s analysis in my next three blog posts. I will write about the status of Delaware women within the tribes, the changes and challenges created by Christian contact, and the Delaware/Lenape conception of gender.

Unfriend? Unfollow? Social Media and Spiritual Blogging

October 18, 2013

Social media has become both a constant irritant and an indispensable part of my life. I don’t remember what I was thinking when I joined Facebook – I may have read somewhere that I had to join social media to “develop a platform.” I now consider Facebook indispensable to networking and keeping abreast of opportunities, while I question its value as a platform. At times the whole Internet, but social media in particular, feels like a bottomless drain on my energy. There’s so much information, so much of it laced with fear, so little of it containing any real substance. It’s the journalistic equivalent of fast food: cheap but unsatisfying, fattening but lacking core nutrients.

Sometimes, I just have to stay home and virtually not go anywhere.

But surprisingly, when the specter of having to leave Facebook arose about six months ago, I was panicked. How would I function professionally? How could I get information that can’t be classified as news because it pertains to a relatively small group of people, spread over wide geography? How could I get information that can’t be classified as news because the story develops collaboratively, over the space of a day or two?

I don’t know if the reason for my speculating such a drastic move is, ultimately, important. The large social media outlets like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter are going to eventually implode as they become huge unwieldy conglomerates. The result will not be an exchange of Reddit for Yahoo or Facebook for Google+, but loosely connected independent sites catering to various specialized, alternative, or marginalized communities. Facebook tried to develop a series of small networks through its “groups,” Google+ has tried to do this in a different way through its “circles,” and Reddit has its “subreddits,” but ultiminately these are starting to collapse through the limits of size and centralized administration.

This graphic was removed on Facebook and its account holder suspended.
This graphic was removed on Facebook and its account holder suspended.

Which does bring me to the particulars of why I think it is likely that I will, eventually, need to leave Facebook. There has been a great deal of glorified sexualized violence toward women on Facebook, and attempts to address this have brought only short-term solutions. About a year ago, feminists began collectively trying to bring the worst of this violence to the attention of administrators, asking that it be banned. Almost always this went nowhere. Eventually, feminists began contacting Facebook advertisers, letting them know that their advertisements were appearing on group sites dedicated to graphic sexualized portrayals of violence against women. This got a reaction. Facebook began losing revenue and some of these sites were removed. Ultimately Facebook decided to make its advertising streams more sophisticated, so family-friendly advertising would not appear on a page titled something like “Chokes the Bitch.”

Which completely neutralized this organizing/activist tool.

On the other side of the equation, prominent feminist activists are routinely targeted on Facebook and reported to administrators for their pictures and speech. One woman had her account suspended because she posted a textbook-style illustration of female reproductive anatomy, with ovaries, Fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, etc. Another woman was suspended because she posted a picture of an ancient Greek statue. It’s not clear that Facebook is deliberately targeting feminists; when large groups of tech savvy males and their sock puppets submit complaints certain algorithms kick in, and even individuals moderating complaints may rely on the numbers of reporters rather than wading through the stream. The same thing happens in the comments section of online newspapers – a lot of feminist viewpoints do not get posted because so many males object. Twitter is even worse, veering into the realm of sexual harassment and threats of violence. Men get their back up when women call for a ban on this type of behavior, saying this is an impingement on “free speech,” but the whole purpose of sexualized threats and graphic violence is to silence the speech of women.

So if a significant number of feminists began calling for a boycott of Facebook or Twitter, there’s a good chance that I will feel compelled to go along with it. So far, women have been biding their time until better alternatives arise. I do believe that eventually this will happen. If social media has “been woven into the fabric of our lives” as everyone likes to say everywhere, there are some glitched stitches quite a few rows back, and the whole thing will have to be unraveled.

To keep abreast of updates on this blog, those of you who friend me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter can add this blog to your RSS feed (Google it). There is also a place on the right hand column of the main page for you to sign up for email updates of new posts. I will not sell your email or use it for any other purpose; in fact I will not have access to it.

The Dianic Religion: What We Believe and How We Practice

February 22, 2013

Aphrodite. Photo by Shakko.
Aphrodite. Photo by Shakko.

Often women contact me for instruction in witchcraft who are unfamiliar with the Dianic Religion. One of the first things they want to know is whether they will have to worship naked with men present. I have also been asked about the practice of self-flagellation or scourging. In Dianic worship we usually practice in all-women groups, and we certainly do not practice naked with men. Women’s experience with sexual violence and subjugation under patriarchy makes mixed nudity and scourging questionable practices, whatever their inherent benefits. But there are many traditions that do not practice nudity or scourging. What makes Dianic witchcraft different from these traditions?

In Dianic witchcraft we focus on the female. We worship the mother of all things who is all gods and all goddesses. She is many and she is one. We see the great mother as whole within herself: she gives birth to the god but she is the original and first creator, as a male cannot give birth to one creature let alone a whole universe. We see woman, born with the capacity to give birth, as a divine reflection of the goddess and therefore whole and complete within herself. The Dianic Religion centers on the reproductive life cycle of the woman. We see this as divided into three phases: maiden, mother, and crone. We are born in the maiden phase which is girlhood and adolescence, we reach the mother phase with the birth of our first child, and the crone phase commences at menopause. Each of these phases has their own powers and their own focus. They are not equal: the crone is the most powerful because she has experienced maidenhood and motherhood. Sometimes women say to me, I went through menopause in my early 40s or I have had a hysterectomy. Do I have to see myself as a crone if I’m still young? In these cases, and in cases where a woman does not have children or delays childbirth until late in life, we set the commencement of the mother phase at the first Saturn return (which is roughly age 30), and the commencement of the crone phase at the second Saturn return in the late 50s.

As females virtually all of us are born with the expectation that we will someday have children, and much of our socialization revolves around this expectation. Although attitudes are slowly changing in this regard, women who do not raise children are often considered to be unfulfilled or incomplete. The Dianic tradition teaches that we can use our mothering abilities in a variety of ways, whether or not we have children, and all priestesses in maturity are considered mothers. At the same time, we recognize that nurturing is something we must accept as well as give, and ritual with other women is a way we can be nourished and recharged.

Body acceptance is an important goal of the Dianic path. Most women struggle with feelings of inadequacy because their body does not meet a certain ideal. Worshiping with other women in a non-judgmental setting helps a woman come to terms with the body she has, and this is one of the reasons we may encourage nudity in our circles, according to situation and inclination. Many of our rituals are geared toward helping women to become more embodied. Dianics reject the idea prevalent in modern Western culture that mind and body are separate entities. Paradoxically, in becoming more aware and accepting of our physical bodies our ability to do psychic work is enhanced.

The existence of the Dianic Religion is very important not only to Dianic priestesses, but to all religious women. Women in the more progressive Christian, Jewish, Sufi and Buddhist sects, as well as other Pagans, are aware of our philosophy and borrow from our tradition. Some have even formed women’s traditions of their own. I also think the knowledge that women’s religions exist (and function well) helps women negotiate greater power within religious structures that include men.

Further Reading

Barrett, Ruth. Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries: Intuitive Ritual Creation. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2007.

Budapest, Zsuzsanna E. The Grandmother of Time: A Women’s Book of Celebrations, Spells, and Sacred Objects for Every Month of the Year. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Sex Changes: A memoir of marriage, gender and letting go ~ Christine Benvenuto

December 28, 2012

What happens when your world gets turned upside down and in the confusion of reevaluating all that you thought true, the people you regarded as allies distance themselves or judge you? Christine Benvenuto’s memoir of love, betrayal and change is getting attention for its portrayal of the somewhat sexy topic of sex change, but as the writer of a spiritual blog I was more drawn to the theme of community support, particularly support from religious community.

Christine was in a marriage of over twenty years with three small children when her husband “Tracey” announced his intention of exploring gender transition. (Note: Christine uses male pronouns for Tracey in the book.) Over the following year, Christine resisted each step of her husband’s transition. As events unfolded, Christine says “I clung to stasis like a fraying lifeline, kicking and screaming as it slipped through my fingers.” (Christine does not like the word “transition.” She explains, “Transition implied to me something ordinary, something gentle, something – dare I say it – natural.” Although her point is well taken, I will use this word here because it is the word we have for this process.) As the transition progressed and Christine became resigned to the ending of her marriage, she insists that a new Tracey emerged: “He didn’t seem the same. He didn’t act the same, didn’t sound the same. His values seemed to change along with his personality.” The new Tracey was controlling and abusive. He expected her to adjust to marriage with a transwoman. He made promises and concessions and repeatedly reneged on them, often insisting such agreements had never been made. When Christine insisted that the marriage must end if he persisted with the transition, Tracy took a page out of so many controlling husbands’ playbook and threatened her with loss of her children and possessions.

I’m always skeptical when I hear that a spouse has abruptly changed from a supportive partner to a controlling one. Particularly in a marriage as long-standing as this one, it seems more likely that those behaviors were there all along and became more pronounced. Still, Christine’s reaction to her husband’s transition was not one of a traumatized wife. When initially confronted with the changes, she argued that Tracey’s transition robbed her of a husband and that it was damaging to their children. When Tracey would not abandon transition she separated from him and fought for her rights under divorce laws. She also insisted on viewing Tracey’s transition from her own perspective rather than accepting Tracey’s narrative. And it was Christine, not Tracey, who longed to shroud the embarrassment of their disintegrating relationship in secrecy. She explains “I grew up in a family and a culture in which, if something bad happened, you didn’t advertise.” Fortunately for her, Tracey wanted their small town, religious community, and circle of friends to learn about and understand his transition, so secrecy could not remain an option. But this is the point where life for Christine, for awhile, truly became rough.

Tracey’s psychotherapist, perhaps not surprisingly, chose to view the situation from Tracey’s individual perspective and in his personal self-interest rather than in a systemic way, through family dynamics. Somewhat more surprisingly, Christine encountered judgment and ostracism from her liberal small town and individuals in her religious community. This was because, in their view, she had failed to support Tracey sufficiently in his transition. Also, because Tracey was angry with her, the community felt a need to side with him because he was transgendered. Christine charges that in the point of view of the community, his being transsexual means “Anything he does is justified.”

Perhaps I overidentified with this part of Christine’s narrative. The parallel between her experience and the persecution of Dianic witches in recent years is striking. Ostensibly both have been about supporting trans rights versus born-women’s autonomy. I would argue that this is a false choice, but it is a choice pagans believe they are forced to make, even if they would not frame the issue so starkly. That the interests of genetic women are abandoned in this situation is not surprising, really. The mutterings against a religious subculture defined by women have been long-standing in the larger pagan community, albeit rather muted before the issue of trans inclusion appeared as a politically correct cudgel. Applying this insight to Christine’s situation, perhaps the community was responding out of their ingrained bias that a wife should support her husband over her own interests. Tracey’s new presentation as a transwoman to people who had known him as a man, and doubtless still thought of him as a man despite their desire to appear otherwise, may have allowed the community to fool themselves into thinking that they were not acting out age-old patriarchal patterns. At any rate, it was the betrayal by community that was hardest to overcome. Christine says:

Because he believed he was doing what he had to do, it is easier, ironically, for me to forgive Tracey than the community who supported him and abandoned my children and me…. By these people, many of them women, many of them Jewish, many of them feminists, my children and I were betrayed. In the Valley of the Politically Correct, their choice wasn’t difficult or brave. It required them to be deeply true to nothing and no one. It was cowardice, pure and simple.

Tracey’s decision to transition was ultimately a good thing for Christine, despite Tracey’s selfishness toward her and their children, despite the harsh rewriting of what she had believed was a happy marriage, despite the loss of her religious fellowship, and despite the coolness of self-advertised progressives in her community. Her pain was too great to endure in isolation, and she was forced to risk an intimacy in her friendships that she otherwise would not have. She learned who her friends were and who they weren’t. “A religious community we thought we could rely on fell away; once peripheral friends drew close.” As dedicated religious fellowships became less central, Christine began to bring a spiritual perspective into her friendships, asking that close friends, Jewish or not, begin relating to her as a religious person. To her surprise, people who had not pulled away from her which she separated from her husband accepted her on other levels as well.

Sex Changes chronicles one woman’s acceptance of unwelcome changes that eventually improved her life. It also raises troubling questions about how communities are dealing with transgender issues.

How to Create a Patriarchal Pagan Group in 12 Steps

November 16, 2012


The bible and the church have been the greatest stumbling block in the way of women’s emancipation. –Elizabeth Cady Stanton

“Creating a goddess-centered group is so hard.” “It’s difficult to honor the divine feminine in a group setting.” “How can we get more women in spiritual leadership positions?”

Variations on the idea that “What we’re trying to do is really hard” predominate when we talk about the patriarchal climate that develops in spiritual groups which start out with the intention of fully honoring the Great Mother. Sometimes turning the conception of the problem around and looking at it from the opposite side can clarify things. What if creating and maintaining a spiritual group with strong female leadership that nurtures women and men is not difficult, but a natural outgrowth of female participation? How then do males and/or patriarchal values come to dominate groups that see themselves as alternatives to patriarchal religion? In this spirit, I present my “Twelve Easy Really Difficult Steps to Creating a Patriarchal Pagan Group.” My purpose is not to make women feel responsible for male dominance or poor behavior, but to frame the goals of feminist spirituality as natural outcomes that take consistent effort to subvert.

1) Place no prerequisites on male participation. Women are often the majority or the exclusive members in a new experimental enterprise, spiritual or not. As soon as the effort becomes established into something viable, the men show up. While Shulamith Firestone sagely observed that “Sex class is so deep as to be invisible,” it is women – who actually experience sexism from the first day of their lives – who are more likely than men to understand that sexism can be hard to recognize. Women entering a goddess group are more likely than men to have read at least a little feminist theory, and of course they have a lived experience of women’s oppression. Men often believe that their own belief in gender equality is enough. Women, trained from an early age not to be “too demanding,” often operate out of a trust that a “nice guy” who “means well” will automatically be appropriate for group membership.

2) Allow a disproportionate amount of group dialogue and decisions to be guided by men. In mixed group discussions women talk only about a quarter as much as men, and men perceive women as dominating the conversation when they speak more than 30% of the time. Men are more likely to seek leadership roles than women. Women need to have a secure sense of their abilities before they take on a leadership role; men not so much. Women’s hesitation to take leadership roles they may not be fully capable of makes sense when you consider the higher amount of criticism woman leaders get from both sexes. Even when women constitute more than half of the group discussion or leadership, having only a handful of men in your organization, with the majority of them in leadership roles or dominating debate, sends a message about the relative value you place on men’s input versus women’s. Sometimes this disproportionate influence of men is seen by women as beneficial, because “We need more men.” Do we? This idea needs to be examined carefully and not taken as axiomatic. The presence of certain types of men may do far more to weaken the feminist principles within your organization than to strengthen the position of women in the world at large.

3) Protect men in the organization from any confrontation by women. At this stage the lioness’ job is to defend the lion from that other lioness, making his potentially hurt feelings the primary consideration. Thus when a woman confronts a man over sexism, she can expect to be attacked by a group of women who don’t agree that it was sexist or think she should have objected in a different manner or know that the gentleman in question is sensitive, gentle, “not a sexist at all” and therefore her confrontation was out of line. The man who may or may not have said something sexist is thus protected from having to dialogue and work things out with the woman who raised the objection.

4) Operate out of the assumption that we are all trying to balance our “inner feminine” and “inner masculine.” The key word here is assumption. The idea that we have both male and female operating within us is a Jungian concept that keeps stereotypic ideas about women and men intact, while allowing flexibility within the individual. It is a dominant view within mainstream Western culture, and people who adhere to it often (unconsciously) enforce this view in spiritual settings. The problem is that not everyone sees humans or society in terms of “balancing the masculine and feminine.” Radical feminists, especially, do not see the world this way. Thus discussions about feminism and the goddess within spiritual organizations go nowhere because people are talking past one another.

5) Operate out of the assumption that escape from patriarchy can only equal equality. This step flows naturally from the last, and it assumes that we have a clear understanding of what equality looks like – rather problematic after 5000 years of Western patriarchy. Many indigenous cultures place female councils in key decision-making roles, without harming or enslaving men. The feminist concept of matriarchy is not an inverted patriarchy with women despots. Especially in religious organizations, where women almost invariably outnumber men, it makes sense to become comfortable with female authority. It is truly amazing the steps liberal organizations will go to in order to keep power out of “too many” women’s hands. The idea of women in charge seems so much scarier than patriarchy.

6) Stamp out sexism – against men! Once a patriarchal concept of equality is established, the next step is to keep the goddess in her place. She must always be balanced with a god. In some cases a goddess is never invoked without a counterbalancing male deity. Ceremonies must have a female and a male leader. There is widespread complaint about the “invisibility” of male witches or priests. The fact that there is a larger and more competent pool of women doesn’t matter: qualifications are only relevant when they keep women out of power.

7) Do not allow women’s issues to have a voice or priority in your organization. It should be a no-brainer that a spiritual group honoring the goddess addresses the abysmal state of oppression that its female members endure. But if Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists can exalt a female deity while furthering women’s oppression, so can we. At this point mention of male violence, when it occurs at all, is met with assertions designed to close down discussion, such as “men are raped too.” The group goes out of its way to remind members that “men are not the problem,” sometimes even replacing discussions of patriarchy with the idea of kyriarchy, which makes women’s oppression invisible. The organization begins focusing its community service on important issues that are perceived as gender-neutral, such as ecological issues or pagan anti-defamation.

8) Pretend the needs of transwomen and female-born women are identical. Women-only groups were not conceived as methods of validating (or invalidating) transwoman feelings of womanhood. One purpose of the women-only spiritual group is to work with a more homogenous female energy, which is completely changed when a male body enters the circle, no matter how that body has been changed by hormones or surgery. Another purpose of women-only groups is to tie women’s spiritual understanding with their bodies. This means celebrating menstruation and menopause, nurturing women preparing for childbirth through shared understanding, and embracing the female body in its natural state. The natural state of the female body does not just include nudity, but an acceptance of what a woman perceives to be her bodily imperfections. Being away from men, male bodies, and those with a male socialization in a female-only group gives women a chance to temporarily express themselves in a safer environment. All of these benefits of women-only groups become moot when people enter who have male bodies and male socializations, however much they may internally reject both. Understand that I am not saying that women and transwomen should never meet in groups excluding those who are male-identified, but to make this an issue of transwoman validation or invalidation obscures the purpose of these groups.

9) Do not sanction any women-only groups. This is seen as a way of satisfying some transwomen who say they feel invalidated when the female-born meet even occasionally in their own groups. Feelings – not facts, goals or needs – are tantamount at this stage, as long they’re not the feelings of the female-born. The argument goes, if some women must have born-female rituals, why can’t they do them completely separate – unadvertised, unaffiliated and far away from any other pagan group? The problems with this conflict-avoidance tactic are that females cannot understand the benefits of a female-only group if they are never exposed to one, they cannot attend a female-only ritual if they do not know that it is happening, and this attitude sends a message that female-only groups are not legitimate. Born-female groups – social, political, and spiritual – are facing an extraordinary amount of abuse in their isolation. They face vandalism, attempts to shut down rented venues, and threats of physical violence. The location of female-only retreats is not disclosed until you pay your $500 or so entrance fee for a reason. Mixed pagan groups have begun denying women-born-female their First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and association. We can go to Iran and have the “right” to practice secretly in a hotel room, and we had the “freedom” to practice clandestinely in the woods during the Middle Ages.

10) Develop a tolerance toward intolerable behavior. It is at this point that truly egregious behavior becomes acceptable in an organization, things like bullying or sex with students or other behaviors that clearly cross acceptable boundaries. The creed of “tolerance” is used to step around the powder keg of sexism that has developed. When sexism cannot be effectively addressed, all kinds of abuse becomes acceptable. Not coincidentally, it is usually young women who are victimized in the deteriorating situation.

11) Identify your villainess. The Woman We Love to Hate plays the important function of facilitating solidarity in an unsafe environment. The villainess can be a member of the organization or a prominent figure outside the organization, or a group of women such as radical feminists or Dianics. Statements about the wretchedness of these women are repeated without elucidation or evidence, and statements, beliefs or practices are mis-attributed to them. This is a tactic that the Christian right plays with Democrats they love to hate. Thus President Obama is a Muslim socialist, and we know this because it has been repeated repeatedly. In fairness to both modern pagans and the Christian right, however, this tactic is as old as patriarchy. The classical Greeks said the Amazon tribes cut off their right breast (or was it the left?), broke the bones of male children, and practiced human sacrifice with abandon. Need I give examples of the pagan Women We Love to Hate? It’s an embarrassment of riches. Pagan organizations that have become sexist to the core need women to villify so they can cast themselves as moderate.

12) Deny that your organization has a problem with women. This puts you squarely with the most conservative branches of Christianity and Islam. Enough said.

I could actually keep going here, but twelve is a nice patriarchal number, what with the twelve disciples and all, and patriarchal paganism gets tiresome very quickly. The good news is that it’s not a matter of creating something different, but getting out of the way so that women’s leadership can flower. We only have to stop working so hard to re-establish and maintain patriarchal paganism.