Sexists, Skeptics, Symbols, and Sepsis

The Gender Essentials of the Divine Feminine

Posted on: 2013/06/04

Note: This post will largely be focused on Wicca since Wicca is the only religion I have serious experience with outside of Christianity; however, the criticisms can be generalized to belief systems in which specific traits are essentialized to a specific gender.

I vividly remember the appeal that Wicca held for me as a newly deconverted Christian. Although my Christianity hadn’t been too noxious in its patriarchal worldview, it was still anti-sex, anti-choice, and held that women could not hold leadership positions in churches. I wouldn’t have identified patriarchy as a reason that I had left, but the sudden experience of a religion in which my gender was not considered a liability was unbelievably refreshing. Having never realized I was dying of thirst, I drank, endlessly cherishing my value in my new faith.

In the tradition from which I sought initiation we repeated this, ad nauseam, , like a prayer:

The Lord and Lady are equal.

It was so very refreshing to hear this coming from the mouths of people who were training me to be a priestess–a priestess!–in a religion that could finally accept me as I was, as a woman. Rather than pretending that we did not exist, that the divine could not wear our face, that we were the bodies in which sin originated, this religion celebrated us for being fully woman. We learned about the correlation of elements to gender-specific traits: air (“communication, reason, and memory“) and fire (“inspiration, passion, and courage“) were the realm of the masculine; water and earth, however, correlated to femininity. Water–the element of “intuition, dreams, and emotions“–was obviously feminine, since women are intuitive and emotional. Earth–the element of “fertility, stability, and practicality“– was obviously feminine as well because women bear life within their bodies and provide the stability and practicality that keeps households running while men pursue outside interests. The Goddess was fertility and light and intuition; she was the sow that eats her own young and Sekhmet drinking rivers of blood. She was complex, but her beauty and her terror were uniquely feminine rather than neutral or masculine.

It seemed, at first blush, as though this new religious framework was taking the traits that made females women and turning them into positives instead of denigrating them after the fashion of more patriarchal religious traditions, and I was more than happy to accept this. Without spending time in a religious tradition (one, might I add, out of many; the divine feminine is far from exclusive to neopaganism) that recognized a feminine face of deity, I would not have come as quickly or willingly to feminism.

Feminism, however, came with skepticism for me, and the two combined into a powerful critique of the once-empowering divine feminine I had once worshiped (along with its corresponding divine masculine).

In order to understand a) how these correlations are gender essentialist and b) how gender essentialism is damaging, it is necessary to understand that we, as humans, communicate largely through tropes. (Some of you may, as I did, have come to be familiar with the concept of tropes through the website TVTropes. While that site is a fine way to spend all of your time for days on end, its definition of tropes is only half-useful here. If you are unfamiliar, my deepest apologies for introducing you to your new time-suck.)

The trope that is necessary in order to understand this discussion is metaphor, as defined by Kenneth Burke. According to Burke, metaphor can be substituted for perspective. To use metaphor is to see a thing in terms of, or from the perspective of, another thing, and the savvy reader will understand that this means that we are surrounded by metaphor. Language itself is metaphor; pictures are metaphor. We cannot function without metaphor. That does not mean, however, that we cannot choose the metaphors with which we populate our self-expression. The metaphors through which we communicate, both as individuals and as a society, actively shape the way in which we understand the reality that we live.

Some neopagans would argue as to whether the gods are metaphors at all, and hard polytheists would likely disagree with the softer polytheism that I was taught. From the relatively soft polytheist/pantheist perspective that I was taught, however, the gods are all metaphors for a genderless and/or all-gendered greater power that lies behind it all (some traditions, including mine, call it Dryghton; others may not have a name).

I would argue, however, that it does not matter whether you consider big-G God, little-g gods, or whatever other form of deity you may engage with to be actual distinct beings, metaphors for a generic higher power, or metaphors for aspects of our human experience. (Not all pagans identify as theists.) If we are going to argue, as I assume from experience most pagans would, that the misogyny that is endemic to the Abrahamic religions–particularly to the more extreme expressions of these religions–is in part derived from the view of God as male, then it is necessary to ask what, precisely, pagans are telling men and women about themselves through their own understanding of spirituality.

If women are, by nature, more intuitive and emotional than men, and men are more reasonable and passionate than women, there is very little to differentiate the neopagan understanding of gendered relations from that of the mainstream culture around it. It is true that paganism cloaks these interpretations of gender in the divine and does not claim that these attributes necessarily belong more to men or women (although many pagans would claim exactly this, just as many non-pagans would), but to view intuition and emotion solely as feminine is to perpetuate a dangerously gender-essentialist vision of what it means to be a woman. Rather than encouraging people to develop these traits because they are a fundamental part of what it means to be a complete human being, neopagans may be encouraged to “seek the Goddess” or “call upon Goddess energy.” The same process occurs with men.

If the Christians are right and you can know worldviews by their fruits, then the fruits of neopagans are rife with evidence of the ways that gender essentialism harms those who do not fit into neat gendered boxes. To provide one example, those who are familiar with the pagan community may remember the hubbub last year over a ritual at Pantheacon, led by Z. Budapest (a respected elder in the community), that called for “genetic women only.” The ritual purported to represent “the beauty and grace of the feminine form in all of her infinite variety” while limiting itself to cisgender women.

While many pagans were outraged with this exclusion (as was I, from a distance), if you are going to assert that certain traits are essentially feminine–even symbolically–then it leaves room for a situation in which only cisgender women are women, or only women who have given birth are women, or only straight women are women, et cetera, ad infinitum. To essentialize traits like reason and passion, or intuition and fertility, is to deny the true diversity of humanity. This is a steep price to pay for the sake of providing simple pigeonholes in which to slot human experience, god/s, the elements, or whatever other things that rituals and spirituality purport to represent.

The “divine feminine” is not feminist because it denies the essential femininity of women who lack the traits that are purportedly feminine. Some women are not expressive with their emotions. Some women are autistic and have difficulty sussing out others’ moods and intentions. Some women were born with penises and some women keep their penises. Some women are hotheaded and intellectual. It is not feminist to erase these bodies by claiming to uplift essentially “feminine” traits. A truly feminist paradigm would uplift intuition, reason, fertility, passion, emotion, intellect, all alike, as essentially human.

Why is it necessary for feminists, and particularly skeptical feminists, to be aware of these problems?

To put it bluntly, pagans aren’t the only ostensibly feminist-friendly demographic that thrives on these gendered tropes. Skeptics have enormous problems with equally woo-based gender essentialism, and we need to kick the fox out of our henhouse. I will see you next time for that discussion.

This post is crossposted at and you lovely folks should go there because everyone there is awesome.

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