Womanspirit Rising; the Bride of Death; & the Sacred Hoop
Written in the same year, Life’s Daughter/Death’s Bride by Kathie Carlson is an elegant example of both remembering and re-membering primarily the mother and daughter goddesses Demeter and Persephone, from the ancient Greek myth of the rape of Persephone. Carlson first deeply explores the myth in the most ancient and original forms she can find. Following that she interprets the mythic goddess archetypes within a modern-day psychological perspective, solidly grounding her theorizing with numerous examples of individuals from within her own practice. In doing so she deliberately creates two separate analytical threads, allowing an unusually even-handed perspective for thought-provoking visualization — perhaps even validation? — of what are in essence two almost diametrically opposed worldviews. The first is a matricentric version of the myth, interpreting the story as a moving fable of female empowerment and validation of the critical centrality of the mother-daughter bond. The later rendition of the story is told through a more patrifocal focus, effectively explaining the loss of female power through male theft and violent appropriation. Nevertheless, throughout the book Carlson’s writing is deft, and her moralizing has a light touch. It is in fact entirely possible she was not even consciously aware of the lesson she was teaching with her rendition of the mythic rise of patriarchy: women must remember their sacred natures in order to reclaim their power — and also so they will never allow such brutality to happen again.
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WomanSpirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion is one of the earliest feminist critiques of organized monotheism to embark on this endeavor, and remains a pinnacle of scholarship in the field. Originally released in 1979 and re-released in 1992, the book is a collection — edited by Christ and Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow — of essays by outstanding women thealogians and scholars. This is groundbreaking work in that, as the authors noted, “an enormous sense of injustice must follow the discovery that religions are sexist and that they continue to exert a powerful influence on society” (3) — and yet, there were almost no feminist theological resources available at that time. Further, all the authors agree the traditional modes of Jewish and Christian thought are in desperate need of profound examination and analysis of their thoroughly patriarchal bias, though there is lack of consensus on whether revision or rejection is the better answer for women. Through careful, lucid analysis the authors illuminate a variety of deeply explorative perspectives spanning these options, and consequently the essays have a broad and fascinating range. For example, both biblical rhetoric critic Phyllis Trible and feminist theologian Rita Gross express their desires to purify these oppressive religious structures of the taint of deforming patrifocal dualisms, while feminist theologian Valerie Saiving’s intellectually liberating breakdown of Anders Nygren and Reinhold Niebuhr’s androcentric categorization of sin as self-assertion and love as selflessness demonstrates its lack of correspondence to the lived experience of modern women. On the other end of this ideological spectrum, both Starhawk and Zsuzsanna E. Budapest choose to reject the patriarchal religions as hopelessly androcentric and misogynistic; their newly recovered symbol systems offer axiologically similar paths to a liberating and immanently spiritual self-expression.
Included with this original richness, in the preface for the second edition of WomanSpirit Rising Christ and Plaskow discuss both the book’s continuing impact — especially considering many of its original feminist-oriented questions remain still unanswered — as well as its epistemological limitations. As the author/editors note, while they were restricted at the time by the scarcity of feminist thealogian-scholars, they also should have made more of an effort to either find, or recognize the lack of, a wide variety of voices on these subjects. The consequent invisibility of both lesbians and academic prejudice, and the absence of the voices of women of color, serve the unwitting purpose of conflating women’s religious experience with white, heteronormative, middle-class women. The recognition of this original and unconscious epistemological assumption consequently encouraged Plaskow and Christ to embark on a new anthology in order to deepen the critique of patrifocal religious traditions; more accurately portray women’s strengths, religious experience, and moral vision; and supplement, challenge, and transform the questions asked in this original work.
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The voices and experiences of women of color are not limited only to occasions when white academic women are present to listen, of course. Further, the process of retrieving and process of retrieving and remembering the Divine Feminine has revealed that She has much more ancient and diverse roots than those found solely in Judaism and Christianity. It is probably therefore unsurprising that the same year the newly and consciously self-aware second release of WomanSpirit Rising appeared also saw the re-publication of a significant book by a woman living well outside of white cultural normativity. In Paula Gunn Allen’s 1992 The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, the Native American poet, literary critic, and lesbian activist presents us with a second edition collection of her essays which deliberately deconstructs and refuses the ethnocentrically colonizing interpretations of her peoples by white male anthropologists, as she specifically re-members the Divine Feminine of and for Native Americans.
First published in 1986, Allen’s groundbreaking essays consistently influence and encourage subsequent studies of Native American cultures, literature, and reformation of a gynocentric tribal structure, as well as critical social issues such as feminism, LGBTQ concerns, and women’s spirituality. Through the lens of a particular Native American tribal worldview, Allen analytically explores her peoples’ traditional and modern literature, and demonstrates the problematic, diminished understanding of its depth and symbolic complexity which is offered by a solely Western bias in reading. She ties her essays together with her re-membering of Spider Woman or Grandmother Spider, whose world-building nature is reflected in the sacred work of the Native American women, whose crucial labor still — even today — maintains the vitality of their cultures and families. Allen’s writing further highlights the oral traditions vital for tribal survival, and how they emphasize and preserve the often gynocentric nature of both Native American tribal life and belief systems. She writes with justifiable pride of the continuing vitality of these traditions despite centuries of genocidal patriarchal colonization, and with grief of the terrible psychic toll taken on Native American women forced to daily navigate such oppositional cultural conceptions of acceptable gender roles.