Sunday, 24 June 2012

Paganism and Gender: Bold Action, Gracious Passivity, Infinite Diversity

This is a bit of a disjointed post, but I wanted to get my thoughts down while they were floating around!

I've been quite surprised that I'm surrounded by as many heterosexual people in the Pagan community as I was in church. That's great, of course! - but I thought maybe Paganism, with its openness and variety, would attract more of a range of approaches to sexuality (and gender) than Christianity. And of course, to some extent it does. Women are far more evident in leadership in the Pagan community than in the Christian world, where they are still grappling with ideas like the different 'roles' of men and women (which is often code for extreme sexism) and how they relate that to a pluralistic, post-feminist world. There seems to be a fairly good balance of men and women in the Pagan movement (although again, probably more women - but sociological research suggests that true of every spirituality). There's definitely no overt inequality between the genders - not that I've seen, anyway.

I'm a feminist. I'm a gay/bisexual woman in a relationship with another woman. I'm close to someone who is genderqueer. I resist many gender expectations personally - they mainly don't work for me. I teach a course on Gender and Society at a university, so I know what the research really says about gender - sociological, psychological, biological and even linguistic research. I question everything that society accepts about gender. And I really do mean everything.

So when I hear/read about how air is 'masculine' and water is 'feminine', or about how the Ceridwen story is about (heterosexual) sex and fertility, or about how the moon is a goddess and the sun is a god (and so has it ever been and so shall it ever be, which just isn't true), or about how the Divine is expressed through duality of gender in the God and the Goddess, I'm get very uncomfortable. If these beliefs work for people, fine - but they're so far from what I can relate to, that they make me wonder if Paganism can ever really work for me. I usually realise fairly quickly that my path is my own, that I can relate to the Divine in whatever way I want, that I can worship a sun goddess if I feel like it, and that fertility does not have to be a concept that I use in any of my rituals. (And thank gods for that, because I am the least motherly person I know, and I do not plan on expressing fertility in any way in my life, except maybe symbolically in my garden. And my sex life is just fine, thank you, without any need for any reference to fertility - I'm not in the Catholic church, with its expectations of churning out babies!) But I still feel the major pressure of 'having' to think this way, especially when these concepts are subtly or obviously reinforced in the things I'm learning from - courses, for example (mentioning no names of any courses, but you get the idea).

There is nothing necessarily 'natural' about associating caring or motherly tendencies with women. There is nothing necessarily 'natural' about associating heroic or warrior tendencies with men. All these gendered associations, and so many more, are socially constructed. They've been socially constructed for a long time, so we see them as natural (which is called an 'essentialist' approach to gender) - but they are not.* We 'perform' gender every day, and in so doing, we reinforce the expectations associated with it. That's great if you feel comfortable with and empowered by those associations. If you don't, you can feel straitjacketed or even oppressed by those expectations and beliefs - as many transgendered people will tell you. I'm a scholar, and the elements with which I associate most closely are air and fire - the apparently more 'masculine' elements. I have aspects of myself that many would consider feminine, and aspects that many would consider masculine - but I don't really see any of them that way. They're just part of how I express myself and my creativity, intellect, and other qualities. I also strongly dislike being told what women are like and what men are like, because that rarely fits with the way I experience life. I want to be empowered by my own approach to gender, too, just as other people are empowered by theirs. I want to explore the heroic path, despite the irony of that for a disabled scaredy-cat with a strong attachment to home comforts. I also want to explore a warrior's path, despite the irony of my simultaneous commitment to peace, and the fact that I will never have the kind of physical fitness that would normally be associated with that approach. Life is about contradictions, and I'm as diverse as the rest of the universe!

I have someone in my life who is genderqueer, who I'm very close to, and who has taught me a lot about how much variety there is in the way that people see, live and experience gender. This post was inspired by my finally getting to listen to Hyperion's 'Unnamed Path' podcast episode about the protest at PantheaCon against Z Budapest's women-born-women-only ritual (which Fire Lyte and I talked about on his podcast a few months ago). That's a very separate issue, but at the same time, there are related issues there. Some of the statements that came out of that, about trans women actually being men, seemed to me to be rooted in an essentialist view of gender that is oppressive not only for trans people, but also for anyone who does not associate with more traditional views of gender, whether they are genderqueer like my family member, or just highly questioning of gender, like me.

This, by the way, may be a big part of why I don't personally get along with the 'all the goddesses are one goddess' type approach. Polytheism, for me, expresses the vast diversity of life far better than duality. I love that Aine can be seen as a sun goddess, and that the Morrighan is associated with warriors, while Manannán mac Lir is fast becoming my god of contemplation, mystery, mysticism, and other apparently 'passive' qualities that lead to the Divine. I completely adore how much variety of roles and expressions can be associated with Pagan gods. That's just not the case in some spiritualities. Even in mystical/Gnostic Christianity, Sophia seems to be lower than the Divine - in some myths she has to be rescued by Christ, for example.

I didn't realise how much I had spiritually internalised this idea of 'passive' and 'active' roles for women and men, as a result of some of these Christian and cultural myths, until a few years ago. It's something I'm trying to work on, and it's very hard for me - for all my feminist principles, I don't usually actually want to take action. The gods are challenging me on this, and it's really hard. It's going to continue to be really hard. But it's about authenticity, I think. If I hold a belief, e.g. that gender is variety and women are equal with men, how am I actually expressing and living that in my life? How am I living in an active way? And for me, related to that will be accepting the times when I have to be passive and accept help, and learn not to feel disempowered by that. Being disabled means other people are always going to be helping me. If I can graciously learn to accept help from the community, while giving back to it the things that I am able to give, I will be living in more balance and less struggle. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Try having to have your wheelchair pushed by another person, and experience how much you feel out-of-control and utterly reliant on someone else, and then reconsider that!

And through all of this, Brighid is a constant - who is as motherly and hearth-and-home-focused as you can get. I think she sees me as a challenge. There are things she can teach me about gender and living it in my own way, too. It's just a lot more like hard work than my connection with some of the more 'active' goddesses. Fortunately, she's very patient too. And I'm just not going to comment on why that has long been considered a feminine quality, or we'll be here all day!

*There is, of course, some debate around this in sociology. Most sociologists think that the research leans strongly towards the socially constructed approach to gender. I recommend the book Brain Storm for an excellent debunking of much of the biological research that attempts to 'prove' that gender is natural or essential.


  1. I heart this blog entry, Sophia!!! I sometimes feel like the pagans around me don't really understand what I mean when I talk about my issues with gender and the concepts of masculine and feminine. Some of them accept the strict gender binary as if it were completely obvious and completely solid. This makes sense in the context of Wiccan God/Goddess duality, but it just goes to show that I won't ever be Wiccan and how Wiccan ideas tend to pervade the pagan community (not that Wicca isn't a perfectly beautiful and rewarding religion, just noting its surface effect on paganism on the whole.) I'd love to talk with you about this more at some point and I love hearing your expert opinion on it... these are things I sort of understand, but you have the background to really help people understand this better than I can. Blessings to you!
    -Scarlet (of Lakefront Pagan Voice)

    1. (shoot... I got interrupted in the middle of writing the above and realized after I posted it that I was getting to a point in the middle there...) I meant to add that even the people I encounter who claim to understand how gender issues aren't related strictly to a duality... people who think of themselves as not fitting into the stereotypes of male or female, will still refer to qualities by assigning them genders, such as, like you say, warrior energy being male and women who feel warrior energy will claim to have a strong "masculine side." This is still buying into the stereotypes and, perhaps it's just me, but I feel like they're missing the point to a certain degree. Anyhow... *end rant*

    2. Hi Scarlet - thanks for your comment, and sorry for the delay in replying! I completely agree that there's some element of buying into stereotypes when people say they have a 'strong masculine side' or similar. To me, it suggests that they think there's one way of being masculine and one way of being feminine which are fixed and unchangeable, when these things are concepts that have developed culturally over centuries and are not fixed at all. As you say, duality is fine if you follow a belief structure that works with that, such as Wicca, but it definitely doesn't suit all of us, either in relation to ourselves, or in the way we conceive of the gods, the universe, etc. We should definitely talk about this more! I loved your LPG episode on women and the masculine divine, which was exploring similar concepts I think. I'm not sure I'm really an expert on this... more of an interested amateur who was thrown into teaching it, so learnt some stuff fast! But there are people who know far more than me. Maybe a future topic for Divine Community, with some of the people who do! - SC x