The feminist spirituality movement emerged with “second-wave feminism” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as some consciousness-raising groups developed into feminist spirituality groups. But the movement did not peak until the 1980s, after something of a consensus had been achieved that it was even possible to be both feminist and religious, since “religion” had been for so long equated with patriarchal institutions.
Spiritual feminists took the phrase “The Personal is Political” (coined by Carol Hanisch) and declared: “The Spiritual is Political”. Spiritual feminism rejects exclusively male images of the divine and male dominance in religion and other areas of life, which are perceived to be intertwined issues. As Mary Daly famously wrote in her 1973 book, Beyond God the Father, “If God is male then the male is God.” By this, Daly meant that the image of a masculine transcendent God gives rise to and perpetuates patriarchal religious institutions, like the exclusion of women from priesthood. Early leaders in the movement included authors like Mary Daly, Merlin Stone, Riane Eisler, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Carol Christ, and Starhawk.
The feminist spirituality movement is often aligned with “cultural feminism” or “difference feminism”, as it sought to develop (or restore) non-patriarchal religious concepts and practices. As James R. Lewis explains:
“The women’s spirituality movement, with rare exception, relies on a strong notion of gender difference, viewing at least most human trains, if not all human individuals, as masculine or feminine. This ‘difference feminism’ means that the movement is built upon a foundation of female uniqueness: There is something women have to offer, spiritually and politically, that the movement is designed to celebrate and promote. Through analogy to menstruation and childbirth, in particular, women are believed to be especially sensitive to cycles, to nature, and to relationships between people and between humans and the cosmos.”
Unlike secular feminists, many spiritual feminists felt the need to replace the patriarchal religions they had rejected with a female-positive religious form. The Manifesto of Budapest’s Susan B. Anthony Coven #1, the first Dianic witchcraft coven, declared:
“We believe that Feminist witches are wimmin who search within themselves for the female principle of the universe and who relate as daughters to the Creatrix.
“We believe that just as the time to fight for the right to control our bodies, it is also time to fight for our sweet womon souls.
“We believe that in order to fight and win a revolution that will stretch for generations into the future, we must find reliable ways to replenish our energies. We believe that without a secure grounding in womon’s spiritual strength there will be no victory for us.”
The search for uniquely feminist religious forms led many away from the monotheistic religions of Christianity and Judaism and to Neo-Paganism and Neo-Pagan witchcraft or Wicca. The integration of feminism with British witchcraft was America’s single most distinctive contribution to the development of contemporary witchcraft. American feminist witchcraft distinguished itself from British witchcraft, not only by its separatism, but also by its eclecticism, as Neo-Pagans were more willing to search out the divine feminine in non-European cultures than traditional Wiccans. As Cynthia Eller explains, “spiritual feminists’ voracious hunger for images and experiences of the divine feminine made the movement, from its inception, unabashedly syncretistic.”
According to Cynthia Eller, “Gardnerian witchcraft was far too stodgy and authoritarian for most feminists seeking alternatives to established religions.” Out this vacuum arose Z. Budapest’s Dianic witchcraft and Starhawk’s Reclaiming tradition, both of which were more eclectic and less hierarchical than British Wicca, and focussed more on the Goddess (to the exclusion of the male consort of the Goddess in the case of Budapest).
However, some women were not willing to identify themselves as “witches”, and there arose a form of Goddess worship without any of the trappings of witchcraft. As Nevill Drury explains, “Although some Goddess-worshippers continued to refer to themselves as witches, others abandoned the term altogether, preferring to regard their neopagan practice as a universal feminist religion, drawing on mythologies from many different ancient cultures.” This has been called “Goddess worship” and the “Goddess movement”. These terms are frequently used interchangeably with, but should be distinguished from, “feminist spirituality”, which includes the Goddess movement, but also feminist Christianity, feminist Judaism, etc.
The Goddess Movement
The Goddess movement drew on, and reciprocally influenced, the broader Neo-Pagan movement. The principal distinction between the two is that the broader Neo-Pagan movement is equally inclusive of men and also gives a more significant role to the male son/consort of the Goddess in theology/mythology.
The principal beliefs of the Goddess movement are that the Goddess is a radically immanent deity and she can be experienced directly. The Earth is seen as the body of the Goddess and women are understood to connect to the Goddess through their experience of their own bodies, as well as the “body” of the earth. Goddess feminists also believe that the Goddess is constantly changing, manifest in the changing of the seasons and the human life-cycle, and perpetually self-renewed.
The Goddess movement offers women a new self-image and facilitates women finding their own innate goodness and natural divinity. It enables women to redeem and revalue the “feminine principle” and offers them positive images and symbols of female empowerment. According to Cynthia Eller, while it is not possible to make universal statements about Goddess worshippers,
“when they gather together, it is most often to celebrate solstices and equinoxes; to perform rituals centering on self-empowerment, nature, and the worship (or embodiment of) goddesses from cultures around the world; to assist one another in divination, healing, magic, and guided meditations; and to teach one another the movement’s ‘sacred history’: the myth of matriarchal prehistory.”