Beliefnet
A Pagan's Blog

Beginning in the ’60s there has been a marked change in the way many people view women and the feminine, and this shift quickly influenced American religion.  After a lull, feminism began to regain its moral energy in the 1960s.  As it did it quickly diversified.  Most of these forms of feminism accepted an assumption basic to the feminism that gave birth to the movement, liberal feminism.  Liberal feminists believed that a woman can be just as good as a man, in men’s terms.  

But an alternative form of feminism also began to grow in importance, as women asked “Why should women have to be like men to be accorded the same respect as men?  What’s wrong with being like women?”  This current marked the entry of Cultural Feminism into our culture, and inaugurated a rethinking of the role feminine values play in all levels of our society.


Especially as they grew older, women influenced by cultural feminism contributed mightily to the re-examination by many Christians and other Americans of how best to think about God.  If feminine qualities were as good as masculine ones, and God has all good qualities, then God must be as feminine as masculine, and that insight is as important for understanding the Ultimate as focusing on any masculine dimension.  A great many Christian traditions, at least among those that bother to think seriously about such issues, found this view compelling, and a deep reconsideration of the role of the  feminine began in mainstream American religions.  This process is still making its way through mainstream denominations even while most public attention focuses on the lunacies of the ‘Christian’ right.

This deep rethinking intersected with the concurrent rise of modern NeoPaganism.  Sometime from the mid 50s to 60s, Gardnerian Wicca had made it over to the US.  As the first Wiccans to become public in England, Gardnerians also inspired many additional traditions.  At the same time and at least to some degree independently, other Goddess oriented Pagan traditions began to arise or become public during this time.  The Church of All Worlds  grew out of some creative guys experimenting with ideas they found in Robert Heinlein, and discovering they had power.  The West coast tradition NROOGD  grew out of a performance of a reconstruction of the Eleusinian Mysteries in a folk lore class at UC Berkeley.  Victor Anderson began training a number of talented people in the Feri Tradition.    I am sure this list of 60s and early 70s era stirrings is far from complete, but it is clear to me that spiritually Feminine energies and values were making themselves felt as they had not been in a long time.  Something profound was beginning to happen.

Similar currents were influencing Western Buddhism, which had become strongly established on the West Coast in the 60s.  Many women drawn to it were also cultural feminists in orientation.  The result, so Dharma teachers as well as Buddhist scholars have told me, is a major role for female Buddhist teachers that sets American Buddhism apart from Asian Buddhist traditions. One male teacher told me over 50% of dharma teachers in the US are women.

(I am also intrigued that it was at this time that Santeria began to establish itself widely in the US, as a result of refugees from Cuba settling here, and bringing their religion with them.  Santeria and especially its French cousin, Voudon, had been here for a long time, but it was in the 60s that things really began to change.  Since then many NeoPagans have learned a lot from their African Diasporic relatives.  But for this post I won’t go further into this matter.)

These various stirrings eventually came into contact with one another.  Wiccan teachings by Starhawk, Z Budapest, and others began to influence women in the mainstream traditions to explore God as Goddess, or even purely as Goddess or through polytheistic approaches to the divine.  Their workshops, writings, and practices began to attract women who in many cases rather than becoming Pagan, would take what they found valuable back into their own traditions, seeking to change them from within. In addition, there was a lot of attention given to  Marija Gimbitas’s work   leading to considerable rethinking about the importance of goddesses and the Divine Feminine in the dawn of Western culture.  Often Christian and Jewish liturgies were changed to represent a more prominent place for the feminine side of deity.  

Buddhist feminists such as Rita Gross also wrote that Starhawk’s criticism of Buddhism was one Buddhist feminists could endorse.  She saw Buddhism informed by feminism as actually far closer to what Starhawk herself advocated.  

The enhanced role of the Divine Feminine was a link between many religious traditions that were otherwise quite different, and NeoPagans were a connecting link between them all.  A small number of Pagans were having a huge impact on the leading edges of religious scholarship and influencing major women Christians, Jews, and Buddhists. This is big development, and is still underreported by the corrupt corporate media.

To my mind what was happening was even bigger.  Secular American modernity had reached an intellectual and moral crisis in the 60s and early 70s.  The post WWII optimism, and even arrogance, of the American ‘can-do’ version of technocracy and liberalism was running out of steam.  Many people were finding its promises empty.  In addition, religions that focused only on a transcendent deity also seemed unfulfilling to many people, and a general openness to alternative spiritual approaches was spreading

It was in the midst of these crises that the 60s counter culture arose and flourished for a while.  It was a time remarkably like the US between the War of 1812 and the Civil war, as Sarah Pike has so well described. The counter culture gave voice to a feminine corrective to a culture that was losing its intellectual and moral foundations.  Among these correctives to the mainstream values of our society nowhere was this more important than in religion.  And we were and are the leading edge of this process.

The past several decades have witnessed a deliberate denial of the significance of that time, but the currents of religious and cultural change inaugurated have continued, especially in the cities.  The continued growth of NeoPaganism, and the growing influence of our perspectives in other religions, constitute one of the most spiritually exciting developments in our country today.  When I allow myself to be optimistic, I suspect it is this alternative that will appeal to many people once the inner rottenness of the Christian right has become clear to all but the most spiritually blind.

I think the future of Western spirituality includes the divine Feminine as increasingly central to it, though She can take various guises.  And I think we have had and will continue to have influence out of proportion to our numbers in helping this process take place.

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