The Queen of My Self

Women’s Power – Part 2
By Max Dashu

There’s a striking interplay between women’s spiritual and political leadership, especially in indigenous societies. I’m thinking of of the Evenki shaman Olga who was both chieftain and religious leader of her Siberian village about a century ago, and the machis of Chile, shamans who are deeply involved in the Mapuche sovereignty effort. But this overlap occurs even in imperial contexts, as when the aged mikogami Pimiko was chosen as ruler to save Japan from a chaotic struggle for power in its early history. Another example would be the important role the maes de santo of Candomblé have played in the African-Brazilian community since early modern times.

Priestesses or diviners have often led liberation movements: the oracle Nehanda Nyakasikana in the Shona revolt against English colonization of Zimbabwe; María Candelaria in the Maya uprising against the Spanish; and Toypurina in the Gabrieleño revolt in southern California. In 1791, the old priestess Cécile Fatiman inaugurated the Haitian revolution against slavery in a Vodun ceremony in the Bois Caiman. Even earlier, the seeress Veleda guided the Batavian insurrection of tribal Europeans against Rome, and Dahia al-Kahina (“the priestess” or “prophetess”) led Berber resistance to the Arab conquest of North Africa. And Gudit Isat (Judith the Fire) who overthrew the Axumite empire in 10th century Ethiopia was remembered as a religious leader as well.

Often this female leadership does not rely on inherited or institutionalized authority, but on recognized personal power. The Apache shaman-warrior Lozen is remembered for her acts of bravery and her clairvoyant ability to guide her people away from danger as they fled Anglo and Mexican armies. Granuaile Ní Mhaille (Grainne O’ Mailley) surmounted the absolute masculine monopoly of military and seafaring enterprise to become, through her pirate fleet, the uncrowned “She-King” of the Connemara coast of Ireland, and the scourge of the British Navy in the 1500s.

Female boldness has in many societies been required simply to defend personal liberty and self-determination, carving out space to act in spite of patriarchal constraints, to become what the English called “a woman at her own commandment.” Legend says that Agodice practiced medicine in classical Athens disguised as a man, risking the death penalty then in force against female physicians. About two thousand years later, Miranda Stuart used the same strategy to get her M.D. when no woman could. As Dr. James Barry, she became Chief Surgeon for the British Navy. Her subterfuge was not discovered until her death, although she came close after being wounded in a duel.

This route of adopting a cloak of male privilege was followed by countless female adventurers, including Carmen Robles who became a colonel in the Mexican Revolutionary Army, and Elena Cespedes, who practiced medicine and married a woman in 16th-century Spain — until she was denounced to the Inquisition and sentenced to a long term confinement and forced labor.

Part 3 of Women’s Power tomorrow

* Please send me your thoughts about power. Also stories of your own empowerment. When shared, these ideas and examples are extremely inspiring to others. Thanks.

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Queen Mama Donna offers upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity.

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