Oh My God(dess)! Feminist Spirituality in the Third Wave
By Mandy Van Deven August 27, 2009
Feminists hate religion, right? Not necessarily. From Christian feminists participating in Wiccan rituals to Goddess worshipers honoring Jesus, the landscape of feminist spirituality is is not what it was in the ’60s and ’70s.
One distinctive feature of third wave feminism is the demand for society to remove all scripts—but the one script that persists among mainstream feminists is an antagonism toward religion.
Religion scholar Chris Klassen believes it’s time to move past this lingering division, and her new book Feminist Spiritualities: The Next Generation collects the work of eleven young women academics writing about the intersection of these two seemingly incongruent disciplines. With diverse chapters—like “Women’s Spiritualities, Literary Texts, and Third Wave Feminism,” “Queering Feminist Witchcraft,” “Not Pretty Girls? Sexuality, Spirituality, and Gender Construction in Women’s Rock Music,” and “Feminist Spirituality in Anti-Globalization Protests”—this book sets out to define what feminist spirituality looks like in the 21st century.
As a religious scholar and feminist, this isn’t the first you’ve written about this topic, but how did you come to writing a book about it?
This book came about because of my own teaching experiences, as well as that of some other colleagues. Having taught about feminist spirituality, Goddess religion, women and religion, and other similar courses, I was constantly using the same texts and theorists, but I noticed that some of my students were starting to ask different questions than these writers, most of whom started writing in the 1970s, were asking. I began looking for more recent contributions to the field, but had a hard time finding any. There is a lovely anthology by Danya Ruttenberg about young Jewish women called Yentl’s Revenge, but that’s about it. So I set out to create a resource that would help me in my own teaching.
Many of the essays in this book are keen to make the distinction between the second and third waves of feminism in relation to feminist spirituality—though not without the caveat that the “waves” are not rigid formations. Why is this distinction so necessary?
Some older women who participated in the second wave of feminism have come to the point of asking different kinds of questions as well. They are no longer satisfied with ‘women-centered’ thinking, as was popularized in the second wave. Third wave feminism allows a shift in focus while still leaning heavily on the contributions of the second wave.
There is a certain common understanding now that women should be equal in society, which was not really common in the 1960s or 1970s. Many young women today do not have any real experience of fighting to access equal opportunities. Many grew up with mothers, and sometimes fathers, who believed women could do anything they set their mind to. When these women think of ‘feminism’ only as the issues their mothers dealt with, some of them find it no longer necessary. I think one importance of making this distinction is to reemphasize that there are multiple kinds of feminisms which ask different questions and come to different conclusions.
What sets feminist spirituality in the new millennium apart?
A big difference is that while some feminists in the new millennium continue to affiliate with a specific religion, like Christianity or Wicca, there is also a lot more religious pluralism within the individual. You have Christian feminists participating in Wiccan rituals and Goddess worshipers honoring Jesus. Like much spirituality in general in the new millennium, feminist spirituality is a bit of a smorgasbord, and it is important for the individual to create a spirituality that fits her own experience and needs.
Feminists are often attacked for being anti- or irreligious, but this text shows this is clearly not the case. Why do these depictions persist and how are they changing?
Some feminists are anti-religious. This has actually been a prominent theme is some second wave writing about religion. The assumption here is that just because some forms of religion are patriarchal, all religion is harmful for women. However, many feminist theologians and thealogians have shown the possibility of remaining within religious traditions, or creating new religious traditions, while taking feminist questions seriously. I have not seen a marked change within the academic Women’s Studies literature though; there is still a lack of consideration of religion on many levels by feminist scholars. Those scholars addressing women and religion still tend to be most closely aligned with Religious Studies (as an academic discipline) rather than Women’s Studies.
Did you intend for the book to focus primarily on newly-developed Western forms of Goddess spirituality, witchcraft, and paganism?
Actually I did not intend this. It is simply how it turned out based on the response to my call for papers. In hindsight, though, I think it makes sense. The term ‘feminist spirituality’ does, for some, mean ‘alternatives’ to mainstream religion. Thus people working on third wave feminism within Christianity or Islam or Buddhism may not have initially thought the call relevant. (Well, assuming there are folks out there working on third wave feminism within traditional religions—and I really hope there are.) But, as I said before, much feminist spirituality in the new millennium tends toward blurry borders between religions, so it could be that those most interested in third wave feminist spirituality are not focusing on traditional religions.
Many of the essays stress the plurality of the third wave, yet the book’s title is singular. Why?
Good question. I should have named it Feminist Spiritualities. I suppose I was thinking of feminist spirituality as a category rather than a ‘thing’—like the term ‘religion’ which includes many different kinds of religions.
We don’t tend to think of the Internet as a site for spiritual practice, yet many young women are running Web sites and blogs in order to build a community and engage in theological discussion. What effect might technology have on feminist spirituality?
This is the big question of the day for all religious use of the Internet. I think this kind of technology can bring people together from a wider range of contexts while simultaneously having the power to isolate us in our homes. One of the obvious ways the Internet effects feminist spirituality is in increasing women’s access to resources. This makes the picking and choosing of spiritual practices and mythologies much easier. However, it also reinforces as focus on “my” spiritual practice rather than “our group’s” spiritual practice. The internet facilitates heterodoxy and heteropraxis.
Yet it’s not so simple as encouraging individualism. Individuals are also brought together through the Internet to gain support from each other and to inform each other about events and issues, among other things. Overall, the effect the Internet has on feminist spirituality is not much different from the effect the Internet has on every other aspect of our lives.
What does a female-oriented spirituality do for feminism?
I believe it limits feminism. One of the contributions of third wave feminism is a stronger emphasis on disrupting rigid identities. This was present in the second wave, but it was not as blatant. ‘Female-oriented’ assumes there is a rigid definition of what ‘female’ is, and it also assumes that femaleness is a stronger tie for women than other elements of their identities. Many women of color called out early white second wave feminists for assuming they would have more in common as women than women of color would have with men of color. But why should they have to choose? Many third wave feminists, by virtue of their stronger individualism, see their identities as unique individual categories that only partially align with any other individual. Thus ‘female-oriented’ would only be a piece of their lives, and minimally useful—if at all.