This essay analyzes hotly contested issues within the contemporary American Pagan community. The arguments creating such discord rely on holding two contradictory positions at the same time. First, gender is socially, not biologically, defined. The second is there are only two genders, an ‘essentialist’ position. I support the first assertion and so, naturally enough, reject the second. Examining this issue takes us to the core distinction between NeoPaganism and much other modern religion. I have discovered that many readers prejudge the argument into one of two categories: progressive ‘wokeness,’ or ‘transphobia.’ My argument supports neither position, and arguing otherwise requires ignoring the arguments actually made here.
In 2013 I published my book Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine. I argued there that our country’s growing national political and cultural divisions were rooted in the breakdown of a thousands of years old patriarchal culture rooted in agriculture that was now taking increasingly pathological forms as it encountered urban technological cultures. At the same time a new culture was arising, one revitalizing feminine values and appreciation for nature. No such fundamental a change had happened to humanity since agriculture replaced hunting and gathering as our dominant culture. The result is a clash of civilizations, one degenerating, the other seeking to be born. I argued the points of greatest conflict between them were the roles of women, the status of feminine values, and our relationship with the natural world.
NeoPaganism was a particularly powerful example of this newly emerging culture. As a broad category, paganism is very old and diverse, and historically, largely reflected its patriarchal cultural context. NeoPaganism was different, and in harmony with the post-patriarchal culture rising around us, for our practice centered on the sacredness of the feminine and of nature. NeoPaganism offered a clear alternative to an increasingly dysfunctional patriarchal monotheism and the mainstream culture aping many of its core assumptions in secular guise. It also spoke to a widely experienced spiritual need, and women in many mainstream religions were inspired by us to revitalize the sacred feminine within their own practices. A remarkable percentage of these women reported they had been inspired by workshops conducted by Starhawk. (Faultlines, p. 169-72) In response, many male practitioners reconsidered the role of women in their traditions. As Marcus Borg, a major theologian, wrote in the late 1990s, religious feminism was “the single most important development of theology in my lifetime.” (Faultlines, p. 162) Today, the Dalai Lama calls himself a feminist. NeoPaganism’s impact was out of all proportion to our numbers.
Subsequent events have largely supported my analysis, with one unexpected and troubling exception. What made Neopaganism a uniquely powerful spiritual force in building a new culture has come under attack from within. The target is the status of women and of the divine feminine in all its forms, and the assault is relentless. At its core is a refusal to acknowledge the divinity within the feminine, not so much by denying it, as by making it invisible.
What is NeoPaganism?
To get a grip on this issue we need to get clear on what some words mean, and most importantly among them is “NeoPaganism.”
NeoPaganism arose here in the U. S. in the 50s and 60s. Initially it was what we broadly call British Traditional Wicca (BTW), and Gardnerian Wiccans were its major influence in England and the U.S. The term “Pagan” was appatrently first used by Oberon Zell, of the Church of All Worlds (CAW). Gardnerians quickly saw a common resemblance, and adopted it as well. Over time, in America NeoPagans grew to include other traditions such as the New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, (NROOGD) and Reclaiming. ALL emphasized the Divine Feminine in Her principle role as a Goddess or perhaps a triple goddess of Mother, Maiden, and Crone. So far as I know, all, and certainly most, emphasized the ritual primacy of the High Priestess. All emphasized the return of feminine values as central to what they are. When Dianic Wiccans, who focused only on the Goddess, wanted to join Covenant of the Goddess (COG), it was because of this shared sacred feminine center of gravity. And they became members.
Much ink has been spilled and many pixels illuminated in subsequent debates over NeoPaganism’s relationship to the broader category of Pagan religion, and European Paganism’s relation to what some, but not all, consider the Pagan religions of the Western hemisphere, Africa, and Asia. Interesting as it is, I will not enter this intellectual thicket here beyond arguing that the forms of Western Pagan religions that have emerged in the decades since, such as Heathenism, and many reconstructionist traditions, have gone to some pains to distinguish themselves from NeoPaganism as I have described it. Consequently, there are the original NeoPagan religions that resemble Wicca enough to be comfortable with NeoPaganism as a common umbrella term, and other contemporary Western-based Pagan religions that distinguish themselves from it for various reasons.
Another definition of NeoPaganism overlaps this historical one. Any attempt to create or recreate a Pagan religion where there is no unbroken lineage of practice, and where those doing so are themselves moderns, can also be called NeoPagan. But these two categories of NeoPaganism are not identical. Some NeoPagans in this second sense are not NeoPagans in the first sense. Reconstructionist Pagans would be NeoPagans by this second standard, but not the first.
This diversity emerges in no small part because there are no common sacred “NeoPagan” scriptures or oral traditions. Anyone can start a “tradition.” If it attracts others, it will grow. Unlike within the monotheisms, this diversity of traditions did not lead to significant conflict. No practice claimed authority over all who called themselves NeoPagans. People could fight and fuss within a tradition, in what are called “Witch wars,” but not so much between them. For example, we Gardnerians have our disagreements, sometimes strong ones. But in 35 years I’ve never heard Gardnerians attacking NROOGD or some other tradition as “wrong.” For many of us, that these two senses of NeoPagan differed did not much matter.
It starts coming apart
Pantheacon was the largest Pagan gathering on the West Coast. For many years it welcomed all who called themselves Pagans, with the sole exception of racist groups who attacked the legitimacy of other groups. For decades, thousands of people of many different traditions, as well as those simply interested or curious, gathered to attend workshops, group rituals, panels, and other events offered by other Pagans. And did so amicably.
But not any more. Pantheacon died, and it died in part because this broad-based amity broke down completely over issues of gender and sex. Long-time participants were barred from holding workshops, books by leading Pagan authors were banned, formal invitations to participate were withdrawn, rituals were disrupted, and many NeoPagans who for years had participated peacefully with others were denounced.
Pantheacon’s demise was at least in part a casualty in the internal war waged by some people calling themselves NeoPagans against NeoPaganism in either form as described above. In their attack, they rejected the most fundamental core of NeoPaganism in the first sense, a core shared by many NeoPagans in the second sense: that the sacred was immanent in all things.
Attacking the sacred feminine
The NeoPaganism emerging in the 1960s was not the first time a renewed emphasis on the sacredness of the feminine had characterized a new religion. It had been a continual minor element in the religious landscape since the rise of patriarchal religion, particularly with innovators who founded new religious traditions. Buddhism once offered more equality to women than did the surrounding patriarchal society. (Faultlines, p. 64) It didn’t last. Christianity offered many Roman women more independence than they had in Rome’s stifling patriarchy. That didn’t last either. Mohammed treated women better than they had been in the society he transformed. That, also, didn’t last. In all these cases, those who sought to impose a common dogma, combined with hierarchies of control, always sought to institutionalize patriarchal domination. And succeeded.
Today the same fatal process has reared its head in the NeoPagan community. Because we have no canonical scriptures or their oral equivalents, nor any institutionalized authority, the exterior form of the attack is different. But the result is the same: the suppression of the sacred feminine, and with it, of women who most clearly embody its qualities. With us, the sacred feminine cannot be turned into something spiritually inferior, as happened in these earlier cases. It is too central to who we are. But it can be made to disappear by changing how it is conceived. A kind of newspeak is arising in some circles where, by shrinking vocabularies and eliminating subtleties, thinking about these issues becomes difficult.
Sex, gender, and the feminine
Today the NeoPagan community is deeply divided over issues of sexual identity and gender. In all this turmoil, the feminine, a term long central to who we are, is never mentioned. It is being dissolved into sex and gender. But “the feminine” is neither.
In Faultlines I, among many others, distinguished between two waves of feminism. The first wave argued women were as good as men in men’s terms. This was liberal feminism, and it was the source of women gaining many of the legal and political rights they enjoy today.
Second wave feminists argued women were as good as men in women’s terms. The feminine was equal to the masculine. (Faultlines, pp. 155-62) NeoPaganism’s sacred feminine reflected second wave feminism’s insights spiritually. Embodiment was as important an expression of the sacred as the disembodied spiritualities that characterized the ‘monotheisms.’ The cycles of life, within which women are more deeply enmeshed than men, are powerful expressions of the sacred, expressing the same sensibility that finds nature’s other cycles sacred. Feminine qualities were as sacred as masculine ones.
Women’s spirituality focuses on the basic patterns life women necessarily experience bodily, such as menstruation and birth. This focus is important at many levels. First, it links women with the basic rhythms of nature, and does so more strongly than is the case with men. Second, in patriarchal societies, women’s connection with such cycles have long been used to disempower them. (“She’s on the rag.”) What had been our focus on the sacred in all its forms becomes increasingly disembodied, a matter of theory and not experience. From this perspective, our connections to the earth are considered inferior, and even barriers, to our connection with Spirit. Bodiless spirituality also makes men’s connections to these rhythms invisible. For example, many pre-agricultural societies that were not patriarchal ritually celebrated boys transitioning into men. No modern ones do.
Today, within the NeoPagan community, honoring the sacred feminine has come under attack through a sustained assault on the legitimacy of women’s spirituality. It reached a particularly painful crescendo during the Pantheacon celebration of 2019.
The rituals attacked were conducted by women for women, who were honoring the sacred dimension of basic dimensions of their experience as women, such as menarche, menstruation, giving birth, and menopause. These rituals were attacked as “transphobic” because they are closed to transwomen who had never had, and never would have, those experiences. The attacks were brutal in their condemnation of those wanting to keep them limited to women, and those seeking these experiences are called TERFs. The same people succeeded, in banning prominent women feminist scholars such as Max Dashu, who for decades had been a major figure in the study and practice of women’s spirituality. This was the second time Dashu had been banned from a major event over this issue. Institutions like the Red Tent, that provided services to women with explicit connection to women’s spirituality, were treated similarly.
After-the-fact some defended their actions by arguing women-only rituals in an event where all paid the same to attend were inappropriate. That this was a less-than-honest response is made clear by Max Dashu’s treatment, where an invitation for her to be a special guest was withdrawn. Anyone could listen to Max’s talk. The Red Tent was not formally a part of Pantheacon, and paid for their own space. As for the ritual, Pantheacon had a great many events happening simultaneously, and women only rituals had been a part of it from the beginning. These attacks ultimately had nothing to do with a ritual.
Basically, the physical experience of being a woman as an expression of the sacred worthy of recognition was attacked. A person’s personal gender identity overrode the rest of the sacred as it manifests in the world within which we live. This is a remarkably disembodied position that is inherently masculine in the patriarchal sense, since it subordinates embodiment to the abstract mind. There is nothing NeoPagan about it.
NeoPaganism is all about the sacredness of the world in which we live, and all its processes. With Samhain we even honor death itself. We subordinate theology and disembodied thought to embodied experience, and consider the latter as most important. What is called “women’s spirituality” in our context refers to women’s experience as women, and nothing else.
This is who we are.
From Spirit to Power
Many NeoPagans’ worthy commitment to respecting other peoples’ spiritual paths has made us vulnerable to manipulation by those claiming to share our beliefs, while fundamentally rejecting them. If a woman’s physical experience is not sacred and not worthy of honoring as such, neither is anyone else’s. If this is true for people, it is also true for the physical world as a whole. The sacred becomes disembodied. We are who we think we are, and our thoughts render all other issues and views irrelevant. Ultimately, the ‘spiritual’ becomes defined by the ideology of a particularly arbitrary kind of identity politics. My most generous interpretation is this is yet one more New Age version of “we create our own reality,” a view concentrating power in the individual removed from embeddedness within the world. Fundamentally it is power oriented.
As politics is ultimately about winning, and therefore about power, from this perspective alternative points of view are threats to be overcome. The immanent cannot be honored in the many forms in which it has been in Pagan societies across history. It must be politically correct. A religious practice focusing on experience and often encounter with the divine is subordinated to political dogma.
I cannot count the times that I have been told “transwomen are women in all ways that matter, and that ends it.” This is the ‘argument’ of a person with no argument to make. Consider the prominent transwoman, Dierdre McCloskey.
In “The Hedgehog,” a journal dealing with various approaches to current intellectual issues, she wrote “Straight Man to Queer Woman: Untimely Meditations on Transitioning.” In it she described experiences in academia and the larger world that fit what I knew of trans-women in my experience. For modern Pagans concerned about these issues, the surprise will be how little it mattered once people became familiar with her transition. The person who took longest was her mother. McCloskey says there are certain places she does not frequent that might be unpleasant, such as a country Western bar, but otherwise has little difficulty.
So, does she think of herself as a women? I quote her:
“The Des Moines Register put the news on the front page, repeatedly if not unsympathetically: ‘University of Iowa Economics and History Professor to Become a Woman.’
“That, of course, is not possible. I’ll always have those pesky XY genes and can never have the life history of a girl or woman – never, for example, experience the hostility directed at an assertive female graduate student. At Harvard in the 1960s, Donald McCloskey was praised for such assertiveness. Ten years earlier, the economist Barbara Bergman had, she told me, been thoroughly dispraised for it.” The argument “A trans woman is a woman, end of issue” is fatuous nonsense, and one of the most successful transwomen of our time demonstrates it in her own life.
After asserting a transwoman is a woman, the person almost invariably refuses to enter into reasoned discussion. This is the language of domination: something is true because I say so. Once this tactic is accepted, it is a tiny step to endorse other forms of domination, and this has happened within the most militant of the transactivist community.
We are in danger of reverting back to the world-denying spirituality of the monotheisms, and the intolerance that accompanies them, tricked out in Pagan rhetoric.
Thinking clearly about women’s spirituality (and other forms as well)
Rituals are not parties, nor are well-conducted rituals simply psychodrama or performance art, although elements of both can be included. They seek to connect participants directly with the sacred. They focus on participants’ experience.
When some people want to connect with the sacred dimensions of their experience, it is reasonable to do it with others similarly motivated. If you have not had certain experiences, then you are not part of a group that has had those experiences. If those experiences are relevant to what a group wants to do, then not having had them is a good reason not to be included. Yet women who wish to do this are attacked as “transphobic” and efforts are made to suppress, or at least disrupt, their efforts in places such as Pantheacon.
But is this “transphobic?” A little clear thinking immediately demonstrates it is not. Consider the following examples.
I am not Native American, though I have helped build a Sun Dance arbor on the Crow Reservation and, from the Alcatraz occupation to today, have continually supported Native peoples’ efforts to receive at least a modicum of decent treatment by those with the power to do so. At their invitation, I have also attended some their rituals, and more rarely, participated. When I participated, I felt honored with being given the opportunity.
But I would never claim to speak for Native Americans, nor would I be insulted if they conducted rituals closed to me, or held closed meetings for members of their tribe or several tribes. As, in fact, they do. I am an outsider, and always will be. I can be an ally, and hopefully a respected and worthy one, but I can never be a member.
And I am not insulted by this.
I am not Black and have not had the experiences many Black Americans have had. I travel without fear of arbitrary arrest or worse. I am not regarded as intrinsically inferior to others by the dominant culture. Places I hope to live have not been denied me because of my race. And much more. These experiences, common to so many, unites African Americans in a common identity we Whites can never share.
I can choose to be an ally of Black Americans, but I can never become one myself. I can demonstrate against the continual police murder of Black Americans, as I did and may well do again. But I would never presume to speak for them, nor think I had a right to get involved with a Black support group for African Americans. It would be arrogant, rude, and stupid of me to feel insulted for not being wanted in that context. If I complained, I would be told my “White entitlement” was showing.
The same holds true in NeoPagan circles. I have never felt insulted because, as a man, I was not invited to women’s circles. Why on earth should I feel entitled to attend a ritual honoring menarche or other experience unique to women?
If a woman had been raped and sought a healing ritual with other women who perhaps themselves had also been raped, what business is it of mine to want to be included? If I were invited, (perhaps the victim was a close and dear friend, for example) that would be an honor because they thought I could contribute. But it would never be a right. Who is invited is the business of the people organizing the ritual.
This second example brings up another point. Women share a common experience of subjugation as women. As a woman I know put it, this includes “sexual harassment and objectification, mansplaining, not being listened to, pushed aside, subjected to bias in the form of ‘jokes,’ and other dynamics of male entitlement or aggression.” Some of this can be violent and fear inducing, others very subtle. Women’s groups provide places where these issues can be addressed by women in safe space and on women’s terms. When they are NeoPagan women, this can happen in ritual contexts, for there is no absolute divide between the sacred and the mundane. Yet the celebration of women’s spirituality, which provides a community where this can happen and contacts can be made, is attacked as ‘transphobic.’
There is nothing pejorative about my being excluded from these events. Further, there would be a big dose of male entitlement on my part if I had ever thought I should have been invited. But there need be no “male-phobia” in my not being invited. The same holds with respect to transwomen. In these contexts, the term “transphobia” is a false and belittling attack on women’s experience, denying its importance to them.
As we all should know, a powerful ritual depends on a unity of purpose. If I have not had the experience, how can I contribute in the way people who have had the experience can? Perhaps because I care deeply for others there, and so lend my energy to it. But to do that they need to want me there, and to feel comfortable with my presence. If my coven does a healing ritual for someone, all must be on board to increase its likelihood of success. The same holds for other purposes. If I am there because I want to be, despite the wishes of others in the group, I undermine its chances for success. I will have disrupted the unity of purpose that is essential for a ritual’s success. This is why becoming a member of the coven requires the consent of all involved. This is also Wicca 101.
Those attacking birth women only rituals attack the spiritual values distinguishing us from other religions. They attack the role of ritual and magick in what we do, and they attack the mutual respect NeoPagans need to conduct our ceremonies. They attack NeoPaganism at its core in the name of a political agenda.
An approach in keeping with recognizing sacred immanence would be to honor all genders as manifestations of the sacred. There can be rituals for women, for men, for transwomen, for transmen, for both genders called “she” and for both genders called “he” as well as for everyone, such as Sabbats and Esbats.
The fraud of transphobia
Most NeoPagans accused by others of transphobia would agree with J. K. Rowling when she tweeted
“The idea that women like me, who’ve been empathetic to trans people for decades, feeling kinship because they’re vulnerable in the same way as women – i.e., to male violence – ‘hate’ trans people because they think sex is real and has lived consequences – is a nonsense.
“I respect every trans person’s right to live any way that feels authentic and comfortable to them. I’d march with you if you were discriminated against on the basis of being trans. At the same time, my life has been shaped by being female. I do not believe it’s hateful to say so.”
— — J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
When, despite these words, she was again attacked as transphobic, Rowling elaborated:
“If you could come inside my head and understand what I feel when I read about a trans woman dying at the hands of a violent man, you’d find solidarity and kinship. I have a visceral sense of the terror in which those trans women will have spent their last seconds on earth, because I too have known moments of blind fear when I realised that the only
thing keeping me alive was the shaky self-restraint of my attacker.
“I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.”
Despite the twaddle published in ‘woke’ circles, there is no “phobia” here, or in similar positions I and many NeoPagan women and men are taking, any more than a Native American group is “White phobic” for not wanting Whites in every single one of their rituals and gatherings.
Accusing many of us as ‘transphobic’ is one of the biggest intellectual frauds perpetrated on our community. It is a 100% binary domination powered demand that if you do not agree you are bad.
Yes, there are transphobic people, but remarkably few within the NeoPagan community. Openness to transmen and transwomen has been greater among NeoPagans than within any other mainstream religion. Genuine transphobes congregate on the right, with its rigid sense of there being only two proper gender roles.
We can learn from many traditional Native peoples who offer us an alternative way of framing the issue of relations between birth and trans men and women. Many tribes recognized more than two genders, sometimes as many as five, and respected them all. The common insistence by many ‘woke’ Pagans that gender is both socially constructed and there are only two makes no sense historically or logically. It incoherently combines relativism (gender is socially constructed) with essentialism (there are only two). Small wonder confusion, and worse, emerge from such thinking. It’s a mess. For Pagans I would suggest the peoples native to this land offer superior insights to illogical claims ultimately rooted in Genesis.
But there is another dimension to all this.
I have been struck with the aggressive anger, and even hatred, with which some NeoPagans, especially women, have been denounced for wanting the right to conduct women’s rituals attended only by women. As some women have explained to me, it is their biological differences from men that have for millennia been used to justify their second-class status as human beings. Conducting these rituals is an act of affirming what distinguishes them from men as equally worthy to how men are different from women. What was culturally considered disempowering becomes empowering. (As I write these words I see a similarity with the African American community’s affirmation that “Black is beautiful.”)
Interestingly, the terms used in some online insults directed towards these women have been explicitly misogynistic, “Bitch” being one of the milder ones. Threats of violence are hardly unknown. Please enlarge these images sent to me by a NeoPagan woman depicting the extraordinary hate and fantasies of violence towards feminists. This misogyny comes from some transwomen or men claiming to defend transwomen, but is closer in spirit to incel hate!
And here, finally, we can access the deeper level of what we see happening around us.
In Faultlines I explored the pathological dimensions of the masculine and feminine. (If someone has trouble with these words, substitute Yang and Yin.) Both can take pathological forms, but in different ways. (Faultlines, pp. 61-7) The pathological feminine manipulates, the pathological masculine dominates. At a spiritual level, the attacks on birth women’s particular identities and spiritual experiences is an attack by a pathological masculinity in ultimate defense of the increasingly debased patriarchy NeoPaganism challenges. It embodies domination.
The spirit of domination destroyed the openings early Buddhism made available to not only women, but also to the sacred feminine. It destroyed early Christianity’s steps in that direction as well. Now it is doing the same to NeoPaganism. The difference here is that while in the first two patriarchy triumphed through controlling organizations and texts, neither organizations nor texts possess similar authority with us. When Pantheacon became dominated by these people, it died. Domination can only triumph over us as a spiritual community by making it impossible to think coherently about the sacred feminine and women’s role in it. And that is what we see happening around us, with the erasure of the feminine by dissolving it into sex and gender.
We have the option of rejecting these false attacks, and in rejecting them, rendering them powerless. If we did, what would this look like?
Very much like it did before the so-called ‘trans-activists’ sowed such anger and division within us. NeoPaganism would have even more spiritual diversity. Trans women and trans men would devise rituals addressing the sacred dimensions of their own experiences. I can’t imagine any NeoPagan opposing this, and if someone did they would simply be ignored. Women and men could do the same, as they long have. Covens would be composed in many different ways, depending on what their members wanted. As there always have been, there would be many ritual gatherings where all who desire can attend.
And people would otherwise mind their own business.