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May 08, 2005

The Sacred Feminine

Being that it’s Mother’s Day today, I wanted to talk about the sacred feminine and lack thereof from the beginning of time and into the present. 

Much of what I say will be essentially a book report.  The book is At the Root of this Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst, by Carol Lee Flinders.    When I first read this book a couple of years ago, it re-radicalized me around women’s issues.  The book also deals a lot with the power of women’s spiritual conviction (in the best sense) and the potential power that can unleash in a society.  I will not focus on that but if it calls to you, go read it.  It’s a wonderful book.     

Flinders reminds us of a time when women and goddesses and motherhood were sacred because we are all part of the great Mother.  Women were revered as the giver of life.  Women were generally the seers, the holders of the collective wisdom, the gateway to the sacred.  Young women were celebrated as they took their place in the community of women.

She talks about the slow shift from this female-centered nomadic hunter-gatherer life into horticulture and then into agriculture.  This is when the position of women began to weaken.  Kinship structures, often matrilineal, gave way to more hierarchical structure.  Physical strength and the ability to organize labor for larger community projects and then warfare became dominant.

With warfare came enslavement.  And Flinders, using research done by Gerda Lerner and others, says that this is the nub of the shift into dehumanization for women.  Because it was so much easier to run a farm with captured women.  Captured men were likely to be violent or go for daring getaways.  “Women were found to be a much simpler proposition – particularly once they had been raped.” (I have wondered in that appalled kind of way, why it is that rape is so common a weapon of war up until present time – in Bosnia, in Ruanda, Afghanistan.  What is it and why do we allow it to continue?)  Knowing that even if they managed to escape, their own men-folk would not welcome them back, they weren’t likely to try, and once they’d actually had children, their own motherhood kept them in place. . . . 

Flinders sees this enslavement as the root of what she calls the curious contempt for women and girls that is so pervasive in a male dominated culture where the central business of life is to build up power bases and then make your name either defending them or seizing other power bases. She assumes that women were always seen as suspect because they could “go over to the enemy”. 

So, this may seem a long ways from us in this society.  We don’t live in a place where woman are routinely enslaved or where war atrocities include rape.

Or do we?

Flinders was writing this book and living just outside Petaluma when the young woman, Polly Klaas, was kidnapped and then later found dead.  She weaves her experiences and the experiences of her family and community into the story.  She paints a picture of a culture that allows the continuum of male behavior to include behavior that preys on women, particularly young women on the verge of womanhood.  They are in this time of tremendous blossoming. I remember watching that incredible luminous time in a young girl’s life when I taught 8th and 9th grade.  This is a time that in an earlier culture or a more indigenous culture would have been a joyous ritual for both the girl and the entire community, a time of being brought into the sacred feminine.

As part of this discussion, the author talks about the impact of the Polly Klaas kidnapping and death on other young girls, especially girls that age.  They were gripped with fear.  The event and her proximity to it forced Flinders to see it as something not in isolation.  She asks, “How can we allow this to happen in this society?”  “How is it that we don’t put our resources to work as a culture to get to those young men who are going to grow up to become Richard Allen Davis’s and help them?  We know who they are.  We can identify them very early.”

This is so similar to what I’ve been asking myself as I grapple with the aftermath of 9/11.  Specifically, we knew in the mid-90’s that the Taliban in Afghanistan were making women’s lives a hell and we did not stop it or force the Taliban to change. People who treat women that way are not sane.  Period. I personally am convinced that if we based our domestic and foreign policy on what was good for women and children at home and around the world, we would have the only compass we needed.  We’d be asking,  “Why can’t we put the incredible resources we have as a country to preventing war?”  “How can we cut taxes while education and social welfare systems crumble?” 

Flinders goes on to talk extensively about the effect dehumanization has on young women, even those who do not directly suffer the pains of a Polly Klaus or an Elizabeth Smart.   She says and we know that the highly sexualized representations of young women in our society affect all women and particularly all young women. Young women play a critical double role in our materialistic society, first as a commodity, in those sexualized representations, and secondly as consumer, desperately buying and using those cosmetics, clothes, food and weight-loss programs, trying to become those young women in the ads on TV, in the films, in the eyes of the young men of their world.    

We can in the best of circumstances, with great amounts of love and privilege, help a few of our own young women through into womanhood safely.  But what of the larger need? How do we address this?  Flinders submits, and I agree, we do this by fostering a renewed emphasis on the sacred feminine.

Today is a good day to remember that.

Posted by Lynn Allen on May 8, 2005 at 11:51 AM in Miscellany | Permalink

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