If we were going to start from scratch why not deconstruct the whole premise?
Through a political act I became a spiritual woman.
– Chris Sitka
For me, 2019 has been a year of exploring the overlapping worlds of feminism and spirituality. For a long time, I’ve been craving and moving toward a depth of understanding of myself as a woman that only spirituality can offer – but the intensive searching I’ve been doing this year has also been prompted by circumstances that have made the reading I’ve done all the more necessary – and rewarding. What I have learned this year from women has done much more for me than feed my intellect or activism, and I want to share it here. This essay is best read after Part I – where I discuss the ideal of the “helpmate,” and its impact on women’s personal and political lives and our capacity to build trust and solidarity – and with a cup of tea or coffee (or a goblet of wine).
At the beginning of 2019, I was feeling more and more separated from a community in New Zealand that I’d worked for three years to find and bring together. At the same time, I had finished an article about my reading on the creation of patriarchy, and I came to a point where I wanted to explore indigenous and pre-patriarchal cultures more. I felt I understood enough about where we had gone wrong, and I wanted to know where I, and we, come from as women, and how we are meant to live. In the circumstances, I wanted this understanding to give me a broader and deeper sense of perspective, and some energy and inspiration too.
I read the books Invisible Women of Prehistory, Societies of Peace, and Dark Emu, and signed up for Max Dashu’s wonderful webcasts. These brought me to a much fuller, clearer understanding of what matriarchy is. In a sentence, I have come to understand something that should be obvious: children are supposed to grow up learning to take care of their mother’s homelands. This is how human beings have lived for most of our time on earth – some 200,000 years – and in cultures like this, women are honoured. As Mililani B. Trask writes in Societies of Peace,
In ancient times, as in modern, Hawaiians understood that the evolution of life arises from the female and that the balance of life, male and female principles at their inception, arises from the female. This understanding pervaded traditional Hawaiian society and set the foundation for all aspects of the social order of the Hawaiian matrilineal culture.
I spent a lot of time looking up images of indigenous and neolithic female figurines and painting them, alongside other scenes and portraits, to make a zine about everything I learned about matriarchal cultures, from these books and ones I had read previously.
I began to spend more time with a very dear, wise friend of mine who was active in the second wave, and is also a healer and Aikido practitioner. She knew how I was feeling. Since becoming a feminist and speaking about it, it was hard to find like-minded people, and the threat of liberalisation seemed to make it near impossible for me to build lasting solidarity and trust, even with women, in anything resembling a group or community. My friend told me what to do when you are faced with a threat, according to Aikido: you hold your centre, and you “go underneath,” allowing the force and mass of the perpetrator to spend itself.
This advice reminded me of a prophetic talk given by Mary Daly in 1980, and a recent one by Julia Long – both of which encourage women away from “reactivity” and toward “creativity” – since creativity demands that we assess things (like the liberal threat) more deeply. Daly says that “we are living on a planet in which patriarchy… is raping the earth to death,” so she asks,
How do you fight necrophilia with love of life? I suggest it is most urgent that we do not waste our energies re-acting. They will always have something for us to re-act against. Probably one of the most astonishing things in the 80s is going to be the constant erection of pseudo-feminism, so that they’ll have us, hopefully (from their point of view) at each other’s throats… the capturing of women’s studies, the confusion of women who identify as “feminist”…
The priority, then, the way of warfare, is creativity. I suggest how we fight is by not reacting, by refusing, powerfully, to react – and instead choosing to create.
At my friend’s house, I also found the book The Great Cosmic Mother, by artist and author Monica Sjöö, whose paintings depict the symbolism, and real and imagined scenes and settings of matriarchal cultures. Her book became my favourite feminist text, and the most comprehensive I have come across. One of the lines I like the most was about the “great mother” herself, honoured in matriarchal cultures around the world as both everloving and fierce. Sjöö expresses this paradox of love and fierceness as being about “she who gives us all to each other as food.” In this line Sjöö makes connections between goddesses like Coatlicue (said Co-at-li-cu-e) in Mexico and Kali in India.
Wanting to know more about the connection between love and anger, women, feminism, and life itself, I read Elizabeth Harding’s wonderful book, Kali, which points out that the feminine form of Kali is “kala,” meaning “time” – that which consumes everything – and forms a root of the word calendar. And the first calendars, according to Sjöö, began with women marking our menstrual cycles against those of the moon. As Vajra Ma writes,
Language reflects this in the words menses, moon, month, measure, meter, all cognates of each other… The word “mathematics” literally means “wisdom (themis) of the mothers (ma).” It was not a dry abstraction, a disembodied concept, but a vital, reality-bound awareness that rose up out of the blood-rich body of the mothers.
Sjöö also opens her book with the line, “In the beginning was a very female sea.” She explains that,
For two-and-a-half billion years on earth, all life forms floated in the womb-like environment of the planetary ocean – nourished and protected by its fluid chemicals, rocked by the lunar-tidal rhythms.
Charles Darwin believed the menstrual cycle originated here, organically echoing the moon-pulse of the sea. And, because this longest period of life’s time on earth was dominated by life-forms reproducing parthenogenically, he concluded that the female principle was primordial.
Wanting to know more, I read The Sea Around Us, by the renowned scientist, ecologist and author Rachel Carson. She writes that when life began in the sea,
There were no specialised sex organs; rather, a generalised female existence reproduced itself within the female body of the sea.
Before more complex life forms could develop and move onto land, it was necessary to miniaturise the oceanic environment, to reproduce it on a small and mobile scale. Soft, moist eggs deposited on dry ground and exposed to air would die; life could not move beyond the water-hugging amphibian stage…
Even the protoplasm that streams within each cell of our bodies has the chemical structure impressed upon living matter when the first simple creatures were brought forth in the ancient sea. And as life itself began in the sea, so each of us begins his individual life in a miniature ocean within his mother’s womb, and in the stages of his embryonic development he repeats the steps by which her race evolved, from gill-breathing inhabitants of a water world to creatures able to live on land.
While reading these books to expand my own perspective, I also kept inquiring into why it is that women would silence each other, even after politicising as feminists, in the manner I have experienced. And, in a world where women are denied the power to define our own reality and shape our own lives, why would we simply replicate the role of political “helpmate,” when we have the chance to reclaim our vitality and create a real and rich political home for ourselves? Why would we voluntarily participate in the situation described by Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (a book I read some years ago) –
This ultimate consequence of men’s power to define – the power to define what is a political issue and what is not – has had a profound effect of women’s struggle for their own emancipation. Essentially, it has forced thinking women to waste much time and energy on defensive arguments; it has channeled their thinking into narrow fields; it has retarded their coming into consciousness as a collective entity and has literally aborted and distorted the intellectual talents of women for thousands of years.
To better understand this, and my own pain as well, I read books like Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No, and Charlotte Kasl’s Women, Sex and Addiction. In these books, the issues of sexual politics and loyalty play out at the scale of the human body, where they become more clearly a matter of addiction. Right from our earliest years, boys are socialised to become men who are addicted to power over women. For women’s part, Kasl writes, “codependency is women’s basic training.” We are trained for the “helpmate” role I described in part one, and through this role we learn to protect men’s egos and affirm the power they have. Dale Spender and Sally Cline’s book Reflecting Men at Twice Their Natural Size reveals how difficult it is for women to escape this role, even (and perhaps especially) when we have the opportunity to be loyal to ourselves, and do something bigger and better. Kasl explains the cost to us when she says,
Codependency is difficult to describe because it is often about what a person does not do, which is basically to live her life. She doesn’t follow the path of her own interests or let her passions flow through her. She is afraid of strong feelings and power. If the addict overindulges in sensory pleasures, the codependent starves herself of them. Or if she does indulge, she immediately feels guilty and can’t enjoy them because at her core she feels undeserving.
Thinking about what Kasl says here, I saw the politics, psychology and spirituality of patriarchy and feminism more and more clearly, and I began to carry around the idea of wanting. Many feminists who fall into the role of political lobbying based on compromise, palatability and negotiation often deny that women want very much. The feminist negotiator insists that women do not want much, because they think it would be political suicide to tell the truth: which is that we want to recreate the culture we live in from scratch. The negotiator has a lot to say about what we “just want.” We just want safehouses. We just want our prison cells to be sex-segregated, because we just want to be safe from rape in jail. We just want our changing rooms and bathrooms and sports teams to be for us and not for strange men. We just want a turn to speak, after we have finished listening. (As feminist academic Somer Brodribb writes in Nothing Mat(t)ers, “I have to make arguments which sound extravagant to my ears, that women exist. That women are sensible.”)
But the women’s movement is women’s political home, and by definition this cannot be a place in which women are encouraged toward this conformist kind of shrinking and self-sacrifice, to cast aside our own dreams, visions and longings for weeks, months, or years at a time so that we can get in the ear of this or that politician, editor, journalist or television presenter. And the great essays, books, novels, artworks, songs, speeches, presses, poems and periodicals of the second wave – Nga Morehu, Sister Outsider, Gyn/Ecology, Diving Into the Wreck, The Dream of a Common Language, The Colour Purple, Demon Lover, Monster, Woman at Point Zero, A Passion for Friends, The Spinster and Her Enemies, Colonised People, Sappho Was a Right on Woman – among countless others – these works were created out of love by visionaries, not out of self-sacrifice to a “good cause.”
In October I met many passionate second wave feminists, when I went to women’s lands in Australia. I took home an essay collection about these lands compiled by photographer Sand Hall, who writes that “the Lands grew from strong links women had with the Women’s Liberation Movement. Many who first came to the Land were involved in women’s theatre, art, politics and music of the revolutionary 1970s.” Then,
We created places to sleep and call our own; found land for shelter in the sanity of nature and under stunning night skies. Taking refuge in the relative freedom and safety of rural land and land ownership, women built community as well as personal and communal spaces. Stories tell of finding and creating places to belong, and the lived experience of being lesbian in that environment.
Margot Oliver’s essay makes clear how radical this project was when she explains that, like many women, “Somewhere along the line I had absorbed the notion that construction is something only a specialist (= a builder = a male) can understand.” These women built anyway, and the rewards were great:
I learnt about the absence of fear. In a contemplative moment I calculated that with the three local Women’s Lands and the surrounding Crown Lands, there were about five square miles to roam where we would only be accosted by other women – or by no-one else at all. We might meet a snake or three – a shy red-belly black or a diamond python highly likely, on occasion a brilliant green and yellow tree snake, or even a deceptively harmless looking brown snake – but no male violence.
It was extraordinary to decompress from this fear that all women carry, and also to be with other women realising the same liberation of body and psyche; experiencing that, in this fundamental way, we were safe.
I had the same experience of decompression during my week-long stay on the lands. It also took away any residual sense that the beliefs women’s liberationists hold dear could be too utopian to be taken seriously. I no longer believe in freedom as some hypothetical, utopian dream – I think it is our natural state, something our bodies know, but that we have to suppress. Chris Sitka says that she is committed to revolutionary feminism “Not because I intellectually prefer it, but because I have emotionally experienced it.” She explains,
The land Herself embraced me and nurtured me. She gave me confidence and strength. Both my body and mind muscles grew. I walked and ran and swam and rode on horses and loved my own body deeply and unconditionally. Not least because no-one, including the women I lived amongst, ever judged me for how I dressed, or didn’t dress at all; or how wild and unkempt my hair was as I tangled with vines and got dirty churning up clay.
More of her memories involve singing:
We sang day and night. We sang our joy and our hope for women. We sang to the land and to each other. It was a primal kind of love. An expanding love that circled the Earth and boomeranged back to us.
I was even invited to launch my first two zines openly, and for a supportive crowd on women’s lands! Something I could not fathom happening in my home country.
After I left Australia, I had a hunger to read lesbian literature. One day as I was wandering near the beach in my hometown, I opened the “little library,” which is a small green cupboard on a post, with three shelves for books behind a glass door. Miraculously, inside I found a copy of Alma Routsong’s 1971 self-published novel Patience and Sarah (published under the pseudonym Isabel Miller), as if it had come through a Narnia-like portal to find me. The novel is a stunning lesbian vision that celebrates and imagines the level of emotional, intellectual and physical attunement that is – or could be – available to women, when the layers of male identification and codependency are peeled back to leave us to ourselves.
The theme of attunement continued as I read Songspirals, written by a group of Australian Aboriginal Gay’wu women, and Stephen Buhner’s The Secret Teachings of Plants. Buhner offers a pathway into a deep level of attunement with life itself, through the human heart. He explains electromagnetism, the “energetics of life,” and the heart as an organ of perception. He writes,
The majority of modern peoples, if asked to find the place within their body where the unique self resides, would say that they live about an inch above their eyebrows and two inches into the skull. But most indigenous and historical peoples would… gesture in the region of the heart.
Buhner writes that between 15 and 25 percent of the cells in the heart are neural cells, and says that “our experience of the world is routed first through our heart, flowing to the brain only after it has been perceived by the heart.” Buhner encourages us to tune in more to the heart. For the benefit of people like me, he explains,
The whole body is cradled within the electromagnetic field generated by the heart. The information embedded within that field is communicated to the external world through electromagnetic waves reaching out from the body. It is communicated within the body through the bloodstream, which conducts electromagnetic impulses throughout the body.
And because all living organisms have developed in a sea of electromagnetic signals, because in many respects all things really are only discrete frequency oscillations, all organisms are intimately acquainted with these signals.
Buhner makes the wonderful point that,
Our sensory organs were meant to perceive the world. The sensory capacities of human ears were shaped by the sounds of the world, our smell formed through long association with the delicate chemistries of plants, our touch by the nonlinear, multidimensional surfaces of Earth, our sight by the images that constantly flow into our eyes.
It was clear whose wisdom Buhner was echoing when I read Songspirals, by Gay’wu women elders Laklak Burarrwaŋa, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, Banbapuy Ganambarr – and their daughter Djawundil Maymuru. The book is like a lucid yet hypnotic lullaby, and it offers a vivid image of the kind of culture and cultural practice that emerges when people are capable of the level of attunement Buhner describes, with life and with one another, from the heart, mind and awakened senses. The authors write,
Why did the earth put human beings on the land? It is to do with communication. Yolŋu communicate with the birds and the whales and everything else. Everything communicates and comes through the songspirals.
This book makes clear what patriarchal white culture has taken from indigenous people, from women, and done to our sensuality. The women explain that “Some, they can feel the land and see what is happening on the land, just by singing.” To elaborate,
As we sing, as we cry milkarri, we tell a story. We tell of the contours of the land, the contours of ourselves. Songspirals are a map of country. We are seeing Country as we fly over it. When we sing or hear milkarri, we fly. We see our self flying through the land, like a bird… When we do or hear milkarri, we travel through Country, the song takes us there. We see everything – the soil, the rocks, the leaves, the sea, bäru (the crocodile) making a nest, lightning, everything.
When they write that, “without the songspirals we couldn’t know country,” I hear my wonderful friend Annie Pratten lamenting, “Country is sorry for people.”
Reading these books I am astounded by the power that women truly have and that is squandered, and that we, too, squander, because of abuse and the lies that are told about us. I believe that women’s heartbreak speaks the truth about this abuse, and the lies. And I believe that women’s heartbreak is the most squandered force for justice in this world.
Women’s heartbreak is an intelligent perception, coming from life itself, that what is happening to us is wrong. But it is rarely honoured that way. Instead it is suppressed, denied and distorted, because of the way in which women are isolated, not only through the way we experience abuse in the “private sphere,” but in the way this abuse is normalised through repetition, institutionalisation, myths and attitudes. When women speak our experience, we are most often met with more denial, complicity, gaslighting, pathologisation, and invisibilisation. Already sealed off in the home, and too often, the brothel, or the prison, we become socially and spiritually isolated as well. This isolation is terrifying, because it is antithetical to the nature of the heart – which is meant to expand, not be contained.
One body of literature that has been helpful for me in coping with this reality myself, deals with the experience of “nothingness” that results from the abuse and gaslighting of women. After I left the lands, Janne Ellen Swift (who once lived there, happily sharing the home she and her lover built, with a black snake) sent me an article by mail called The Resonance of Interruption. The author, Michelle Cliff, writes,
the silences in and around the life of one woman come from the interruption of the quest of that woman’s self, as she is delayed by her constant response to the demands of the feminine role…
If we multiply one woman’s silence of self across space and over time, we may see that the cultural history of women takes the form of an interrupted sequence of silences: outright silence, the inability to speak; or silence about the self, the inability to reveal. The interruptions in the silences occur when the voices of one or two women rise to speak the truth in an expression of the self; and we cannot doubt the courage of these few…
As I read this article, I was also making my way through a beautiful work by Carol Christ called Diving Deep and Surfacing, in which Christ explores the work of female fiction writers. She says,
Women’s spiritual quest takes a distinctive form in the fiction and poetry of women writers. It begins in an experience of nothingness. Women experience emptiness in their own lives – in self-hatred, in self-negation, and in being a victim; in relationship with men; and in the values that have shaped their lives. Experiencing nothingness, women reject conventional solutions and question the meaning of their lives, thus opening themselves to the revelation of deeper sources of power and value. The experience of nothingness often precedes an awakening, similar to a conversion experience, in which the powers of being are revealed. A woman’s awakening to great powers grounds her in a new sense of self and a new orientation in the world. Through awakening to new powers, women overcome self-negation and self-hatred and refuse to be victims.
Christ believes that women’s “spiritual and social quests are two dimensions of a single struggle” and makes a wonderful point about the need for women’s stories. This point relates to the reason why Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ book Women Who Run With the Wolves has been so popular since its publication, and why I also loved it so much when I read it this year. “Those who cannot howl, will not find their pack,” writes Estés. In Christ’s words,
Women’s stories have not been told… Without stories she is alienated from those deeper experiences of self and world that have been called spiritual or religious… The expression of women’s spiritual quest is integrally related to the telling of women’s stories. If women’s stories are not told, the depth of women’s souls will not be known.
Stories give shape to lives. As people grow up, reach plateaus, or face crises they often turn to stories to show them how to take the next step. Women often live out inauthentic stories provided by a culture they did not create. The story most commonly told to young girls is the romantic story of falling in love and living happily ever after. As they grow older some women seek to replace that story with one of free and independent womanhood.
Real stories of “free and independent womanhood” can only proliferate when women do what the Zapotecan shaman Dona Enriqueta Contreras asks us to do in Societies of Peace – namely, “take back their authority.” This is what Vajra Ma encourages in the book she sent me this year (as a trade for my zines!) The Hidden Stream: The Natural Spiritual Authority of Women. Ma reminds us that patriarchy replaced older cultural stories and practices with its bizarre “myths of male motherhood,” which we know especially through Greek and Christian myth historically, and transgenderism currently. But before these myths were constructed, women’s “natural spiritual authority” was recognised. Ma clarifies that this authority is not about authoritarianism or domination – in a truer sense, to author means to create. “A life giving source authors life, naturally,” she writes. “Authority thus is an inherent part of life-giving, of authorship… Authority is where life comes from.”
Indigenous feminists and radical lesbians understand this idea of women’s authority. The feminist mothers and homebirth advocates I have met, like MaryLou Singleton in the United States, and Janet Fraser in Australia, do as well. In Wisdom Rising, Tsultrim Allione writes about giving birth, and what it taught her – and I think her powerful recollection is as relevant to the birthing of “free and independent womanhood,” and the women’s movement, as it is to mothers:
By evening, I had been in hard labor for eight hours when the doctor arrived from Seattle. My labor wasn’t progressing, and he thought the baby’s head was in the wrong position. Suddenly I thought: I have to get this baby out! It’s up to me, no one else can do this. What do I need to do?
I tuned in to my body, got off the bed and onto the floor on my hands and knees, and told the doctor to leave me. I began weaving and shaking back and forth, up and down. My husband tried to approach me to tell me to be calm and breathe quietly, but I told everyone to get out of the way. I wasn’t nice and calm; I was fierce and clear… And before long, I held my newborn daughter in my arms.
In Oliver’s words, “women do not, under any circumstances, get to define the world. Especially we do not get to define a world that works for us.” But clearly, we need to. The books I read this year are beautiful – together they make a profound plea for the building of a living women’s culture. This culture cannot be based upon political negotiation that leaves our conditioning into codependency intact. We need a political home in which we, as DQ puts it, take “charge of our own destinies.” In which we “start from scratch” to discover, know and create, name and define who we are, by coming to our senses, attuning to each other, and reclaiming our authority. It helps to know that the life that is most suppressed in this world is that which is, actually, the most vital – and staying with it. The lobbying can happen from that place.
“I wish for all women on this planet to reach a place where they can live without fear,” Sitka writes. I do too. In her piece A Radical Lesbian is a Visionary Woman, she adds,
Of course we are not free yet. But just by being able to imagine our freedom we create the potential for that very freedom. Not only for ourselves. But for all women. We are the vanguards.