Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Is Paganism Inherently Feminist?

(Cross-posted at witchesandpagans.com)

It may come as a surprise to some readers that the question that marks the title of this post even needs to be asked. However, I think that it is one that is essential to ask, as it strikes to the heart of many not-necessarily-accurate assumptions that many people make about contemporary Paganism and Heathenry; many of whom are Pagans and Heathens themselves.

First, a bit of definition is in order.

For Paganism and Heathenry, I presuppose those modern religions that are polytheistic, either rooted in or inspired by the examples of European pre-Christian religions (with allowances for those that are eclectic enough to draw in particular examples of Gods, Goddesses, and occasional practices from non-European cultures and faiths), and whose members consciously identify themselves as either Pagan, Neo-Pagan, Wiccan, Druid, Heathen, Asatru, Theodish, etc.

For Feminism, things get a tad more complicated. The dictionary definition is “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” This is certainly a worthy goal, and I know of no Pagan or Heathen who disagrees with it in principle, especially when applied to modern secular life and the law. I think it’s fair to say that no Pagans or Heathens (and the overwhelming majority of Christians, for that matter) maintain that women shouldn't have the right to vote, or get the same salary for the same amount of work as a man.

Where things get dicey is in the specific application when it comes to religion. And it is in those details that the devil lies, just as much for Pagans and Heathens as for anyone else.

One might wonder if, in that definition, any faith that has gender-specific roles can qualify as feminist. “Equality” means that men and women have equal access to all roles, and are thus interchangeable in a religious and organizational sense. After all, if women are equal to men, then surely men are equal to women.

Many modern Pagan and Heathen faiths, especially those that count themselves on the “reconstructionist” end of the spectrum, tend to root themselves not only religiously but also socially in the beliefs and practices of our pre-Christian forebears. Indeed, many argue that the modern differentiation between the social and the religious is something that was alien to our Pagan forebears. What we moderns might classify as secular political offices were more often than not steeped in sacral authority and duties.

The Consuls of ancient Rome, for instance, were not only the secular authority and heads of the army, but also had various sacral duties that ran across the Roman religious calendar. The goðar of Iceland were a mixture of secular chieftain and regional priest. Kings in Scandinavia were not only expected to lead their armies and their peoples, but had specific duties in regards to undertaking sacrifices to the Gods on behalf of their people. And these were gender-specific roles. A Roman pontifex could not be a woman. All the Icelandic goðar were men.

This is not to say that women were cut out entirely from the sacral life of the community. Far from it! While there were no women pontifices, nor were there any male vestals. In early Germanic society, there is a tradition of women (exclusively) being treated as völvas, or “prophetesses”, and being valued for their oracular pronouncements. While the practice of seiðʀ (a sort of Norse witchcraft) was not exclusive to women among the Norse, it was most definitely considered something that was effeminate, and we have records of men who practiced the art being rounded up and slaughtered. While there are rare instances of women being recorded as intellectual giants, or as warriors, such are the exceptions, rather than the rule, and are presented as such. The ancients, thus, had gender-specific roles that are reflected in the ancient records.

Some modern pagans, especially those who are of a more reconstructionist bent, seek to emulate these social roles just as much as they do the sacral beliefs and practices, for the very reason that our pre-Christian forebears did not make a distinction between the sacred and the secular. This doesn't even get into the question of some traditions of Wicca which hold gender-specific requirements for ritual practices, or the widely held notion that women are better suited than men to raising children (reflected in census data that shows that more than 80% of custodial parents are mothers, rather than fathers). No one is in a position to say that such requirements are wrong or right; they simply are. And unless you’re able to definitively say “The Gods don’t want it so” (and can prove it!), you need to recognize that modern prejudices are not necessarily any objectively better than ancient ones. They simply are.

Note that this is not saying that all Pagans or Heathens should or do employ such gender roles. It is merely an acknowledgement that those who seek to more closely emulate our pre-Christian ancestors do so. Sometimes there are specific sacral roles that are open only to one sex or the other. If one denies that gender-specific roles are valid, and that some sacral roles should be open to one or another sex, I daresay Z Budapest and others who follow the Dianic Tradition would not qualify as feminists, as they routinely exclude men from ritual and organizational posts. That’s not gender equality, it’s using roles specific to a particular gender.

And I have no problem with that. In fact, it makes my point.

If feminism is about gender equality, then it cannot be a requirement of Paganism, as two relatively major currents within Paganism do not espouse such. On the one hand, there are roles and groups that are only open to women, and on the other hand, there are roles and functions which are either only open to women, are only open to men, or are heavily weighted towards women. Either way, “equality” doesn't seem to be the rule, and thus “feminism” doesn't seem to apply. That doesn't mean that Paganism and feminism are incompatible, merely that the one is not a requirement of the other.

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