WP 04/28 The New Theology-Sheology; Mystical Women's Spiritual
Movements, Gaining Momentum ... and Adherents
By Judith Weinraub
Washington Post Staff Writer
Pagans atthe Harvard Divinity School.A goddess-centered ritual
at the University of Pennsylvania. A feminist seder in Silver Spring.
New moon groups at a rabbinical seminary. Women's spirituality ses-
sions at Appalachian State University, Wesleyan University, Brown.
What on earth is going on?
If theevents of thelast few monthsare any indication,women are
looking for a spiritual connection - for a way to push the boundaries
of their religious experience beyond the ordinary confines of tradi-
tional Judeo-Christian monotheism. Consciousness-raising may have been
the solace of the '70s and career development the icon of the '80s,
but the '90s offer a very different option - the spirit.
Today's seekers, after all, are the daughters of the feminist
revolution. Not for them the victimized heroines and saints of the
past. Not for them the patriarchal structure of the male-dominated
religions of the Old and New Testaments.
Their touchstones are the pagan religions, the pre-Christian
Earth-centered goddess cults that stress the harmony of the universe -
movements that offerequality rather than hierarchy, peace rather than
war, joy rather than guilt, ritual rather than rote.
"It'sreligion without the middleman- including sex and drugs,"
says Margot Adler, a journalist at National Public Radio and the
author of "Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers
and Other Pagans in America Today."
The women's spirituality movement, which practitioners estimate as
attracting as many as 500,000 people across the country, is basically
benign. And has nothing to do with the satanic cults of national TV
talk shows. Whether mainstream, new age, goddess-oriented (a point of
view expressing a female- and earth-centered style of worship rather
than a specific body of liturgy) or wiccan (a mainly British Isles
paganism that refers to the Old English word for witch), today's
celebrants are as various as they are hard to count.
"It'sdefinitely growing,but you'll neverget hardfigures," says
Adler, whose book was originally published in 1979 and, with more than
100,000 in print, still sells more than 10,000 a year. "A group of
women can start a group and not tell anybody, and you'll have a
thriving group doing rituals and who will know?"
What canbe traced isthe flourishingbook industry, mostlyout of
San Francisco, that the movement has spawned. Two books published in
1979 - Adler's and "The Spiral Dance," a more personal vision by the
San Francisco-based "priestess" known as Starhawk - have been par-
What can also be pinned down are the threads that are woven
through the burgeoning movement: a dissatisfaction with the way women
are treated within traditional religions, a yearning for ritual, a
desire for a historical connection, despair over the fragmentation of
society and a concern about the future of the planet.
Says Diana Hayes, professor of theology at Georgetown: "Within
Christianity, theology and spirituality have been male oriented, male
dominated, because they are the ones articulating it. But we all are
affected by who we are, where we came from, our life experience, our
relationship with god.
"So thechallenge has beento get thisrealization out inthe open
and to have the men who dominate theological circles realize that they
cannot speak for the rest of the human race. Women do not think or act
the way men do. Therefore our spirituality will not be the same as
Listen to voices from the women's spirituality movement:
Diann Neu, women's religiousleader, master's degrees in sacred
theology and in divinity from the Graduate Theological Union, Graduate
School of Theology, Berkeley; co-founder of WATER (Women's Alliance
for Theology, Ethics and Ritual) in Silver Spring: "I was a Catholic
woman who thought I'd be one of the first to be ordained. I thought it
would happen by 1980. After all, there were only two possible paths
from the seminary: to teach on a faculty or to be ordained. I wasn't
interested in teaching and of course couldn't be ordained - though I
always hoped there was the possibility. I was disappointed. Pained.
Hurt. Angry. Distressed. So I started creating alternatives. I knew it
was something I needed to do. It was very exciting to me."
Starhawk, priestess of the Old Religion of the Goddess, witch,
religious leader, writer, counselor, women's spirituality superstar:
"In the very simplest terms, the goddess represents the sacredness of
nature, of human life and human creativity as well - the idea that
human beings are meant to be integrated with nature. In the goddess
tradition the sacred is embodied in the earth, in ecological systems,
in human beings in different cultures. If we're all sacred, we have to
deal equally with each other. And when we really see the earth as this
sacred place, and we know that everything is connected, it makes it
very hard to think about killing somebody, to write off whole groups
Diana Hayes, Catholic convert (from AME), professor of theology,
Georgetown University: "All of us have to be allowed to voice our
spirituality in our own ways. I see myself not as a feminist but as a
womanist, a feminist of color. Women of color - black, Hispanic,
Asian - have begun to realize that the feminist movement has been an
exclusive, white, middle, and upper-middle-class movement. Womanists
are challenging the feminist movement in the same way that feminists
have been challenging the church. As a black woman within the
Catholic church, without that attitude, I'd have to be deaf, dumb and
Margot Adler, journalist, an elder with Covenant of the Goddess, a
priestess, the granddaughter of analyst Alfred Adler: "I think it
would be fair to say that none of this would have happened to me if I
hadn't been hit over the head in the seventh grade by studying the
gods Artemis and Athena. This was the late '50s, and there weren't a
lot of powerful images of women. What was interesting was we studied
Greece for a whole year, and this was my religion. But I think way
down deep I didn't want to worship these goddesses - I wanted
to BE them."
Linda Pinty, a student atHarvard Divinity School, the intern
minister at the First Parish Church of Unitarian Universalists in
Cambridge, and one of the co-founders of CUPPS, the Covenant of
Unitarian Universalist Pagans: I was brought up a Baptist in Michigan
but left the church in my late teens and read my way to the Unitarian
Universalists. I felt it was a place I could have freedom to search.
The neo-pagan movement brings a lot of things together. It offers a
much healthier and holistic way of experiencing ecstasy about life,
the goodness of creation and connecting at deep levels with other
creatures. In neo-paganism, a need to heal the earth is prominent -
it's important to take care of Mother Earth."
Susan Gale, a Philadelphia wife and mother and self-described
"radical feminist witch not yet out of the broom closet" in her
neighborhood: "There's a pain that's in young women even a decade
after feminism. I was raised in a tough poor working-class neighbor-
hood. My mother was a German Protestant, my father an Italian Catho-
lic. I was raised as a very religious Presbyterian, but it didn't
matter that I was the most brilliant student in my religion class -
there wasn't a place for me as a minister. Deacons and ministers were
men. And a lot of it rubbed me the wrong way: the anti-sexuality,
anti-sensuality, the guilt and sin and punishment rather than joy.
From the time I was a little kid, I couldn't accept redemptive suffer-
ing. Why is the central metaphor of most religions the bloody violent
death of a male? Why is it not birth?"
Invoking the Spirit
Starhawk signs her books"Blessed be." It is alsoher greeting
and her Amen.
In alarge room set up withflowers, crystals, trinkets and copies
of her books, she presided recently at a women's ritual at the Univer-
sity of Pennsylvania's Christian Association.
"Where would you likethe altar?" asked a participantbefore the
candles encased in glass were set on a brightly colored cloth in the
center of the room.
Two hundred womenof similarmind-sets - butvarying ages,religi-
ons, occupations and sexual orientations - were ready to join Starhawk
at the three-hour, $40 event. Another couple of hundred men and women
arrived later that evening for Starhawk's lecture.
People like GeelaRazael Raphael,a rabbinical studentwho wasone
of the event's organizers. "Starhawk is a spiritual leader, a women's
spirituality leader," says Raphael. "As a potential rabbi wanting to
be a spiritual leader, I want to see as many role models as I can. Her
form of non-hierarchical religion can be used in more traditional
In person, the 40ishpriestess looks not unlike theonetime tall
Jewish girl from Los Angeles she used to be. But her soft-voiced,
authoritative presence and staccato chanting and drumming command her
sessions with surprising power.
Women wear comfortable clothing: jeans, skirts, sweaters, tie-dye
revisited. A majority tend to be of a certain size - the goddess
religion rejoices in the female body. There are many embraces. Net-
working materials are exchanged. Before casting the formal circle that
so many women's rituals start out with, Starhawk encourages the
youngest and strongest in the group to form an inner circle around the
Starhawk warms up the group with physical and vocal stretches. As
participants form a larger ring around the inner one, she "casts" the
ritual circle, theoretically making the space within it a special
place. Candles representing the four directions and the Earth's center
are lit. Earth, air, fire and water are invoked.
Women stand and sway as she drums, urging them to find their
centers, their connectedness, often against the background of a simple
"Rising, rising, the earth is rising.
Turning turning, the tide is turning.
Changing changing, she changes everything she touches.
Changing, changing, and everything she touches changes."
Like many women's ritualleaders, Starhawk uses such chantsas a
kind of surrogate liturgy. Presented at different moments that morn-
ing, the lilting song she teaches is used as a blessing, a uniting
force, a backdrop to movement and dance.
Starhawk leads the groupthrough a series ofactivities - somethat
draw upon the circle as a whole, some small group discussions, guided
visualizations. "What kind of a body are you in?" she asks. "Look at
your body. How does it feel?"
Some people writhe. Others beat time to the drums. Some stand
awkwardly (earlier she assured them not to worry if they feel ill at
ease). Some look dubious.
Tofocus the visualization evenmore, Starhawk takesthe group to
an imaginary crossroads in the sky. "Close your eyes," she says.
"Reach out and feel and touch and smell these roads until you find one
that feels like a road in the future. Go down the road. Know you can
come back to this place of power because it is you. And remember there
are many roads to the future. The road you chose is only one pos-
The session endswith a grandfinale "spiral dance"- clockwiseto
invoke, then counterclockwise to release. "Anything you want to do
involves both," she says.
A giftedspeaker with an easysense of humor, Starhawkis equally
at home beating time in the center of a ritual or working the crowd at
the podium of a lecture hall. She is also at home with what she calls
the "W" word ("witch"). "Unless we understand it, we don't know why a
powerful woman is so threatening and so frightening," she says. "There
was a 400-year reign of terror particularly directed against women who
were then burned alive," she says, likening the witch hunts to the
African slave trade, the Holocaust.
Starhawk became interested in witchcraft in her late teenswhen
she and a friend did a student seminar on the subject at UCLA. Now she
is at the forefront of a movement to reclaim the word for positive
use. (Male witches also use the word rather than warlock, which means
For mostpeople, of course,the word "witch" conjuresup an image
of a crinkled old woman you wouldn't want your children to talk to.
But the picture of the craft that emerges within today's women's
spirituality movement (and that is reinforced by Starhawk's Philadel-
phia ritual) is a combination of group therapy, positive thinking,
stretching exercises, guided visualization, song and dance - and even
Its goddess- and nature-orientedprecepts are similar tothe Old
Religion of prehistoric times and societies that fell victim to the
witch hunts and persecutions of medieval and renaissance Europe. It is
earth-centered, individualistic and peace-loving.
Starhawk spends about a third of her time teaching ritual and
faith at college campuses and other forums around the country, and in
Canada. She feels that people crave it. "Even people who live in
cities - like most of us - are still connected to the cycles of
nature," she says. "Doing ritual that helps you affirm that helps us
not to feel cut off from the larger life around us, the actual life
support systems that sustain our lives."
Spring,with itsvivid reminders ofthe cycle ofbirth and death
andrebirth, is a fertile time for the rituals of women's spirituality.
Look at some recent manifestations in the Washington area:
Last month, attracted by a flier heralding a celebration of the
goddess ("dancing, singing, drumming, healing, creativity, inspira-
tion, discovery, nurturing and goddess games"), 21 women gathered in a
conference center in Potomac in honor of the spring equinox. "The day
was designed for women who wanted to bring out the goddess within
them," says organizer Nancy Smith, a seminar leader who specializes in
stress management and massage therapy.
120 men, women and children turned up last month for a feminist
Seder (for Holy Thursday as well as Passover) put on by the Silver
Spring-based WATER. Now a place where Christian and Jewish women can
come together for a feminist interpretation of religious rituals,
WATER was created by Diann Neu and Mary Hunt, two Catholic theologian-
s, in 1983. They send out 10,000 newsletters, stage workshops, con-
ferences and lectures, hold ecumenical monthly breakfasts for women in
ministry, publish books and act as an all-purpose feminist resource.
On April 14, the new moon heralded the Jewish celebration of Rosh
Hodosh. A group of women interested in finding or creating ritual
specifically for Jewish women gathered in a Silver Spring home in
honor of the occasion. Instead of going ahead with their scheduled
topic - the redefinition of God in non-masculine terms - the group
(representing a 30-year age span) shared its feelings and prayed (to
the feminine aspect of god) about the recent death of a 42-year-old
Atthe All Souls Church in the District a smaller group of women is
currently investigating women's religious history each Sunday after-
noon through "Cakes for the Queen of Heaven," a 10-part correspondence
course available through the Unitarian Universalist Church. Bev Tubby,
who took the course last year, is one of the conveners this year. "In
spite of everything that's been written about feminism and role
differences, women really do bring a wonderfully strong view to this
world," she says. "We do have a different perspective - it has to do
with the human context and human relationships. If women are not
cognizant of their spiritual history, they are missing out on a more
complete identity that can help form our ideas of who we are and what
we want to do in this world and how we're going to do it."
And June 6, "Kestryl & Company," the first of six biweekly talk
shows about contemporary witchcraft will air on Arlington Community
Cable, Channel 33. Produced by Cheryl Ann Costa, a computer program-
mer and third-degree Wicca high priestess, and moderated by Erica
Angell (known as Kestryl), a housewife and second-degree high pries-
tess, the show will feature high priests, magical tool makers, tarot
experts and pagan bards. "Many people are looking for a way to plug
into The Craft," says Costa. This is an easy way to do it.
Havingcast their lotwith an enlargedview ofthe sacred, these
women, like many others all over the country, are looking to the
spiritual as a hope for the future.
"It's life-giving for me to be a part of it, and tocreate it,"
says WATER's Neu.
"What I keep coming back to is that there is a growing power
within women. We are breaking all kinds of silences. Things are
happening because there are more and more groups where women feel
safe. My hope is that we'll keep creating these safe spaces where
being together as men and women is possible."
Next: The 12 Steps and Shamanism (Matrika, P.A.N.)