The modern woman, at least in America, is under a series of unique pressures that make me believe that women only groups that focus on women’s mysteries a very important thing these days. We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t, expected to match every impossible ideal that society holds up for us, which we cannot meet no matter what options we pick, and that means that many of us feel it’s not ok to be ourselves. More than anything, women’s mysteries focus our attention on ourselves, and the concept of it being ok to be whoever we really are, no matter how much of the cultural ideal we match or don’t match – there are many Goddesses, and they offer many ways to be female, without tearing down men for being male.
My personal experience with this is as a woman who works in a traditionally male-dominated field. I have a degree in mechanical engineering, and I work in the automotive field. But the opposing forces in my life go back much further than just my job, and they run much deeper.
I don’t really know where it started – it was subtle, and insidious. But over the course of elementary school, I learned that girls were emotional, and boys were stoic; girls were good at art and music, boys were good at math and gym class. And by far, my favorite subject was math – I was the smartest kid in my entire grade – and that didn’t fit with all those expectations.
Along the way, I picked up the understanding that to be seen as equal to the boys in my class, I had to be better. A girl getting an A in math was a fluke; to be equal to the boys, it had to be an A+. Placing in the school math contest didn’t matter – 2nd or 3rd out of 200 wasn’t an achievement worth recognizing, only placing first got me anything other than a pat on the head, even though the boys who placed in the top ten were all commended for their brilliance.
When I got into middle school, I joined the math team, and while our coach had no problems with me being a girl, many of my male teammates did, as did competitors from other schools. The idea of being beaten by a girl was always something that my immediate rivals disliked, and I didn’t win many friends by winning as many gold medals as I did.
It was so much of a problem that when I was a sophomore in high school, a fateful discussion occurred between my guidance counselor and me. My mother insisted I needed to talk to him about colleges, because I had gotten an interview with MIT, and she thought I ought to be able to get useful information from the counseling office on what to expect. When I said that I wanted to talk about college, he said that it was too soon, that I should come back when I was a senior. When I said that I already had an interview scheduled for one of my applications, he asked what I meant, and I explained that I’d been working on applying to MIT. His very thoughtful response was, “Well, we had a guy from Wentzville go there once, I suppose anything is possible.”
I refused to go back to talk to him ever again.
College wasn’t much better. Many of my professors were foreign nationals, from countries where women really are second-class citizens, and their opinion of having a woman in their classes often reflected that social history. I was often not taken seriously; when I asked questions about how to do homework problems, I was often made to feel like an idiot for not immediately understanding the work at hand.
The thing that really brought this dichotomy into view for me was that I recently said something about wanting to do my nails, but that it was a waste, and not very engineer-like. A good friend of mine (who happens to be male) asked what I meant by that. When I explained that, besides the fact that brake fluid eats nail polish, it really wasn’t in keeping with the image of being an engineer. And upon further discussion, he pointed out that when I’m working on engineering things, I tend to give off a very prickly vibe. And that’s a defensive mechanism – I have to act more arrogant, and more closely matching society’s views of men, to be taken seriously as an engineer – I have to be better than my male coworkers to get the same accolades.
I can’t show when I’m hurting; I can’t stop to take time for myself until everyone else’s needs are met, because doing so proves that I’m weak, and not up to the standards of the world I live in. I have to be perfect at everything, because any little mistake proves that I somehow don’t deserve the accolades I’ve gotten in the past, or the place that I am now in my life, that I’ve earned with all my hard work.
I’m also told I’m not a real woman because I don’t have children – but then, a good friend who has a child tells me she’s told she’s not a real woman because she has a child and stays home with her daughter, because she’s somehow “giving up” her life this way.
So, how does all this tie in to women’s mysteries and women-only groups?
In my experience, groups of women tend to work out one of two ways. Some groups are catty and end up tearing each other down, holding the bar even higher for each other than society does. And other groups pull together, and allow women to be themselves, supporting each others’ decisions and needs, and helping each other grow as human beings.
And it’s that second kind of group I’m advocating for – one where we come together as women, to be who we are, and to support each other spiritually. To reach out to all the Goddesses out there, and learn from each of them (and from each other) about how to deal with the facets of our lives – the ones that make us uncomfortable, the ones that scare the rest of the world, the ones that we cherish publicly and the ones we honor secretly. To build the inner strength that is so necessary to deal with the pressures of a world that never thinks we’re good enough.
This is not to say that there aren’t men in the world who support women, or who allow us to be ourselves. But from what I’ve seen, their support is based on blind faith – they can’t know how these things affect us, because they have no frame of reference. There is nothing similar in their lives in terms of the subtle depths of these opposing forces, or how completely they shape our lives. Explaining it to them, while helpful, more often than not results in looks of confusion and disbelief. I tried explaining the whole “girls can’t do math” bit to my husband once. While he readily admits that he’s seen people with that attitude, he struggled to grasp the full breadth and depth of the ways this is expressed in the world.
I’ve studied with a Dianic coven for the last few years. While their take on patriarchy and “herstory” are things I have a lot of heartburn over, what I found in the group I practiced with was a place where I could be me. Where I could bring any issue to the table for help from my sisters. Where your education or current job or sexual orientation didn’t matter. Where each woman had the right to be there, and to be herself – as a whole person, bringing all her hopes and fears and experiences to the table.
I also struggle with the Dianic assessment that there are two types of people in the world, mothers and their children, but I realize that a lot of that struggle, for me, is tied into my own battle with infertility – as in many Pagan groups, I feel there’s too much of an emphasis on “mother” as an archetype, particularly where being a mother requires one to give birth to children. Most groups avoid other views on the mother archetype – the creativity, nurturing, teaching, growing, and providing for self, family, and community.
In some ancient cultures, menstrual blood was seen as taboo, and the woman had to separate herself from the group during her menses, and only interact with other women. Could it be that this, in part, became a similar “safe space” for women?
Unfortunately, this sort of experience isn’t something one can find in most modern polytheistic groups, particularly in Reconstructionist Pagan groups. Too many Recon groups leave the mysteries out of their religion. Additionally, most local groups are small – too small to manage a regular worship experience plus a women’s group.
It’s also not really something you find in mainstream Wiccan and neo-Wiccan groups – they tend to be very much about balance – though their definitions of balance are all over the map, and are sometimes not at all balanced by any definition of the word.
The only place that one reliably finds this experience these days is in Dianic groups, (and not even in all of them) which generally are monotheistic – there is “The Goddess” who has many faces. Some Dianic groups take the “women first” bit far enough to generate words like wymyn and wombon, some venerate lesbian relationships over heterosexual ones, some are still just cheerleader squads in disguise, where everyone must be the same, and can never have a bad hair day.
So, what would a polytheistic women’s group look like?
I suspect that every group would vary a lot depending on the people and the place. After all, when you’re talking about exploring the realms of many different Goddesses, there are many ways for things to go, because what might be appropriate to one Goddess may not be appropriate for another.
While I have a personal affinity for the full moon rituals that most Dianic groups focus on, I could see any number of other schedules working out. I suspect something like the first Sunday of the month would give the opportunity to cycle through lunar and solar cycles, and to pick Goddesses and mythologies for each ritual as appropriate.
The mythology is an important part here – what do we read about this Goddess in the lore; what does that story say about living our lives as women? What can we take away from the mythology to apply to our lives?
Dianic rituals are largely magick with little veneration. I think the emphasis on healing that is present in most Dianic rites is a good one – there are many things in our lives to be healed, after all – but adding in a more honoring/worshipping aspect would be a benefit too.
Most polytheistic rituals like this will require more prep work than the average Dianic ritual – often in Dianic circles, ritual parts are assigned immediately before ritual, with everything done on the fly. Working with specific Goddesses, you’d have to know what that particular deity likes and doesn’t like, and plan accordingly. Someone would have to have read up on the mythology to present to everyone. Appropriate offerings would have to be arranged, and it might even require an appropriate ritual format.
To that end, I think some form of hierarchy would have to be imposed. Not that discussion and attempting to come to consensus are bad…just that someone has to make the final decisions; someone has to organize the various members to make sure each ritual is complete. If the group does any sort of initiation procedure, it’d need that structure to make things work. Structure also helps to keep the tone of the group the way it’s intended to be – someone has to be willing to pre-screen new members, occasionally someone has to be willing to tell people that they’re just not right for the group (or that they’re flat out nuts and need a shrink, not a ritual group).
Is it do-able? I don’t see why not. I think, with the right intent, women from any number of religious backgrounds could work together this way, even if not all the Goddesses chosen were from their own pantheon; most deities seem pretty relaxed about the occasional thanks to someone else if help is needed.
I don’t see the issues with women’s roles in society going away anytime soon. We might as well make the best of it and do what we can for ourselves.