Question of the week: Female Power

Today is International Women’s Day.

So, the question of the week, naturally, is, What (if anything) are you doing for it?

In her often-quoted 1979 essay “Why Women Need the Goddess“, Carol Christ said:


Religious symbol systems focused around the exclusively male images of divinity create the impression that female power can never be fully legitimate or wholly beneficent…

The simplest and most basic meaning of the symbol of Goddess is the acknowledgment of the legitimacy of female power as beneficent and independant power.

My question for this week – and I mean this question with honest curiosity – concerns female power: political, economic, social, personal, spiritual. Is female power just the same as any kind of power, but that it happens to be wielded by women? Is it the case that the whole Goddess movement has a mainly political point, namely, the shifting of power into the hands of women, and the symbol of the Goddess is only a political device intended to achieve that result? Upon reading Carol Christ’s essay, that is the impression that I get, at least in the first few pages. Or, is there something distinct and different about female power? Does power wielded by women do different things, or aim for different purposes? Is it exercised in a distinct kind of way? CC’s essay says that power in a Goddess-centered context is “exercised in harmony with the energies and wills of other beings“. This suggests that female power is more collaborative and cooperative. Is she right? Is there something distinctly “female” about cooperation?

Or, is it really obvious from these questions that I haven’t studied much feminist thought, and that I’m asking entirely the wrong questions about female power?

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10 Responses to Question of the week: Female Power

  1. alfrecht says:

    My own view would be that power is power, full stop; power can be wielded in life-giving and wonderful ways, and it can be wielded in destructive and oppressive ways.

    I’m also not a gender-essentialist, so I don’t think that there is anything inherently different in the way women would wield power than the ways in which men have; some would do it admirably and brilliantly, some would do it poorly and appallingly. I don’t think there is an actual difference in “male energy” and “female energy” in contexts which use such ideas…I think energy is energy, and putting a particular cultural or linguistic signifier on it (that one is passive and another active, etc.) would vary from time, place, and culture, and therefore has no real substance or inherent nature, as it were.

    Further, I’m also a hard polytheist. I don’t think goddesses are important to think about as “symbols,” I think they’re important to recognize as extant beings. There is an energy with an independent will that has the personality of someone known to myth as, for example, Ereshkigal, which is very different than a functionally-equivalent but different male personality like Hades or Osiris or Yama. I would say that this has to do with cultural and temporal forces which shaped those personalities and our understanding of them, and there’s nothing wrong with that; there need not be a divine gender dualism and essentialization either from an ontological starting point. I’m in favor of process theology, so I think that deities are as shaped by humans as humans are affected by deities. But anyway…

    Big cans of worms there, my friend! But a question like this would no doubt prompt the same no matter what!

  2. B,is this my birthday present? For moi??? How did you know? It’s just what I always wanted. Mwah!!

    Ok, yer going back to some material I haven’t read in over a decade, so gimme an hour to grab some stuff off the bookshelf and “brush up my Shakespeare”… errr Christ. Bah, you know what I mean.

    Be right back.

  3. *This answer is more from an academic point than a personal point*

    In feminist thought female power is fundamentally different than other types of power. One thinker (poss. StarhawK?) describes women’s power as “power with” instead of “power over”. The power structures we are familiar with in contemporary society is “power over” i.e. being a leader, a president, a CEO, being the winner, the victor, the stronger one. This type of power is essentially about hierarchy, where the one with the “power” is above others who have less power.

    The idea of women’s power is that it is outside of this framework. Female power is “power with” power that comes from empowering others, sharing, collaboration and producing changes that not only buoy up the one with the “power” but enhance the conditions of a whole group. (what is sometimes referred to as a “win/win” scenario).

    If you wanted to discourse about the differences between these two systems of power, you could say that “Power over” isn’t power at all. “What we do to the web, we do to ourselves” so having power over another person or another group, also denigrates the one holding the power. It often causes negative consequences to the community, the environment etc (which we are all an enmeshed part of) and power and pride and ego have a way of eating a way at us anyway. In this system, the power has US, we don’t have it.

    • admin says:

      Yes, it was Starhawk who first described these categories of power that you mention. She also has a third category, “power from within”.

      If you wanted to discourse about the differences between these two systems of power, you could say that “Power over” isn’t power at all.

      Starhawk certainly associates that category of power with oppression; in her view, as I recall, it cannot be wielded but in a manner that oppresses those who are affected by it, to some extent. Her analysis of power is I think still one of the most powerful intellectual discourses that the pagan movement has so far produced.

  4. Also, I’d like to say these two power systems aren’t exclusive to gender. I’m pretty sure if Sarah Palin were elected she would fit into the traditional notions of “power over”. Certainly men can employ this “power with” notion and get in touch with it and execute it far better than a lot of women. Maybe it is just handy to refer to it as male and female power… I think a lot of indigenous groups would easily align themselves with a more community/family approach of “power with”. So it definitely isn’t just about gender.

  5. dubhlainn says:

    If I may answer without reading the Carol Christ article.

    I get asked similar questions when I talk about unique gifts and power that gay men bring to the world about them. I am not sure I would describe it as political, though I suppose it is, but as cultural.

    In a society where, not so long ago and to some extent even today, many would deny that women have any power at all the idea that they do and that it is just as important and honorable as other types of power was (is?) quite revolutionary. It is the statement, the act of speaking up, of rejecting the old paradigms where the importance lies.

    The power itself, to me, is no different. And women are just as likely to do wonderful things with power (and horrible things too) as men are.

  6. Grrrrrr to Live Journal and their silly word limits on comments. My response is over here:

    http://bluewavedruid.livejournal.com/84388.html?mode=reply

  7. Anonymous says:

    To frame my answer: If femaleness is a matter of ‘nature’, then for the purpose of the discussion it is equivalent to an inherited temperament; if it is a matter of ‘nurture’ then it is equivalent to cultural upbringing. I expect it’s some of both. However, a) my anthropology background inclines me to believe that culture is a stronger influence than temperament, and b) e.g. ‘How do the Japanese handle power compared to the Chinese?’ strikes me as a more significant kind of question than e.g. ‘how do introverts handle power compared to extroverts?’, so between the two, I’d prefer to look at femaleness-as-culture, and ask how that culture (or cultures, since it does vary significantly by location) handles power.

    With that in mind, a couple of observations on female ‘culture’ with regards to use of power:

    a) It seems to teach a more cautious handling of assets. I’m told that statistically, women invest more prudently than men – married men do better than single men, but single women better than either. Thus I’m intrigued to hear that Iceland has begun experimenting with exclusively female-managed banks, and elected an openly lesbian prime minister. If it gets them out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves, this may do more to advance feminism than any number of marches.

    b) It doesn’t seem to be less aggressive per se, but rather to promote indirect aggression over direct aggression. I speculate that a female-dominated world would see less war, but more assassination, espionage, and propaganda; and likewise, less resort to the death penalty, but the revival of exile or shunning as a punishment. Men and women appear to prefer different means, but I’m not persuaded they have fundamentally different ends.

    Final observation: goddess worshiping cultures do not noticeably treat their women better. Misogynists seem to be perfectly content to put divine females in a separate, superior category to mortal females, and carry on treating the latter exactly the same. What /does/ seem to objectively improve the lot of women is their economic independence – cultures where the men hunt and the women grow vegetable gardens, or the men hold political office but the women own all the property, seem to turn out fairly egalitarian.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Part 1

    “Is female power just the same as any kind of power, but that it happens to be wielded by women? Is it the case that the whole Goddess movement has a mainly political point, namely, the shifting of power into the hands of women, and the symbol of the Goddess is only a political device intended to achieve that result?”

    I wanted to quote your questions again because I think you brought up a very interesting point without realising it.

    You say “shifting of power into the hands of women” as if it means giving the majority of power to women and a minority of power to men. I’m not sure if that was the intention of your comment (in fact I like your work so I want to give you the benefit of the doubt, but you make it sound so sinister!) but never the less if we are to ever have true gender equality then the power will surely have to shift.

    Consider these statistics from the UN and Amnesty International:

    Women, on average, get paid 25% less than men do for doing the same jobs

    Men own an estimated 98% of all the titled land worldwide. Women own 2% of all titled land worldwide.

    In Canada, the United States and Europe women are twice as likely to live in poverty than men are.

    Male violence against women is the cause of more deaths and disability around the world in 15- to 44-year-olds than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war combined.

    In the US a woman is ten times more likely to be victimized by an intimate than a man.

    In the US a woman is beaten every 18 minutes by a man.

    This is my point: Women don’t want more power than men. They want the same amount of power, but in order for that to happen there needs to be a power-shift because we’ve never had equality of power. Ever.

    To illustrate this point further (as if the UN and Amnesty statistics weren’t convincing enough) is that many people think that getting paid 25% less than men and being victimised by an intimate ten times more is equal enough. That feminists should just go away. That it is fixed now. Shush.

    All I can say to that is that denial of sexism is sexism in and of itself.

    Privilege is a dangerous idea for most people because it realizes that the natural conclusion of equality is that, if it ever happens at all, the privileged are going to have to give up some of their privileges. Tim Wise, a great anti-racist activist and speaker, made a brilliant point about this on a You Tube video. “We love passive language,” he says. “We say things like ‘less fortunate’ as if here is fortune-” he holds his hand out in front of him “-and here you are down here, just under it.” He lowers his hand. “If only we could find you a little more fortune! Or we say things like ‘underprivileged.’ Here’s privileged and there you are under it. If we could find you a little more privilege then everything would be fine, but where is your privilege that we’re going to try and find? Now, now, now you can’t ask that. You can’t try to find the privilege that the underprivileged don’t have, because what is the opposite of underprivileged? Overprivileged, that’s right! But have you ever used that term or heard that term used in polite company before? You’ll hear the term ‘privileged’ but you’ll never hear the term ‘overprivileged.’ We act like the opposite of underprivileged is privilege, but that’s not true: if someone is under then that means someone else is over, so when we talk about underprivileged people – which we have no problem doing because it’s passive, because it didn’t imply that anything did anything, it implies that ‘stuff just happened’ – there has to be overprivileged people. But we can’t have this dialog if we keep using passive language.”

    For thousands of years men have had access to a privilege structure that has let them monopolize spirituality and religion. Part of that monopolization has been the destruction of all Western female deities with a so-called One True (male) God.

    Women bear the scars of patriarchal spiritual and psychological politics, so it is natural for any Goddess movement to be active in wanting to address the damage and shift the power.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Part 2

    You ask if the Goddess movement is political as if the God movement is not. Of course it is! We’re so saturated by the idea that God is a white male that we don’t even consider His maleness or His whiteness as the political devices they are, let alone how these political devices damages women or people of colour.

    We’re used to a male-God movement, so used to it we don’t even notice it anymore and so used to it we down right expect it. But by not noticing the God movement we can’t really appreciate the Goddess movement, and if you think that men and women already have equal power and ignore male privilege and overprivilege and information from the UN and cries for help from Amnesty International, then of course a Goddess movement will look like it’s trying to give majority of power to women and a minority of power to men.

    Even after quoting several disturbing statistics I don’t think the main “power problem” is the rapists or the wife beaters or the male intimates ten times more likely to beat their girlfriends. The problem is the view that says we shouldn’t notice these power struggles and privileges; that we should all just get along, not rock the boat and be gender-neutral. But if you don’t notice male privilege you won’t notice the consequences of male privilege, the damage it is causing to women in very real physical, psychological and spiritual ways and you certainly won’t know what it means to start “shifting the power into the hands of women.” (Into their sinister, sinister hands.)

    “Is [female power] exercised in a distinct kind of way? CC’s essay says that power in a Goddess-centered context is “exercised in harmony with the energies and wills of other beings”. This suggests that female power is more collaborative and cooperative. Is she right? Is there something distinctly “female” about cooperation?”

    From a feminist point of view, female power operating in a society dominated by male-privilege is always going to work differently to male power operating in a male-privileged society.

    The whole point of my post is that you can’t talk about female power without first understanding the context – the culture and time – in which female power happens. You also can’t think about power without considering privilege (in this case, male privilege).

    After thousands of years of male privilege it’s no surprise that female power is seen as a more “cooperative” force in the world: it’s had to be. If men’s power is in the driving seat of society then women have had to bend their power around men and “cooperate” rather than take the lead.

    I don’t think this means there’s something distinctly feminine about cooperation though. In fact I think that’s an idea as patronizing to men as it is to women. It’s no secret that men and boys are encouraged to keep up a tough guise, and in order for notions of tough manliness to survive there also need to be notions of its opposite: soft womanliness.

    By suggesting that girls cooperate and men lead and take the power, because that’s what tough guys do, it not only keeps gender roles firmly in place but ultimately leads to the statistics I quoted and hurts both men and women.

    That isn’t to say that we can’t learn from a more cooperative kind of power. I refuse to genderize cooperation, but I think it is vital for us to bring a more cooperative and collaborative power into focus. In fact, vital is the right word for it.

    “Is it really obvious from these questions that I haven’t studied much feminist thought, and that I’m asking entirely the wrong questions about female power?”

    Weeeeell, yes but I hoped my (clearly feminist) answers were useful. And get looking at feminist blogs! 🙂 The F Word blog is a good place to start.

    (By the way, I want to end this mammoth of a comment by saying that I took a lot of time to write this because I heard an interview with you on Deos Shadow the other week. I’ve listened to it five times already and love your work. This message is written out of enthusiasm and passion for both what I heard you say and for feminism. Hear me roar, eh?)

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