F is for Female. Feminine. Feminism. Femme. … Fertility?

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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the first one for the letter F.

For a long time, I couldn’t even think of a blog-worthy F topic, but today yesterday I suddenly knew what I wanted to talk about. In a way, this is a first part of a future blog post on gender, but since that one is going to be quite substantial anyway, I thought it couldn’t hurt to split it up a bit.

I also need to add a disclaimer before we begin. My very broad generalizations about different pantheons and deities and about all kinds of subcultures here are not meant as accurate, objective reports but as highly subjective descriptions of what I saw and felt and otherwise perceived to exist. So if you experienced something different, that’s probably just as true as what I talk about here. Furthermore, my claims that I didn’t find a deity with certain attributes does not mean that I claim there actually is none. Just that I didn’t come across it.

When I was a kid, I lived in a world where gender wasn’t anything that placed any boundaries on what any of us could do. Sure, we (my sister and two neighbor kids who were also sisters) were girls, but that wasn’t an issue because for the most part there weren’t any boys around, so it became a meaningless category in our daily interactions. I never heard I couldn’t do this or I should do that because I was a girl. I was a person, and I was interested in some things and not so interested in others, and that was that.

This changed when I grew into a very awkward and terribly shy teenager who never seemed to be as much a girl as the rest of them – but without a solid tomboy identity to make up for that. I just landed in “gender-neutral land” somehow, and I wasn’t very happy there – for one, it was a damn lonely place to be! It also was hard to feel good about being different when all I wanted was to be normal like the other girls. But no matter how hard I tried, I mostly remained a “girl failure.” Much of my ideas about being a girl at that age were tied in with being attractive to boys and managing to find someone to “date.” That never happened. The only “Do you want to go out with me? Check [_] yes [_] no [_] maybe” letter I ever got was a joke. I truly didn’t understand the rules of all the little “girls vs. boys” games, and I didn’t even like any boy in particular. No one ever expressed an interest in holding hands with me, let alone kiss me, and so I completely skipped that phase of early romance and “relationship” experimentation that everybody else seemed to go through.

Nina Hagen, early years

When I was 14, I decided I had enough of that. Over a period of a few months, I consciously remade myself from that shy, uncool wannabe-popular girl into a punk(ish) one – one who was outspoken and rebellious, one who didn’t have to be “pretty” anymore (which is not to say that the local punk scene came with its own beauty norms – but they were less emphasized), and one who was valuable as herself and not just by way of being some boy’s girlfriend. What a relief! I finally started liking myself again. I was still somewhat of an outsider, even in the punk/leftist circles I hung out in, but at least I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb anymore. (Eventually I got my first “real” kiss from someone I barely liked at 15, motivated by sheer fed-up-ness with my state of “un-kissed-ness.” After that, I often made out with boys at parties, which was usually nice, and had two major and mostly unrequited crushes, but I never even called someone my boyfriend until I was about 18 or 19 – and even that lasted only a few weeks.) This was also a time of strong emotional bondings with a series of best friends (all of them girls), many of whom seemed to be much more important than any crush or fling I had. My strongest emotional relationships were always with other girls.

Around the same time as my initial make-over, I started reading about anarchism, antifascism, feminism and other radical leftist politics, and I read pretty much everything about these topics I could find (remember, there wasn’t any Internet for us back in the 1980s). Feminism led to some first encounters with witchcraft/paganism as a current form of spirituality/belief/practice as I read feminist perspectives on witch persecutions and folk healers, moon rituals and modern witchcraft. My best friends and I naively romanticized “witches” as strong female rebellious role models. To me, paganism/witchcraft seemed to be a female-ruled world, despite the fact that my best friend’s boyfriend also read tarot (by the way, he was the one who tried to tell me that true happiness was only possible for male/female couples due to the need for gender opposites to come together yin and yang-like). That female-centered world appealed to me, but I didn’t translate that interest into a spiritual practice (beyond drawing pentagrams onto my spiral notepads at school as a graphic shorthand for “rebellious, cool, misunderstood WOMAN who will kick your ass if you disrespect her”).

For a while, I still flirted with some aspects of feminism that now seem at least vaguely spiritual to me. However, soon after the newness of menstruation had worn off (I started bleeding rather late, at around 15), I stopped believing this was something “magical” and “mystical” that connected me to all the women on the planet, and all the women of history and our fabulous ability to bear children. I just didn’t feel particularly powerful during that time of the month, and I also didn’t I suffer horribly, so my actual menstruation was mildly annoying at worst and a complete non-issue at best. And I certainly didn’t feel delighted about my potential fertility when I started having sex with boys! On the contrary: by then I didn’t even think I wanted children at some later point in life anymore.

Fast forward a few years to my early twenties when I came out as a lesbian (my first but not my last coming-out). As a consequence of that, I encountered feminist spirituality again (again, mostly in theory), if only as something that was “around” in the lesbian-feminist subculture I was in touch with. In this world, spiritual or not, women were better than men on principle, inherently peaceful and more connected to nature, etc. (and lesbians were also better than straight women because we didn’t “sleep with the enemy”). For a while, that was a great thing to believe in, because it made being female and lesbian into something cool and even superior, especially as a counterpoint to the countless occurences of sexism and homophobia in my life. It was great to have a space where women could do everything they wanted (unless “men” and “the patriarchy” violently kept us from doing so) and where women’s strengths and capabilities were not only acknowledged but even celebrated. Or, rather, some of our capabilities were.

I quickly realized that a quick mind and a sharp tongue didn’t win me many friends among my fellow feminists if I used it to criticize them. More than once I was accused of “being dominating” in conversations, which always carried a subtext of “you behave like a man!” (which of course was a very harsh insult for the kind of feminists we were back then). I even left a feminist magazine collective due to my unwillingness to stop believing (and pointing out) that sometimes(!) there is a whole lot of power in claiming to be a poor victim in need of being saved and protected. And don’t even mention my re-awakened desire to spend time with some select men who really, honestly didn’t seem like sexist assholes and potential rapists to me. Given all of that, it seemed pretty clear pretty soon that I wasn’t quite getting with the program of female superiority and ever-peaceful sisterhood.

My sex life was mostly non-existent during that time. I kept having unrequited crushes on the least feminine women I could find, but somehow the sisterlyness of it all (not to mention the seemingly inevitable connection of sex and abuse) didn’t spark my desire much. Needless to say, the issue of fertility or motherhood was now even further from my mind than it was when I still occasionally slept with men. Even though I thought for a while that pregnancy and giving birth seemed like a fascinating thing to experience physically (if only you didn’t end up with a baby to deal with), it was pretty clear I’d never use that potential ability of my female body to bring a new human being into this world.

Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in "Bound" (1996)

Fast forward again, to my mid-20s when another coming-out of mine took place: I started identifying as a (lesbian) femme, at first somewhat embarrassedly, but quickly with a lot of defiant pride. I had finally seen the error of my ways: I didn’t want to be one of those tough, sporty women with short-cropped hair and men’s clothes – I just wanted them! And I wanted to wear skirts and/or make-up and/or nail-polish with my big boots and big mouth while I did so. I wanted to be the “girl” to their “boy.” So I embarked on a dedicated mission to rediscover, reclaim, reconstruct, and celebrate many aspects of femininity for myself – this time as a conscious choice instead of the default-by-way-of-genitalia. As every glance at the butch objects of my desire affirmed, our gender expressions were in no way an automatic result of anatomy. Gender became something flexible, something we were able to change in subtle or drastic ways, depending on our needs and wants. I was finally free to explore femininity as something detached from heterosexuality and sexism. Femininity stopped being something I couldn’t achieve no matter how hard I tried, and it stopped being something that made me into a (potential) victim. Instead, it became something that made me strong on many levels. I could finally prove that I, too, could be pretty – even beautiful – if I wanted to. I could feel and be desirable to the ones I desired in return, not in spite of being who I was but because of it. Suddenly, it was easy and pleasurable, and that included sex. Doing my femininity for someone who didn’t take it for granted just because I was female made a world of difference. Finally, gender polarities made sense to me and became something that felt good to me because I had a choice about them (the polarities never again became binaries, though, because I saw so much gender variance around me that any idea of stuffing all of that back into only two boxes seemed both ridiculous and cruel). It was a glorious adventure for many years.

Eventually, in my early 30s, I slowly became interested in spirituality again. I read lots of stuff, mostly from the neo-pagan corners of the Western world. And, inevitably, I came across gender duality again. Goddess and God. Or even, goddesses and gods. Sometimes a singular Goddess. But there were no “femme” deities or any kind of queer, femme role model of pagan spirituality that I could find. I looked for suitable female deities first. But the ones I found (I looked mostly at the Greek and Roman pantheons, but also at the little bits I knew about the Hindu, Norse, or Egyptian ones) all seemed to be about being some god’s wife and the mother of several children – unless they were some kind of monstrous, scary killer or something. Anything else they did seemed secondary to their relationships in the way they were described in the mythology I read.

That made it hard for me to identify with any of them. I didn’t see my gender and relationships and way of life mirrored in the relationships within the various pantheons I read about. I couldn’t relate to all the family business – not because my experience in my family of origin had been so terrible, but because my life was simply structured around completely different ideas of living together and taking care of each other (the theoretically interested amongst my readers may find Judith ‘Jack’ Halberstam’s article What’s that Smell? Queer Temporalities and Subcultural Lives an interesting source for a few more thoughts on this, especially the first page of the online version). Reproduction and physical fertility just weren’t defining issues in my life. Not having a child isn’t a one-time choice that then changes your life irrevocably (as opposed to having one). It’s not even an issue I think about anymore, unless someone asks me if I want to have children sometime, or assures me that my “biological clock” will start ticking soon (yeah, right…), or otherwise let me know that being a woman at a fertile age who doesn’t even want a baby is somehow monstrous in its own right.

Which also made it difficult to impossible to identify with the Maiden/Mother/Crone idea that seems to ubiquituos in much of Paganism, especially anything Wicca-influenced. At 30+ and after , I really was no maiden anymore, no matter how drawn out my youth had been in some ways (again, see Halberstam’s article linked above). I was no mother and had no intentions of becoming one – my physical fertility seemed basically wasted in me. I also didn’t identify with the Mother archetype on a less literal level: I’d been creating things and taking care of them all my life, and it seemed absurd to me to restrict this aspect to a certain age/phase. And I wasn’t old or experienced enough to be a Crone, although I liked the idea of finally becoming free of all that fertility-associated stuff after menopause. That seemed a time where women could become people in their own right again (because, interestingly, the Crone never read as “grandmother” to me).

And the monsters? The Harpies, the bad witches and evil fairy stepmothers, Medusa, the sirens, banshees, or female vampires? Well, I flirted with the idea of monstrous femininity quite a bit because it seemed a good way to get away from cultural ideas that “women are the peaceful gender” and “women can’t be dangerous.” It also worked well as something that tied me back to punk, where femaleness also sometimes found “monstrous” expressions. Feminine monsters broke the rules. They were destructive, dangerous, and usually pretty strong. But they also often got killed off at some point or another. And despite my tendency to embrace my own monstrosity and destructiveness, I didn’t really feel drawn to all the death and doom these mythological creatures seemed to embody. I was a terribly optimist, after all.

So, next in my search, I turned to Raven Kaldera’s Hermaphrodeities, to see if a queer author had anything useful to offer to me. But I only ended up pissed off beyond belief because it seemed that the only role available to someone like me was that of Babalon, the sacred whore and consort to intersex/transgender Baphomet. If that’s what floats your boat as a femme, fine (really!), but it didn’t float mine. By then, I was sick and tired of being reduced to being “sexy” and “supportive” to my butch and transgender partners and friends – often sadly by them as well. And on top of that, Kaldera went and even claimed Aphrodite as intersex/transgender because there is a story where she has a beard. Great. Now every single way of being non-conventionally female (not to mention crossing gender boundaries) suddenly got ripped out of my femme hands and taken over to “trans*/intersex land.” I was furious. Wasn’t there a single goddamn female goddess who existed outside of a heteronormative paradigm that was left for me?! As a consequence, I stopped even looking at deity-related stuff for a long time. (Note: I realize that Kaldera didn’t even intend to address female femmes unless they were also transwomen. It still hurt to be excluded from his world, because he seemed to be able to include just about anyone else on the queer spectrum. And even if all this is just selective reading/memory which would be proven as incomplete by a rereading of the book, my emotions back then were still as real as they get.)

For a while, I did fine with the shamanic/animistic idea of Animal and Plant Spirits, for and with whom gender didn’t seem to be so much of an issue. But even in the shamanic worldviews I encountered, there were Mother Earth and Father Sky, and a female Moon and a male Sun (which still don’t sit right with me, even if that’s only due to the fact that in my native language German the moon is grammatically male and the sun is female). The Universe was still pretty heterosexually organized, even if some Native American cultures I heard about didn’t seem to assign gender based on anatomy but based on the social role that was taken up.

But even those concepts didn’t seem to include me. I don’t see myself as taking up “the” male role socially, nor am I taking up “the” female one. Both of the roles, in whatever society, always seem limiting to me, and my own interests, behavior, and feelings never fit into any of the given options. Not even if a change of social gender is one of them. Because I don’t feel “male” one day and “female” the next. I don’t perceive myself to be changing my gender that much. I look female for all intents and purposes, but I don’t quite feel that way. I mostly do my femmeness as extremely low-femininity these days, at least in terms of looks. My behavior, however, often seems to be relatively “masculine” if the reactions of people at work are any indication. Still, I am worlds away from being butch or even androgynous. I may put on nail polish one day, sew myself a new skirt, and maybe even cook dinner, but that doesn’t make me feel more “female” than I do on a day where I put on a pair of old jeans, paint a wall, and eat the dinner my partner has cooked. To me, this is all still “femme,” even if only for lack of a better term. (Nope, “human” won’t do because gender isn’t irrelevant to me.) Sometimes it seems I have come full circle to gender-neutrality, especially since my femme gender is massively tied to my desire, and there hasn’t been much desire for anything lately. Oh, and did I mention my queer and third-gender-identified transgender butch partner who has been shapeshifting himself for about 1.5 years now? Which doesn’t make finding a Pagan tradition – or non-tradition – that has room for both of us in all our incarnations any easier.

Also, my desire to find even a single goddess with whom I felt a connection that didn’t immediately bring up a string of reservations never quite went away. The only deity that somehow stuck with me a bit was Kali. While she seemed to be heterosexual as well, that didn’t seem to define her so much. I felt drawn to her destructive aspect, the literal blood and bones. She didn’t seem to care about being pretty for anyone but was fierce and strong instead. And she was still unarguably female. After a while, I could even start to accept her mother aspect. Not that I even dared to try getting in touch with her, mind you. There were too many issues of cultural appropriation, my ignorance about and lack of connection with Hinduism, and plain old caution involved for me to feel ready to go any deeper than looking up some basic information on the Internet and print out one or two pictures of her. She may or may not have been the being I encountered on one of my early shamanic journeys, but that was a one-time occurrence (I haven’t tried meeting that being again, though). So I sort of admire her from afar, trying to make up my mind about how to proceed from here. And, of course, she’s also firmly located in “monster” territory…

As a consequence of all of this mess, I still have a hard time seeing myself practice any deity-centered spirituality. I can’t quite relate to any pantheon, because the pantheons I’ve glimpsed at look too much like a world that holds little similarity to the one I inhabit (and I seem to believe that humans and the deities they believe in are and should be much alike in many respects). Sure, “official” lore may not hold all the realities of what deities did and do, but it is a powerful narrative and it’s hard to come across anything else at all.

I’m having much of the same problems even with non-deity-centered Pagan worldviews. Doing a fertility ritual for the Earth by way of simulating or having heterosexual intercourse seems utterly alien and absurd to me (ask Anne Fausto-Sterling or any other biologist worth their salt about the ridiculousness of thinking about natural gender in male/female terms only).There has to be another way to acknowledge and celebrate cycles of growth and death, and the return of spring. Alas, I haven’t found it yet…

Well, I could go on, but I think I made my points for today. (Besides, I have to leave some aspects of the topic for my post on gender in one of the G weeks, right?)

So, does anyone have any suggestions for a Pagan(ish) spiritual worldview that has room for non-reproduction-centered concepts of femaleness and femininity? For understandings of gender that aren’t limited to men, women, and the ones that change from one into the other socially? I’d be extremely interested to hear about all that I may have missed in my own explorations so far!

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5 responses »

  1. I really enjoyed this post. The way our culture has only a handful of female roles and then insists we perform one of them ALL the time is just weird. I’m cis female and neither very feminine or butch and it’s really awkward when I’m expected to try. Hello, costume party. X-P. I’d rather relax and be me without all the fuss.

    Have you taken a look at Anderson Feri? From what I’ve read, they’re very clear on being an ecstatic, not fertility, tradition. The Star Goddess created the universe with an orgasm (big bang! *g*) and her first children were the Divine Twins, who can be seen as both male, both female, or male and female twins. Gender and sexual orientation don’t seem to be an issue. I don’t know any more than what’s available on the web but it’s a place to start.

  2. I don’t remember what kind of Feri I read about many moons ago, but I’ll make sure to check out Anderson Feri now. At the very least it sounds like something I might want to add to my mental repertoire of potential Pagan paths, if only for balance’s sake.

  3. If you’ve heard of the Iron Pentacle meditation, that comes from Anderson Feri and gives a good idea of the ‘flavor’ of the tradition. I really like it as a form of shadow work. Also, T. Thorn Coyle’s two books are very interesting and worth reading for a non-wiccan form of witchcraft.

  4. I went through some of your struggles, too, in my own time. Neither my sexuality nor my spirituality seem to work in polarities, at lest not along lines of gender.
    One issue that fell away for me is that of identification with goddesses. When I tool the step from being more or less wiccan-inspired ‘general pagan’ to identifying as a polytheist, I somehow dropped that need to identify with my Great Ones and instead viewed them as someone I could talk to. I don’t need one goddess to fulfill every need of mine because there are so many others.

    Oh, and in Norse Mythology, the sun is female and the moon male.

    Concerning that need for non-reproduction-centered views of feminity and rituals that… we should invent some!
    Luisa Francia proposes some non-to-low-verbal rites in her “Mond Tanz Magie”, which is, in it’s theoretical viewpoint, a typical eighties-feminist thing and therefore, for me, hard to read without a distance. Her much later book “Der Rest Deines Lebens beginnt jetzt” is less elaborate in the rituals it proposes, much less specific, but also requires a great deal of creativity.
    However, I have a hard time with Francia in most of her books. Not my vision of feminity!

    The main rites of my paganism are quite unspecific, and I even prefer if there’s room for all the other identifications in my life, too (writer, activist, singer/songwriter, etc.). And sometimes, it’s so relieving when not everything has a gender tag attached.

  5. I like your approach of letting go of the wish to identify with your Great Ones. I wouldn’t say I’m already there but it sounds like a perspective to explore in more depth.

    Yes, I noticed the female sun and a male moon in Norse mythology – finally someone speaks my language there!

    I read a bit Luisa Francia back in the early 90s and occasionally come across her stuff on the internet. I only remember vague bits and pieces of her writing, but I have the impression she works from an assumption that all women experience the same kind of gender discrimination and that gender is always the most important aspect of a person (and therefore gender discrimination is always the most important kind of discrimination a woman may experience). Which really doesn’t fit well with an intersectional understanding of humans and their experiences. So, no, she’s not really what I’m looking for.

    I so hear you on the “it’s so relieving when not everything has a gender tag attached”! I wouldn’t even say that I find my own gender terribly important in my actual spiritual practice. When I drum, I’m a human who is drumming. When I read cards, I’m a card reader. When I’m outside in nature, I’m a human first and foremost. Now that I think about it, I’d say gender only becomes important when it comes to the “images” I find attached to just about every tradition that otherwise seems a potential fit for me. And since I’m a rather visually-oriented person, I need images that work for me, and that means images that include me and my loved ones (gender is just one of the relevant categories here). Well, maybe I have to literally draw them myself…

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