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" One touch of nature

makes all the world kin "

William Shakespeare

Spiritual Sexism: Time to Drop the Gender Metaphor?

Published by Philip Carr-Gomm

Now that it’s Beltane in the northern hemisphere, when the land around us gets wonderfully colourful and sexy, let’s have a look at one of the confusions I believe has arisen in modern Druidry – and more generally in Paganism.

Druidry has been influenced by Alchemy, Tantra, Taoism, Wicca and Jungian psychology in placing a good deal of stress on the idea that there are Feminine and Masculine Principles that need honouring and uniting. This approach makes a welcome change to the body-denying and sex-denying attitudes that can often be found in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions. But look what has happened as this idea – powerful and indeed obvious as it is – has become over-used. It has jumped out of its box and run riot – gendering everything from stones to planets, from numbers to qualities of heart and soul.

Is water really a manifestation of the Feminine Principle? Are odd numbers really Masculine? Having spent decades happily accepting the widespread use of gendered terms, I have recently started to question the value of using them. I have even started to wonder whether their use may sometimes do more harm than good. Is it really helpful to assign gender to whatever it is we are trying to understand? Is it perhaps time to drop this terminology?

Have you ever had the experience when you get an idea, that suddenly the outside world seems to confirm its significance: people mention the same idea to you in conversation, in letters or emails, and maybe you even read of similar or related ideas in the books or magazines or web articles you happen to read? It’s as if you’ve tuned in to something that’s out there in the Collective Mind – it’s not an idea that has decided to visit only you! The very fact that it starts popping up all over the place suggests that it’s an idea ‘whose time has come’, an idea that the ‘Spirit of the Times’ is urging upon those who are ready to listen.

In the men’s group I’m in, I have experienced a great deal of caring, nurturing, and emotional support. Reflecting on this one day, I realised that I associated these qualities with the Feminine principle, while I associated other qualities, such as focus and analysis, with the Masculine principle. And in that moment of reflection I saw the absurdity of this. In our men’s group we are not being ‘feminine’, or ‘opening to our inner feminine’: the ability to care is not confined to either sex. This seems pretty obvious, but over the coming weeks this one thought proceeded to act as a catalyst which started me questioning a whole set of assumptions about the way I had been looking at myself and the world.

I was cautious in sharing these ideas with others, because I know how emotive the issue of gender can be, but at one Samhain camp of OBOD – the Druid group I help to lead – I shared this idea in a workshop, and found that almost everyone else had been thinking along these lines too. It was as if the group heaved a collective sigh of relief that someone had finally spoken about this. One man recounted how he had been dancing at a Five Rhythms session and a woman had said to him “It’s so nice to see you opening to your feminine side.” He felt his dance was expressing his sensitivity and caring and wondered why she had to allocate a gender to this part of his nature.

In the workshop we explored questions such as: what have you considered your ‘Feminine nature’ and your ‘Masculine nature’? What are you seeking to marry in the ‘mystical union’ so beloved of esoteric tradition? Is it heart and mind? Is it the ability to be focussed, penetrative, analytical, linear, versus the ability to be inclusive, caring, receptive, nurturing? We all possess these faculties, so is it really helpful to allocate gender to them?

One of the most fulfilling aspects of the work I do involves reading the reviews that students of the OBOD course write at the end of their training. Often they have been studying our distance learning course for five, seven, ten years or more. Each review is unique and fascinating. Before I gave the workshop at the camp I had read one such review, from Magdalena Salomea, a member in Krakow, Poland. She wrote about the way we traditionally assign the wand to the Masculine principle, the chalice to the Feminine: ‘Working with both of them was a pleasurable and powerful experience, but I dare not assign their qualities to either sex. This, I feel, is an important matter, since there are some of us who do not feel attached to the old models. As the world constantly changes, so does our judgement and understanding about our role in the world. Maybe people who turn to Druidry and other earth religions are already one step ahead with this change. Leaving behind the associations of ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles in relation to fertility is another important step that more and more people sense, but still need some support and encouragement to take… but as long as we pagans celebrate sacred sexuality connected mainly to heterosexual intercourse, we are still not taking that step.’

Here Magdalena was suggesting something radical: that perhaps a paradigm shift is occurring, and that some of us are aware of this. I wanted to test if we were on the scent of something new, and that was why I talked about this at camp, and found to my surprise that almost everyone was also feeling and thinking in the same way. And then I found Joanna van der Hoeven’s essay Paganism, Anthropomorphisation and Genderin which she raises the same question and writes: ‘By gendering everything and anthropomorphising we are also taking a huge risk in creating a spirituality that is entirely anthropocentric.’

All this is suggesting that viewing certain things through the lens of gender, associating certain aspects of ourselves and life with the Masculine and Feminine principles, is no longer serving us, and in fact is simply reinforcing division, separation, and dualistic thinking.

Years back, when I came across the work of the psychologist Richard Coan, I was excited by his findings: that scientific testing of creative people revealed they all shared two core skills: the ability to be open, and the ability to be focussed. This matched so perfectly the two great symbols of magical working – the chalice and the wand or sword, which was already strongly associated in esoteric tradition with gender, through symbolic thinking that associated the sexual organs with the two objects.

Coan offered verification of something many of us knew from our own experience: that our ability to be focussed married with our ability to be open to new ideas and feelings is central to our creativity. This marriage of apparent opposites is vital if we want to be successful, and the chalice and wand neatly symbolise these two abilities. But does it really help, or even make sense, to see them as masculine and feminine qualities?

An email from Nicole Youngman, a sociologist and eco-feminist, asks whether it is time to drop the gender metaphor:

“I think it’s important to make a clear distinction between “sex” and “gender”— sex (male/female) is strictly biological while “gender” (masculine/feminine) refers to those qualities that our culture decides are appropriate for boys/men and girls/women to cultivate and display. Sex has existed for billions of years, and has created the possibility for complex life forms to evolve; gender is a human invention, a set of ideas that is constantly changing. The tendency Pagans have inherited from systems of medieval magick to assign gender to things like stones, elements, planets, herbs, etc., that have no literal sex (much less gender) risks making comparisons with how men and women are supposed to feel or behave to parts of nature for which such things are irrelevant (ie, mountains are somehow “masculine” because they are towering, strong, and immovable, while bodies of water are somehow “feminine” because they are passive, nurturing, and accepting). All this does is reinforce stereotypical gender roles, which we need to be working against. Statements like “men need to embrace their ‘feminine’ side” may be intended to mean “men have as much capacity for nurturing as women do and can develop this trait if they are allowed and encouraged to do so,” but they still make it sound like nurturing is somehow an inherently female characteristic that men can adopt if they choose to do so. References to things like “the masculine qualities of dynamism and penetration” are problematic in the same way – if women can be dynamic and penetrating (whatever that means) too, then those qualities are NOT inherently “masculine” but have simply been labeled as such by our culture. Ideally, I’d really like to see us work towards balancing those characteristics (in ourselves and in society at large) that are traditionally labeled “masculine” and “feminine” by abandoning the gendered metaphors altogether and simply referring to the characteristics themselves as they are.’

Thank you Nicole – so clearly expressed. (And you can read more of her reflections on gender, including fascinating information that reveals “it’s not just humans who have complicated sexualities (and, I would daresay, gender expressions). Other animals do too, and the plant kingdom has so much variation in reproductive strategies that it’ll make your head spin.” Read more here.

So here’s the challenge: let’s ask ourselves whether we possess any qualities, capacities or faculties that it makes any sense to allocate to a gender. And if we can’t find a reason to allocate our pride, courage, intellect, caring, skill, and so on to a particular gender, then let’s stop doing it. And if we want to start gendering aspects of the world outside us – of ideas and of Nature, let’s ask ourselves whether there really is any value or point in doing so. Modern-day Druids and Pagans have always been good at breaking free when necessary. Let’s break free of this gendering obsession!

Philip Carr-Gomm
for The Druid Network Beltane 2015 newsletter