Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Female? Feminine?

Like an intestinal bug, it twists my gut when people use the term "feminine divine" or "divine feminine" when what is meant is female deity or the divine represented as female. I keep thinking that like many gut bugs, this misleading use of language might just go away on its own – but no such luck, although it does seem to have an ebb and flow. Unfortunately these last few months...or is it years?...the flow seems to be approaching high tide. So blog I must.

A little history/herstory first (at least as I see it). My memory (what an authority!) tells me that "divine feminine" (or v/v) came into usage sometime in the 1980s by people, some of them authors, who wanted to discuss female deity (or female deities, or female aspects of the divine) but didn’t want to use the word Goddess or wanted to talk about the subject in a non-religious, even not specifically spiritual context. Often they also didn’t want their views to be construed as feminist. Sometimes these were New Agers or people approaching the newly emerging Goddess movement from a psychological view ("it helps women feel better", or "it helps women find themselves") who talked about the "feminine within" or "inner feminine" both for men and women. See, men could be "feminine" too, as long as it was kept inside. Though I think that helping women "feel better" or "find themselves" may be a worthy goal and is part of the picture for some interested in Goddess, it is not by any means the full picture and it diminishes the power (and empowerment) of Goddess by making the role of the divine less than in other religions or spiritual paths.

As for men finding their "inner feminine," well that brings us to: Exactly what do we mean by "feminine?" For just a definition, "feminine" means female-like. But like many dictionary definitions, this doesn’t go far enough and gives only a hint of its meaning in actual usage. In current usage, "masculine" refers to traits a culture attaches to males/men and"feminine" refer to traits that a culture attaches to females/women. Whether these traits are "nature" or "nurture"– that is whether they are linked to biology or to cultural conditioning– is not clear. Since it is very difficult at this time to tease out nature from nurture, I go with the supposition these traits are all culturally contrived because this allows the most freedom to the individual person. So, for example, for boys and girls, an inclination to play with guns has been defined in Western society as a "masculine" trait while preferring to play with dolls has been defined in our culture as a "feminine" trait. To take it a little further, "active" or "aggressive" actions are considered masculine and "passivity" or "gentleness" is considered feminine. While some will say that testosterone ( a "male" hormone) is related to belligerence and aggressiveness and estrogen (a "female" hormone) to passivity, the actual biology is much fuzzier because both men and women have both testosterone and estrogen, only in different proportions. So that even if there is some biological inclination to some personality traits, it hasn’t been proven that it is stronger than the acculturation of men and women to behave in certain ways.

Most culturally-defined traits attached to "masculine and feminine" do not refer to body parts or embodiment at all. Yet when I use the term "Goddess," what I mean is the embodiment or personification of the divine as female. To me, "Goddess" implies that the totality of the Divine can be imaged as female. Whether you believe this means concrete deities or a metaphor, or some abstract state of being, or the Earth, or the Universe, the term Goddess implies that this/these can be represented by female images and imagery–by female body parts, by biologically-linked experiences and activities such as menstruating, giving birth, and the female experience of orgasm (which is not the same as the male experience– and if you don’t think that the male ejaculation has been used to characterize deity, including the biblical God, I refer you for starters to the book, Circle in the Square by Elliot Wolfson.)

As you can see (I hope), what I am describing is quite different from the image of a deity that has both male and female aspects–although actually I think there are some instances of such imaging where talking about the "feminine" and "masculine" divine may be appropriate. For example, in Judaism, the figure (or idea) of the Shekhinah could be termed "feminine divine" when it is spoken of as the feminine aspect of the Godhead – as long there is no embodiment –that is as long as neither Shekhinah nor the the Godhead is presented as having any physical characteristics. Though this may sometimes be (or have been) the intent, in actuality, my guess is this is rare, and with the trend today to image Shekhinah more concretely, even this usage is becoming more female than feminine.

Some people who do not intend to imply cultural traits use the term "divine feminine" anyway because well, they heard it somewhere and it flows kind of easy off the tongue and it has (in their minds) a certain lack of specificity which allows them to slide away from questions about whether their position is feminist and maybe it will attract more men to their groups/workshops/books, etc. if the men can talk about their "inner feminine." Others don’t want to use the word "Goddess" because they are trying to stay within a Christian or Jewish framework and "Goddess" is, well, crossing the line. Still others feel the term "Goddess" implies reconstruction of past religions with which they may not fully agree. As someone who at first (in the 1970s–but not now) didn’t like the term "Goddess" because I felt the -ess ending was a diminutive, I can sympathize with the search for another term. But "divine feminine" ain’t it! At least not if you’re talking in terms of personification or embodiment, whether that embodiment is a woman’s body, the Earth’s body (see Rachel Pollack’s The Body of the Goddess for a lovely elucidation of this pov), or the entire Universe as divine.

If you’re not comfortable with the word "Goddess," what other terms can you use to avoid the misunderstandings that the use of "divine feminine" engenders? Some people use "Great Mother," although limiting divinity to maternal imagery has distinct limitations. Jenny Kien (a PhD neurobiologist) uses the term "Divine Woman" in her book, Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism. Others use the term "Divine Female" or "Divine as Female" or "Divine Embodied as Female." Glenys Livingstone (a PhD social ecologist) in her current book, PaGaian Cosmology, uses several different terms including "Female Metaphor," "Earth-Gaia" (meaning Earth and the entire cosmos), along with "Goddess," and more specific Goddess aspects or names.

If you are now using "feminine divine" or "divine feminine" just because it’s easy, not because it’s what you really mean, you might consider using instead one or more of the alternatives I've mentioned. Or like Livingstone, as well as others including Carol P. Christ (a PhD theologian) in She Who Changes, and Judith Laura (yes, moi) in Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century (especially the last chapter), you might consider redefining "Goddess" to downplay the focus on reconstruction of past traditions and spotlight the incorporation of more modern meanings.


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At Thursday, June 19, 2008 6:20:00 AM, Blogger Debi Crow said...

The word "feminine" used in any context makes me gag slightly, as the idea of being "feminine" is a male construct, an attempt to tell women what they want them to be and what is expected of them under patriarchy.

"Feminine" characteristics are often so far away from the actual reality of being female, and as I say seem to be more of a projection of the wishes of men, rather than the real lived experiences of women.

"Goddess", on the other hand, rocks, as does this post! xxx

At Thursday, June 19, 2008 11:57:00 AM, Blogger Medusa said...

Good points, Debi. Thanks for you comment!

At Thursday, June 19, 2008 3:12:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree with debi crow. When one uses feminine divine it conjures dancing maidens for jesus. At least it does for me having seen them and feeling a little ill. Goddess too had that feel of less than god for a while. I do like the term female divine though. But I do feel we have to claim Goddess. There is a difference in tone and voice when you say Thank you Goddess instead of Thank god. Language and meaning is very important.
I really like this post. Thanks.

At Thursday, June 19, 2008 11:22:00 PM, Blogger Grian said...

Great post Judith. There is so much to take in here that I'm not sure I can comment correctly other than to say that I am a big fan of the word Goddess - as in the Sacred and Divine Source of All Things. Not the rather commercialized way it's used these days. Googling the word Goddess can pull up porn, anime, razors, barbies, etc. Goddess to me means "God" as in THE God.

At Friday, June 20, 2008 9:48:00 PM, Blogger Medusa said...

I agree, claiming "Goddess," as well as other uses of language are important. Words matter!

You mention razors. There's a women's razor commericial on TV now that says something like: using this razor will bring out the goddess in every woman. Can you imagine the outcry if a commercial said something like "use this razor to bring you closer to Jesus"?! This commercial shows an utter lack of respect for Goddess as a legitimate religion/spiritual path, while cashing in on the increasing number of women interested in this path.

Thank you both for your comments!

At Saturday, June 21, 2008 1:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes, blog you must Judith! these fuzzy matters MUST be clarified, so we don't have to keep gagging. Thank you.

At Wednesday, June 25, 2008 11:29:00 AM, Blogger Inanna said...

I've used the phrase "divine feminine" when I've wanted to be more inclusive, to draw parallels, or to point to the similarities, between the reclaiming of the Divine as female in Christianity and Judaism and Female Divine in Goddess spirituality, Paganism, Wicca, etc. However, after many years as a feminist, I no longer think of "feminine" as being "those qualities traditionally and culturally assigned to women in order to perpetuate our oppression." But I can forget how the word feminine sounds to most people. And I shouldn't fool myself that the word is somehow free from all those connotations for me, either.

I agree with Grian about the word Goddess. I also like the Feri locution, God Herself.

This is an excellent post; it will definitely keep me thinking about my own usages and what they convey.


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.