The unexamined dissertation: not worth writing?
As some who read my blog may know already, I'm currently struggling with the process of writing my dissertation proposal. Despite writing being one of the things I do best and most easily, and for various reasons that aren't important right now, I've had some nervous procrastination issues with writing this proposal. Thus my adviser suggested I take a moment and consider carefully: why do I want to write about the subject I've chosen for my dissertation? So I've been engaging in some self-reflection.
At about the same time I was thinking about this, a family member emailed me, talking about something she'd heard recently: that there is a need for all peoples — not just the indigenous — to de-colonize themselves. As I was dashing off a quick reply to her I was first distracted and slowed, then thoughtfully intrigued by a number of associated questions which occurred to me, which were all wound up with these issues. I realized my relative had indirectly asked me some very interesting and critical questions which (also indirectly but importantly) affect my attitudes about the work I'm engaged in currently — questions such as: how do I define feminism? Why am I a feminist — and a spiritual one, at that? What is Women's Spirituality? Why Women's Spirituality instead of mainstream religion, or even "mainstream" paganism?
Perhaps the easiest question for me to answer is what I think feminism is. I no longer believe feminism is the old "equality with men" argument — although I used to. Currently I agree with bell hooks' marvelously clear definition of feminism: "a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression" (Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, p viii). The reason I agree with hooks, rather than still believing that feminism is the struggle of women to be equal to men, is because I understand that this old definition misses a trick. Consider what it means if feminism is indeed no more than a movement wherein women aspire to equality with men: doesn't that imply that being female or feminine is somehow… lacking?
Further, once I'm being treated as equal to men in my field, why should I care if other women are not being treated equally? I've succeeded, after all. If those women were really feminists, they'd all be trying to be a man too, right? I can just ignore the question of why it is that anything associated with the female is still denigrated; I can just hire some "non-feminist" or "lesser" woman or feminine-behaving man to clean my house and raise my kids. I'm making as much money as a man, after all — I've won the feminism game, right? I'm entitled to the same rat race and running the same increased health risks and having the same occasional confused feelings about how empty my life feels as I bust my chops for a family I rarely get to spend time with. Yay, equality with men!
Yeah, that's a big steaming pile of no. Let me try again.
So why am I really a feminist? Because to me, relative financial equity between white males and females — at the expense of people of color — is still not good enough. It's racism and it's unhealthy for the species; we certainly need more and better social change than just that. There needs to be an ending of oppressions — and like the eloquent bell hooks, I want that lack of oppression, and the ensuing egalitarianism, for everyone. If we end sexist oppression then we are not valuing any gender or skin color at the expense of all others.
Let's take this a step further: if we considered the feminine to be as respected and cherished and valued as the masculine currently is, then we would shatter our currently deeply limiting gender roles. Biology is not destiny! Women may be able to give birth, but what if they don't want to? What if they want to earn money hand over fist or fight on professional sports fields or lead as politicians and judges and priests? Why shouldn't they? Men may occasionally have heavier muscle mass than women — but again, so what? What if they'd rather cook creative dinners for their families or raise and teach children or nurture those in need? Again: why shouldn't they? If we end sexist oppression, then all these possibilities for a wonderful, productive life are equally valued rather than sometimes denigrated, and all of us will have more fascinating options to live well open up to us.
This is also why I study Women's Spirituality. My definition of this field is cribbed somewhat from all my foremothers in Women's Spirituality, of course, as well as more recent friends I've meet in person and on-line through my studies. To me, Women's Spirituality is the uniquely feminist intersection of spiritual/religious and political action. It embodies a sociocultural critique which uses Goddess iconography, cultural mythologies, and individual spiritual experiences as an expression of the Divine, primarily presenting nature, women, and women's bodies as being of immense spiritual value, sacred and worthy of devotion, and deserving of defense against damagingly regressive androcentric perceptions of both Nature and Woman.
Consider this: modern organized religions purport to be for all people — and yet at least half the population of the world is pretty much excluded from at least one form of significant membership in them: the clergy. It is as clergy that the most meaningful participation, interpretation, and explanation of these religions emerges — and yet, in all of the so-called Big Five (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism), women are most commonly regarded as inferior to men — if not outright denigrated. For those few religions whose dogma (sometimes grudgingly) allows women as clergy, there is still a struggle for female clergy to become ecclesiastical peers with the male clergy. Further, in this struggle, what do these ecclesiastical women face? More worship of Man — because the deities of all these big, dogmatic organized religions are overwhelmingly male! In fact, only Hinduism permits goddesses — and even there, modern perceptions of the religion most commonly promote the male at the expense of the female.
So we have God the Father, Lord, He — but while man is culturally believed to be of the mind and intellect and heaven and yearning upwards towards enlightenment… how do we culturally and religiously epitomize women? She is most often cast as being of the flesh: earthy and dark and dirty (as in: our cultural horror at menstruation and the messiness of childbirth), and of the emotions (hysterical, over-emotional, illogical), and animalistic (pussy, bitch, chick, etc.). In the US (my natal culture) it would appear the male has been sanctified at the expense of the female: we are actually raised to denigrate what is female and what is considered feminine. This is a trap I fell into just as much as many other women and men have: even as women struggle for financial equity with men, they're taught to believe the feminine is somehow less worthy than the masculine. Think about what that teaches us: Man is Holy, Sacred! -but women are… well… Man's servants? Come on, ladies — isn't that good enough? Sheesh, so demanding!
The five biggest religions in the world today are created by men and for men, with completely and sometimes only male deities. There is no religion today which is created specifically by women and for women, which promotes the sacred nature of Woman. In the presence of such a gaping abyss in women's lives; when there is such a crying spiritual emptiness for women… how can I not study Women's Spirituality? Until we value the female and the Earth just as greatly and reverently — Goddess the Mother, Great Lady, Queen of Heaven and Earth, She — I will continue to be a spiritual feminist, and seek to encourage and highlight the healthy cultural necessity of balance with and connection to the Divine Feminine.