Neo-Paganism is a challenge to patriarchy, especially patriarchal religion. “Patriarchy” refers to a system of social relations that are not only male-dominated, but also male-centered. In a male-dominated society, men hold most of the positions of authority—political, economic, religious, military, and domestic. There is a power imbalance between men and women in all aspects of life. While any individual man may be more or less powerful than other men, all men benefit in some way from this imbalance.
But a patriarchal society is also one that is male-centered. This means that men’s experience is treated as the norm, and women’s experience is treated as the exception. Men’s experience is treated as representative of all human experience. In patriarchal societies, women are often romanticized, or put on a pedestal, but this does not translate into real power, much less equality. Women in patriarchal societies attain power only to the extent that they embrace patriarchal values.
Patriarchy is perpetuated by men and women. Both men and women have to be socialized to support patriarchal values and institutions. Men and women perpetuate patriarchy by simply following the cultural path of least resistance. Patriarchy harms both men and women. Patriarchy is not only a system by which men rule over women, but also one in which a few men rule over other men.
Patriarchy harms men by how it defines masculinity narrowly in terms of control: control of their bodies, control of women, and control of their environment. Patriarchy teaches men to idealize autonomy and to avoid connection, with their environment, with other people, and with their own selves. Patriarchy teaches men to treat women, the Earth, and their own bodies as objects to be acted upon, to be used. As a result, men under patriarchy lead impoverished inner lives.
The movement toward equal rights for the women, while laudable, should not be confused with challenging patriarchal institutions. As sociologist, Allan Johnson, explains in The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy (1997):
“It is easier to allow women to assimilate into patriarchal society than to question society itself. It is easier to allow a few women to occupy positions of authority and dominance than to question whether social life should be organized around principles of hierarchy, control, and dominance at all, to allow a few women to reach the heights of the corporate hierarchy rather than question whether people’s needs should depend on an economic system based on dominance, control, and competition. It is easier to allow women to practice law than to question adversarial conflict as a model for resolving disputes and achieving justice. It has even been easier to admit women to military combat roles than to question the acceptability of warfare and its attendant images of patriarchal masculine power and heroism as instruments of national policy. And it has been easier to elevate and applaud a few women than to confront the cultural misogyny that is never far off, waiting in the wings and available for anyone who wants to use it to bring women down and put them in their place.”
Patriarchal institutions are maintained by reinforcing a paradigm built of interrelated hierarchical dualisms, like male/female, spirit/matter, culture/nature, mind/body, human/animal, light/dark, etc. Neo-Pagans attack these false dichotomies and seek to turn them on their heads, by reclaiming and valorizing the disfavored element in each dualism, for example, by honoring a Divine Feminine who is associated with matter, nature, the body, etc.
Neo-Pagans challenge patriarchy by offering women positions of equal or superior religious power to men and by offering to both women and men images of the Divine Feminine. Positive images of feminine divinity are healing and empowering to women who identify with such images. Images of the Divine Feminine broaden the conception of divinity for both men and women. “When God is male,” declared feminist thealogian, Mary Daly, “then the male is God.” But when God is male and female, or masculine and feminine, then the full spectrum of human experience is sacralized.