The feminist spirituality movement emerged with second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as some consciousness-raising groups developed into feminist spirituality groups. The movement peaked in the 1980s, with the growing acceptance of the idea that it was possible to be both feminist and religious (which was controversial because religion had been for so long equated with patriarchal institutions).
Spiritual feminists took the feminist mantra, “The personal is political,” and declared, “The spiritual is political.” Feminist spirituality rejects exclusively masculine images of the divine and male dominance in religion and other areas of life, perceiving these to be intertwined issues. As Mary Daly famously declared in Beyond God the Father (1973), “If God is male then the male is God,” by which she meant that the image of a masculine transcendent God gives rise to and perpetuates patriarchal religious institutions, like the exclusion of women from priesthood. Early leaders in the movement included authors like Mary Daly, Merlin Stone, Riane Eisler, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Carol Christ, and Starhawk.
The feminist spirituality movement is often aligned with “difference feminism” (in contrast to “equality feminism”) as it sought to develop (or restore) non-patriarchal religious concepts and practices. As scholar of occultism, James R. Lewis, explains:
“The women’s spirituality movement, with rare exception, relies on a strong notion of gender difference, viewing at least most human traits, if not all human individuals, as masculine or feminine. This ‘difference feminism’ means that the movement is built upon a foundation of female uniqueness: There is something women have to offer, spiritually and politically, which the movement is designed to celebrate and promote. Through analogy to menstruation and childbirth, in particular, women are believed to be especially sensitive to cycles, to nature, and to relationships between people and between humans and the cosmos.”
Unlike secular feminists, many spiritual feminists felt the need to replace the patriarchal religions that they had rejected with female-positive religious forms. The manifesto of Zsuzsanna Budapest’s Susan B. Anthony Coven #1, the first Dianic Witchcraft coven, is exemplary:
“We believe that Feminist Witches are wimmin* who search within themselves for the female principle of the universe and who relate as daughters to the Creatrix.
“We believe that just as it is the time to fight for the right to control our bodies, it is also time to fight for our sweet womon* souls.
“We believe that in order to fight and win a revolution that will stretch for generations into the future, we must find reliable ways to replenish our energies. We believe that without a secure grounding in womon’s spiritual strength there will be no victory for us.”
* A re-spelling of “women” to exclude the root “men” and a re-spelling of “woman” to exclude the root “man.”
The search for uniquely feminist religious forms led many away from the monotheistic religions of Christianity and Judaism to Neo-Paganism and to Neo-Pagan Witchcraft. The integration of feminism with British Witchcraft was America’s most distinctive contribution to the development of contemporary Witchcraft. Neo-Pagan Witchcraft distinguished itself from British Witchcraft by its eclecticism. Neo-Pagan Witches were more willing to search out the Divine Feminine in non-European cultures. As religious studies scholar, Cynthia Eller, explains, “spiritual feminists’ voracious hunger for images and experiences of the Divine Feminine made the movement, from its inception, unabashedly syncretistic.”
According to Eller, “Gardnerian Witchcraft was far too stodgy and authoritarian for most feminists seeking alternatives to established religions.” Out this vacuum arose Z. Budapest’s Dianic Witchcraft and Starhawk’s Reclaiming tradition, both of which were more eclectic and less hierarchical than British Traditional Wicca, and focused more on the Goddess (to the exclusion of the masculine Consort in the case of Budapest’s Dianic Witchcraft).
Some spiritual feminists were not willing to identify themselves as “Witches,” and there arose a form of Goddess worship without any of the trappings of Witchcraft. As occultist author, Nevill Drury explains, “Although some Goddess-worshippers continued to refer to themselves as Witches, others abandoned the term altogether, preferring to regard their neopagan practice as a universal feminist religion, drawing on mythologies from many different ancient cultures.” This has been called “Goddess worship” and the “Goddess Movement.” These terms are frequently used interchangeably with, but should be distinguished from, “feminist spirituality,” which includes the Goddess movement, but also feminist Christianity, feminist Judaism, etc.
The Goddess Movement drew on, and reciprocally influenced, the broader Neo-Pagan movement. The principal distinction between the two is that the broader Neo-Pagan movement is equally inclusive of men and also gives a more significant role to the masculine Son/Consort of the Goddess in its mythology.
The principal beliefs of the Goddess Movement are that the Goddess is a radically immanent deity and she can be experienced directly. The Earth is seen as the body of the Goddess and women are understood to connect to the Goddess through their experience of their own bodies, as well as the “body” of the Earth. Goddess feminists also believe that the Goddess is constantly changing, manifest in the changing of the seasons and the human life-cycle, and perpetually self-renewed.
The Goddess Movement helps women to find their own innate goodness and natural divinity. It enables women to redeem and revalue the “feminine principle” and offers them positive images and symbols of female empowerment. According to Cynthia Eller, while it is not possible to make universal statements about Goddess worshippers:
“when they gather together, it is most often to celebrate solstices and equinoxes; to perform rituals centering on self-empowerment, nature, and the worship (or embodiment of) goddesses from cultures around the world; to assist one another in divination, healing, magic, and guided meditations; and to teach one another the movement’s ‘sacred history’: the myth of matriarchal prehistory.”