Ruth Barrett on Radical Feminism and Dianic Spirituality

I first spoke with Dianic Priestess Ruth Barrett about how to create a Samhain ritual, which you can check out HERE. In part 2, we get into the roots of radical feminism.

AfterEllen: I wanted to talk to you about lesbian feminists embrace of Dianic spirituality. In the 1970s a lot of women turned away from the religions in which they grew up, because they identified them as patriarchal, and they turned instead to a new women-focused spirituality.

Ruth Barrett: I want to name one of our foremothers Mary Daly, feminist theologian, she languaged for many of us the realization that as long as god is male, the male is god. It was one of those took-your-breath-away paradigms that was hiding in plain sight. So for a lot of us in the 1970s-80s the notion of ‘how do we recognize spirituality, religion, politics? and how does patriarchy affect all of these things?’

There was this examination that continues to this day. As your readers know, our lives don’t take place in a vacuum, they are always in a context of history or herstory.

In the 1970s as women were working primarily for equal pay, reproductive rights, equity in the workplace, all of those things, the notion of a feminist spirituality did not enter the consciousness for some time. That had to do with the fact that Marxist politics was influential on the left. Religion was the opium of the people. Spirituality was a distraction from the work people needed to do to be free. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 1970s that women started to think about it differently.

Z Budapest is a Hungarian-born immigrant who came over after the communists had invaded Budapest, and she brought with her her mother’s folk traditions, folk religion. She also became a feminist, so she began to merge these two things.

Around 1976 or ’77 she was arrested for fortune telling in LA, it was against the law. It was the witch trial that occurred in LA in that year. That got the attention of the feminist movement of the time. They had struck out against that woman for tarot reading. The movement took notice and things really went well from there. It was a spiritual revolution. The idea of ‘where do we oppress ourselves from the inside?’

This is what I came up in in my teens and early 20s. Where are we complicit and colluding with the values of patriarchy that we have been indoctrinated into?

AE: You had mentioned the witch trial of Z Budapest

RB: The “Year of the Woman,” let me point out.

AE: Was Z a lesbian?

RB: Yes, and she still is (laughs).

AE: So the movement takes up the cause of women’s spirituality. There was a fair amount of denigration of women’s spirituality within the movement I imagine, in the same way there was the denigration of the “Lavender Menace.”

RB: Many women did not embrace the idea of a feminist spirituality. You have generational trauma over patriarchal religion and rather than seeing it as something that could be healing, there was an outright rejection. There was a lot of Eastern influence and New Age thinking that entered goddess spirituality as well. The Dianic tradition was based in radical feminism, but the larger goddess movement was not necessarily. It really depended on who feminists ran into, in terms of what they could relate to.

I founded a community in Los Angeles; I was ordained in 1980 and that community is still going. It’s the longest running Dianic community. The work that we do is not only personal, it’s political. We do work to counter the dominant power in the best ways we can. We work to heal from the effects. To model the way we want to see the world, through our activism.

It’s because we came out of Second Wave feminist politics. Those who identify in the Dianic tradition still have some form of political activism in terms of their magic and their rituals.

The Dianic tradition — in the beginning most of us were lesbian — but it grew and is now not specifically lesbian. A lot of people assume it’s a lesbian religion, but it’s not. It’s for any female who identifies with those values of radical feminism.

AE: Oftentimes patriarchal loyalists and people who want to denigrate older women make the claim that crusty, old, privileged, white women bought into Dianic traditions or goddess traditions because they buy into gender essentialism. Can you speak to that?

RB: Well there’s a lot of goddess traditions, so there may be a seed of truth regarding some of those traditions. But let’s look specifically at Dianic tradition. Gender essentialism is a misunderstanding coming from the fact that Dianics focus on the sexed body as a metaphor for life. Gender is arbitrary designations of behaviors or characteristics ascribed to the body, whether you are female or male. The women that come to Circle are very diverse in their presentation. It was not just women in flowing robes that were participating, then or now. There were women who were not conforming to gender roles. Essentialism is put on goddess traditions, but Dianics don’t focus on a [gendered] duality. When you don’t focus on a duality, you don’t have the issue of genderism [the gender binary]. In the Dianic tradition, we are whole unto our selves. We model wholeness, so it’s not like females have this one set of characteristics and males have the other. It means we have it all. I can wield the sword and I can cook a meal. Whatever would be gendered behaviors or skill sets — it’s not like, because I have this body I’m more this or more that “naturally.”

That’s what’s happening now because of trans/gender ideology. At the same time people think we’re getting away from the binary, we’re actually reinforcing it. Essentialism means I’m a sexed female, therefore I’m more prone to these attributes and of course these characteristics are gendered. And Dianics just out and out reject that. Who made this up and whose cause does it serve? Where did we get this notion that we have a male side and a female side? What they’re saying with the duality of [masculine or feminine] behaviors or attributes is a crock, we are all whole.

Women can be and behave and aspire to whatever we want and the only thing stopping us is cultural conditioning. That’s the opposite of essentialism.

AE: So Dianism puts forth that there is no single way to be a female.

RB: The maiden/mother/crone metaphor is just a way to talk about our lives. The maiden is youth, mother includes warrior, amazon, creatrix, and crone is the woman who is elderly. Phases of life like the inhale of woman’s breath, you sustain that breath for a moment, then you exhale. It’s a way of talking about cycles. Creation, sustenance and death. So there’s many ways we use language to talk about it and the women-centered symbols is another way to talk about that.

AE: There has been an explosion of women returning to personal practice, a mainstreaming of witchcraft. To the point that there was a witch starter pack that was going to be sold at Sephora.

RB: It may be an entry point for women. You can’t see me rolling my eyes right now, but I also want to think, “what could be positive about this?” The backlash reveals the idea that power in the hands of women is inherently evil. In a sense to normalize it, to do divination or turning inward for guidance, the idea that we could assist one another in our healing — that’s not a new idea, that’s an old idea. Becoming commercialized may trivialize it, but it also means that this idea is no longer terrifying to women to consider their own power or their own authority.

AE: But this might be the first spark for a woman to turn inward for guidance. There is a wide commodification of witchcraft and ethnic and folk traditions going on right now, certainly Sephora is the worst example of trivializing and feminizing since it is part of the multi-billion dollar makeup industry. It is also happening on Etsy and Instagram from boutique sellers. But it’s so interesting that this came from a makeup store since this is one way that women participate in our own feminization and conformity to gendered stereotypes.

RB: It’s also interesting that there’s this thread in magic of “glamoring” and that has to do with influencing others to see you in a certain way. So I hate the stuff, but I’ve put on mascara or something knowing that if I do it with perfect application, I’ll be treated in a certain way.

AE: As a feminine-of-center lesbian, I don’t want to denigrate makeup-wearers, and I definitely wear makeup sometimes, but it’s so true that in liberal feminism the party line is that enacting gender stereotypes can be empowering.

RB: In liberal feminism, anything goes. There is no consistent analysis.

Glamoring, the definition is the quality of fascinating alluring or attracting. Glamoring, in magical terms, can be a charm, enchantment, or witchery. Glamoring is taken from the intentional creation of an illusion.

Ruth Barrett – Ursula Hoppe Photography

Ruth Barrett is the author of Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries as well as the editor of Female Erasure.