witchcraft, white feminism, and intersectionality
feminism > whiteness
“I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
and not white.”
Audre Lorde, “A Woman Speaks”
What we’re reading
- Budapest, “How this Book Was Born”
- Daly, from Gyn/Ecology
- Lorde, “Open Letter to Mary Daly”
And here’s the thread I did when we covered this topic (remotely) last year, which has lots of historical background on white women’s feminism and spirituality.
This is the core concept for today’s conversation. Kimberlé Crenshaw, J.D., coined the term intersectionality in 1989, in an article called “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: a Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” Crenshaw thinks about how sometimes Black women’s experiences of discrimination and oppression are similar to white women’s experiences of discrimination and oppression, and other times Black women’s experiences of discrimination and oppression are similar to Black men’s experiences of discrimination and oppression. But as a population that is both Black and women, Black women’s experiences of discrimination and oppression are not only about race, nor are they only about gender. Crenshaw argued that divvying up Black women’s unique experiences into “woman” and “Black” totally hides the ways that discrimination and oppression both work.
The intersectionality wars
There may not be a word in American conservatism more hated right now than "intersectionality." On the right…
Side note: I can’t believe I didn’t assign y’all this episode of Keeping It 101! Well, in case you can’t get enough of intersectionality, here you go.
Intersectionality isn’t just about difference. It’s about access or lack of access to power and privilege. Intersectionality insists not only that we acknowledge our different identities, but also and more importantly, that we pay attention to the unequal way those identities grant us access to privilege or make us vulnerable to discrimination and oppression.
I really like Dorothy Allison on intersectionality, though she doesn’t use the term: she talks about race, class, religion, gender, and other categories of oppression forming an “intricate lattice” that makes up who we are.
And, as we learn from Lorde especially today: feminism and feminist spirituality that doesn’t work for the liberation of all people is, well, not feminism. Feminism that only centers white women and their experiences of oppression without addressing the specific struggles of women of color is still white supremacy.
Budapest, “How this Book Was Born”
Budapest practices (and arguably created?) Dianic witchcraft — a kind of Neopaganism only for women. The chapter you read for today is the introduction to her Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries. Here’s how she defines Dianic witchcraft.
At the time, a lot of feminist spirituality folks were describing themselves as Goddess worshippers. Budapest insisted on calling herself a witch. “It is the only word in English that denotes ‘woman with spiritual power,’” she says.
Budapest started the Susan B. Anthony coven in 1971. They named themselves after the suffragette Susan B. Anthony because
Here’s the thing. Yes, Susan B. Anthony fought very hard to get white women the right to vote. But also she was racist AF.
Susan B Anthony is not a liberatory figure for all American women and neither is a Goddess or goddesses imagined as white. This is why our conversations about feminism and witchcraft need to address intersectionality.
Lots of white second wave feminists, including witches like Budapest, insisted that the struggle against gender oppression had to come before anything else: including struggles against racial and class oppression. One of the major critiques of white women’s second wave feminist spirituality is that originators often failed to attend to intersectionality. So while we look at Daly and Budapest, we need to think critically about who might feel inspired or liberated by the things they’re saying, and who will be further oppressed, abjected, and marginalized by these ideas and images.
Daly, from Gyn/Ecology
Mary Daly is the original Positively Revolting Hag — she plays a lot with language in this piece, as you can see. Daly had three doctorates and no time for patriarchal BS. She started by trying to fix sexism in Roman Catholicism and ended up deciding that traditional religions were too sexist to save.
She argued that Christianity was fundamentally incompatible with feminism:
“If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling his people, then it is the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male dominated.” Daly, Beyond God the Father
Her basic formula: “if God is male, then male is God.” Daly decided it was time for a Goddess.
While you’re reading through the assigned section of Gyn/ecology, be thinking about how Daly understands Goddess, why the history and imagery of witches is important to her.
She’s writing what she calls a Hag-ography (play on hagiography, biography of a saint) and reclaiming words like witch, hag, and spinster — historically used to oppress women — to denote power, resistance, and freedom.
side note: if you found this frustrating or confusing to read, you’re not alone. Daly played with meanings and writing conventions to mess with people’s assumptions about what words could or should mean, to challenge us to read familiar words & stories differently.
Daly is suggesting that “God” is a word that does — or CAN do — more than it says that divinity isn’t fixed; it’s always in process God, for Daly, is a Verb.
So for Daly, words about the divine aren’t just words. They’re constraints on what’s possible to think and feel and BE about God. (We did this about gender and linguistic construction with Butler, yeah?) So using different words to talk/think about the Divine, or reading those words/stories in new ways, makes it possible to be in relationship WITH the Divine, and with each other, in new and different ways.
This all sounds great, right? Let’s do that! Except, as Audre Lorde points out, Daly’s concept of Goddess doesn’t really account for the lived experiences of Black women.
Lorde, “Open Letter to Mary Daly”
Audre Lorde is just so, so important, y’all. We could spend an entire semester just talking about her work and it would be nowhere near enough. But here’s some background to get you started.
Audre Lorde | Poetry Foundation
A self-described "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet," Audre Lorde dedicated both her life and her creative talent…
You read Lorde’s “Open Letter to Mary Daly,” which responds to Daly’s Gyn/ecology. (This link includes both Lorde’s letter and Daly’s response.)
An Open Letter to Mary Daly | Audre Lorde (1979)
The following letter was written to Mary Daly, author of Gyn/Ecology,* on May 6, 1979. Four months later, having…
Because Lorde was a freaking genius, there is SO MUCH packed into this short, beautiful letter. She is so patient, and so tired, and so angry, and so correct. We’ll focus on just three pieces here:
- what’s Lorde’s critique re: Daly’s portrayal of the feminine divine?
- what’s Lorde’s critique re: Daly’s portrayal of women of color?
- why do these critiques matter?
Lorde points out that the only goddesses Daly talks about are white and european, but generously assumes first that Daly has decided to focus her project on white european women.
Except that then Lorde reads the rest of the book and discovers that Daly *does* talk about Women of Color — but only to talk about WOC being victims and/or perpetrators of violence against women.
This letter is, to my mind, one of the clearest and most poignant articulations of intersectionality. Lorde says she and Daly have learned from each other, but Daly uses Lorde’s work to disempower and degrade Women of Color.
Lorde calls Daly to be accountable for the violence Gyn/ecology does to Black women and other Women of Color, whether intentionally or not.
Lorde’s description of intersecting oppressions is visceral: “they will shoot me on sight.”
(Note that Lorde’s invocation of Black women’s medical vulnerability is not merely academic here — she was fighting breast cancer when she wrote this letter.)
Lorde concludes by insisting that a shared vector of oppression cannot erase or supersede other violences and oppressions NOR, she says should feminist spirituality ignore or marginalize those important, powerful differences.
That’s it for today, y’all. Go read all the Audre Lorde you can get your hands on. And here, please enjoy this extremely third wave spoken word piece on witches, who (as Alix Olson says) are just “women loving each other”
as well as this beautiful poem by Lorde herself.