New Anthology Celebrates The Foremothers Of The Women's Spirituality Movement

The book aims to "inspire the next generation of women," says editor Miriam Robbins Dexter.

From meditation circles to sacred retreats, women today have endless opportunities to congregate with one another and develop their spiritual lives.

This was not always the case.

In 1970s America, a generation of women raised primarily on male-dominated religious traditions began waking up to a different kind of spirituality centered on the divine feminine, or Goddess. They helped formulate a burgeoning theology -- or thealogy, as some write -- of women's spirituality. Their efforts are celebrated in the new anthology Foremothers of the Women's Spirituality Movement: Elders and Visionaries, which was released Monday and features essays from dozens of pioneers of the field.

Courtesy of Cambria Press

“One of my goals with this book is to inspire the next generation of women who are active in women’s spirituality to bring that vision of the divine into the world,” said Miriam Robbins Dexter, a research scholar at UCLA who co-edited the anthology with author and scholar Vicki Noble.

At the time Dexter began studying Indo-European goddesses in college in the '70s, she thought the interest in women's spirituality might be "a passing fad." But that didn't particularly matter to her.

"What I did know was that I was on my life path," she said.

Goddess-centered spirituality had been explored before the '70s movement. Gerald Gardner, a retired British civil servant, published Witchcraft Today in 1954 and introduced the public to Wicca, a pagan, goddess-affirming religion that took off in the decades after.

But a women's spiritual theology had yet to emerge. In the Goddess, young women, graduate students, artists, activists and healers found an image of the divine that looked like them and provided a model for religious practice that celebrated the religious experiences of women.

"For me, the Goddess was a process of revelation, a below-the-surface-presence that had always been with me, like a heartbeat I could sometimes hear but whose source I did not know," scholar Starr Goode wrote in her essay.

The women encountered the Goddess in various places. Some, like Dexter, were graduate students at the time, studying ancient civilizations and religions. Others were artists and spiritual leaders, excavating their own spiritual dimensions through poetry and ritual.

Many of the women, especially those involved in scholarly work, were challenged, rejected and even laughed at by their male (and occasionally by female) peers and mentors. Carol P. Christ, a well-known scholar and author of the essay Why Women Need the Goddess, did her graduate work in theology at Yale at a time when she was the only woman in the program. She wrote in the anthology:

I was young and pretty and “looked like Twiggy” and not taken seriously as a student. In those days professors and students felt entitled to tell me at every turn that I “probably would not finish my degree” and that if I did, they “would hire a man with a family” over me.

Things have changed since the '70s, as many of the anthology's contributors point out. But the work of pioneers like Marija Gimbutas -- a 20th-century archaeologist who posited that ancient egalitarian, goddess-centered cultures existed before patriarchal societies, and whose legacy many of the essays touched on -- has yet to make a serious dent in contemporary notions of history and religion, Dexter told The Huffington Post.

“We have to get through the pendulum swing of extreme patriarchy before we get there," Dexter said.

Dexter noted that many graduate degree programs in women's spirituality, which initially flourished in the 1980s and '90s, are shrinking or closing altogether.

“It’s not that women’s activism is tame, it’s that academic programs are one by one going out of existence. It's terribly frustrating," she said.

Nonetheless, Dexter says she's an optimist. Academic programs or not, women's spirituality -- and alternative spiritual practices, in general, which challenge dogmatic, hierarchical institutions -- are exploding, particularly in the United States. More and more Americans are identifying as "unaffiliated" or "spiritual but not religious."

“I feel a shift," Dexter said. "More and more people having an individual sense of spirituality. They’re not going to a temple or church because their parents did, and not believing necessarily what their parents believed."

It's unclear where this spiritual exploration will lead and how it will shape religion in the decades to come. What the Foremothers anthology offers is a look back so that, as Dexter said, a new generation of women may gain insight as to how to carry the field of women's spirituality forward.

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