Voices of Experience
from Women and Spirituality, Ursula King, Macmillan 1989, ch. 3, pp. 59-90.
'At first it seems that women's experience is a simple thing. Yet as soon as one begins to study it, one realizes that it is many things. Black women, white women, rich women, poor women - all share a fundamental alienation from self, but there are many differences in their experiences . . .
The new experience of women in the women's movement is an important resource for spiritual transformation. For those of us who were, in a sense, born again . . . the new experience of women is crucial. . . . women's experience must be defined broadly enough to include all the experiences of women . . . After we have talked long and listened long, we may be able to decide which parts of traditional feminine experience we want to affirm, own, and transform by their incorporation into a new feminist consciousness and ethic.' Carol Christ, 'Spiritual Quest and Women's Experience', p. 6
Feminist voices often refer to the importance of women's own experience as a source of self-affirmation and identity. But what is experience? And what does women's experience mean, especially today? Within the specific context of this book one must also ask what is of special religious significance in contemporary women's experience, and what importance does the feminist experience have for the understanding and practice of spirituality today?
Experience as simply lived and happening is the raw material and matrix for reflection. Thus one needs to pay special attention to the way experience is understood and interpreted. This in turn has an effect on how it is lived. Women's experience has been both positively and negatively evaluated, and we shall see how it has become a focus of positive strength and power in feminist thinking.
Women's experience does not show a uniform development or pattern as conditions of life, age, social class, ethnicity, religion and culture vary widely and make the lives of individual women or different groups of women very disparate. Each culture also knows widely differing myths, models and symbols relating to women. However complex and disparate the experiences of women through the ages and varieties of cultures may have been, the contemporary feminist debate is patterned by a web of threads which all interconnect and lead to the central focus of woman's experience. Let us therefore follow some of these threads and discuss what women today consider an important part of their experience.
To begin with it may be helpful to make the same distinction with regard to women's experience as the one introduced in chapter 1 with regard to consciousness, namely to distinguish between feminine, female and feminist experience. Each of these is linked to a form of reflection which leads to the different feminine, female and feminist forms of consciousness discussed by Keohane, Rosaldo and Gelpi (1982). In other words, the different kinds of experience are differentiated by the different degree of self-reflection and critical awareness which accompany them. Feminine experience is thus largely concerned with those aspects of life and being which have traditionally be called 'feminine' and which often reinforce women's otherness in relation to men, so that women experience themselves primarily as objects rather than as acting subjects. Female experience concerns the specific experience of women in conceiving and producing human life, in nurturing and sustaining its growth, and in everything that pertains to this at the biological and personal level. This experience may happen to individual women with or without much reflection, whilst the specifically feminist experience is only possible through the critical reflection produced by consciousness raising. The feminist experience is above all an experience of contemporary women, although it has certain historical antecedents. It entails the critical analysis of both feminine and female experience but must proceed beyond these to the further criticism of the feminist experience itself. For it is true that the latter is characterised by a number of yet unresolved paradoxes which become apparent when one examines the diverse and changing patterns of women's experience.
The changing experience of women
The spiritual quest within contemporary feminism is closely linked to new interpretations of both the female and feminist dimension of women's experience which also involve a trenchent critique of traditional images and roles considered as typically 'feminine'. The discovery of the diversity and richness of women's experience in the present and past requires much effort and attention. It is here where women's own stories, revealing their dreams, hopes, joys, sufferings, disappointments and achievements, play such an important role in the contemporary experience of sisterhood and in the reflective analysis of writers on feminism.
I would like to begin with a story from the end of the last century by Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), the Victorian feminist. Born into a Methodist missionary family on the borders of Basutoland in South Africa, she has among her short stories a powerful allegory entitled 'Three Dreams in a Desert' (1890; reprinted in Bruner, 1983, pp. 102-8). Resting in the shade of a mimosa tree during one of her travels on horseback across a hot African plain she dreamt a series of visionary dreams about the changing fate of woman. In the first she describes two figures with heavy loads on their back; one is the figure of a woman lying heavily burdened on the ground unable to move, the other a man standing beside her. Whilst once in the past woman wandered free by the side of man, she was yoked long ago by the ' Age-of-dominion-of-muscular force' and subjected by man with 'the broad band of Inevitable Necessity'. She has carried her burden for centuries with patience and tears, but with wisdom too. She knows she cannot move with the burden on her back, but its band has now been cut by 'the knife of Mechanical Invention', and the 'Inevitable Necessity' is broken once and for all. Woman can now slowly begin to rise but man cannot help her and does not understand her struggle. Though woman is still weak, she slowly staggers on to her knees and begins to walk.
In the second dream the woman is beside the steep bank of a river seeking the 'Land of Freedom'. She is told that the only way to this land is down 'the banks of Labour' and 'through the waters of Suffering'. The old man Reason instructs her that in order to cross the dangerous waters of the river she must leave behind a small, winged, male child whom she has carried all along asleep on her breast. The woman wants to take him with her so that he will grow up in the 'Land of Freedom' and offer her friendship instead of passion. But Reason insists that the suckling man-child must stay behind in order to learn to open his wings and fly to the 'Land of Freedom' by himself and grow into a man. Now the woman realises that she is utterly alone in her fight with the elements, but in the far distance she hears the sound of thousands and thousands of feet which one day follow her track and the bodies of these women to come will form a bridge over the river across which the entire human race can pass. Inspired by this hope the woman takes up the struggle with the turbulent waters. The third, concluding dream briefly describes the coming true of this promise which Olive Schreiner sees as a free land with free people:
I dreamed I saw a land. And on the hills walked brave women and brave men, hand in hand. And they looked into each other's eyes, and they were not afraid.
And I saw the women also hold each other's hands.
And I said to him beside me, 'What place is this?'
And he said, 'This is heaven.'
And I said, 'Where is it?'
And he answered, 'On earth.'
And I said, 'When shall these things be?'
And he answered, 'IN THE FUTURE.'
Clothed in the imagery of her South African experience and using similes drawn from Victorian industrialism, Olive Shreiner's dreams have a strong prophetic element. Woman's age-old burdens have been loosened, but she has to struggle by herself, often in utter loneliness, to find the way to true freedom yet to come. But a new bond is being forged between her and others who follow the same way seeking freedom and equality without fear. Very subtly the dream also expresses that the future bond will not only be between women and men, but also between women and women.
On can interpret the lonely figure of woman and her struggle in the 'Three Dreams in a Desert' as symbolic of contemporary women seeking liberation and equality and as expressing a presentiment of the new experience of sisterhood. Given these emphases here and in her other writings, it is no wonder that recently a dramatic awakening of interest in Olive Schreiner and her 'feminism on the frontier' (Berkman, 1979) has occurred. She believed not only in the emancipation of women but in a global concern for women everywhere linked to the great themes of freedom and true equality. In her essays on Women and Labour (1911) she wrote: 'We have in us the blood of womanhood that was never bought and never sold, that wore no veil, and had no foot bound, whose realized ideal of marriage was sexual companionship and an equality in duty and labour; who stood side by side with the males they loved in peace and war. (Quoted in Bruner 1983, p. 103.)
I have described Olive Schreiner's allegory in order to stress how contemporary changes and experiences are prefigured in the dreams and hopes of women from the past. What Olive Schreiner felt and saw only vaguely, what she expressed in metaphors and images different from those we would use today, we can experience now in various ways and at many different levels. Her story is doubly significant in that it conies from the African continent rather than from North America or Europe from where most of our women stories have originated so far. The changing experience of women includes today so many women from different social, cultural and religious backgrounds; it is closely related to the fast transformation of contemporary society, to profound changes in personal relationships between women and men, women and women, women and children, and to important changes in self-understanding and the quest for meaning and identity in and through personal and social experience.
Change is not something which occurs only externally; the shared reflection on the changing experience of women is an important factor in the further shaping of the contemporary experience and consciousness of women. We must therefore connect the new experience of women to changes in society and self and ask what promise of freedom and what power of transformation women's experience entails.
The international dimension and pluralism of women's experience
Given the voice of many a critic that feminism represents primarily a white, western, middle-class phenomenon, it is important to highlight the global dimension of women's experience. Women's voices are being raised everywhere. The sharing of women's stories and experiences has created a loose web of connections whose threads are slowly encircling the globe. Many examples could be given of this from Africa, India, China or elsewhere, but the most concrete recent expression of this global dimension was the United Nations Decade for Women Conference held in Nairobi in July 1985. Devoted to 'Equality, Development and Peace' it consisted of an officially sponsored conference and a much more diversified and livelier Forum of Non-Governmental Organisations. It is estimated that 12000-14000 women took part in the Nairobi event which represents probably the largest gathering of women from around the globe in history. In spite of its shortcomings and many criticisms, the Nairobi conference is an event of great importance and powerful symbolic significance. For those who took part it will remain an unforgettable experience and source of transformation. Here very different women became aware of each other's individually and socially limited and yet mutually enriching experiences, of their variety of life-styles and worldviews, of energy and power, colour and vitality, of their differences and common concerns. Women shared singing, dancing, music, excursions, workshops and projects and last but not least a sense of conviviality and humour. Women spoke powerfully about how they and their sisters are being exploited. They called for change and peace, for the sharing of projects and for more networking between women of developed and developing countries.
Nairobi was a one-time event, unique because of its size and complexity, but its significance transcends the limitations of time and place, for it expressed and confirmed a new spirit among women and made visible the international, global dimension of the contemporary experience of women. Reflecting on the occurrence of this event can help other women, the numerous women not present at Nairobi, to become more internationally aware and foster global bonds among women.
Women's experience is global in a historical and a contemporary sense. It has its roots deep in history and everywhere feminist writers and researchers are uncovering and discovering the multiple ramifications of these roots around the world. Today, the awareness of the universally oppressive conditions of women and the need for change is growing internationally. Many feminist journals and agencies such as CHANGE in London and ISIS in Geneva are publishing reports on women from all over the world. The growth in international awareness also affects traditional religious institutions . An example of this is the informative report on 'The Situation of Women in the Catholic Church - Developments since International Women's Year' published in 1980 (Pro Mundi Vita Bulletin). It documents the growing feminist consciousness among Roman Catholic women around the world, whether in USA and Canada, Asia, Latin America, Africa or Europe. Another example is John C. B. and Ellen Low Webster's book on The Church and Women in the Third World (1985) in which several authors look at different Christian images of women, the role of women in the church and the impact of the church on the status of women in different third world countries. There is also a bibliography on women and the church in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
But the most powerful voices come from third world women and black women themselves bringing about a further change in feminist awareness. They decry the denial of differences and the inherent racism found in parts of the white feminist movement. More than any other source they highlight the extraordinary pluralism and rich texture of women's lives. Some writers have described all women as a 'fourth world', the most oppressed section of the poor and oppressed everywhere, but nowhere is this more true than among black women. Feminist consciousness among black women has grown considerably in recent years, especially in South Africa and in the USA. Bell Hooks, in her study Ain't I a Woman. Black Women and Feminism (1982), has traced the history of black women from the female slave experience to the continued devaluation of black womanhood and to contemporary issues of racism and feminism. She speaks of the initial
silence of the oppressed - that profound silence engendered by resignation and acceptance of one's lot. Contemporary black women could not join together to fight for women's rights because we did not see 'womanhood' as an important aspect of our identity ... In other words, we were asked to deny a part of ourselves - and we did. Consequently, when the women's movement raised the issue of sexist oppression, we argued that sexism was insignificant in light of the harsher, more brutal reality of racism. We were afraid to acknowledge that sexism could be just as oppressive as racism. (Hooks, 1982, p.l)
Black women were doubly enslaved, but they are now fighting with courage and resolution to gain personal and political freedom. Especially in South Africa women are deeply involved in the freedom struggle (see Lipman 1984 and the ISIS 1978 report on African women under apartheid). Coloured women in the USA have come together and expressed their anger, their pain, their 'hunger of soul and stomach' in the powerful anthology This Bridge Called My Back, (Moraga and Anzaldua, 1981). It contains the writings of women from many different ethnic groups and includes a valuable bibliography on third world women in the USA, whether Afro-American, Asian/Pacific American, Latin American or Native American. The fears and tears, the hopes and dreams and joys of the many women who walk through this book provide a bridge for other women - not unlike the bridge across the 'waters of suffering' which Olive Schreiner once saw - not a bridge to simply walk over, to walk by and around, a bridge to span a dreadful gap created by others - but a bridge to pass through into togetherness. This bridge is also the bridge of a dream and a vision, a passage through to a new land where women learn each other's way of seeing and being, where their very vulnerability becomes a source of transformation and power:
we women on the bottom throughout the world can form an international feminism ... we must struggle together. Together, we form a vision which spans from the self-love of our colored skins, to the respect of our foremothers who kept the embers of revolution burning, to our reverence for the trees - the final reminder of our rightful place on this planet. The change evoked ... is material as well as psychic. (Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981, p. 196)
This is a very radical book concerned with 'the oppression of women of color' and Third World Revolution', but the power of its vision and new connections is rooted in faith. It also expresses a spiritual struggle, not one artificially divorced from daily life but rooted in concrete material, economic, political and social conditions of women's complex experience. Traditional religious faith, here mainly seen as habitual external practice unconnected to one's real life and problems - 'an upward turn of hands', 'a vicious beating of our breasts - is no longer a real source of strength for these women. And yet they are fuelled by the fire of faith and nourished by the courage to be - the courage to be themselves. (The wide range of black women's religious experience is documented in Marilyn Richardson's annotated bibliography on Black Women and Religion (1980) covering almost 900 books and articles.)
Each gathering and group of women, each initiative and activity brings further into relief the great diversity and pluralism of women, not only in terms of their background but also in terms of their ability, achievements and potential. At a conference of mainly third world women held at Harvard Divinity School on 'Women, Religion and Social Change' one participant observed:
The women who came were unique and remarkable. They had suffered, yet they had great strength. Many had acquired an education, or reached where they were now, against all odds. I shall remember the quiet vision of the Hindu women; the outrageous individuality of the Muslims; the continued humour and hope of black South Africans; and the amazing courage of women from Central America. Here one felt was 'the other half of humanity. What if one could bring their common sense, their ability to work together, and their non-hierarchical ways of thinking into play on a world scale? I became aware that the greatest potential which we have yet to put into the balance in the attempt to save our world is perhaps the potential of women. Here were exemplified alternative ways of thinking and acting. (Hampson, 1984, p. 20)
The wide-ranging experience of these women - from Central America, South and Central Africa, Israel, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Egypt, USA and Europe - is now fully documented in Speaking of Faith. Cross-cultural Perspectives on Women, Religion hand Social Change edited by Diana Eck and Devaki Jain (1986). Another stimulating book with a similar emphasis developed out of a symposium held at Hartford Seminary (USA) which looked at the images and roles of women in different religions, past and present. Published under the title Women, Religion and Social Change (Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad & Ellison Banks Findly, eds, 1985) it shows again how richly varied women's experience can be. It is not only the religious background, but the entire social, political and cultural context which shape women's lives and mould the patterns of their experience.
Women's social and work experience
Women's experience in a wider sense is shaped by the status and treatment given to them by society at large. Feminist writers have analysed in great detail the social, economic and political factors responsible for women's oppression and those necessary for their liberation. The rise of the contemporary feminist movement is closely related to important social changes and to economic development. Many women have discovered the decisive value of paid work and money as a source of autonomy and independence. Yet at the same time one must realise that the financial and personal independence women seek is not always available to all men in western societies either. With the rise in unemployment many men, too, have to seek new sources of identity and meaning other than their traditional work experience from which women were often excluded in the first place. In the third world both sexes, women and men, suffer exploitation and deprivation, and yet the experience of women is always one of further oppression.
Looking at the experience of black women in the United States, Rosemary Ruether criticises American feminism from within by writing: 'The women's movement fails to integrate the experience of poor and non-white women. Much of what it means by the "female experience" is in fact class-bound, restricted to the experience of a fairly atypical group of white, usually childless, women who are blocked in their efforts to break into the bastions of white, male, upper-class privilege'. (Ruether, 1979c, p. 176). Whilst a considerable amount of feminist writings and activities may only reflect the experience of a particular group of women, one must nonetheless recognise that more and more women from other less privileged groups are coming forward to speak out about their own experience and perspective on life.
The sharing of stories often highlights the suffering and the dark sides of women's experience, that of violence and violation, whether it occurs inside or outside the home, manifesting itself in assault, rape, pornography, physical abuse, wife battering or other crimes against women. Our society seems to be scarred by an epidemic of violence, and much of it affects women. Many women writers have forcefully spoken out on these negative, dark sides of women's experience, especially on the social and cultural roots of sexual violence, and have thereby brought women's exploitation and suffering through physical, mental and structural aspects of violence into greater public visibility.
Here, more than in other areas, a passionate plea for change and for concerted action has been made. Here, too, the awareness of the commonality of woman's experience, the realisation that women from very diverse backgrounds suffer similar experiences of humiliation, violation and pain, has created and strengthened a bond of sisterhood among many women.
Women's personal and social experience is moulded and patterned by the influence of many different institutions and agencies: the family in which they grow up and the one they may raise themselves, their education and that of their children, the church or other religious bodies, expectations of physical and mental health, the world of sport, the powerful image-building activities of the media, social and political events of local, national or international importance. One of the most central concerns of our society is organised, paid work and economic productivity. Women have always worked, and worked excruciatingly hard, but often not in the sense of paid employment. According to UN statistics, one third of all families in the world are supported by the work of women and for every eight hours worked by men, women work sixteen.
Yet women do not hold the key positions which are the source of power, prestige and wealth in our society. However, like 'experience' itself, 'work' is a notoriously ambiguous concept as the same word performs a dual function: it describes the activity of doing something, as well as the result or end product of that activity. In a more specific sense 'work' always implies some kind of result which distinguishes it from mere activity, from simply 'doing something' like pottering about, playing, relaxing or whatever,
Women's experience today includes the world of organised paid work so long closed to them. This is an important development in the new consciousness of women. Many types of work possess negative, oppressive and enslaving features but in its positive sense human work is a source of worth and strong identity, and occasion for creativity, self-expression and a sense of achievement. Work thus understood and undertaken is an act of self-transcendence which can provide important moments for personal growth and spiritual insight. To experience satisfaction, enjoyment and fulfilment in doing one's work and seeing the fruits of one's labours carries its own reward quite apart from the question of payment.
Work in this sense is an integral dimension of the experience of being human, and countless women have found a sense of satisfaction, strength and joy from doing their work, however humble and unrecognised by others it may have been.
In modern large-scale industrialised societies work has become increasingly specialised and differentiated in terms of professional and career structures. Women have gained access to most, if not all, work situations but they still remain underprivileged as they often do not enjoy equal status and pay, nor do they receive advancement, promotion and public recognition in the same way as men. Thus the contemporary world of work has opened to women many exciting possibilities of new experience. At the same time it has also created a further source of frustration and anger in that equality, whilst legally acknowledged, is often far from being practised and many instances of discrimination against women at work can be found.
However, many obstacles have to be overcome within women themselves. Women often undertake paid employment out of necessity rather than choice and consider work merely as an adjunct to personal relationships rather than of worth and importance in itself and for their own self-development. Much has been written on the woman at home, how she is the captive wife, chained to the continuation of the species and the maintenance of the family unit. And its worst, this can be seen as an existence rooted in immanence whilst other work, at its best and most rewarding, points to successive possibilities of acts of transcendence, of continually transforming that which is possible into what is actually real. As Ann Oakley (1982) has pointed out in her discussion of domestic work, family life and work at home represent for many women the only work conditions they know and 'housework has prevented women from pursuing many avenues of self-development open to those who do not do it ... Housework remains an incredibly important limit on what women are able to do and become' (p. 186).
Another writer puts it like this: 'women face two major obstacles to developing an identity as worker, maker, producer. One is the mythologizing of the mother/home-maker role, and at the same time, its devaluation in the "real" world. The other is the failure of women to see work as a necessary component of identity and autonomy' (Kolbenschlag, 1979, pp. 38 f.). A further obstacle is not so much the lack of skills but the frequently perceived passivity of women or rather, to express it differently, women's passive mode of acting by doing things because they need to be done rather than actively taking up things they want to do or enjoy doing. Participating in the world of work outside engages women in an active mode of doing things which can give a sense of achievement and fulfilment, a deep sense of satisfaction which is the same for women and men. Working then, in this sense, becomes a mode of being. In her reflections on women's work Madonna Kolbenschlag speaks of the 'spiritual sense of work' as important for women as well as for society as a whole:
Recovering of the spiritual sense of work is imperative if women are to be liberated rather than automated by it. The idea of work as a 'command to self-transcendence' is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian heritage. Greco-Roman, biblical and medieval sources alike confirm this consciousness. It is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Western civilization as a whole . . .
Recovery of the spiritual sense of work and the moral imperative it contains demands that women not abdicate - as men once did - from the nurturant, hearth-centered labor that they have known, but that this be integrated with the achieving, world-shaping enterprises they have generally avoided. Likewise, their liberation can be fulfilled only if men integrate their one-sided, competitive, worldy pursuits with the private sphere of home maintenance and child rearing . . .
There are no models in our civilization to inspire this change. It will perhaps be more difficult for men than for women. Ultimately, we must evolve an ecological model of work - one that sees all functions as equally important in sustaining an equilibrium in society as well as in personality. (Kolbenschlag, 1979,pp. 86-7)
Without having gained the full battle for equal work and pay, women are now badly affected by the current economic recession. Many short-term, part-time or low-paid menial jobs are held by women and are being phased out first during a time of economic crisis and industrial reorganisation. However, the wide general rise in unemployment has made many people think of re-defining work and of looking for new patterns, whether those of job-sharing, self-employment or cooperative ventures, or of finding alternative resources for creating work which provide an opportunity for developing one's gifts and potentials. Thus 'work', as distinct from employment, is again beginning to be seen as an activity which can bring people together in a new way by sharing their skills and resources and by providing them with a sense of direction and meaning. Many people enjoy taking early retirement so that they can undertake alternative activities precisely because they find them fulfilling and rewarding in a sense their paid employment work never was.
It would seem that whilst women have to go on campaigning for further access to work positions in all areas and at all levels, their old and new experience of work in a wider sense and of sharing the fruits of their labour with others can also be an important source of insight for contemporary society in rethinking and restructuring human work in an age of fast change.
The relationship between women and work has been analysed in great detail in the literature of the women's movement but is not my main concern here. I simply wanted to remind readers of two points which are perhaps less often mentioned, namely, that work is an important aspect of women's experience which can be a rich source for personal growth, identity and self-understanding as well as the occasion for experiencing transcendence. In addition, women's very different historical experience of work in the widest sense may provide an inspiring resource for thinking creatively about the changing understanding of work in contemporary post-industrial society. Both points require far fuller exploration than given so far and than can be entered into here.
Exploring women's experience and realising the complex texture of its diversity, one must ask how far there can be an experience common to all women? Is there anything specific about women's experience which distinguishes it from human experience in general and from man's experience in particular? 'Woman's experience' has acquired a powerful normative status in feminist writings, especially those of radical feminism but this expression, far from referring to all the diversity and complexity of experience, has come to be especially linked to woman's particular experience, to her biological specificity grounded in her female bodily existence.
Female bodily existence as a source of women's experience
The pains and joys of being woman are deeply grounded in woman's bodily existence. Woman's body creates and cradles life in a way a man's body doesn't. It is much more difficult for women to keep their thoughts neatly apart and separate from their bodies as much of their experience is closely intermingled with bodily functions and events.
In exploring the source of woman's difference from man some feminist writers have evaluated female bodily existence quite negatively in seeing it as the root cause of woman's oppression and inferiority, the real reason for her age-old subordination. Others however have come to recognise the different stages and crises of 'becoming woman' (Washbourn, 1977) - from menstruation to coition, conception, parturition and motherhood - as a source of great pride and strength. Woman's biological make-up is seen as her true source of power, the basis and ground for her feminine qualities of gentleness, tenderness, insight and compassion, her ability to link together and connect people and things. Thus it has been argued that female differences are not only worth preserving but ought to be celebrated and closely studied as woman's specific experience can contribute valuable insights for the necessary transformation of the dominant values of contemporary culture.
It is easier for a man to lose himself in abstract thought and become separated from the sources of life; for women life itself is more organically interconnected. In traditional religious thought this has often been negatively evaluated when women have been described as being 'material', more 'physical', more 'flesh' than men.
Religion and sexuality have always been closely interlinked, whether in the sacralisation of sexual activities or their denial in celibacy and chastity or the manifold taboos associated with sexual life (Parrinder 1980). It is worth mentioning that the World Council of Churches is currently conducting a study project on 'Female Sexuality and Bodily Functions in Different Religious Traditions'. Helpful insights into the relationship between women's sexuality and spirituality can also be gained from the personal reflections found in Linda Hurcombe (ed.), Sex and God - Some Varieties of Women's Religious Experience (1987). One of the major taboos in religions, from the most archaic to the most sophisticated ones, is connected with menstruation, a truly unique experience of women. The flow of blood, often perceived as the very locus of life and thus a symbol of fertility and abundance as well as of sacrifice, is profoundly ambivalent. Dangerous, impure, powerful, magic and sacred, it had to be shunned or surrounded by special rituals. It also often endowed women with a special sacral power from which men had to keep apart.
The various rites associated with menstruation and its symbolic significance have raised a great deal of interest among women scholars. In some tribal groups first-menstruation rituals for girls parallel initiation rituals for boys to mark a new stage of life and recognise the transition into adulthood (Gross; 1980). Among some people, for example the Anlo in West Africa, women can only fully participate in all religious rituals when they have reached the menopause and become 'like men' by leaving their specifically female experience of bleeding and giving birth behind (Gaba, 1987).
Much critical work still needs to be done in this area, but however fascinating past and archaic beliefs and practices may be and however much they may help us in understanding cultural and religious attitudes to the cyclical pattern of women's life, what can contemporary women make of menstruation, so often simply seen as a 'curse', in terms of their own self-understanding?
Penelope Washbourn, in her study Becoming Woman. The Quest for Wholeness in Female Experience (1977) has explored the meaning of woman's bodily existence and its relation to personal maturity and identity with much sensitivity and perceptiveness. She writes about the experience of menstruation as crisis and occasion for transcendence:
The impersonality of menstruation needs to be integrated into personal self-understanding in order for the next life-crisis, a girl's expression of sexuality in relation to others, to be defined creatively.
To emerge enriched from the life-crisis of menstruation implies finally trusting and liking one's body. Trusting it means being peaceful with it, knowing its potential, relaxing with the new experience of menstruation, understanding the possible good offered by the female body structure.
To emerge enhanced from the crisis of menstruation is to receive an increased sense of value as an individual ... It heightens rather than diminishes personhood. (1977, pp. 16, 17, 18)
The same author writes later about the experience of pregnancy and birth:
Perhaps no change in a woman's life is more radical than the experience of being pregnant and giving birth. It is a relatively short experience in terms of time, and though it may be repeated, each pregnancy raises the question of a woman's self-understanding in a new way . . .
Fundamentally, pregnancy and birth locate a woman in an experience of the body and a perception of the self that is uniquely female. That uniqueness can bring both pride and fear; it links her unalterably with those who have experienced pregnancy and childbirth and separates her from those who will never experience it.
Pregnancy and childbirth is a spiritual crisis for a woman, not only in the sense that it raises questions about the interpretation of her femaleness, but also because it implies making a decision about the meaning of the creative power of fertility. (1977, pp. 94, 95)
All too often pregnancy and birth have been looked upon as passive experiences to be endured by women whilst now they are praised and celebrated as active processes which women help to create and shape and wherein they can find an enriching experience for spiritual growth and transformation. Birth and motherhood belong to the central experience of most women's lives, but what meaning they assign to it and what strength they draw from it is open to infinite variations. It links women most closely to the joy of creation where birth, with all its pain and travail, can break into exhilaration and ecstasy. The power and mystery of life, its graceful abundance and utterly gratuitous gift can fill a woman with a deep sense of gratitude and completion and create a strong bond between her and all else that is living.
However, the experience of being a mother is also full of ambiguity, especially in relation to others. All too often women have been seen by society and religious institutions only in terms of their function and role as mother, a role which has defined them in a much more exclusive sense than men are defined by their role of being a father, always only one of the many roles in a man's life. Much comparative work has been done on the different cultural meanings of 'mothering' and on the history of motherhood in western culture. This has created a greater awareness about the profound changes in the practice and understanding of mothering in modern times. One of the most significant developments for the liberation of women is the conscious choice of motherhood, a freedom not given to most of our foremothers in history. Women today have far fewer children, and a much higher intensity of personal care and attention, intimacy and personal relationship is expected between a mother and each child than was the case in the past.
Whilst traditionally the role of woman in society was overridingly determined by her biological function of being a child-bearer and mother, today, with changing patterns of life and new choices, a new consciousness has developed that there is no role-specific life for women any more than there is a role-specific life for men. Women may choose to be mothers or they may not. Women are no longer restricted to being primarily wives and mothers, although women will continue to be also wives and mothers, just as men continue to be husbands and fathers, besides assuming many other roles and tasks in private and public life. As men have chosen to marry and beget children or not to marry, or not to have children, to pursue a career or devote themselves with greater concern to their families, or to do both, so can women.
Apart from the physical acts of childbearing, giving birth and breastfeeding- all very enriching experiences and important human activities - there does not seem to be any role which belongs specifically to women. From the moment of birth, the rearing of children and the special care given to them throughout their infancy and youth need not be an exclusively female occupation. In fact, it would be a positive factor in the development of men if they took a more active part in the care of the young, as many already do nowadays. It will develop new sides of tenderness and care, of patience and humility - characteristics which will emerge in any sensitive, thinking person who is in daily contact with growing life in all its vulnerability and precariousness (King, 1977).
Especially in the area of personal relationships the task of fathering is as important as mothering, but the word 'fathering' is at present still largely restricted to the act of begetting a child rather than connected with the long drawn-out process of being intimately associated with a child's development and growth into maturity. As many fathers are already closely involved with their children, our language may well lag behind our fast changing social reality here. What matters most is the need for close parenting, something that women and men must do together. The interest in the role of the father in bringing up children is growing and in a few families fathers have deliberately chosen a nurturing, 'mothering' role, but this is not yet generally accepted by society and does meet opposition (Pruett, 1987).
As Penelope Washbourn has pointed out, children represent an opportunity for psychological and spiritual growth for both women and men:
Women need children in the same manner that men need children, not to be their ultimate fulfilment but to be the possibility for revealing the nature of the mystery of life in its wonders and tragedies. Living in relation to children may be self-revealing as we see ourselves for what we are, accept that knowledge, and find hope in the very ongoingness of life both in ourselves and in our children. (1977, p. 129)
The family has come in for much radical criticism in feminist literature. Perhaps we now know more about its oppressive and destructive influence on women than about its sustaining potential and creative aspects. Sociologists and anthropologists have written about the widely varying family structures and different patterns of relationships in human cultures, but feminist thinkers and theologians have perhaps not yet sufficiently reflected on the personal and social meaning of partnership marriages and of the family as a community of persons where many moments of self-development, self-realisation and self-transcendence can be experienced.
Feminist voices speak most forcefully and movingly about the experience of motherhood, often seen outside a wider personal and social context. Motherhood is greatly celebrated and even worshipped, for it is seen as a profound analogy of the creative power of divine reality, so often symbolised in religions in the form of the goddess. But the mother goddess, like human motherhood, is not without ambiguities as we shall see in a later chapter.
In the Christian tradition, where feminine symbolism for the Divine has not been absent but male images have dominated language and thought about God, the experience of human motherhood can become a rich experiential source for theological thinking, as Margaret Hebblethwaite has shown in her reflections on Motherhood and God (1984). Her experiences of giving birth to three children and caring for them every day were transformed into creative occasions of meeting and coming closer to God, always courageously named as 'she'. The grace of divine life, of the transforming power of the ever-present spirit becomes transparent here in the spiritual sustenance drawn from ordinary daily events and encounters, from the joys and difficulties of a mother living with and caring for her young.
But many such insights could also be gained without actually giving physical birth - by people who have a close relationship to children without being their biological mothers, such as teachers, doctors or social workers. 'Mothering' as an experience can be extended to cover a wide range of activities and relationships, including spiritual ones. In several Christian groups women religious are addressed as 'Mother' whilst ordained priests and men religious are addressed as 'Father'. This indicates the recognition of and the respect given to a spiritual affiliation and authority analogous to or greater than that accorded to one's biological parents.
In metaphorical terms one can also think of artistic and intellectual creativity as involving the 'nurturing' of an idea which often requires a long period of 'gestation' to come to 'fruition', all terms taken from the biological sphere and the growth of life, but used for both women and men. We have to 'mother' our selves, our interior life; we have to feed and nourish our thoughts, our dreams, our hopes, our prayers - the life of the spirit within us - so that we can be a source of giving and mothers to others.
Gandhi is often describes as 'the father of the Indian nation' but, as has been pointed out, there was also something of the mother in him, especially in his desire to preserve the best of Indian truth and tradition and his profound reverence for life. Indians see their country as a 'mother' sustained and nourished by the divine energy of the mother goddess. It would be interesting to explore which nations refer to their country as 'motherland' and which ones speak of the 'fatherland', as Germans are wont to do.
These few examples illustrate that motherhood is a rich and widely ramified concept linked to biological birth, to culturally learnt patterns of mothering and to expressions of metaphysical and spiritual insights of human experience. It carries a rich resonance due to its close association with early human experiences of intimacy, comfort, nourishment, assurance and support patterned by relationships of tenderness, care and love which all of us need to become and be fully human.
One of the most fundamental paradoxes in feminist thought relates to the new normative status assigned to the experience of woman. The problem involved is twofold. First, it consists of finding a satisfactory way of how to relate women's specific experience to general human experience. Women's experience is different; it is distinctive, incredibly rich and diverse, but its full strength and value have often remained hidden and unacknowledged in the past. General human experience, predominantly described by men, silently subsumed women's experience under it. With great pain and struggle we have now come to realise that women's experience must be looked at separately and on its own terms. That will make our understanding of general human experience more complex and complete.
Women's experience must be fully explored, known and described; politically culturally and religiously it must become an integral part of our total human experience, a rich storehouse to draw upon for all, both women and men. But now the second, more difficult part of the problem arises.
A considerable amount of feminist writing seems to idealise and narrow down women's experience in terms of a uniqueness grounded in female bodily existence. An exclusive insistence on the special experience of womanhood does seem to give biological dimensions a priority over all other considerations of human experience. Why not equally emphasise other spheres of women's experience, especially those of work and creativity? Why not consider all dimensions of the self-creating, self-defining and self-transcending activities of women?
Some feminists seem to be unduly insensitive to the diversity of women's experience and women's needs. The place of biology in feminist theory is certainly one of the difficult philosophical issues facing feminism (see Midgley and Hughes, 1983, ch. 7). How can women maintain on one hand that biology is not destiny, but insist on the other that woman's richest and most specific experience is so exclusively tied to the biological conditions and processes of her body? Is this not biological determinism in another disguise?
I consider the excessive importance placed by some feminists on the experience of birth as dangerously romantic, especially as most women in the western world give birth far more rarely than women in the past or women in the third world. Some feminists are alienated from the birthing process altogether and their rhapsodies about women's special experience make little sense. As a counterargument to woman's narrowly conceived 'experience' one can also think of many single women who have never borne a child and yet their experience has made great contributions to the social, religious, political and cultural life of the human community.
In addition one might observe that an excessive insistence on the experience of motherhood can be considered as a form of 'retraditionalisation' emphasising, admittedly in a new fashion, what women have so exclusively experienced for far too long, often to their own regret and at the loss of a wider human experience of self-development and greater fulfilment. How far is the contemporary concern with 'woman's experience' far too body-dependent? Is it not most characteristic of human experience as human that it always transcends the biologically given? But in this, as in other matters, feminist thinking in all its radical critique and revolutionary intentions still follows the major mould of current western thought with its excessive obsession with the body and sexuality, to the exclusion of many other human concerns. It could well be that the voices of women from the third world and from non-western cultural and religious traditions, with their very different history and experience, will eventually provide a healthy corrective and complement to current feminist debates.
Women's experience in all its rich, joyous and painful aspects cannot be exclusively governed by the biological. Female bodily existence is a primary source of woman's self-image and identity, but not an exclusive one. In and through its spiritual power and transformation can be found, but only by going beyond, by transcending it. In other words, whilst human experience is grounded in and bound by the conditions of physcial existence women's experience, like all human experience, must ultimately be body-transcendent rather than exclusively body-dependent. This is not a facile and false universalism in order to evade the real difficulties of female bodily existence, but it points to a central concern of the feminist quest: woman's search for her true self and for authentic existence which implies autonomy, freedom and transcendence. An important clue for understanding contemporary women's experience is found in the changing consciousness of women, their newly-found sense of self and a differently shaped identity in their relation to others.
Women's experience of the self
Contemporary feminism is misapprehended if it is only seen as a social and political movement. Its own crises, struggles and divisions are linked to profound crises and changes in women's own consciousness as ultimate ground and matrix of their experience. This transformation of consciousness has deep repercussions on society at large and on men in particular.
Authentic experience as lived, loved and suffered by women must encompass a healing of the divided self often experienced as separated within and without, inwardly and outwardly, enclosed like a walled city whose walls must be scaled and pierced to make connections with the outside world. The need for connections, so much stressed in feminist thought, presupposes that there exist many separations, opposing tendencies and dualities which have to be overcome and transcended. At the deepest level the self is severed from the world, from others and from the life of the spirit. It has to retrace its roots in the cosmos, its connections with the natural and human world, in order to discover the dynamic continuum of life energised by the power of the spirit. This is true of any self, but one must ask 'why the world-sense of the disconnected self parallels historically the ascendancy of patriarchy, in order to grasp . . . how its severed, wounded state can only be healed through an explicit embrace of the project of gender re-creation. This is happening within feminism' (Keller, 1987, p. 237).
The American psychologist Carol Gilligan, in her study In a Different Voice. Psychological Theory and Women's Development (1982; see also Gilligan, 1977), has argued that developmental psychology has not given adequate attention to the concerns and experiences of women. If women's voice were heard and integrated into the discussions about concepts of self, morality and human maturity, an expanded conception of adulthood would emerge. She emphasises the centrality of relationships in the lives of women which is different from 'the bias of men' towards separation. Women experience the interdependence of self and other both in love and work. Women's sense of integrity appears to be entwined with an ethic of care 'so that to see themselves as women is to see themselves in a relationship of connection'. Gilligan also argues that accounts which measure women's development against a male standard ignore the possibility of a different truth 'that women's embeddedness in lives of relationship, their orientation to interdependence, their subordination of achievement to care, and their conflicts over competitive success leave them personally at risk in mid-life seem more a commentary on the society than a problem in women's development' (p. 171).
The process of consciousness-raising has awakened women and expanded their awareness of their own situation, their history, their own resources and the potential of women's shared experience. Such expansion of consciousness enhances self-consciousness and becomes a new source for women's further knowledge about themselves and the world. Self-realisation is always linked to an experience of autonomy and freedom in making decisions over one's own life, in experiencing the power of self-determination. But there exist many obstacles for women on the path to self-actualisation. To accept others and relate to them in a positive manner a person must first accept herself and be truly integrated and centred in herself. A great difficulty arises here because many women are in fact far too other-centred, that is to say, too self-effacing and self-forgetting rather than concerned with self-determination. Here the ambiguity of the self becomes apparent. Women often suffer from a low self-regard; too often they see their task as one of giving, of self-sacrifice, rather than of fostering their self-esteem and own sense of worth which a person needs for mature relations with others. This difficulty is connected with the whole problem of women's passivity created by the tyranny of gender roles in our society. Too often women have accepted the notion of simply 'being' rather than 'doing' as a rationalisation for their exclusion from the actions and decisions of the real world. Superficially this may give the impression of greater self-acceptance and maturity, even of greater religious capacity in women, but at a deeper level it often masks a vulnerable sense of dependence, insecurity and self-refusal. Traditional religious institutions whose activities are so often supported by women can turn out to be hiding-places from women's wholeness. A wrongly understood self-denial cannot lead women on the road to genuine spiritual freedom and self-transcendence.
To find freedom women have to create space for their own self-determination rather than be determined by the images and wishes of others. To achieve this goal, the spell of feminine myths and models which still shape so much of our thinking has to be broken. Myths mirror as well as model human existence and in her critical examination of pervasive feminine myths the American writer Madonna Kolbenschlag (1979) has chosen 'Sleeping Beauty' as the symbol par excellence of women's passivity and, by extension, as a metaphor for the spiritual condition of women cut off from autonomy and transcendence. To find true selfhood women must Kiss Sleeping Beauty Good-Bye, as the title of her study says, and abandon other legends enshrined in well-known fairy tales which proclaim the passivity and dependence of women. Kolbenschlag begins her thought-provoking study with the challenging remarks:
The ancients debated the question of whether or not woman could have a soul. Today the "woman question" is one of removing the barriers that prevent woman from becoming a soul.
Much testing, much reflecting, much living must intervene before we can say, 'My soul is now my own'. This is finally what liberation means, that I have rescued my spirit from repressive coercion, from inner compulsion and from the hazards of freedom itself, (Kolbenschlag, 1979, p. xiii).
The hazards of freedom are many indeed. Besides the deep damage that has been done to female and male selves by the dominance of masculinity in our culture, there exists also a new danger for women arising out of the contempt for the feminine implicit in some feminist writing leading to what Helen Luke has called 'the tragic alienation of women from their own femininity' (Luke, 1981, p. 10), often apparent in counselling. But the question then arises, what is the truly feminine within us and how can we realise its potential as women and men? It is far too simple a statement, and no help at all to women struggling for a self-identity and a sense of fulfilment, to say that 'the instinct of the feminine is precisely to use nothing, but simply to give and receive' (Luke, 1981, p. 11). This can easily be misunderstood as yet another example of accepting traditional gender definitions whereas the real problem consists in finding an answer to the question: how can women find their true self and realise the potential of the feminine side of their being too?
Much of the answer to this depends on what kind of self-concept women are able to develop beyond what is traditionally available in our culture. Too many people go on depending on sharp gender divisions created and shaped by social conditions very different from our own. Apart from biological factors gender differences have been explained by different childbearing and mothering practices whereby girls in our culture are parented by a person of the same sex and thus come 'to experience themselves as less differentiated than boys, as more continuous with and related to the external object-world'. The difference is summed up as 'The basic feminine sense of self is connected to the world, the basic masculine sense of self is separate' (N. Chodorow quoted in Oakley, 1982, p. 274).
If the boundaries of the female self are more permeable, this may go some way in explaining why women as a group seem to have developed a heightened sensitivity to other people and often find it both easier and more rewarding to attend to human relationships than men in general do. However, contemporary feminist consciousness calls traditional gender identities radically into question and seeks the emergence and growth of a new female self. Ultimately, this also implies a new male self and a new relationship between the two sexes - in fact, nothing less than 'an explicit embrace of the project of gender re-creation' (Keller, 1987). In other words, the questions raised and the personal and social tensions created by the rise of feminism involve a profound paradigm shift in the understanding of human selfhood. From the perspective of women seeking a new self-understanding and independence one can ask
whether many of the crises currently emerging in male/female relationships and in family life are, in fact, symptomatic of woman's need for ethical autonomy and her struggle to achieve it. If so, what many look upon as the disintegration of 'feminine' identity should rather be viewed as a moral imperative. What for men is a given, a self-transcending capacity imbued by socialization and cultural conditioning, is for women a quality that must be acquired, seized - painfully and often traumatically - sometimes very late in life. The contemporary migration of women into the marketplace suggests that meaningful work may have a significant effect on the achievement of ethical autonomy. (Kolben-schlag, 1979, p. 30)
Besides her experience of work and of a wider social network woman's newly emerging identity and selfhood is profoundly shaped by and closely connected with a revisioning of relationships. Our society is characterised by strong gender polarisation which an increasing number of people, but most of all women, find no longer acceptable nor helpful for living. We have reached a kind of 'boundary crisis' in the understanding of gender roles and of the relationship between the two sexes. For some women relationships with men have become less important to their own development and self-understanding than relationships with other women. To experience and acknowledge love for another women, with or without sexual intimacy, can bring liberation and transformation. The experience of friendship, of trust, of mutual acceptance and encouragement, of sharing one's joys and depressions can be a deeply enriching encounter and bond between women irrespective of whether they also have close relationships with men and children.
Women ministering in mutuality form an integral part of the joys of sisterhood so often celebrated by feminists. Such experiences are not necessarily identical with, but also not totally different from, the strands of thought found in contemporary lesbianism which some of its adherents do not primarily see as a question of sexuality but as one of identity and total commitment to women in a completely male-dominated society. Lesbian couples and communities demonstrate the possible pluralism of human relationships; their experience can be seen as a valuable source of knowledge and female self-affirmation for all women, whilst it provides an explicit counter-identity for some. However, women have to be aware of the danger of separatism. If feminism is to make a decisive contribution to the transformation of the social order, it has to remain open-ended and not set itself up as a new, exclusive absolute. The liberation gained by women's new consciousness must not lead to another kind of bondage, namely that of a separatist ideology instead of true inner and outer freedom. To revitalise our culture women need to create a 'gynergetic continuum' (Keller, 1987) which flows not only through all women but also into all touchable men. This continuum can heal the severed self and release as yet untapped psycho-political and spiritual power in the world.
Self, identity, relationships and the value of the acting, self-reflective subject are all of central importance in philosophical discussions about the nature of the human person as an individual and social being. Philosophers have speculated on these issues since ancient times but feminists today call into question many of their speculations. By probing women's experience cross-culturally and historically our knowledge of ourselves, our world and our social life has to be newly framed and constructed - the knowledge of both women and men that is. It is not our task here to pursue philosophical questions of a technical nature, as has been done by others (see Davaney, ed., 1981) Feminism and Process Thought; Harding and Hintikka (1983) Discovering Reality - Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science; Keller (1986) From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism and Self) but to consider another question which is now being asked more and more, namely, what is the spiritual dimension of women's experience in all its rich variety?
The articulation of spiritual questions has only come of late in the feminist movement and many women writers do not yet mention this subject. Ann Oakley in her book Subject Women (1982), described as 'A powerful analysis of women's experience in society today', lists ten different feminist positions in a table on 'Tendencies in the women's liberation movement' (see Oakley, 1982, pp. 336-7). These are classified according to their social, political or cultural orientation, but there is no reference whatsoever to 'spiritual feminism', 'metaphysical feminism', 'feminist theology' or 'feminist spirituality movements', all tendencies which exist within the wide compass of the contemporary women's movement. Nor is there any mention of women's growing interest in questions of spirituality and mysticism in the sixteen units of the Open University course on 'The changing experience of women' (1983). This is more than simply an omission or oversight. It leaves out a major note, a depth dimension and key to meaning, without which the new consciousness and self- understanding of women remains incomplete and a central aspect of her experience unacknowledged and unexplored. We must ask then what inner strength and spiritual power can women draw from their rich experience, newly explored, articulated, praised, celebrated and reflected upon today? What is the spiritual dimension inherent in women's experience and in feminism as a whole?
The spiritual dimension of women's experience
Experience has much to do with what happens to us through encountering others. In an outward sense it includes social pressures, constraints and opportunities all of which shape our lives. But our inner thoughts and feelings are part of our experience too, and at the deepest spiritual level we must enquire what meaning we can discern in the intricate web of our experiences and whether we can find in it a pattern, a direction or an orientation which seem to make sense.
I am suggesting that women's contemporary experience with all its choices, all its variety and diversity, encompasses important occasions for the disclosure of meaning. It can open up decisive moments of revelation which point to transcendence and spiritual liberation. This is true in the lives of individual women, and it is true for feminism as a whole. The encounter with feminist thought and the experience of her sisters can reveal to an individual woman what she is and can become. It opens up a new horizon for individuals, for groups of women and, potentially, for the whole of society. To share other women's experiences, struggles and thoughts is a catharsis, a cleansing and strengthening process whereby a woman can gain greater clarity of vision and become more transparent to herself.
Critics of the feminist movement often maintain that contemporary women are primarily interested in seeking to snatch outward power from men rather than fulfilling themselves through service and self-giving. There may be some truth in this, but for reasons not always easily understood. Women do seek power in its outward forms and need to obtain it to find true space for freedom and self-determination, for a full self-development and higher self-regard, without which true service and self-sacrifice are not possible, for how can one give up what one has never had? At the same time it must be said that giving, nurturing and caring must not be restricted to women alone. Selfless service must be performed by men too if we want to create a truly caring society. However, outward power and authority must ultimately be grounded in and sustained by inner energy and strength, by authentic existence and spiritual power. Kolbenschlag rightly points to the subtle interdependence between outer and inner power with regard to women earning their own money:
Making money is a supreme act of personal power in our society. To reject the opportunity to make money out of fear, inertia or guilt is to sacrifice an important source of autonomy and commitment. To reject the opportunity to make money for other transcendent motives may also be a supreme act of autonomy. (Kolbenschlag, 1979, pp. 104f.)
Money can be of great importance for spirituality, if only in order to abandon it! Acting in such a spirit of detachment represents a further step towards transcendence but it goes beyond the ordinary experience of most people who must follow a path in and through the things of this world. But in doing so we can learn to see that the spirit addresses us through the events of our lives, through what we do and what is done to us. Spirituality is thus not added on to life as a separate pursuit but grows out of the very tensions, the fibres of our experience. The spirit comes forward and meets us not only in and through the events of our personal lives but also through the movements and events of our time, not least through feminism.
The spiritual dimension within contemporary feminism has much to do with the determined quest for wholeness and integration, the attempt to heal deep divisions and overcome all dualisms. But the central pivot of it all is the notion of freedom and everything this entails, from the experience of personal autonomy and authentic self-existence to a new vision of interpersonal relationships built on equality and partnership, to an altogether different, new social order for the world. At its heart feminism is grounded in and empowered by an act of faith. One could describe this as a vision quest carried by the faith in the possibility of another reality, a hope which goes far beyond current social and empirical evidence. Precisely for this reason feminism is considered as unrealistically Utopian by some, whilst others see it as strongly prophetic and vitally important in shaping our global future. This dynamic faith at the heart of feminism seems to me one of the most important and precious qualities, the true source of its inspiration, a source of immense worth, in fact if one so wishes to see it, a sign of the spirit itself.
Spirituality has both personal and social aspects. It touches and transforms self and society alike. At first woman's search for a liberated self appears to be an utterly inward quest, a very lonely personal journey to 'the land of freedom' and self-determination. But like the waves of the ocean, the effect of self-transformation touches many wider shores although, as Robin Morgan has remarked, it is difficult to imagine at present 'what the ripple effects might be from that single dropped pebble releasing the creative energy of more than half the human species after so long'. If one considers feminism in a larger context, as one must, one realises that
The profound potential of feminism lies not only in those aspects of its vision expressed now and in the past by women, individually and collectively (and by a few men), but even more in the chain reaction of events set off by its most minute accomplishments. This chain reaction can't yet be predicted by those of us - women and men - still groping toward that vision through the pain and confusion of the present. We can only begin to imagine the results, and the results of the results; only begin to glimpse or intuit them . . .
What we imagine, glimpse, intuit, is that feminism is not only about women (which would, remember, be sufficient cause for it), or even about women and men and political/ emotional/ spiritual/ economic/ social/ sexual/ racial/ intellectual/ ecological revolution, or even about all the above plus a revolution in sentience on this planet. All that. And more. (Morgan, 1983, p.282)
Feminism is for Morgan the call for the next step in human evolution, the very key to our survival and transformation as a species. Even though not all feminist writers are aware of these wider perspectives, one must see feminism in this larger context which raises some of the most challenging issues for us today - issues which are intimately connected to personal, social and global aspect of spirituality.
Questions of spirituality appear in contemporary feminism both in this wider, more universal sense, but also in a very particular way. As mentioned in an earlier section of this book, the contemporary search for an authentic world-transforming spirituality takes many different forms. In feminism it is especially concerned with the experience of women, in particular with their experience of exploring, finding and affirming their own self. This search is often bound up with finding a greater and deeper reality, a transcendence beyond the self as well as a new community beyond one's own individuality. Today, in feminism as elsewhere, spirituality is not an exclusive exploration of interiority and inwardness, but closely interwoven with all other dimensions of human experience including social and political life. Thus spirituality is not a permanent retreat from the world into the monastery, the desert, the cave, or even the silence of one's own heart and mind, but arising out of the midst and depth of experience spirituality implies the very point of entry into the fullnesss of life by bestowing meaning, value and direction to all human concerns.
Authentically lived experience rooted and grounded in wholeness and greater reality radiates power, the power of spiritual energy and strength, of a large, continuous life web and rhythm of which the individual person forms an integral part. Women today seek more participation and power in all areas of activity, but they also experience a tremendous power from within their own being. Looking at the contemporary experience of women from the perspective of spirituality we must ask what resources women possess to live an authentic existence and find the strength to create a more caring community. To put it differently, which experiences and examplars provide important sources for the spiritual identity, authority and power of women? To answer this we need to be attentive to the numerous voices of spiritual power found among women in past and present.
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