Feminist Witchcraft

Feb 20th, 2018 | By | Category: Articles

What Is Feminist Witchcraft?: Defining My Terms

Susan Harper, PhD 

Most of the time, when someone refers to me as a feminist, the word they follow it up with is not “Witch.” (The word they choose does rhyme with “Witch,” however.) In fact, I find that people are somewhat confused when I refer to myself as a “Feminist Witch” or describe my practice as “Feminist Witchcraft.” This confusion is probably best summed up in the question I got from a young woman in a college class I had been speaking to about Witchcraft and Paganism. Her voice full of sincerity and clear perplexity, she asked, “So you’re a feminist? What’s the difference between you and a man-hater?”

Well then. I guess that’s better than the “What’s the difference between you and a Satanist?” bit I usually get at these public lectures, I thought to myself. Then I took a deep breath and gave her my standard answer: “Feminism is the radical idea that women are people. Feminism is the idea that there is no such thing as a lesser person, and that all people deserve dignity and equality, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, class, or anything else.”

She didn’t look convinced.1

It might be easy to chalk up her confusion to basic lack of familiarity with both Paganism and feminism, but I’ve had versions of this conversation too many times to count over the last two decades – including with other Pagans and practitioners of Witchcraft who are honestly perplexed by the idea that Witchcraft and feminism could have anything to do with one another. For some, it comes from a deeper conviction that spirituality and politics should be separate – a viewpoint I decidedly do not share – while for others it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding or ignorance of the vital role that feminist politics played and continue to play in the shaping of the modern Pagan and Witchcraft movements, particularly in the United States. My goal in undertaking this blog-to-book project is to address some of the key questions people have about the relationship between feminism and Witchcraft, address the gaps in knowledge and understanding of the ways in which feminism informs Witchcraft as a spiritual practice today, and put forth Feminist Witchcraft as I know it as a path to liberation, social justice, and spiritual connection.

I am an anthropologist by training, and as such I always like to start by defining my terms. What do I mean by feminist? What do I mean by Witchcraft? Even more, what do those terms mean in the context of my personal practice, thealogy, and ethics?

Feminism is the idea that there is no such thing as a lesser person, that all people deserve equality and dignity regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, or any other status. There are many different strands of feminism, and the meaning of the word has changed over its history. My life, my politics, and my Craft have all been heavily influenced by Third Wave Feminism – a thread of feminism which emerged in the early 1990s, which sought to move beyond a definition of the term as solely applying to women’s struggles for equality and instead sought to forge a larger social movement for equality. It is heavily influenced by 1960s and 1970s-era Second Wave Feminism, which birthed the first generation of modern Goddess Spirituality and Feminist Witchcraft, marked by the work of familiar names such as Z. Budapest and Diane Stein. (I depart significantly from the work of many Second Wave Feminist Witches, who are on the record as holding trans-exclusionary views, which are in direct opposition to my own views and ethics, but I feel that it is important to acknowledge the contributions of these writers and ritualists to creating Feminist Witchcraft in the United States.) Third Wave Feminism built upon the important work of Second Wave Feminism and its struggles for legal access to contraception and abortion, to end sexual and domestic violence, to help ensure equal pay for women (a struggle that continues), to create women’s spaces and women’s culture (of which Goddess Spirituality was and is a huge part), and to generally challenge gender discrimination in all areas.

Third Wave Feminism builds on these struggles and achievements by recognizing that while gender is important, our experiences are influenced by everything we are: our race, our ethnicity, our dis/ability, our sexuality, our class, and more. This framework is known as intersectionality, a term coined by African American legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw and a concept deeply rooted in Black Feminist Thought. Oppression doesn’t just happen across one dimension, and it doesn’t impact every person the same way. Just calling for women’s equality does not address the fundamental inequities that exist in society, though gender oppression is certainly an important social evil to fight. For Third Wave Feminists, all struggles for equality are linked, and people of any gender can be comrades and co-conspirators in the fight against oppression. Increasingly, in Feminist Witchcraft circles, this means fighting transphobia, cultural appropriation and other forms of racism, and classism within our own communities.

What does it mean to be a Feminist Witch? I can only answer that as it applies to the way I understand, live, and practice both those terms – feminism and Witchcraft. Fundamentally, for me being a Feminist Witch means that my spiritual practices are intimately tied up with my politics, are an extension of my activism around issues of discrimination, violence, and inequality. Being a Feminist Witch means boldly declaring that women have the Sacred in us – that all people have the Sacred in them – and claiming the right to be seen as Sacred, as Divine, as no longer less than. It means recognizing that spiritual practice and political struggle are tied up together, that spiritual tools can be used to fight political battles and that every act of spirituality is also a political act.

For me, this takes a couple of specific forms. First, I work exclusively with Goddesses in my personal practice. This is not because I think that male forms of Divinity are somehow inferior or less worthy of veneration. When I participate in circles where Gods are invoked, I don’t run screaming about the patriarchy. Rather, I believe that women claiming their sacredness is a profound spiritual act – that all people have the right to commune with and confront a Divine who looks like them. For women, who in Western culture have been told they are not reflections of Divinity and have had their oppression justified with that same assertion, claiming a Feminine Divine is a profoundly powerful and healing act. When I began to work with Goddess energy and to explore manifestations of Goddess across culture and time, I began to truly heal some of the damage patriarchal, homophobic, and sexist culture had inflicted on me. It is incredibly important to me to continue to reclaim my own sacredness, and one way that I do this is by surrounding myself with Goddess imagery.

I also work at least some of the time in women-only circles. In my own work, and especially in the circles I facilitate, I use the term “women’s circle” in the most expansive way I can, making my spaces open to all women (cisgender, transgender, or otherwise) and to nonbinary people who feel most at home in women- and femme-centric spaces.  I do not participate in events or rituals that are explicitly exclusionary of trans women and nonbinary folks,

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I don’t view my politics and my spirituality as separate. In my professional life, I am an educator, advocate, and activist for a number of social justice causes. I teach Women’s Studies, sociology, and anthropology, which gives me an excellent platform from which to talk about the importance of working for equality, to bring attention to inequality and oppression, and to raise people’s awareness of the world around them. My activism work focuses on ending gender based violence, lobbying for equality for women, other non-men, and queer people, and ending poverty. I see both my teaching and my activism/advocacy as powerful works of magick. When I am speaking to a group of people, whether in a classroom or at a protest, I feel my own Divinity, my own Goddess-self, step forward. I feel power flow through me. As I work to make changes, in the minds of my listeners or in the world around me, I am working magick just as profoundly as if I were standing in circle with my athame raised and the altar laid out before me. The work that I do as a feminist educator and activist is an extension of my spirituality, and my spirituality is an extension of my feminist scholarship and activism. I cannot separate the two, nor would I want to. They are intricately woven together, strengthening each other and adding to the tapestry that is my life.

  1. Note: Portions of this entry  appeared in slightly different form in my PaganSquare blog, “Third Wave Witch”: http://witchesandpagans.com/sagewoman-blogs/third-wave-witch/welcome-to-third-wave-witch.html

Photo – Dee Hill (http://www.deehillphotography.com)


3 Comments to “Feminist Witchcraft”

  1. Keli Tomlin says:

    Thank you for sharing this; powerful and engaging to hear how your whole life is suffused by the magic of your spirituality whilst remaining gloriously and necessarily human and relevant to our current climate.

    • Susan Harper says:

      Thanks so much! I’m really excited to continue writing on this project — it feels like we’re at a time when our culture and our planet need the fusion of spirituality and justice.

  2. Ann says:

    Thank you for sharing. As part of the second wave, I am very hearten by the third wave activism. I too continue to find opportunities to meld my feminism, social activism and spirituality. I look forward to further installments from you.

Leave a Comment