According to new age types who care about this sort of thing, divine feminine energy is on the rise. Both this year and last were dubbed the year of the Sacred Feminine, and the associated “women are goddesses” rhetoric has been bleeding into the mainstream recently, with everyone from Princess Nokia to “author-maximizer” Suzanne Kingsbury to horny male feminists touting its power (“No, seriously dudes. Goddess worship is the new macho.”) Human consciousness is divided into masculine and feminine sides, they say, and the long-maligned female half is finally having its day in the sun.
For the uninitiated, the Sacred Feminine is said to be the source of those qualities traditionally associated with motherhood: unconditional love, compassion, beauty, and gentleness all fit the bill, as do patience, forgiveness, nurturing, kindness, and healing. In her interview with Bustle Kingsbury explains to Dylan Essertier that Divine Femininity is the aspect of the self associated with “creation, intuition, community, sensuality (felt sense rather than thinking sense), and collaboration,” and if this hazy empowerment narrative sounds suspiciously like a regurgitation of timeworn stereotypes about women being docile, beautiful caretakers who are innately nurturing and maternal, and emotional rather than rational (felt sense!), then that’s because it is.
Leaving aside the question of corniness for a moment, and focusing only on its cultural ramifications, the rhetoric about Divine Femininity is squarely regressive. While the idea that women are innately nurturing and emotionally sensitive might sound harmless, these ostensibly positive stereotypes are hard-working components in the overall narrative that women are irrational, intellectually inferior, and servile beings who are most at home in the domestic sphere — the exact logic that’s always facilitated women’s oppression. And however innocuous it seems on the surface, this kind of benevolent sexism actually causes more harm than overt misogyny.
What’s more, the focus on fertility reinforces the essentialist narrative that anyone without a vagina, breasts, or the capacity for childbirth is not a real woman, and everyone with those things is; a line of thought that is self-evidently alienating to trans and non-binary people, as well as infertile, post-menopausal, and voluntarily childless cis women. TERFs have already namechecked the Divine Feminine to deny trans women entry into the woman club, the apparent reserve of those of us with “sacred passages” who “sacrifice blood,” “breastfeed,” and “flow in flux with the universe.” (Perhaps the real biological test of womanhood is how deeply those phrases trigger your gag reflex.)
Some proponents of the “women are goddesses” approach have denied that it reinforces the gender binary. Ben Lawson at the Good Men Project, for example, after waxing lyrical about his hard-on for goddesses, clarifies that it’s the birthright of men to also tap into feminine energy, and Essertier writes that it is, “an energy available to anyone.” The argument might fly if we were talking about “nurturing” rather than “feminine” energy (the clue’s in the name), but even the idea of Gender Neutral Nurturing Energy elides a more important point, which is that human qualities do tend to divide along gender lines, not because of energy or goddesses or biology but through good old fashioned socialization.
Women are groomed from birth to be nurturing in a way that men aren’t (and punished more heavily when we fail on this front). The problem is not that there’s a biological or spiritual barrier to men being nurturing, caring and selfless, it’s that the cultural association of these qualities with femininity has meant they’ve been systematically undervalued for eons, which makes caring work incredibly difficult for women, let alone men. Being a Nurturing Goddess often means being consigned to a precarious, un(der)paid existence lacking in necessary structural support like parental leave and funding for the care of elderly and disabled people, so the notion that anyone could embody Divine Feminine qualities after undertaking the right kind of individual emotional shift — and that wealthy men in particular have any serious incentive for doing so — is a cop out that ignores social and structural realities.
The impulse to deify women is understandable — and TERFs notwithstanding, it’s clear that most new agers have their hearts in the right place. At its root, “women are goddesses” is an overcorrection of the pervasive misogyny and androcentrism that has denigrated women for centuries: instead of women being subhuman (bitches, cunts, throwaways) we’re elevated to superhuman status. The only problem with this approach is that it skips straight past the human stage.
Acknowledging each woman’s messy, multifaceted, often quite pedestrian personhood is an anticlimactic alternative to goddess worship, but it’s a much better way to go. In its mission statement, the Combahee River Collective, a group of black feminists organizing since 1974 against racism, gender-based oppression, and predatory capitalism, stated that it “reject[s] pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” Progress depends on viewing women neither as goddesses nor animals, but people: farting, fucking human beings as capable as men of heroic bravery, hilarious witticisms, and stoic trash removal as we are of robbing our roommates, ghosting our oldest friends, and kicking ice under the fridge. It’s not our sacred passages, sacrificial blood, or nurturing instincts that make us worth forgiving when we hurt others, and worth defending when others hurt us. It’s our humanity.
Of course, not everyone who quips that “women are goddesses” literally believes it, and often it’s not that deep: a memeable, feel-good, social media-based female solidarity narrative like the “men are trash” faux-misandry of yore, or a stress-reliever like astrology. For others, though, it’s an earnest feminist outlook, and to the extent that credulous and uncritical coverage of this tenet of new age spirituality is (a) on the rise in digital media, and (b) cements the kind of gender essentialism already at play in everything from trans-exclusionary bathroom bills to the precarity of Roe v. Wade, it really is, so to speak, that deep. Women who post daily affirmations on Instagram are in no way the moral equivalents of powerful, piece of shit Republican politicians, but the idea that womanhood can be boiled down to a collection of stereotypical, reproductive qualities, especially when that stance is supposed to be emancipatory, is worth critical attention regardless of who espouses it.