I’ve just finished working on a new website which brings together all of my work and writing in one place (Re-enchanting the Earth will remain as a blog, though, and articles will appear as usual here, and in your email box if you subscribe). The website is at sharonblackie.net, and the tagline of the site is ‘Women Remaking the World’. Which all sounds rather grandiose, so one of the first things I figured I ought to do was explain what I meant by that. It’s a subject close to my heart, not only because it’s the focus of the work I do, but the subject matter of my new book, which’ll be published in spring 2016. There’s a page on the website which contains this information, but I thought it was worth posting as a blog article too.
The focus of all of my work is on exploring and nurturing women’s generative, creative and transformative energies. My ultimate aim is simple: to inspire women to rise up, and to use their unique wisdom to change the world.
Most people would agree that ours is a culture which is dominated by masculine principles, and in which the feminine has been systematically and comprehensively devalued. We live in a patriarchy, and one in which rationalism and materialism rule. The foundations of our civilisation lie in a quest for endless, almost cancerous growth, the single-minded pursuit of profit, and a constant striving for power over others. The qualities which are perceived to be female – dreaming, creativity, openness, nurturing, community – are seen as optional extras at best, but more often as characteristics to be derided, for they are associated with ‘weakness’.
It’s important to say that arguing against a patriarchal system, and arguing for a resurgence of feminine values in this ailing culture, has nothing to do with disliking men. Many men have strongly supported the greater empowerment of women over the past few decades, and healthy masculine qualities are as necessary to the world as feminine qualities – but what we’re seeing in our culture is a masculine so dominant that it is pathological. As one man described it recently in an article online: ‘This “pathological” masculine can be defined as uncompromising, unbending, inflexible, driven, homophobic, sexist, ambitious and uncaring. It’s disembodied, dominating, controlling and conquering, values sex over intimacy, hides or buries vulnerability, puts self first, believes in material success at all costs, suppresses feelings, and is out of touch with nature, just to name a few things. This is what the pathological patriarchy represents, and what conscious people everywhere are fighting against.’
Nevertheless, women have a long way to go before we can redress the balance. What is it exactly that has been lost in devaluing the feminine? Although social and cultural influences on behaviour are considerable, there are also clear biological differences between men and women which lead to differences in our ways of being in the world. Sex differences profoundly influence the physiology of every organ of the body, including the brain, and therefore influence mood and behaviour. And so it is that there is a different way of relating to the world which is considered to be predominantly feminine – though of course an over-simplistic dualism is unhelpful, for men can display these qualities too, and not all women would align themselves with them. Jungian analyst Marion Woodman has written about the ways in which ‘heart energy’ – the qualities of relationality and empathy – are more likely to be displayed by women. The feminine way embraces the physical, the natural, the instinctual, the wild; it embraces the creative principle, and an understanding of the power of stories, of images, of dreams.
More than ever, the resurgence of feminine qualities in the world is necessary. Researchers in the academic field of ecofeminism have pointed out many connections between the ongoing despoliation of the natural world by dominant patriarchal Western cultures, and the subjugation of women within those cultures. In the Western tradition, since Plato and before, reason has been identified as the privileged domain of men, who considered the natural world (incorporating all that is physical, emotional, instinctual, wild) to be inferior. In this tradition, women have been associated with nature just as men have been associated with reason and intellect, and so it follows that women must be inferior to men. What is physical, emotional, instinctual and wild has been seen as something which must be overcome by the force of reason rather than embraced, and in such a culture, founded on the glorification of the intellectual, the natural world then becomes merely a backdrop for human activities, to be exploited. It has little agency of its own; it is empty of purpose or meaning. Often, it’s something to be feared, as anything which cannot be entirely controlled is to be feared. As for the natural world, so for women.
My forthcoming book, If Women Rose Rooted, is focused on these issues. It’s also focused on the power of story, because humans are narrative creatures. It’s not just that we like to tell stories: it’s that narrative is hard-wired into us. It’s a function of our biology, and the way our brains have evolved over time. We make sense of the world, and fashion our identities, through the sharing and passing on of stories. And so the stories that we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it, and perhaps more importantly the stories that are told to us by others, shape not just our own lives, but the world around us. Stories can alter the course of history.
Women in the West lost control of their stories a long time ago. The traditional continental European fairy stories that so many of us in Europe and beyond grew up with – the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Perrault – and that instruct us in what it is to be a woman in our culture, reflect a two-thousand-year history of disempowerment. Girls and women appear in traditional, passive roles, and it is the Hero who rules and shapes the world. The wise and powerful, largely benign but not-to-be-trifled-with Old Woman is relegated to the role of Wicked Witch. The Great Mother becomes the Wicked Stepmother. The Princess can only go on to live ‘happily ever after’ if she is saved by and then marries the Prince. Simply rewriting these tales from a feminist perspective, as so many scholars and authors have done, might be entertaining, but it doesn’t change much: the old stories still carry the archetypal burden of the centuries. As women, these Northern European fairy-tales fail us.
But while they may be the stories that we know best, they aren’t the only stories we have inherited. Rising high up on the heather-covered moorlands of Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Brittany, seeping through our bogs, flowing down our streams and into our rivers and out onto the sandy strands of the Atlantic seaboard, are the old Celtic myths and stories. Treasure buried under our feet, waiting to be reclaimed. ‘Treasure’ because for women particularly, to have a Celtic identity is to inherit a history, literature and mythology in which we are portrayed not only as deeply connected to the natural world, but as playing a unique and critical role in the wellbeing of the earth and survival of its inhabitants. Celtic myths for sure are full of heroism and adventure, but their major preoccupation is with service to and stewardship of the land. Once upon a time women were the guardians of the natural world, the heart of the land, ‘Sovereignty’ personified. The Celtic woman who appears in these old myths, poems and histories is not passive, but active in a different way from their heroes and warriors: she is the bestower of kingship, protector of the land, the root of moral authority. She is protector of the animals too, deeply grounded and rooted in place, indivisible from her distinctive, haunting landscape.
This connection to the land and to nature is not limiting, as it is in so many Western mythologies and philosophies in which women were excluded from the intellectual pursuits that were the God-given domain of the more rational male, and thereby excluded from power. Celtic women might have identified strongly with the natural world, but they indulged in their fair share of intellectual and artistic pursuits too. They were not simply the wives or the objects of desire of a more active hero, but were themselves warriors, rulers, astronomers, artists, priestesses and lawyers. They had a unique and critical role to play in Celtic society which has no counterpart in Western culture today. Because hard as we women have tried to claw our way back to some semblance of significance after centuries of oppression, nevertheless we have all too often been clawing our way back into a male-dominated world, living by male-dominated paradigms, equal only if we reshape ourselves in the image of men. It is hard for contemporary women to recognise ourselves in these old stories, which offer up a vision for a different kind of female power and authority, a different but necessary balance in male-female relationships.
Women today are hungry, and many feel empty. We thirst for authentic ways of living, for the kind of role models that we cannot find in contemporary popular culture. Because something in modern life is awry, and in our hearts we know it. The faster the rate of our progress, and the more virtually connected we become, the more disconnected we seem to feel from each other, our communities, the world. We are facing an epidemic of alienation from our increasingly complex, technologically focused lives, as more and more people are torn away from a direct relationship with place and with the land on which we live. And so women are angry, too: angry at our patriarchal, growth-and-domination culture which has led to runaway climate change, the mass extinction of species, and the destruction of wild and natural landscapes in the unstoppable pursuit of progress. Women want to remember, and to reclaim, an authentic way of living that we have lost. This is why so many contemporary women’s movements are focused on a growing desire not just to ‘reconnect’ with nature, but to re-root ourselves in the world and in our communities, to take responsibility for shaping the future. It’s a revolution of belonging, and it goes far beyond simple environmentalism.
What that blossoming new women’s movement needs are guiding stories: stories which capture our imaginations, and which remind us that there are other ways of belonging to the world. Because the old patriarchal stories have failed us down the centuries and fail us still, and a low howl is rising in the cities and the villages as women ask themselves where can we find our new stories? Nothing that is artificially created seems to capture our imagination. But it doesn’t need to: the inspiration that we are looking for lie in the stories that are right there beneath our feet, rooted in the Celtic landscape, waiting to be reclaimed and re-visioned for the modern world.
If women remembered that once upon a time we sang with the tongues of seals and flew with the wings of swans, that we forged our own paths through the dark forest while creating a community of its many inhabitants, then we would rise up rooted, like trees.
And if we rose up rooted, like trees … well then, we might find the stories which help us to change not only ourselves, but the world.
It’s an idea that has come of age. More and more, women are taking the lead in the environmental movement. The Women’s Earth and Climate Network International says on its website: ‘We believe that women leaders of NGOs, grassroots organizations, business and local and national governments can make a major contribution by developing new levels of cooperation to exercise the “applied feminine” – caring for the Earth and for future generations. These are the hallmarks of women as powerful change agents for creating a sustainable and just world.’ To offer just a few examples: Nobel Prize-winner Wangari Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement, which has planted millions of trees in Kenya and transformed women into powerful advocates for their rights, good governance and democracy, and natural resource protection. In the UK, the leader of the Green Party is a woman, Natalie Bennett. London barrister Polly Higgins founded the growing global ‘Eradicating Ecocide’ movement. Vandana Shiva is India’s best-known ecofeminist, environmental and anti-globalisation activist, promoting the idea that a more sustainable and productive approach to agriculture could be achieved through reinstating systems of farming that are more centred on engaging women.
Even more radically, Canada’s ‘Idle No More’ movement took the world by storm in 2013 as what began as a simple resistance campaign against a pending bill in Saskatchewan spilled across the border to the United States, and spread its influence across the world. The movement – which inspired solidarity actions around the globe – was founded by four women, three of whom were from Canada’s Indigenous nations. Idle No More’s vision ‘revolves around Indigenous Ways of Knowing rooted in Indigenous Sovereignty to protect water, land, and all creation for future generations.’ It is a vision that is deeply rooted in the old ways of being, the old Indigenous mythologies which reveal an inextricable bond between the living world and the feminine. ‘It’s time for our people to rise up and take back our role as caretakers and stewards of the land,’ a spokeswoman for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations proclaims on the Idle No More website.
We cannot live by the myths and worldviews of other cultures, which are rooted in lands and histories that have little relationship to our own. And yet, so often we try to: we look for our spiritual practices to the East: to yoga, to Buddhism; we look for guidance on how to live in harmony with the land to the West: to Native American practices. But we don’t need to look to the myths of other cultures for role models, or for guidance on how to live more authentically: we have our own myths, and they are solidly grounded, deeply rooted in the heart of our own native landscapes. A mythology in which women are rooted in the earth, like trees. A mythology in which women rise up out of that rootedness to protect the land and the waters. A mythology which can help us to shape a more authentic vision for our lives as contemporary women in a world that both fails us, and ails us.