Snakes again… but this is the last, I promise!

3385I once saw a live dance performance with a huge snake.  That was strange enough, but the circumstances were even more bizarre!

This erotic and vaguely disturbing performance was given in front of the grand piano on the tiny stage in Convocation Hall at McMaster University.

This is about as staid and conservative a venue as one could imagine, setting for early morning French classes, daily chapel, chamber and choral concerts, and even writing exams during my time at the university.  The wood panelled walls, leaded windows and glass display cases are topped by oil paintings of a succession of stern and serious university presidents, starting from the years when McMaster was a Baptist divinity college. Even in my time there was no liquor allowed anywhere on campus, women were not allowed to wear slacks, and the men had to wear ties and jackets to eat in the refectory or write exams.   So what was I doing, only twenty years later, watching a scantily clothed woman performing a snake dance in “Con Hall”?

chicago_dinner_partyI was exploring the writings of second-wave feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

Years earlier I had been so impressed by The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), and then I had been quite literally blown away by Judy Chicago and The Dinner Party exhibit which I saw in Toronto in 1982. The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf was published in 1991.

This was all very important to me. From my high school graduation class only three women went on to university. When I started teaching in 1962 there was not one female school principal in the city, not one! Female doctors and lawyers were extremely rare. It was my generation of women who helped make these things change. When my first child was born in 1968 I participated in a pilot project that permitted “rooming in” with the baby in an isolette in my private room during (my) waking hours… but only my husband and my mother were permitted to visit… wearing masks and gowns! The hospital stay for a normal uncomplicated delivery and a perfectly healthy child was a full week!  I shocked everyone by having my husband present for a natural delivery (barbaric) and then nursed my child “on demand” until he was eight months old. I had obviously lost my mind. It felt wonderful!

Starhawk is an American writer, social activist, and self-described witch. She is one of the foremost popular voices of ecofeminism.

Starhawk is an American writer, social activist, and self-described witch. She is one of the foremost popular voices of ecofeminism.

But back to that night in Convocation Hall.  By the mid 90’s I had begun exploring these ideas with a group of five free-thinking feminist friends (try to read that aloud quickly). By then a tiny feminist (read lesbian) bookstore had opened downtown. It was there that we discovered the Goddess movement   and there that I discovered that Starhawk was going to be in Hamilton on a book tour… she would give a lecture at the university later that week. I scooped up six tickets and called my friends. Starhawk was everything we had anticipated… earthy, funny, frank, charismatic. Obviously comfortable with who she was, a powerful and confident woman, she inspired us with her presentation.

The snake and the dance were a bit strange, but nothing to what came after.

We pushed all the chairs to the perimeter of the room. Lights were turned down to a minimum, and we lined up single file, holding hands. While Starhawk drummed and started the chant, we started moving around the room into a tighter and tighter spiral, and then reversed it, moving outwards. The chanting and stamping got louder and louder as this was repeated several times. Finally “the spiral dance” paused, and we all leaned forward in silence, then swooped our arms into the air and with a shout released the “cone of power”.

The lights came up, we put the chairs back, and I realized again who we were and where we were. I felt self-conscious, even embarrassed. I had come a very long way from the repression and imposed modesty of my convent education, and the realization made me uncomfortable. There was little conversation as we left the hall… obviously no one was untouched by the experience.

My group of friends continued to meet regularly, still reading about the primordial goddess and eagerly discussing the mythology of matriarchal societies.  We were at my house just after the First Gulf War erupted. Gulf indeed… between masculine and feminine values, between war and peace, between this fantasy world and the real world where bombs were being dropped, oil fields were burning, and not only soldiers but innocent families were dying in their homes.

The cognitive dissonance I felt was overwhelming. I expressed the depth of my feelings… probably too forcefully and unexpectedly for my friends. That was the last time we met as a group, and all but one quite obviously distanced herself from me. She is still a good friend, but I miss the others, and wonder whether they have kept up their fascination with female spirituality.

Escape into the feminine values of Gaia was, for me, as uncomfortable as escape into the masculine hierarchy of Christianity and Catholicism. The pendulum had swung to the extreme and then back to the center. God or Goddess… I wanted neither.

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2 Responses to Starhawk

  1. Sufiya says:

    Always a bad idea for women to have ‘strong opinions’; people simply can’t handle it. I know EXACTLY what you mean about your friends clearing out and avoiding you after such a display; I’ve got quite a few EX-friends as a result of having dissenting opinions and expressing them a bit too strongly. But, not being a ‘sheep”, I felt the opinions were more important than the friends.

    Oh, and I know about Starhawk; I was part of the Wiccan community back in the 80s when she first appeared on the scene; the lesbian/Goddess faction was pretty powerful then but people got tired of them. A lot of what they came out with was largely wishful thinking and much too “lesbian-agenda-driven” and so people just lost interest. Starhawk is just one tiny corner of the Goddess movement and a bit too politically-oriented; as history shows, nothing good ever comes from mixing religion and politics, and the “Goddess” movement headed by Starhawk is no exception.

    • motleydragon says:

      Hello, good to hear from you again!

      Yes, strong opinions can be problematic, and I have paid the cost many times of speaking up. I wish everyone would speak up, and that we could accept and respect those dissenting voices, especially among strong women.

      Starhawk was fascinating. I am so glad I got to meet her and to participate in that ritual. But it wasn’t for me.

      The whole second wave of feminism got derailed by their political involvement, but I can’t see in retrospect how they could have done anything else. They accomplished some very important goals in consciousness raising and social change, but were caught in the backlash when things seemed to go too far.

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