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