Healing the Wounds of Patriarchy, One Woman at a Time

It’s day four of the Friends General Conference Gathering workshop for high school women, “Honoring That of Goddess Within.” Twelve Young Friends, ages 14 to 18, sprawl on couches in the dormitory lounge where we meet every morning, each girl intently writing in her journal after the morning’s guided meditation.

An attractive young woman in the group suddenly throws down her journal, crying, “I hate my body! It’s so ugly! I can’t stand it!” She sobs loudly, as the others look on, open-mouthed. A moment later, a usually reserved member of the group pops out of her chair, runs across the room and jumps onto the crying girl’s lap, throwing her arms around her, and exclaims, “But you are so beautiful!!! Your body is perfect!” As she strokes the whimpering girl’s hair, rocking her and making soothing sounds, the other Young Friends slowly draw near, wrapping their arms around the pair. They gently sway together, softly humming a sacred chant we sang together that morning, until the girl’s trembling stops.

This was not my plan for the morning, but scenes like this have happened regularly during the decade I have led versions of this workshop for high school women at Quaker gatherings and for women of all ages at Pendle Hill. Sometimes a woman gets in touch with self-loathing or deep wounds to her self-esteem from verbal or emotional abuse. Sometimes it is about physical or sexual abuse. Usually, the group spontaneously surrounds the crying woman, comforting her while she grieves, holding her only if that’s what she wishes. Each time, the group finds its power to support her. Much healing takes place in these circles of women as they tell their stories and find their connections to each other and to the Divine. There is also a lot of laughter, dancing, singing, and joyous celebration of our sacred feminine natures.

Women struggle to accept ourselves and our bodies when this misogynistic culture tells us that women are not acceptable, no matter what size we are or what clothes or makeup we wear.

Many Western women, including myself, have an inaccurate perception of our bodies, believing ourselves to weigh at least 10 pounds more than we actually do. We spend millions of dollars and hundreds of hours dieting, exercising, and obsessing about our weight and our bodies. This may seem trivial to women from other parts of the world who struggle to feed their families. But the pain of Western women is real, as our obsession with weight and appearance consumes so much of our energy. Anorexia and bulimia, both lifethreatening conditions, are epidemic in the West. Young girls begin dieting and obsessing about their weight as early as eight or nine years old. Recent studies have found that more than half of normal-weight teenaged girls, and a quarter of boys, describe themselves as being too fat.

As a follow-up to the workshop, one group of Young Friends spent a long afternoon in my hot tub, talking about their bodies, menstruation, and sex. I shared with them Her Blood is Gold: Celebrating the Power of Menstruation, by Lara Owen, which traces how women throughout history lived with their natural cycles, before it became “the curse.” Redefined by religion as “dirty” and “unclean,” women were banned from churches and synagogues during their bleeding time. It was enlightening to the girls to learn that there are cultures where a girl’s first blood is still celebrated, and she is honored during this sacred time. As the hours went by and their skin turned wrinkly from their long soak, these young women found their connection to one another and a new perspective on their bodies.

My leading to share these workshops grew out of my own life experiences as a woman, many of them painful, as I have sought to heal lifelong issues of body, weight, and selfesteem. Through the years, I have incorporated into these sessions modalities that have been most healing for me, including sacred dance, chant, guided meditation, breathwork, journaling, artwork, ritual, and deep sharing. Women’s spirituality is most often experienced through the body and through connection to others, and it has been through moving my body and being in circles with other women that I have felt closest to the Divine. Creating a safe space for sharing our journeys is always my first priority.

Many women tell me that this workshop was one of the most healing experiences of their lives—an opening into awareness of their Divine heritage, acceptance of the beauty of their bodies and their sacred feminine natures.

In 2007, feeling a need to deepen my understanding of this calling, I attended the Pendle Hill workshop “History of Feminine Spirituality” with psychologist Erva Baden. I felt as though a veil fell from my eyes as Erva painted a picture of the Great Mother, honored for millennia in ancient cultures all over the world where men and women lived in peace and equality. Then, in the course of a few centuries, the Goddess was brutally suppressed and replaced with a warlike male God.

Our group sat in stunned silence when Erva posed the question,

How would your life and the world be different if the images of the Divine we honored were of a woman giving birth, and not of a man dying on the cross?

As we engaged deeply with this question, we each realized that our individual lives would be quite different and our world would be transformed. In that moment I saw it as though written in neon lights:

Sacred images are mirrors that show us who we are and who we strive to be.

With no sacred images of powerful females, women struggle to know our power. Duh!

Hungry to learn more, I made the difficult decision to spend the next year at Pendle Hill, the Quaker study center in Pennsylvania. I needed to explore this topic and my calling, so I took unpaid leave from my work in continuing education at Virginia Commonwealth University and said a tearful goodbye to my beloved husband of 40 years. Twenty-five books about the Sacred Feminine traveled with me to Pendle Hill; I read them all, plus many more, during that year. (I continued exploring this ministry the following year as a participant in the School of the Spirit’s “Way of Ministry” program; this experience is described in the online version of this article.)

In the Pendle Hill classes on Quakerism, Marcelle Martin illuminated the lives of 17th-century Quaker women who fearlessly set out across the ocean to offer ministry in the New World, leaving their husbands home with the children. These are incredible stories, considering that women of that time were considered possessions with no rights of their own. There was even a popular debate about whether women had souls. I was especially captivated by the life of Margaret Fell, who, I came to realize, was actually the co-founder of Quakerism, along with George Fox. He had the ideas and the spiritual openings; she had the organizational skills and the persistence to make things happen— her passionate, articulate letters to the King of England are amazing! Their central message was that each person, male or female, has direct access to the Divine Light within.

How did the early Quakers come up with the radical idea that women are equal, I wondered, was it original? Or were there still whispers of the Great Mother alive in the ether in 17th-century England? While I have found no written proof (yet!), a fellow workshop leader at the FGC Gathering told me about his family, living for many generations in England among the sacred groves where the ancient Celts worshipped the Goddess. He thought it quite possible that these beliefs were still alive in England during the time of the early Quakers.

I was drawn to Quakerism in the late ’70s because of social activism and stayed because I found acceptance of different expressions of spirituality, free from the confining rules and guilt of my Catholic upbringing. Now I see that it was full empowerment of women that made me feel most at home in Quakerism. I never got to be an altar boy; the best the Catholic Church could offer girls was to become a nun, a silent, invisible woman in black, it seemed to me. When I learned that Quaker women had always been considered fully equal, their brave voices ringing out loud and clear in the major social movements of the last five centuries, I knew I was home.

One night during my year at Pendle Hill, while sitting in prayer and meditation in my room, moonlight shining on me through the open window, I asked Mother/Father God for a direct experience of the Divine, and to show me the way forward in my work. Deep peace came over me, and I noticed my hands resting on my rounded belly. The thought came into my mind that my body is made in the image and likeness of the Goddess, just as the images from ancient cultures depicted Her, with full belly and breasts.

I had just started the clay class in the fabulous art studio at Pendle Hill. Even though I had not yet learned sculpture, I felt a strong urge to get a lump of clay, take it outside, and make an image of the Divine. Sitting in Owens Garden, bathed in the light of the full moon, I closed my eyes and let my hands play with the ball of wet earth. What took shape was a rough figure of a woman, her belly contracted in labor, her baby’s head emerging. As I continued kneading the clay, surprised by the figure showing up, memories came to me of giving birth to my youngest son, Jonathan, 26 years earlier. When his head popped out and wriggled around, I had instinctively put my hand on his downy pate, resting it there until the next contraction, nearly two minutes later, and then I pushed him out into the world. It was so strange and wonderful being fully present to this mysterious moment when a soul moved from Spirit to body.

Looking at the little statue in my hands, the sounds and smells and feelings of this magnificent moment swept over me, and tears of joy and deep connectedness flowed.

Today, the statue reminds me of this birthing of my son and myself, when I felt the awesome power of my own body and the presence of Spirit. The statue now lives on my altar and travels with me to all my workshops and presentations, where the story of her creation has been inspirational for many women.

Over the next few months at Pendle Hill, I grew into the knowledge that my work is about sharing with women their spiritual heritage so that they can see themselves as made in the image of the Divine. I wanted to help women to accept and love their bodies, embrace their power, and have their own direct experiences of the Divine.

I became Pendle Hill’s “Inclusive Language Policeperson,” constantly adding feminine words and images of the Divine to conversations and worship. Surprisingly, it was women who became most impatient. “What difference does it make?” they asked. “We all know that God is neither male nor female.” But I had awakened to the deep wounding that the exclusive use of male pronouns and images has had on me and on other women, even though many women seem not to be aware of these wounds.

When my daughter-in-law Elizabeth DeSa introduced me to the term “Godde,” (pronounced “God”), the Old English spelling, I breathed a sigh of relief. I was uncomfortable using the term “Goddess” because it refers only to the feminine, excluding men, just as the term “God” has become totally identified with the masculine, excluding women. I emphatically do not wish to engage in spiritual practices that deliberately exclude men. Having witnessed the deep wounds inflicted on my sweet husband and my two beautiful sons by our culture, with its intolerance of anything remotely “feminine,” even color choices by little boys, I wish for all of us to have the freedom to express our full humanity.

Our world is seriously out of balance. One of the biggest reasons for this imbalance, I believe, is the suppression of what are considered “feminine” values over the last 3,000 years. Values that are considered feminine, such as compassion, nurturing, cooperation, intuition, and connection, have been devalued and vilified, or at best treated as frivolous. This has led to the marginalization of women as well as men when they try to express their own feminine inclinations, a worldwide epidemic of violence against women, and rampant homophobia. Values associated with the masculine, such as control, competition, aggression, ambition, and enterprise, while not in themselves dangerous, have spun out of control into excess and violence because they are not balanced by strong, empowered feminine values. It’s obvious to me that this has led directly to the current state of our world, with violence, war, exploitation, and an assault on Mother Earth herself that threatens our very existence as a species.

I believe that many of the myths of our culture have directly assaulted the feminine. Some of the central doctrines of Jewish and Christian belief, including Eve’s role in the “fall” of humanity, the “virgin” birth of Jesus, and the church’s portrayal of Mary Magdelene as a “whore” have contributed to a culture that has demeaned the feminine. Beliefs that the female body is unclean and dangerous are still being taught in many religious communities. This is in direct contrast to the ancient Goddess religions, which always honored the body as sacred.

As a result of these myths, the legacy of women has been a burden of shame, guilt, and alienation from our divine heritage. Men and boys have been disconnected from their tender, sweet, full selves, and locked in the straitjacket of maleness.

I believe that our Mother/Father Godde is nudging us towards restoring the balance between the masculine and the feminine in our world. I have hope that, with Godde’s help, we will come to our senses and restore our Earth to the paradise we were given, a place where all men and women can live in peace and harmony, contributing fully with our gifts, knowing that we are each reflections of the Divine.

I believe that Quakers have an important leadership role to play in this transformation, with our heritage of full empowerment of women in the ministry, our testimonies of equality, peace, and community, and with our founding mothers’ and fathers’ passionate commitment to justice for all.

It’s time for half the world’s people to be restored to full humanity.

Peggy O'Neill

Peggy O'Neill is a longtime member of Richmond (Virgina) Friends Meeting and an active volunteer at Baltimore Yearly Meeting Young Friends gatherings. She regularly leads Sacred Circle Dances and workshops on the Sacred Feminine, and sees her ministry as restoring the balance between the masculine and feminine in our world. She is a founding member of a Quaker intentional community in Ashland, Virginia.