This past week, my friend and colleague Erin Donley wrote an article entitled, “Please, stop calling me Goddess!” It raised my hackles.
I so appreciate how Erin dives right into the topics that many others shy away from and pokes at the sensitive spots where breath and healing and release are needed. I so appreciate that she reminds women (and men) to stop being “nice” and start being real, and supports people in speaking up clearly and boldly. I appreciate her own commitment to saying what she thinks and how she feels and opening herself to often sticky conversation about those statements.
In that spirit, I’ve got a lot to converse about, and I’m ready to speak up for myself on this subject.
Just as a heads up, this isn’t fast-paced, sound-bite kind of response. You might need a beverage and a few shoulder rolls. Or cinnamon rolls. Regardless, I think this conversation is vital and worth the time.
In Chinese Five Element philosophy, anger is an emotion linked to seeing clearly, and acting on that. My anger after reading the article did lead to clarity, and I’m writing to share some thoughts with Erin and you. I thought about just writing to Erin, but I see this as a word issue, a human story issue, and one deeply connected to the work I do—not to mention the brand new logo on this here website of mine—so I thought it was important enough to share with you, too.
In her article, Erin mentions Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen’s studies of language and gender, and in particular this quote from Tannen: “The same effort that young boys put into proving they can top each other, young girls put equal effort into proving they’re all the same.”
Erin goes on to describe her struggle to set herself apart from other women, often having trouble relating with them and gaining acceptance, and in her current life, not minding the division that sometimes still happens. Erin writes,
“So, when an adult woman calls me Goddess, her intention is to include me and to instantly elevate me to the same status as she. ‘Welcome to the Goddess Club where you’ve already arrived at the highest honor possible. And we all get along because we’re all Goddesses.’
No thanks, sister! That crushes my motivation. It suffocates my individuality and makes me wonder how much greater I’d be if I played with the boys.”
While I totally respect someone requesting not to be called something, whatever it is, and honoring that, I take issue with someone assuming my intentions in using the word Goddess, both because that assumption is incorrect, and because it leads to a response that seems to be based in other problematic assumptions.
It seemed that in “Please stop,” the assumption about me as a user of the word Goddess is that because I buy into an idea/reality in which boys work hard to prove they can top each other and girls work hard to prove they’re all the same, that then of course, when I use the word Goddess, I intend to include, approve, and prove we women are all the same and all get along.
Not at all.
In part, I use Goddess as another in a series of terms of endearment. I also often use words like Lover & Beauty & Creature. It’s fun for me to greet people with what feels like some extra word love, and it feels natural. If someone requests that I don’t personally address them that way, I will oblige.
I also use Goddess as a way to intentionally resuscitate and honor, for both men and women, something essentially feminine in a hyper-masculinized world, which has led to suffering for both men and women (and of course calls for its own focused discussion).
It seems to me that “Please stop” uses Tannen’s research to show that the stereotypical boy approach is better or more appealing than the stereotypical girl approach, and if that’s the case, I don’t buy into that. That glimpse of Tannen’s research shows me that the way many young boys act and the way many young girls act reflects a screwed-up system that propagates stereotypes that belittle both men and women and denies them the fullness of human experience.
What if being a human wasn’t about either domination or subservience and sheep-i-fication? What if there’s more?
I’m not interested in playing the top-each other game of patriarchy or a one-rule economy, the kind of thing which leads to concentrated power and power-over, from the top. I’m in the midst of reading Frances Moore Lappé’s incredible book, Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad, and I’ve been edified by her call to get clear on the core assumptions which shape our often troubling reality, so that we can reframe to create a reality we believe in. Lappé writes about Lizzie Maggie, a Quaker who invented a famous game she hoped would entertain people but also teach a lesson about one-rule capitalism: “It may take all night, but the rules of the game eventually drive property into the hands of one player, ending the fun for everybody.”
Can you guess the game? Monopoly.
To me, this Goddess conversation also demands we look at core assumptions that create the reality in which it becomes a hot topic. It doesn’t matter as much to me whether people use the word Goddess or not as it does to look at why it might appeal or repel, what that response reflects about core cultural assumptions, and start there.
When I use the word Goddess to address other women, I don’t want to call attention to our sameness or fence anyone in with language. I don’t want to be the same. I value my unique self. I use the word Goddess to point to something essentially beautiful and powerful about women and femininity. To be clear, when I say power, I’m not talking about the kind of power of young boys or girls or adult men or women topping each other. Not power over. But power from within, which has a particularly feminine wisdom and quality to it.
In the comment thread for the “Please stop” article, one woman wrote that she couldn’t imagine men going around calling each other God, and I laughed. I didn’t have to imagine it. I lived that reality.
Growing up Catholic, I got to participate and witness a religious ritual each week wherein Father or Son were the only acceptable images of God and the priests, exclusively male, were also called Father, as God’s in-the-flesh presence here on earth. In my world, men were constantly called God, in church and otherwise. Not only that, but I was expected to just include myself as part of the term “men” in prayers and creeds and texts of all kinds. I always felt like something was missing or off, but found no place for my doubts or questions.
The message was delivered: woman was only good enough to be a vehicle for the divine; it was enough for the ladies to be support personnel. And, if I wanted to be Godlike or powerful at all, I was going to have to do it just like the boys (and don’t even get me started on how confusing it was that I also shouldn’t be too assertive or aggressive or intimidating, because then the boys wouldn’t like me).
Looking back, it’s not surprising that as a young woman, I sucked down Greek mythology like it was oxygen, poring over this foreign word and concept: Goddess.
I was hungry for it, but Goddess was relegated to the realm of myth, whereas God was constantly reaffirmed as substantial reality.
When I call someone Goddess or use it on Facebook or in email or in person, I’m not using it to say “let’s all be the same” or to include anyone in some club. I’m using it to elevate language, to shift meaning, to honor and recognize the essential beauty and power of the feminine. To affirm it as substantial reality, too.
So much language has been used to belittle, shrink, or even erase the feminine. I don’t mind at all language that builds and empowers and highlights feminine power, divinity, and beauty. I don’t mind hearing Goddess flung about and that children, girls and boys, get to know that something gorgeously divine can be associated with women too, so that maybe, via language, ideas and reality might shift as well.
I’m glad and grateful that Erin brought up this topic, and for the chance to push myself to get clear on why I use the words I use. Like Erin, I want to create understanding and connection. Language is important. Mindful language even more so. Mindful language can turn into mindful life. And that’s something I strive for every day.
Honestly, I’ve struggled with the word Goddess, too, and have been shy and embarrassed about using it.
As much as it appeals to me, I can also see why it repels.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve gotten looks and reprimands and judgments for saying Goddess. I think Goddess can make me and likely others squirmy because it sounds flaky, not because it is, but because of our culture’s fundamental view of things feminine AS flaky. Wishy washy. Touchy feely. Silly. Because our culture has instilled in us that playing with the boys = getting to be powerful, getting to have more fun, getting to be richer, getting to stand and preach at the pulpit, run the country, etc.
And Goddess has come to = drowning in myth and glittery flaky fantasy, lacking substance, and worst of all being suppressed, tortured, and burned into secrecy and silence. Flaky, disappeared, herded off into oblivion. With that history, who would want to be called a Goddess?
No wonder many women who feel called to leadership don’t relate with or want the term. It has the same kind of deeply ingrained history that makes being “girly” or “throwing like a girl” or “acting like a woman” insults.
Why would you want to be called Goddess? It’s not only dangerous. It’s ridiculous. It makes you disappear rather than standing out.
I was a girl who didn’t want to disappear. Like Erin, I wanted to stand out. So, I tried for a long time to work within the Catholic Church and to “play with the boys.” For a while, I fought for it.
Eventually, I didn’t want to fight to be part of a system or game I don’t actually believe in. I couldn’t put my precious life energy into it anymore. So I didn’t.
Even though I’ve left that system, I’m not immune to other systems. I’m still tired of wanting to play with the boys and wanting to fit in with the girls. I’m tired of someone having to win all of the money and land and everything by the end of the night.
Playing with the boys leads to a huge sacrifice: agreeing to the rules of that game of one-upmanship.
For me to be unique, I don’t need to one-up someone else. I need to one-up myself, to allow myself to grow up a little bit more, to reconsider both the masculine and feminine in myself and how I want those energies to play out for my highest good.
In my own life, which still vibrates with the consequences of a world aching from shadow masculine energy—a life in which, if I’m not paying attention, I can still easily work until I’m sick, value action over being, feel less than or like I’m not keeping up—using the word Goddess happens to remind me to do just that.
I want to play with everyone, integrated humans at their fullest and best.
Maybe I’ll change my mind and heart at some point. Maybe there’s a different way to ponder and hold all of this. Obviously, Goddess doesn’t work for everyone the way it works for me.
At the moment, using the word Goddess helps me to create more balance and contribute to a full understanding and experience of humanity. At the moment, the beautiful new logo (thank you Robin C. Reel) I’m proud to display on my website, came from a desire for an image that expressed feminine power, something of Goddess, and reminds me every day of my own commitment to balance in my life’s work.
Although I will not call my friend Erin Goddess, I find her openness to conversation and desire for clear communication and mutual understanding to have a most helpful and needed feminine energy.
Despite the fact that I haven’t stopped thinking about this for three days, I hesitated to write a response and once I had written one, to even post it. I worried I was veering into an aggressive debate rather than a conversation. I worried I might not be smart enough to express the fullness of what I felt and thought. I worried I was missing the point, that I might be blind to some problematic assumptions of my own. I worried that this might be too long and require too much time to read.
It’s not too surprising to realize all of those worries happen to stem from my old insecurities and desires about “playing with the boys” and keeping up.
I decided it was okay that I have those insecurities, and that I don’t have to hide because of them. I decided it was okay if I didn’t perfectly or logically express everything. I decided that just because a topic is so huge that it might require a thousand essays to even scratch the surface of it, that doesn’t mean I can’t jump in from right where I am. I watched Erin be brave and put herself and her words out there, and I decided to be brave, too.
I decided to share these words because I want the conversation to be bigger and rounder, for everyone.
Thank you so much for reading. You might notice that I don’t have a space for comments, but I’m certainly open to conversation about what’s written here. If you’re so inspired, feel free to start a conversation with me via the contact form on the homepage of this site.