A few months ago, a friend was over for dinner, and among other things we discussed revelations about the abuse Moira Greyland suffered at the hands of her mother, Marion Zimmer Bradley. “I tried to read The Mists of Avalon, because it was important to a lot of my pagan friends,” he said. “But I got part of the way through and thought ‘This is feminist?”
I shook my head and agreed with him — after all, excusing the rape of a little girl as the result of an irresistible part of nature is disturbing* — but later I remembered that I thought it was feminist when I first read it. So did a great many women — the book came out in 1982, when I was a senior in college, and it was the rage among my friends, all of whom considered themselves feminists in good standing. Even today, reviews of it talk about it as an important feminist work.
I unearthed my copy and decided to reread it. I would be more critical this time, and stop and ponder when I come across passages that strike me as non-feminist. Once past the (short) Prologue, it took me all of a page and a half.
Igraine thinks about when she first was married (at fifteen) to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, he was kind to her in spite of “her hate and fear.” All women of Avalon have destinies, as priestesses or to be kept virgin for rituals, or to be married to cement alliances. I continued to read, with increasing discomfort. And I came to realize…
Matrilineal societies are not, in and of themselves, feminist.
The recognition, and yes, celebration, of women’s sexuality, is not in and of itself feminist, especially when that sexuality is used to broker power. Morgaine keeping herself virgin at the command of Viviane so that she may give herself in ritual is no different from Gwenhyfar keeping herself chaste for her wedding bed.
The identification of the Divine as feminine is not in and of itself feminist. Maiden-Mother-Crone may be less oppressive than Madonna-Whore, but it is no less reductive.
Women-led spaces that mirror patriarchal power structures, as found among the priestesses of Avalon, are not feminist.**
In short, matriarchy is not in and of itself feminist.
Avalon is not a rejection of Glastonbury, the island of the monks, but an inversion of it. The Mists of Avalon is not the tale of a feminist, women-centered utopia overthrown by the evil forces of patriarchy, but a story of a manipulatively oppressive (albeit women-centered) regime supplanted by a crueler and less subtle one.
I think I need to go read some Ursula LeGuin ….
*”She stretched out her arms, and at her command she knew that outside the cave, in the light of the fecundating fires, man and woman, drawn one to the other by the pulsating surges of life, came together. The little blue-painted girl who had borne the fertilizing blood was drawn down into the arms of a sinewy old hunter, and Morgaine saw her briefly struggle and cry out, go down under his body, her legs opening to the irresistible force of nature in them.”
**Pagan communities have seen controversies erupt in the past few years over “women-only” rituals that have excluded transwomen as not really women. In one of the more offensive quotes on the subject, a defender of women-only ritual stated in 2011 that “But if you claim to be one of us, you have to have sometimes in your life a womb, and overies and MOON bleed and not die… Women are born not made by men on operating tables.” (Aside from transphobia, reducing the essence of womanhood to biological imperatives defines womanhood in ways that feminism worked hard to break away from. I find this statement to be non-feminist in the extreme. And no, I do not think that not being pagan makes my criticism invalid, any more than a pagan’s observation that Catholicism is rife with homophobia would be.)