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Divine Feminine

Theosophy and Feminism in England

Joy Dixon

Publication Year: 2001

In 1891, newspapers all over the world carried reports of the death of H. P. Blavatsky, the mysterious Russian woman who was the spiritual founder of the Theosophical Society. With the help of the equally mysterious Mahatmas who were her teachers, Blavatsky claimed to have brought the "ancient wisdom of the East" to the rescue of a materialistic West. In England, Blavatsky's earliest followers were mostly men, but a generation later the Theosophical Society was dominated by women, and theosophy had become a crucial part of feminist political culture. Divine Feminine is the first full-length study of the relationship between alternative or esoteric spirituality and the feminist movement in England. Historian Joy Dixon examines the Theosophical Society's claims that women and the East were the repositories of spiritual forces which English men had forfeited in their scramble for material and imperial power. Theosophists produced arguments that became key tools in many feminist campaigns. Many women of the Theosophical Society became suffragists to promote the spiritualizing of politics, attempting to create a political role for women as a way to "sacralize the public sphere." Dixon also shows that theosophy provides much of the framework and the vocabulary for today's New Age movement. Many of the assumptions about class, race, and gender which marked the emergence of esoteric religions at the end of the nineteenth century continue to shape alternative spiritualities today.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

This project had its beginnings in a paper I wrote many years ago as a postgraduate at the University of Sussex. I was working on a study of representations of the women’s suffrage movement in the popular press, tracking down caricatures of the “shrieking sisterhood” in magazines like Punch and in comic novels. ...

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pp. xvii-xix

This book marks the end of a long process; to get to this point I have incurred many debts, personal and professional. For guidance, encouragement, and the occasional impossible challenge, my thanks are due to those who were my teachers and have become my friends: at the University of Sussex, ...

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pp. 1-14

On September 3, 1911, at precisely 10:59 A.M., Annie Besant, president of the Theosophical Society and Vice President Grand Master of the Supreme Council of Universal Co-Freemasonry, laid the foundation stone for the new Theosophical Headquarters in London, just off Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury. ...

Part One: Domesticating the Occult

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Chapter 1. The Undomesticated Occult

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pp. 17-40

In December 1885 the committee appointed by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) to investigate “occult phenomena” in connection with theosophy published the results of a one-and-a-half-year-long study. The SPR report concluded that Mme. Blavatsky was to be regarded ...

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Chapter 2. The Mahatmas in Clubland: Manliness and Scientific Spirituality

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pp. 41-66

Blavatsky died in 1891, six years after the Society for Psychical Research published its “Report on Phenomena Connected with Theosophy,” investigating the Theosophical Society. In the mid-1890s the TS underwent the first of a series of major schisms, and from 1895 there were at least two separate theosophical movements, ...

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Chapter 3. “A Deficiency of the Male Element”: Gendering Spiritual Experience

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pp. 67-93

In the late nineteenth century the Theosophical Society, and English occultism as a whole, was a man’s world. In the twentieth century esoteric religion was redefined as a paradigmatically feminine experience. Women became emblematic of a personal, emotional, and subjective religiosity, ...

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Chapter 4. “Buggery and Humbuggery”: Sex, Magic, and Occult Authority

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pp. 94-118

Many controversies occupied the Theosophical Society from Annie Besant’s election as president in 1907 until her death in 1933: debates over the Esoteric Section, over Krishnamurti and the Coming Christ, and over subsidiary organizations like the Liberal Catholic Church and Co-Masonry. ...

Part Two: Political Alchemies

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Chapter 5. Occult Body Politics

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pp. 121-151

In 1912 James Ingall Wedgwood, then general secretary of the TS in England and editor of The Vāhan, reminded his readers that HPB had predicted that theosophy would pass through three periods of growth: the physical, the intellectual, and the spiritual. “Many of us think,” he went on, ...

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Chapter 6. The Divine Hermaphrodite and the Female Messiah: Feminism and Spirituality in the 1890s

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pp. 152-176

Until recently, the 1890s were dismissed as a decade of relative inactivity in British feminism, a quiet period between the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts and the emergence of a militant suffragemovement in the early twentieth century. More recent studies suggest that the 1890s were actually a very lively period, ...

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Chapter 7. A New Age for Women: Suffrage and the Sacred

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pp. 177-205

Clara Codd was the eldest of ten girls, the daughter of an inspector of schools. After her father died, she worked as a teacher and governess to help her mother support the family. While teaching in Bath, where she was a member of the local lodge of the Theosophical Society, she joined the Social Democratic Federation, ...

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Chapter 8. Ancient Wisdom, Modern Motherhood

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pp. 206-226

In April 1928 Annie Besant announced the formation of a new movement, organized to herald the Coming of “a great Spiritual Being who represents the feminine side of Divinity, the Ideal Womanhood, the ‘World Mother.’” The public recognition of the World Mother, the incarnation of that Divine Feminine principle ...

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pp. 227-234

In 1929 the Theosophical Society entered its longest lasting crisis: Jiddu Krishnamurti dissolved the Order of the Star and abdicated his position as the World Teacher. In The Dissolution of the Order of the Star, he rejected all attempts to organize spirituality, arguing that ...


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pp. 235-264

Works Cited

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pp. 265-284


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pp. 285-293

E-ISBN-13: 9780801875304
E-ISBN-10: 0801875307
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801864995
Print-ISBN-10: 0801864992

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 10 halftones, 1 line drawing
Publication Year: 2001

Series Title: The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science
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OCLC Number: 51504313
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Divine Feminine

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Subject Headings

  • Theosophical Society (Great Britain) -- History.
  • Feminism -- Religious aspects -- Theosophical Society (Great Britain) -- History of doctrines.
  • Feminism -- England -- History.
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