restricted access New Age Feminism?: Reading the Woman’s “New Age” Nonfiction Best Seller in the United States
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About a decade ago, my mother began a “Women Who Run with the Wolves” group. She promptly bought a drum and jokingly howled at me while playing it, but I knew that this groundswell of female bonding, brought on by the huge success of Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s book by the same name, was nothing to laugh at.1 Estes’s book, which peaked at number seven on the 1993 Publishers Weekly nonfiction best-seller list, became an urtext for my mother’s group, which longed for feminist revisions of fairytales and myths. While Estes’s book is more Jungian than feminist, and more spiritual than political, it was one among a number of New Age best sellers in the United States that appealed to women from the 1970s to the 1990s.2 These female New Age authors—Ruth Montgomery, Shirley MacLaine, Marianne Williamson, Louise Hay, Rosemary Altea, Sarah Ban Breathnach, Caroline Myss, Betty Eade, to name only a few—often spoke to their audiences by fusing metaphysical power with women’s power.3 Though rarely self-defined as feminist or recognized by critics as such, many of these authors drew on the language of women’s power in complicated ways that have been ignored by scholars, largely out of abhorrence of the New Age generally. 298 > New Age Feminism? Reading the Woman’s “New Age” Nonfiction Best Seller in the United States   “New Age culture,” an umbrella term for diverse spiritual, social, and political beliefs and practices that promote personal and societal change through spiritual transformation, rose in the 1970s, but was seen by many as a manifestation of everything wrong with post-1960s American culture. Some critics argued that New Age culture was antireligious , anti-Christian, antimodern, essentialist, racist, antipolitical, lowbrow cant. Was there anything worth redeeming, let alone studying? As critics dismissed this body of literature, however, authors and readers went on to create a formidable array of spiritual works. Though a number of men produced foundational texts of New Age culture, female New Age authors, in particular, took on the added challenge of coming to terms with the burgeoning women’s movement and its political aims.4 Were female New Age authors political even as most critics argued they were not? Or did their politics amount to nothing more than the wildly ecstatic “running with wolves”? The answer is complicated and contradictory . By investigating the print culture of New Age women’s texts, focusing , in particular, on best-selling authors Louise Hay and Marianne Williamson, it will become clear exactly how feminism and New Age spirituality have catalyzed and criticized each other.5 Hay and Williamson are particularly interesting because they have written popular best sellers specifically about women’s issues directed to a New Age audience . As we shall see, these female-centered New Age texts are contradictory : while they often reject feminism, they also embrace it more than their critics have imagined. Feminism may have an alternative manifestation in women’s New Age culture. A Short History of the New Age Movement The New Age. The dawning of Aquarius. The Harmonic Convergence. Although the New Age movement has its roots in the early 1970s, by the early twenty-first century its followers had taken it far past the fringe and into the boardroom and bedroom. From the Tao of Leadership and other New Age practices aiming to “humanize” business, to relationship books like Mars and Venus in the Bedroom, New-Age-speak is common parlance in elite seminars and popular talk shows. Some say the United States is in the midst of a “spiritual revival” or another “Great Awakening ,” as religious historians call periods of extensive spiritual crisis and reorientation.6 The contemporary Great Awakening is marked by a New Age Feminism? 299 turn toward spiritual individualism and a desire to seek multiple religious alternatives, rather than to commit more deeply to one faith.7 In other words, though mainline church and synagogue attendance may currently be down in the United States, spiritual belief is high. Studies show that “more than 90 percent of Americans profess a belief in God,” and a surprising number believe in the supernatural generally.8 As Sarah Pike argues, the New Age has added to the “rise of alternate ritual spaces in which people find religious community.”9 In Spiritual but Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, Robert Fuller suggests that “the United States is arguably the most religious nation on earth.”10 However, Fuller notes that we can grasp...


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