- Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England
In 'Isis Unveiled: Personal Recollections of Madame Blavatsky' (Occult Review, November 1918), Edmund Russell described his friend, the mysterious spiritual founder of the Theosophical Society (ts): 'She suggested the monsterism of those strange forms Blake drew; whose clothes, hair, gestures, seem part of the rocks and trees which surround them; who walk girdled with the Zodiac and hold converse with the gods.' Born in the Ukraine in 1831, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky left her country and husband at seventeen and travelled the world, visiting Egypt, India, and the Americas, and spending years in a Tibetan monastery studying with the Masters of the Great White Lodge. The ancient wisdom of these Mahatmas formed the basis of the esoteric spirituality she exported to the West, cofounding the ts with the American lawyer Henry Steel Olcott in New York in 1875. The ts was committed to a 'Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color,' to the comparative study of world religions, philosophies, and science, and to the investigation of natural laws and humanity's dormant powers. Initially popular in England with men seeking greater scientific content in religion, theosophy also attracted thousands of women for whom spirituality was central to feminist action. This is the focus of Joy Dixon's groundbreaking study, Divine Feminine.
Dixon departs from historians of British feminism who minimize the role of spirituality in the lives of politically active women in the 1890s and early twentieth century. She observes insightfully that, as a 'modern' and progressive political formation, feminism is widely construed as a secular [End Page 347] movement - 'any vestiges of an anachronistic religiosity will, many scholars still seem to assume, be discarded as the movement becomes more fully modern, and therefore secular' - and, in contrast, takes seriously the spiritual rhetoric that often informs women's feminist politics. Dixon shows how the ts influenced, directly and indirectly, cultural perceptions of disenfranchised womanhood, both in relation to disenfranchised spirituality in a capitalist, industrialized, secular society and as symptomatic of larger cosmic cycles. In her seminal work, The Secret Doctrine (1888), Blavatsky indicated that the end of the Hindu Kali yuga (or age) coincided with the end of the nineteenth century and that the Dwapara yuga would begin a new cycle of ascending consciousness. Dixon illuminates crucial connections between theosophy and the suffragette movement, showing how women's full participation in public life was seen to signal a reversal of cosmic polarities and to constitute 'a first step toward the literal redemption of the nation.'
Dixon reminds us that the first members of the British ts (established 1878) were Rosicrucians and Freemasons, who, belonging to the Hermetic tradition, already shared Blavatsky's immanentism. Knowledge of God as inherent in humanity and the material world informed the theosophist vision of One Life, evolving in consciousness over vast cycles through diverse, reincarnating forms. Dixon is at her best when she unfolds the complex 'political purchase' of theosophical teaching, showing how the One Life vision challenged the modern liberal view of the state as an aggregate of autonomous individuals and authorized a range of political action from fascism to ethical socialism, vegetarianism, and a recognition of animal rights.
Dixon recovers theosophy's relationship to conventions of 'left' and 'right' in British history and to New Age rhetoric. The chapter 'Buggery and Humbuggery' focuses on spirituality and sexuality, handling the Leadbeater scandal with skill. Charles Webster Leadbeater, prominent in the ts, resigned following charges of sexual misconduct with boys, and his readmittance two years later under Annie Besant's presidency compelled many to leave the society and others to consider whether reincarnation explained homosexuality; Blavatsky asserted in The Secret Doctrine that a 'queer, intermediate sex' would accompany the New Age. Dixon's supple analysis, relating changing political contexts to theosophists' 'politics of transformation,' is particularly effective in her discussion of the First World War, which witnessed dramatic growth of ts membership: 'out of the destruction of war new forms would emerge, fit for the new spirit, in religion, politics, sociology...