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Reviewed by:
  • Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England
  • Elizabeth E. Prevost
Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England. By Joy Dixon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Historians of modern Britain have typically shied away from critical investigations of religion and spirituality, particularly in feminist studies where women’s political activity is deemed incompatible with anything but purely secular motivations. Joy Dixon confronts this trend by highlighting the centrality of women’s spirituality, and particularly feminist theosophy, in understanding the formation of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century political culture in England. Meticulously researched and drawing on an impressive range of sources and contemporary perspectives, Dixon’s exposition takes on the spiritual as a category of analysis, revealing the inextricability of feminist thought from occultism and detailing the creation of a new sphere of political discourse based on theosophical constructions of gendered authority.

While at face value Divine Feminine reads as a primarily metropolitan-based account, Dixon clearly draws on the tradition of Antoinette Burton, Mrinalini Sinha, Judith Walkowitz and others in locating sexual politics in the complex colonial dialectic that produced systems of inequality even while simultaneously creating malleable idioms of gendered, racialized, and class-based hierarchy that women and subalterns appropriated in a variety of contexts. More specifically, Dixon rounds out the work of historians like Alex Owen, Janet Oppenheim, and most recently Alison Winter, who have re-oriented scholarly interest in the occult away from “crank studies” and into mainstream historical analysis (an ironic revearsal of the challenges theosophists themselves negotiated in Dixon’s narrative) by establishing the importance of female spiritist movements for understanding Victorian feminist culture. Dixon takes this a step further by subtly criticizing the historiography of British feminism during this period for its tendency to essentialize women’s political agenda into dichotomies of public/private activity, masculine emulation versus feminine idealization, and sacred and temporal worldviews. Divine Feminine advances a more nuanced connection between feminism and spirituality, positing the spiritual as a dynamic cultural process and the occult as a volatile site of competing truth-claims about metaphysical and political states of being. Dixon historicizes such truth-claims on their own terms—rather than reducing their illustrative language to a hidden political agenda, she considers the political valence that theosophists actually ascribed to spiritual power and vice versa.

Divine Feminine is divided into two parts: a gendered periodization of theosophy as it was institutionalized in the Theosophical Society (TS) and its offshoots, and an exploration of theosophy’s broader implications for feminist spirituality and “political theology” both within and outside the formal bounds of the TS. The first section, “Domesticating the Occult,” traces the TS’s function as voluntary association and spiritual community, uncovering a series of tensions in consolidating authority over theosophy in both its organizational and discursive capacities. The history of the TS is clearly inseparable from the characters that move in and out of an international narrative ridden with public controversy and internal dissent. Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, who along with Frederick Olcott founded the Society in 1875 and whose Mahatmas set the tone for the modified orientalism that would inform a crucial strain of the Society’s esoteric character; Annie Besant, Blavatsky’s disciple and president of the TS from 1907; Charles Leadbeater, the central figure in a series of sex scandals that divided the theosophical community; Jiddu Krishnamurti, the purported World Teacher of the New Age—the many players involved in this drama all worked to define theosophy’s boundaries of spiritual jurisdiction. Moreover, the contradictions that emerged in the TS’s formative years affirm the continually precarious nature of its mission: the Society’s inclusive objects against its elitist membership, its fluctuating purposes of mystical esotericism and gentlemanly “clubism,” and the veneration of European versus Indian spiritual paradigms signal the instability of gender and racial hierarchical discourse.

Dixon is careful not to take for granted the connection between the eventual prominence of women in theosophical circles and the concurrent “feminization” of its principles, but one of the most significant developments of this tumultuous period was the emergence of both female and feminine legitimacy under Besant’s leadership that ultimately dominated masculine versions of occultist authority. The...

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