books

Gender, Occult Writing, and a Project that Fell Apart by Beth Winegarner

Image credit: Katherine Hanlon.

Image credit: Katherine Hanlon.

About a dozen years ago, two friends of mine and I had the idea to edit an anthology of essays by women occultists. We’d heard so many stories of skilled, knowledgable women going to OTO meetings or other occult gatherings, only to be asked if they were there with a husband or boyfriend or treated like clueless newbies.

Many of the most revered occult texts were written by men: Aleister Crowley, A.O. Spare, Israel Regardie, Eliphas Levi, etc. Even modern-day occult book publishing was largely dominated by men: Peter Carroll, Lon Milo DuQuette, Phil Hine, etc. Sure, there were a few women here and there, notably Dion Fortune and Helena Blavatsky. And there are more these days. But still, not enough to create balance.

My co-editors and I were part of a larger occult community at the time, and we knew women who were inventing their own approaches, spellcraft and systems of magic. We wanted them to get their due. We wanted to help them to claim the spotlight. We wanted their work to be known, followed, practiced. And we wanted the wider occult world to know that women were working just as hard on this stuff as men.

We began by inviting some of our favorite female occultists — ones who had been at it a long time, who were smart and serious, and who were good writers — to write essays for us. These would be the ones we’d use to sell the book project to a publisher before putting out a wider call for submissions.

The responses, in many ways, revealed a great deal about why more women weren’t getting published in this area. A few did offer to contribute, but most said they couldn’t, at least not at the time we were asking. They were taking care of young children or aging parents. Their work took up almost all of their time. They were buried under other projects and couldn’t take more on. It’s possible that this was their kind way of saying no to something they didn’t want to be part of. But it also speaks to the kind of lives women have — filled to the brim with interpersonal obligations, emotional labor and maybe a touch of imposter syndrome.

At that point, my co-editors and I began talking about a change in direction for the project, and we couldn’t agree on the new direction. It fell apart, largely for that reason.

I do wish we’d been able to pull it off, although I see now that we should have been much more inclusive in our approach, seeking work not only from women but from trans, genderqueer and nonbinary folks in the occult world.

I haven’t been involved in occult communities in a long time and I can’t speak to whether they’ve become more balanced and less misogynistic, but I’d be (happily!) surprised if they had. If you’re a scholar of the occult, what good books have you read in the past dozen years written by nonbinary, genderqueer, trans or female occultists?