A Feminist Tarot: The Lovers

If we’re going to talk about love and related topics from a feminist standpoint, one of the things I definitely would NOT do is fall back on biblical heterosexual images of love pairings as useful symbols.  I think it’s especially important to ditch the Adam and Eve motif here considering that the meaning of the card isn’t really about romantic love as much as it’s about completion.

And I have a real big problem with imagery which calls to mind the idea that a divine being has picked out a “mate” for us who is, among other more biology-related functions, supposed to make us feel “complete”.

I see this card as having more to do with discovering connections to inner passions or finding pieces of ourselves which produce those feelings of completion.  This card isn’t about falling in love with a person, it’s about finding fulfillment through a passionate connection to something in your life.  To rely on traditional images of romantic coupling or divinely destined love strips the fullness from the interpretation as much as it paints a misogynistic image of reality.

After all, Eve wasn’t just a mate to Adam, she was made from part of him.  She never had any identity other than as that “completion” for him.

So out with all that, and in with imagery which avoids all those trappings of misogyny.  First of all, in a deck filled only with female figures, if we are to represent the idea with a couple it should be two females.  But beyond switching out a heterosexual couple for a homosexual one, I think it’s more clear to the meaning of the card itself for the figures to be two iterations of the same soul.  The image isn’t romantic love, then, it’s a woman finding that version of herself she had not fully realized existed before, and letting that side of herself lead the way forward rather than following the path she’d previously walked.

A Feminist Tarot: The Hierophant

There’s a really weird thing about misogyny and patriarchy where certain activities, pursuits, or skills are relegated to women until there is opportunity to master and profit from them, at which point the highest levels of attainment are reserved primarily for men.  For instance, cooking is women’s work, but executive chefs are most often men.

To me, this card embodies the same idea.  Back at the beginning, the realm of spiritual enlightenment and esoteric knowledge was depicted as feminine with the High Priestess.  She was the mysterious guide to intuition and insight.  But here, when the Fool goes into a temple seeking similar guidance, the sage figure on which the authority and ability to publicly lead others has been bestowed is traditionally depicted as male.  The High Priestess leads in private without the blessing and benefit of an organization behind her, but the Hierophant is enthroned in a temple.  Inner wisdom and sage guidance is wrapped up in the idea of the sacred feminine only until the point where such wisdom and guidance can be made useful to the larger system of authority and power.

The meaning of this card points less to a level of authority held by the figure on the card, though, and more to the level of respect given by the acolytes to the teachings and guidance that figure is able to give.  And while institutional spiritual leadership is most often reserved for men, many traditions place women in positions of respect and community leadership.  The important message of this card is found in the sense that spiritual development and greater wisdom can be found through connection to others, to a larger group to which we belong, and that traditions are important to the process of tapping into that wisdom.  And if we are to depict a traditional spiritual community leader, there are many traditions which embrace women in that role.

A Feminist Tarot: The Emperor

Clearly, if the Empress is renamed and removed from her traditional spot, she then gets to step into her rightful place in the deck.  No real Empress would spend her time running around pregnant tending fields of grain.  She would be ruling over her empire.

As history has proven time and time again, women are just as capable as men of maintaining order, instituting structure, and advancing civilization.  What most often stands in the way is not some natural deficiency of skill or ability but resistance driven by sexist beliefs in the nature of a woman’s fitness to lead.  So there is literally no good reason not to depict the authoritative, controlling, aggressive Emperor as female.

It is very important to note, though, that this also means not altering the archetype of the Emperor to soften it once the depiction is female.  We should not pretend that an Empress should or would be any less aggressive, despotic, tyrannical, or warlike.  The interpretation of the card should not lose its potential negative aspects.  We cannot open the full range of aspirational possibilities to women while maintaining fantasies of inherent female goodness.

A Feminist Tarot: The Empress

This is the first card in the deck which I felt compelled to rename.  Obviously, having all female figures makes having an empress and emperor make no sense.  But even beyond that, the meaning and interpretation of this card has never seemed to fit with the iconography for me.

The card speaks of fertility, which is not really the realm of an empress at all.  This is a really good example, I think, of how creating strictly gendered archetypes becomes quite clumsy and nonsensical.  An empress is simply the feminine form of emperor, which is about breadth of power and authority.  It is not the opposite of the emperor archetype.

Rather, if we are talking about fertility and creation, nurturing and incubation, even in the artistic or philosophical sense, it makes more sense to strip away the forced duality of emperor and empress and instead contrast the ordered rule and contrived authority of an Empress to the responsive connection to natural processes embodied by the concept of the Earth Mother.

And while the Earth-Mother-Masquerading-As-An-Empress is often associated with or depicted in pregnancy, I find the emphasis on woman as birth giver to be a somewhat unhealthy depiction of the concept.  Setting up childbirth and motherhood as the most important roles or powers available to women discounts all of the other ways in which women can and should express their fertility and creative abilities.  As creation in general is one of the most vital and essential activities in which humanity engages, the assumption that women should, can, or do predominantly create in the biological sense is another idea which serves primarily to limit our horizons and aspirations.

A Feminist Tarot: The High Priestess

In the story I was told to weave together the Major Arcana, this card is the point where the Fool, having been shown all manner of potential by the Magician, sees the High Priestess and asks for advice.  The High Priestess doesn’t give answers, however, as much as she gives directions for finding inner illumination.

If there is a contrast in opposites to be seen in the pairing of the two cards, I think it’s more valuable and enlightening to depict the difference as objective versus subjective guidance.  The Magician takes what is and shows what could be, and doesn’t delve too far into questions of should or should not.  The High Priestess tells the seeker to stop looking at all the possibilities until they’ve thought about their motives and motivations.  The Magician talks about hows and whens, the High Priestess deals with whys and what ifs.

While you might expect that, in a feminist tarot, the male and female roles would be reversed, I think it’s counterproductive to automatically reject anything which has been traditionally associated with the feminine.  That said, it’s certainly time to reject the idea that there is anything inherently special about the kind of insight or wisdom held by women.  There is nothing harmful in depicting women in the role of mystic or spiritual guide, but there’s nothing beneficial in depicting mysticism and spiritual guidance as something naturally or predominantly mastered by women.

The High Priestess card simply points us towards intuition and inner reflection, and potentially towards a person who can guide and instruct that process.  But as much as we should take care not to reflexively choose a man to fill the role of Magician when and if we need a mentor or motivator, so should we not assume that all women who claim great intuition and vision are naturally gifted and suitable guides.  The idea that women, by nature, possess certain strengths or abilities is benevolent sexism at work.  It also leads us to devalue women who fill the role of Magician because, in doing so, they are not fully embracing their “natural” role as High Priestess.

If there is a caution I would place on either card, it’s that we should always question our willingness to trust expected stereotypes.  Not only are we too often unaware that we operate with such biases, even when we are aware we too often fail to recognize the extent to which we act on them.


A Feminist Tarot: The Magician

Ask any woman with a high level of expertise in her field, and she will have heaps of stories about having to justify or defend her knowledge and ability to those who have been conditioned to expect their experts and mentors to be male.  And, unfortunately, those reactions are not only to be seen from the males around us.  Women are just as likely to harbor the same ingrained prejudices whether they realize it or not.

The Magician in the Tarot is a charismatic expert who inspires us and motivates us. There’s an element of awe there, the idea that this card represents someone who we aspire to be, not just someone we desire to learn from.

And how many of us, if we were to be told to seek out such a person, would picture our target as a man?

This card, of course, is often set against the next one as a contrasting pair: the hard knowledge and willful creative acts of the Magician against the nebulous wisdom and gentle guidance of the High Priestess.  And it is in such contrasts that I see much of the ingrained sexism of the Tarot.  In illustrating such contrasting concepts through gendered iconography, we illustrate a world with gender-based limits.  And the more we reinforce that idea in art and media, the more we reinforce that expectation.

Even as this card has a mystical overtone to it — this is a magician, not a physician — it points towards practical and actionable kinds of expertise rather than philosophical and experiential wisdom.  And while I don’t argue that those are two different types of knowledge there is no good reason to depict them as gendered.

Clearly, the fight for equality would be helped immensely if we purposefully sought out women as guides and mentors and motivators.

A Feminist Tarot: The Fool

I think sometimes we’re addicted to new beginnings.  We romanticize them, especially when we imagine the hero of the story to be the emancipated woman breaking free to follow a passion.  It’s an inspirational archetype, especially when we feel particularly aware of all the cultural restrictions under which we all live.

At first glance, there would seem to be something inherently feminist in the idea of the Fool, carrying all she needs as she takes the first steps on a new journey.

But what of the journey after that?

I’ve started over many a time in my life, and I’ve watched friends and family do the same more times than I can count.  And I’ve also watched myself and everyone else repeat the same mistakes and follow our hearts right back to the same situations we thought we were walking away from.  Clearly, too many of us don’t know the difference between freedom and avoidance.

I also suspect that too many of us have never learned a better way of dealing with circumstances less than ideal.  The heroine escapes and the princess is freed from her prison, but the fairy tales don’t tell us enough tales of women who actually work to change anything.  Yes, sometimes removing ourselves to a better situation is the best solution to our struggles, but I think too often we choose the escape because we don’t know how to approach the alternative.

The thing about the Fool card is that it doesn’t tell us anything about the journey besides the fact that one has taken the first step.  In fact, many have pointed out that the traditional iconography carries a bit of a warning: the sky-gazing fool may be about to walk off a cliff.  But I think what’s more important than realizing that we need to watch where we’re going is that we need to think about why we’re starting over.   Is this an escape to a possibly nonexistent paradise?  Or is this an expedition to a trove of useful treasure?  Is this a one way trip, or a journey we mean to return from with better tools and better skills and a vision for building the future?