One of the things that’s fascinated me as I’ve been researching Spiritualism is the paradoxical position of women in the movement.
On the one hand, most of the on the ground spiritual activity was begun by women, conducted by women. This really isn’t any great news. Having been historically disenfranchised from leadership in institutional religion, women throughout history have officiated folk practices. In some way, Spiritualism, with its impressive roster of female mediums, brought to light a long tradition of women quietly distinguishing themselves as spiritual and psychic adepts.
On the other hand, during the Spiritualist movement, the supernatural abilities of women were sometimes validated by a woman’s lack of education or intellectual ability. In other words, women were often perceived as too naive to orchestrate a hoax as elaborate as a public séance or as substantial as a portion of automatic writing.”Uneducated woman” became a byline that vouchsafed authenticity.
Along the same lines, paranormal science was born during the Spiritualist movement. Drunk on the heady wine of rapid progress, scientists developed experiments and technologies to measure, observe and potentially harness supernatural phenomena. Again, this means that while female practitioners of psychic arts were enjoying new levels of popular notoriety, they also found themselves newly subjected to male, scientific validation. It’s noteworthy that mainline religious experiences were not subject to the same level of scientific interrogation (this remains true in the most recent paranormal science craze). The fact that institutional religion is dominated by male authority may not have anything to do with its being granted self-validation, but it is a correlation that is certainly interesting.
I have been thinking a lot about what it might be like to be a woman trying to navigate these particular competing forces. I think its also notable that the suffrage movement was also gaining momentum at the same time as the Spiritualist movement. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking the two would not have aligned very closely, but it’s another indication of the way women were trying to emerge on their own terms. The question still remains to any people group caught in the middle of cultural currents: how to gain a platform from which to speak without losing your voice in the process?
I think the role of woman as a “receptive” and “volatile” being is significant here as well. Traditional notions of sexual identity play very strongly into the popular concept of the medium — and even the pseudo-scientific explanations of mediums as histrionic, melodramatic and/or operating out of repressed sexuality.
Thank you for your comment, James. I think you are absolutely correct to point this out. I recently finished reading the non-fiction, Italian “Mediumistic Phenomena,” and the medium (the famous Eusapia Palladino) was often reported to be agitated, exhausted, hysterical and/or afflicted during the course of the experiments conducted.