Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Spiritualism, Women, and Progressive Politics

Americans today don’t associate progressive politics with spiritualism. Progressive thinking was linked to the rise of science, and machines not spirits became the highway to Utopia. Karl Marx insisted religion and spirituality were “opiates” of the people.  They were no cure for the pain inflicted by capitalism.

But I want to recall a period when America was in ferment with ideas of radical spiritualism. The extraordinary rise of Spiritualism began in 1848 with the Fox sisters in upstate New York. For an eyewitness overview of the entire movement, Modern American Spiritualism by Emma Hardinge is indispensable.  Hardinge had a successful career as a musician and was herself a practicing medium. 19th century Spiritualism was a kind of family-based discovery of ways to  activate and communicate with alleged spirits or the creative unconscious—no one knows for sure.  

It began with mysterious rappings, perhaps unconsciously produced by the girls.  But in time, by asking for raps, stipulating one rap for yes, two raps for no, the young ladies had, in effect, figured out how to talk with their unconscious.  Whether these responses came from their minds or from an deceased mind is too tricky to be glib about.

What interests me are the conversations with the “spirits.” They tried to prove the reality of an afterworld. But they also had much to say about how we ought to live in this world.  And the ideas from the beyond turned out to be humane, democratic, and progressive. They also gave voice to a bevy of progressive ideas designed to revolutionize prevailing society. 

The voices from the beyond were not in awe of authority; in fact, they favored the overthrow of male hegemony. A quote from Emma Hardinge: “A prominent feature of the spiritual movement . . .is the admission of woman to an equal position on the rostrum and in the executive with man; an experiment which is no longer doubtful.”  In short, she was predicting that women would and should take their rightful place in power structures of the planet. --

Among the most famous trance speakers of the time were women.  In the ancient world they were called prophets.  Emma Hardinge was not only a medium and historian of mediumship, she was herself for 20 years a leader of the movement.  

Unlike Emma Hardinge, a more recent historian of Spiritualism, Ann Braude, is mainly interested in women’s rights and not the spirits.  The full title of her groundbreaking study (1989) explains her position. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America—“How séances and trance speaking empowered a generation of American women to claim their own voices.” That is especially true if it feels like the inspiration is coming from beyond yourself—as it was true for Moses and Joan of Arc and many others.

The mediums and trance speakers had the courage to trust in their own spiritual experience, and rejected the authority of the churches. Once that break was effected,  Spiritualists felt free to step up the critique of the established order across the board, so to speak.

 As radical believers in the value of the individual, they became a major force in the women’s rights movement.  And about the same time many of them joined the Quaker Abolitionists in the anti-slavery movement.  Harriet Beecher Stowe once remarked that the marriage laws in America were a form of slavery for women, equivalent to the slavery of blacks, for neither legally owned property or themselves. There were other crimes against property that the spirits reviled such as rampant land-grabbing from native populations.

The Spiritualists were progressive in two ways that speak to us today.  especially crucial nowadays. They were passionate about what was called “free love” and about health reform.  But free love in mid-nineteen century America wasn’t about promiscuity.  Something more immediately pressing was at stake; it was about sexual love being freely and jointly chosen in marriage, resisting the assumed right of the husband to take his pleasure from his wife at will.  

The ‘spirits’ were ill-disposed to their coarse alcoholic facsimiles, as all-too-often wreaking havoc on lives.  Radical health reform was a major theme of mid-nineteen century Spiritualists. The ‘spirits’ recommended a vegetarian diet, the end of restrictive clothing; they opposed being a slave to fashion and they had strong views about animal rights.

Women had to fight off doctors insisting that their bodies are more prone to disease than men’s, and therefore need to be managed and controlled.  Women of this era had to deconstruct the mythology of their natural inferiority.  Spiritualism stood for a revolution in the health-care paradigm for all.

We’re still trying to move in that direction today--health care, women’s rights, animal rights, an end to the tyranny of the rich, and so on and so forth. I think it worth remembering.  A movement largely inspired by women was  the fountainhead of many of today’s progressive ideals.  Spiritualism as a movement may have faded, but in its place we have seen the rise of consciousness studies.  What’s missing is a well-defined activist approach to consciousness studies today.

Consciousness isn’t just a great scientific mystery.  It is the theater where the drama of existence is played out.

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