Guest Essay: Fostering Gender Equality in Heathenry

This essay is an editorial by guest author Lee Gregsson

Heathen men have a problem, and we have to fix it. It is a problem created by us, nurtured by us, transmitted by us, and in the end damaging to us. The problem is the environment we create for heathen women. As heathen men, we need to wake up and recognize it in our own tribes and kindreds where it exists as our first responsibility. Where appropriate we also need to address the issue within the broader heathen world. I am not a scholar, and I am relatively new to reconstructed heathen religion. I have a lot to learn. That said, as a licensed mental health professional and practicing trauma therapist, I can recognize the problem through hearing the experiences of heathen women with whom I have discussed it. To put it bluntly, if we continue on our current course and to fail to address this issue as men, we are virtually guaranteeing the failure of this effort to rebuild and perpetuate the cultures and religions of our heathen ancestors. If we care at all about the future of this lifeway, it is time to look in the mirror and to act.

One cannot spend much time talking to heathen women in the context of in-person gatherings or online discussion fora without hearing how often they are approached by men whom, before even introducing themselves, make objectifying comments to women. I have observed this myself on many occasions, and I hear it described regularly. Many women are made to feel that their value as heathens comes from how much they can mold themselves into the popular and historically inaccurate “shieldmaiden” motif; they should be classically beautiful, overtly sexual, and interested in giving their attention to heathen men, usually on demand, and regardless of the degree to which they are interested in the same.

I know many incredibly intelligent heathen women who are at the forefront of the research effort to recreate our religion who are, on the regular, congratulated on their physical beauty in contexts in which such observations are entirely irrelevant, not to mention unwanted by them. I know others whose vast knowledge and experience are openly dismissed, their profound value to our effort ignored because they do not fit the ideal described above. Men have allowed a culture to develop in which many women receive the message, over and over, that they are part decoration, part servant, and part brood mare. Sure, we need them to be “valkyrie” at sumbel and to bear little heathens, but outside of that they’ve no particular role.

When this state of affairs is described heathen men often respond to it in a couple of ways. Many of them minimize the problem. Lots of men suggest that since they themselves don’t act this way, or since they know women in their own groups have not expressed feeling treated this way, it must not be a common occurrence. The existence of the problem is not denied, but its consequences are missed entirely. Worse still, many men react by flatly denying that it is an issue at all. This implies of course that the women who are talking about it are making it up. They’re lying. I have heard men suggest women who complain of such experiences are “doing it for attention,” and that as such we had best pay no heed. It is argued that ignoring the concern is the best solution, because if we do women will get tired of talking about it.

These ways of understanding the problem will destroy our efforts to rebuild and grow this religion, and frankly, it’s time that heathen men sack up and deal with it.

If you have an elementary understanding of how heathen religion was practiced prior to the conversion, then you know that women are, arguably, more important to the perpetuation of this tradition than are men, even with child bearing excluded from argument. Women served vital material, political, religious, and even military roles in arch-heathen societies (though not how the valkyrie-and-Amazon-obsessed would have us believe). It is not within my scope here to elucidate those points. I leave that instead to my friends with expertise in that line of research. For our purposes here, it is enough to note that we cannot succeed in this endeavor until women feel that their participation in it is wanted and valued.

Heathen men can take concrete steps to change the situation as described above. We should confront men who treat women this way before women feel they have to address it themselves. We must make it clear that such behavior – whether within our tribes, or in broader gatherings and fora – will not be tolerated. We need to stop providing cover to those whose behavior creates an uncomfortable environment for women who want to learn, teach, and participate. Those of us who work hard to create comfortable spaces for women inadvertently provide cover for those who work against that effort when we laugh off or ignore behavior described above. We can each make a decision to stop doing this. We can take it upon ourselves to learn about the essential roles women played in arch-heathen societies, and then encourage the women in our lives to step into these roles. We can recognize that as much as we do not want to have our individual thoughts, values, and contributions take a back seat to our current state of physical attractiveness to others, women don’t want that for themselves either. And we can recognize that if we have no relationship to a woman with whom we are conversing, it is entirely possible that gratifying ourselves by complimenting her attractiveness may actually make her feel less-than, and even unsafe.

Men cannot reconstruct heathen religion and culture by ourselves. It is absolutely critical to this effort that women are present and sharing in leadership in every step of the process. Men have to create the conditions in which this is possible. We must take this responsibility seriously, and we must do so now. We need to make sure women do not feel that their default value in this effort is as objects of sexual fantasy, but that they feel cherished by us as the weavers of frið and as the leaders, teachers, and partners that they are, and that we need them to be.