"Femininity, as it turns out, can be a barrier to enlightenment."
May 6, 2015 10:20 AM   Subscribe

The psychotherapist Carl Jung, after seeing a photo of the Arctic explorer Augustine Courtauld, remarked that Courtauld's was the face of a man 'stripped of his persona, his public self stolen, leaving his true self naked before the world.' For women, this is doubly true: a woman's life is one lived under surveillance, a system of inner and outer regulations even more restrictive than a man's. Even a simple stroll down the sidewalk becomes an exercise in self-loathing. Suck in your stomach. Straighten your hem. (What if it rides up, exposing you?) Every shop window offers a glimpse of your own reflection. Adjust, adjust, adjust.

It's enough to drive a woman crazy (and isn't this what we're always being accused of?). It's enough to drive any woman to the woods.
So where are all the women hermits?
"For women, for most of history, it's been mother or maiden, daughter or wife. The roles shuffle, their names and details changing, but all share one feature: which man does she care for, which man does she take care of? Woman as defined by man; woman as seen by man. How unappealing. With so few choices, it's clear why we know of so few women hermits, and why solitude is viewed as male."
Women hermits mentioned in the essay and otherwise:

× The sixth-century saint Anastasia the Patrician, who fled from Constantinople to a remote cave in Alexandria and disguised herself as a eunuch for 28 years to ensure her vow of chastity would remain intact

× The 13th-century Abbess Mugai Nyodai, the first female Zen master in the world

× Margaret Kirkby, a 14th-century English anchoress and predecessor of...

× Julian of Norwich, a philosopher and Christian mystic whose 600-year-old anchorhold remains in use to this day

× Orgyen Chökyi, a 17th-century Ḑākinī known in the West as the "Himalayan Hermitess"

× Sarah Bishop, the hermit of the Berkshires

× Suchitra Sen, a legendary Bengali actress ("the Greta Garbo of Indian cinema") who retreated from the public eye following her retirement in 1978

× Greek patriot Despina Achladioti, the Lady of Ro, who lived alone on the remote, uninhabited island and raised her nation's flag over the coast so it would be visible from Turkish soil every day for nearly 40 years, until her death in 1982

× Martha Frock, who lived in a "little shack" deep in the Florida Everglades
Frock gets old magazines from a neighbor and has a radio but spends much time working on her grounds. Her sentiments when describing how she felt after one of her brief trips away: "Coming back here's just like going to heaven."
× Robyn Davidson, whose 1,700-mile, nine-month trek through the outback of West Australia was adapted in book and movie form

× Sr. Rachel Denton, 21st-century hermit and calligrapher for hire at St Cuthbert's House in Nottingham

× Karen Markham, who makes her home in the hills of Shropshire, at the the Hermitage of Divine Wisdom
posted by divined by radio (31 comments total) 128 users marked this as a favorite
Of course, I am coming up blank now, but I have always hugely identified with female protagonists in literature who get a rare glimpse of aloneness, who are sometimes fantastically alienated from those around them... but that reveling in aloneness is so relatable.

Great post, thank you!
posted by easter queen at 10:38 AM on May 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

A Shack of One's Own.

(Excellent post, thanks.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:51 AM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

There were many female anchorites in the (Catholic) Christian tradition, less well-known than Julian of Norwich. (It is difficult to be well-known as a hermit.)
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:56 AM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

What about Emily Dickinson? Would she count?
posted by orangutan at 11:06 AM on May 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

The knitting teacher and designer Anna Zilboorg refers to herself as an "Anglican solitary. I wouldn't say she's a hermit: she does a fair amount of teaching, but she definitely pursues a life of spiritual solitude.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:06 AM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, the 20th-21st century Tibetan Buddhist, Tenzin Palmo. I highly recommend Reflections on a Mountain Lake.
posted by kokaku at 11:25 AM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks for a great post!
posted by effluvia at 11:28 AM on May 6, 2015

So where are all the women hermits?

These women numbered in the thousands -- indeed, I would venture to say in the tens of thousands. For instance, Vandenbrouck noted that in 1320 in Rome alone, there were 260 female recluses, while Sainsaulieu reported that he had found 455 recluses of both sexes in France before the tenth century and 3,000 in the following centuries. Even more extraordinary is the startling information which, as long ago as 1908, Fr. Delehaye gave us about a ninth-century Syrian monastery where about a hundred women lived as stylites. When I first began my research into this area of studies -- despite my limited access to primary materials -- I was able to locate in somewhat less than less than eighteen months, approximately 1100 named Desert Mothers and 900 anonymous female recluses who lived from the sixth to the fifteenth centuries. It was clear that I had only scratched the surface.
There were hundreds of anchorites (= religious solitaries) in medieval England, and women far outnumbered men -- though the Ancrene Wisse, a thirteenth-century how-to guide for female anchorites, suggests that some led a surprisingly public existence:
Many anchorites withdrew from the world only to find themselves squarely in the center of village life. We can perhaps glimpse this obliquely in a list of prohibited activities for anchoresses in Part Eight of the Ancrene Wisse. There, the author advises anchoresses not to keep valuables in their anchorholds, run a school, or send, receive or write letters. Further, in Part Two, the author warns his readers that the anchorhold should never become a source of news or gossip. These prohibitions offer a tantalizing glimpse into some of the social functions of the typical anchoress in her village setting. At least some anchorholds, it seems, became the center of town life, acting as sort of bank, post office, school house, shop, and newspaper. The AW author, of course, advises against these activities mainly because they draw the heart of the anchoress outside her anchorhold, but that they must be prohibited points to the fact that many anchorites became something like spiritual celebrities - they became the focus for the communal religious life of the village.
posted by verstegan at 11:29 AM on May 6, 2015 [14 favorites]

Witches. Think of all the depictions of women living alone on the edges of forests. As soon as you see one in film, you just know she's going to have magical powers. It's a trope. One of the characteristics: "Lives in a strange or simply just isolated cottage." But a man who lives in an isolated cottage? Could be any type of guy.

In fairy tales there's Baba Yaga, an ambivalent figure – meaning she can be positive or negative, generally depending on how she views the people she interacts with. Indeed, once you grok that, you notice that she's quite the figure of independence. Too often we view "negative" depictions as reflecting on those who wrote/told myths/fairy tales; we thereby reduce ourselves to reinforcing the very values we seek to overcome. When you view Baba Yaga through her actions, via a variety of tales, you start to notice that she subverts patriarchal values. Often her negative actions are for good reason. Not always, but often.

A positive hermitess in mythology was Diana. She was popular as a figure for independent-minded women; Diane de Poitiers among others, who too eventually ended up living on her own, though one couldn't quite call her a hermit.

Quite a few fairy tales have women go through periods of hermitage before coming into their own, though yes, the period generally ends with a societally-acceptable marriage. Don't think I can recall any fairy tales where the protagonist is a woman who remains independent, whereas there are quite a few trickster tales of male protagonists who remain independent. Female tricksters are vanishingly rare. (Some of the female-protagonist tales including hermit periods are The Six Swans, where she can't speak for years; The Handless Maiden, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which also includes three supportive hermit wise women.)

Jung wrote rather often of women who lived alone. Although he was a product of his patriarchal time and his writings bear signs of it, he was revolutionary during it for taking women seriously and letting them do their own thing, including his wife. Quite a few of the women analysts he and Emma Jung trained lived alone. He laid the groundwork for his own theories to evolve into much more transectional work amongst contemporary post-Jungians.
posted by fraula at 11:29 AM on May 6, 2015 [36 favorites]

What a powerful piece. I could paste the whole thing on my wall, quotes like "My deep appreciation is for high mountains" as quoted from Ji Xian. I am a woman who seeks and finds solitude, but seeks it in a specific way, in an outdoor life. I've chosen a career that leads me to solitude, and solitude outdoors. This is nowhere close to hermitage but it's as close as I've been able to come.

Even seeking that solitude has its problems. As noted above, I'm a trope - I'm a woman alone in the woods. A woman alone in the woods, on an outcrop, or on the trail is an anomaly, most often seen as "in need" somehow. The number of times I've been offered unsolicited advice on the trail by strange men, asked if I was okay or needed help, asked if my party or husband was ahead is absolutely infuriating. It happens almost every time. When I tell people about my projects which involve being alone outside, I never get "that's cool," or questions about my projects - instead I get questions about my preparedness, how dangerous it must be, am I afraid? Am I armed? Yet living in Colorado I'm surrounded by young men who actively seek out more than that, a complete escape from society by living the athletic outdoor life as the ski bum or the dirt bag without question at all.

And when I was young, oh how I longed to do the same thing. I wanted to be nothing more than a dirt bag, living from my car, ranging around the west living an outdoor life with all the solitude I could handle. I wanted to be "one with nature", I yearned to live the life I'd read so much about in the books about nature and adventure I'd grown up with. But as the article says:
‘To be female and to demand such things as a retreat from life and from loved ones,’ writes the poet Leslie A Miller in her essay ‘Alone in the Temple’ (1992), ‘is difficult and different. To assert the need for retreat when one is young, a wife… seems selfish, stubborn, even crazy.’
I couldn't overcome those boundaries. I wanted to emulate Herzog and seek out "the other Annapurnas in the lives of men," as so encouraged by one of my favorite pieces of nature/adventure writing, but the pressure to not be selfish was too overwhelming; though I could overcome being a woman in society with a specific path, I couldn't overcome the obligations of being a daughter.

And to my surprise, as I've grown older, I've found that the nature and solitude I was seeking may not be what I actually wanted. I've come to realize how many of those stories and essays that influenced me were written by men, white men, very often white males with a financial safety net. The outdoor life with its specific solitude I had sought had been painted, for the most part, by a very specific subset of society; the experience they provided has been tinted with viewpoints that reflect gender, race, and in most cases, class. Furthermore many of the nature experienced were written for a very similar audience.

We think of revisionism in terms of politics and history; that one should examine the "why" of how a mountain is described when one has spent an entire life thinking about the mountains is an upending event. (Perhaps it seems intuitive to others to question that kind of thing, but it took me years - it's hard to take a side look at the status of the person writing something when you're wide eyed at their description of a rock.) It's startling to realize that something you've yearned for may have been manufactured to some degree; it makes you wonder how much of your feelings have been manufactured as well. It's a completely different kind of enlightenment than the one you expected to find while hopping from rock to rock or napping by a stream.

I still seek out solitude and the outdoors, but as I will probably spend my life doing, doing so trying to rediscover what it may actually mean to me - as a woman, as a person living at this moment in time with its issues, as a scientist - while looking for others that do the same. I admire anyone who actively seeks out solitude; women who do so while overcoming the pressures this article so well articulates are amazing.
posted by barchan at 11:51 AM on May 6, 2015 [81 favorites]

Hey, I am one with solitude...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 12:01 PM on May 6, 2015

Of course, I am coming up blank now, but I have always hugely identified with female protagonists in literature who get a rare glimpse of aloneness, who are sometimes fantastically alienated from those around them... but that reveling in aloneness is so relatable.

I highly recommend Joan Barfoot's novel Abra, if you haven't already come across it.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:18 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


And they burn witches. How many women were able to get away out into the woods?
posted by maryr at 12:22 PM on May 6, 2015

I have very little interest in being a hermit out in the wild, but being ALONE among things (in the world?) is something I crave intensely. Is that a variety of hermit? I don't know.

I'm also reminded of something my mother said a couple of years after my father died, when she decided we weren't going to take camping holidays anymore: "it's not a vacation if I still have to do dishes and make beds AND I have to deal with bugs and dirt." I'm not sure why exactly I'm reminded of that....
posted by epersonae at 12:40 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is a super cool post and I've barely started reading the links, but something about "anchorhold" sounded cool and I clicked that link about Julian of Norwich. From the paragraph below the picture of her church:

Sometime before 1394, Julian made her final decision retreat into isolation. She could devote her life to praying, writing and giving counsel to her fellow Christians. Her friends worked with the church of St. Julian’s near Conisford Street in Norwich. Julian got the blessing of the local bishop for her plan and the money needed to build her cell was raised. The construction went quickly and soon everything was in place for Julian to start her new life. She appears to have had a servant woman who was enclosed with her named Alice.

That feels like cheating to me...
posted by DynamiteToast at 12:41 PM on May 6, 2015

What does she do with her time? Burn the witch.

Immediately, I thought of the witch from Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga (whose home had chicken feet).

For years, I would go to the Grand Canyon, rent a cabin for a week during the winter and spend a full 7 days alone. Sweet peace and solitude. I would knit and read and write and hike. The canyon was quiet and often snowy, there were few tourists and I was able to bring what I needed and interact with as few people as possible. It was delicious and there was a part of me that wanted to shave my head, find a secluded place out in the canyons, and never leave.

Interestingly, what I have found most women wishing for though, is not solitude, but rather the romantic notion of women's separatism. Cloistered nuns, separatist communes, Amazonian societies and covens.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:58 PM on May 6, 2015 [8 favorites]

This is where, as much as I love Buddhism / meditation, etc., I have always said that it's a male religion - it is based on self-isolation, gaining self mastery before engaging with others, codifying a "path" and so on. The woman's way may follow a traditional isolationist path but it may also be to find her voice within the community, to lead the community, to find her Self in relation with others - not just sit in a cave a meditate. For this reason, I'm guessing many enlightened ladies of history were too busy living it to write it down, to make a name for themselves, or to tell others how to be.

I guess what I'm saying is that hermitidue =/= enlightenment, and a woman's journey may not require the same amount of solitary searching as is described by Jung, or Joseph Campbell's hero myth, etc. When you trust your own intuitive bliss, why write a book?
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:01 PM on May 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

I saw a Buzzfeed video not long ago about "Things you (women) should try alone at least once." Things like go out to eat, go shopping, see a movie, take a walk, go to a concert, go to a museum, take pictures you will show to no one, just sit and listen.

And I thought, how odd that these are things someone has to be reminded they should do alone at least once, because that's my life. I do all of these things alone, along with wake up, work, eat, read, watch TV, garden, cook, and sleep. I've done this for years and I don't find it unusual, and I am neither lonely nor sad. I can go for days without seeing another human (without even trying to avoid them) even though I live in the heart of a medium-big city. I go camping and hiking alone too. Am I a hermit?

I don't live and spend time alone because I don't like people or for spiritual reasons; I'm not an introvert and I love to entertain and travel. I live alone because it's the only way I've ever found to be in charge of my own life. I spend time alone because it's easier (and often more pleasant) than having constant company. Being alone and free in one's own space is a huge luxury for most humans, male or female, and I reflect often that I have more autonomy - I earn my own money, I own my own house - than probably 99% of the women who have ever lived on this planet.
posted by caryatid at 1:20 PM on May 6, 2015 [23 favorites]

I spend most of my time alone except for taking care of an elderly neighbor, who spends all her time alone, except for when I come over. I have always lived comfortaby with myself, and camped alone, traveled alone, I do almost everything alone. I have wandered the West desert, driven every highway between Salt Lake and California, visited waterways, and empty places.

At first I felt uncomfortable, fearful, wandering. The first time I went down to Moab, Utah I was 19, alone in my little Triumph Spitfire. It was there I fell to my knees in awe, on the edge of The Green River Overlook, out on The Island in the Sky, and received from the moment, the gift of being close with eternity.

I learned quite young if I wanted to live in my time, have my time, I would have to take it away from everything that had some other plan for my personal holdings.
posted by Oyéah at 1:59 PM on May 6, 2015 [10 favorites]

Sara Maitland probably qualifies as a hermit.
posted by paduasoy at 2:39 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

How I became a medieval-style anchorite
Still in the christian tradition is Sister Rachel.
Women & Solitude: 14 Books & 1 Article from the aptly named hermitary.com
posted by adamvasco at 4:15 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

*eschews civilization*
*leaves all worldly belongings*
*climbs mountain*
*enjoys complete solitude*

Hey baby, come here often?


Lizards abound.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:24 PM on May 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

I find this post (and thread) incredibly affirming. Someday, I hope to add my name to this august company. Until then, I'd add one of my favorites (and an early Christian example): Mary of Egypt.

A friend of mine often reminds me that Thoreau only survived Walden because his female relatives periodically brought him casseroles.
posted by katya.lysander at 6:11 PM on May 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'd love to be a hermit except I have to make a living.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:12 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd hate to see wonderful and deeply insightful writer Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) left out ...
No other book of its type—until the appearance in 1946 of Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy—met with success to match that of her best-known work, Mysticism, published in 1911.
... because - although the culture we're currently 'enjoying' tends to completely obliterate the memory of such profound lives apart from the trivial -it won't always be that way. There's not a trace of corruption in Evelyn's work, among the best of its kind anywhere, anytime.
posted by Twang at 6:29 PM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mallory Ortberg on female solitude:

The woman is alone. Do you know how rare finding a moment’s peace has been for women throughout human history? If you spent the rest of your days alone in a cottage on a solitary Alp, it would not begin to make up for the years your foremothers spent having to listen to men as a profession. (You can tell that this woman is happy because there are no men in this picture.) A woman alone is a beautiful thing.
posted by lunasol at 8:26 PM on May 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

Nobody has mentioned Island of the Blue Dolphins yet, seriously? That one and Julie of the Wolves were some of my YA all-time favs.
posted by sukeban at 11:30 PM on May 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

*raises hand*
posted by h00py at 6:36 AM on May 7, 2015

I am reminded of Annie Dillard. She wasn't a hermit, but wrote as though she were.
posted by aniola at 1:14 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd love to be a hermit except I have to make a living.

That's what's stopping me, too. But within that constraint, I do the best I can to live a "lay monastic" life of spiritually and artistically focused solitude and community service, right in the heart of the city. And the longer I do so (I'm 47 now), the more I love it. I've come to love it so much, in fact, that I'm starting to doubt that I'll ever marry again. If I do, it will have to be to a partner who relishes solitude as much as I do and respects my drive for autonomy and creative freedom. In other words, probably another uppity, non-parent, feminist witch like me.

Recently I've started reaching out more to my fellow Pagan polytheists and expanding my community service offerings beyond my writing to divinations, shrine-building, spiritual incubation sessions, and grief work through ritual dance. And I have no doubt that if I were able to secure long-term patronage or some other way to fund a full time life of this, I would be completely in my element.

Before my time on this planet comes to an end, I hope to build a hermitage, live there as an anchoress myself, and bequeath it for the use of other Pagan nuns when I die.

Thank you so much for this inspiring collection of links, divined by radio.
posted by velvet winter at 7:22 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

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