The Divine Feminine and Pistis Sophia: motherhood, sexuality, and theosophical Gnosticism in Frances Swiney’s feminism

Jessica Albrecht


Theosophist Frances Swiney (1847–1922) was a writer and women's rights activist. She was mainly concerned with eugenics, sexuality, and feminism. She became involved with the Women's Emancipation Union and in 1896, she co-founded the Cheltenham Women's Suffrage Society of which she became president. Swiney’s writings and founding the League of Isis in 1907, directly reflects her interest in Theosophy. In her books; The Cosmic Procession or The Feminine Principle in Evolution (1906), The Mystery of the Circle and the Cross (1908), and The Esoteric Teaching of the Gnostics (1909), as well as in several articles in contemporary local and feminist newspapers and theosophical periodicals; Swiney, influenced by G. R. S. Mead, adapted Theosophical interpretations of “Gnosticism” for her feminist argumentation of a Divine Feminine within a cosmic evolution. She was personally and ideationally connected to the Theosophical Society and, therefore, influenced by its interpretations of Gnosticism and its ideas on gender, sexuality, and race. Combining theories on gender, religion, identity, discourse, and individual agency; this article answers the question to what extent and in what ways did Frances Swiney’s appropriations of Gnosticism influence her feminism and vice versa. It aims to illustrate how a biographical approach and focus on Frances Swiney as an influential, though controversial, individual in the British women’s suffrage and women’s rights movement, as well as within esoteric circles, can help to understand the interaction between personal experience and societal change (the possibility of an individual gendered agency in discourse). It aims to enhance the acknowledgement of the interrelation between gender, sexuality and religion, precisely alternative spiritualities and appropriations of “Gnostic” ideas, at that time. Basing the analysis on the academically widely accepted argument that the suffrage movement was not only concerned with women getting the vote, but rather resting upon a so called “sex war”; this piece stresses the importance of religion and spirituality, precisely, the influence of Gnostic ideas, on conceptions of gender, sex, and sexuality in the British first wave feminism. It puts this question in relation to the ongoing debate in religious studies concerning the triatic discursive emergence of religion, spirituality/esotericism, and science or secular/rational thought.By applying poststructuralist and discursive theories from gender history and religious/esotericism studies, it looks at the discursive relation between esotericism, religion, and secularism through a gendered lens to make an interdisciplinary contribution to the field of gender, sexuality and esotericism. 

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