Women In Alchemy: Hidden in Plain Sight
One of the biggest complaints, frustrations, and disappointments for a woman interested in alchemy is the seeming lack of women in alchemy. Dominated by men since the dawn of its inception, this spiritual-scientific praxis for studying and interacting with the natural world often seems to be nearly devoid of female contribution. However, much like the general misdirection and obfuscation which alchemy employs to deter anyone without the patience and determination to study it, so to do the actions and histories of male alchemists work to mist and obscure the contributions of the women who have been doing alchemy right alongside them the entire time.
Often dismissed as just cooks, housekeepers, sisters, wives, and secretaries, the only thing stopping the modern magickal world from seeing these women as valid alchemists in their own rights are the entrenched beliefs and attitudes supporting several millennia of patriarchy and misogyny. Many of these women were skilled in math, could read and write multiple languages, regularly filled the role of lab assistant and often were the only other person who could understand the work that the male alchemist was doing. Such women are fondly referred to as Soror Mystica, the sister in mystery, and indeed they are: women alchemists, hidden in plain sight.
Periodically women’s contributions to and participation in alchemy get restated, but predominantly those moments are repeats of each other or laundry lists that just tick down a series of achievements by the same half dozen female historical figures. When you look at who is attending modern alchemy conferences and presenting at them, you may find women listed, but these women are framed as teachers, healers and intuitive practitioners whereas most of their male counterparts are framed as scientists, magickal practitioners and authors. Those representations put forth and reinforce traditional gender roles that soften and lessen the contributions of women.
When I attended the International Alchemy Conference in 2008, the first question put to the closing panel comprised entirely of men was how come there weren’t any women on the panel? It was clear within seconds that no one on the panel or in the audience was prepared to address or moderate an actual exploration of that question, let alone the larger discussion to which it points: after thousands of years of exclusion, how do we reframe alchemy to make it inclusive? And since female-ness is the modern can-opener to inclusion, how do women moving forward open alchemy as truly diverse and inclusive, and not just add a small subsection to the alchemical world where the lab gear is pink?
Raye Schwarz is a ritual and laboratory alchemist, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest region of the USA. They spent more than a decade co-creating alchemical ritual associated with the Vegas Vortex, and studied laboratory work with Robert Bartlett. Raye has presented at Mysterium, GeekGirlCon and PantheaCon. For the last six years, they have been focused on growing and alchemically working with saffron.