Examining Gender Within The Rider-Waite Smith
Today’s post is inspired by an article I read written by Beth of Little Red Tarot. The article is entitled, Fool’s Journey: What Makes a ‘Feminist’ Tarot? and I highly recommend checking out both the article and her website. Typically, I wouldn’t invite politics into my blogging sphere, but today is an exception. While I really love the article, I largely disagree with it. This isn’t really surprising, given my worldview, but I likewise appreciate hearing opinions that differ from my own. The tarot community today is perhaps the most diverse it has ever been, and I celebrate the progress. In this search for progress though, we have to be careful not to alienate each other.
There are many ways that people can feel alienated within the tarot community. You have the element of human interaction, artistic representation, and even traditional philosophies. Each of these issues though must be taken up one by one. In this post, I specifically want to touch on themes of gender within the tarot. The article raises some very legitimate questions regarding gender and the concept of gender-binary. Personally though, I find the article misses just how diverse the Rider-Waite Smith deck is. Admittedly, the themes are difficult to find with a surface glance. But, does how we perceive gender always happen on the surface? Not always, and the same is true of tarot.
For example, the article begs for a female version of The Emperor. This is a female capable of enforcing law. A deeper glance into the themes of tarot will reveal Justice as a female version of The Emperor. Also, The Magician is also echoed in Justice. As a female, I love seeing these two cards come together to represent, according to Rachel Pollack, wisdom arising out of action. Keeping their surface gender separated however, seems to be purely rooted to archetypes. It is difficult to dissect gender on a level that is deeper than the surface, as tarot is so complex. So is gender. However, I think many would agree on analyzing passive energy and active energy.
Historically, the female sex was used to communicate themes of passivity. I can’t help but wonder how the definition of passivity has culturally changed over time. An initial definition of the term may have been rooted in the idea of “without resistance” as I see allusions to this in other philosophies now encompassed in tarot. The male sex was, by contrast, used to communicate themes of active energy. To me, this has always represented a sort of restless energy that may or may not be playing out. So, in some ways, passive energy sustains what active energy started. That’s how I’ve come to understand it, and I realize your interpretation may be different… but I did want to define my outlook on these terms specifically.
When we assign passive and active energy to tarot, we see some startling results. There are roughly six Major Arcana cards that are female, or often taken as female. If we were to assume that women would be perceived as “the weaker sex” and have to “fulfill the stereotypical gender roles” we’d assume all female cards would be in the passive category. Surprisingly, this isn’t what we see in practice at all. There are three female cards in each the passive and the active categories. This allows us to see that gender, in concept, was comprehended more than first thought. In some instances we even see strongly rooted masculine cards in the passive category. Most notably of these are The Magician, The Hierophant, The Chariot, and the Hanged Man.
What makes gender so complex within tarot, is that when viewed this way, The Magician and The Empress are both passive forces. Talk about an even playing field. Likewise, Strength and The Star are active, or more “masculine” cards in this light. In fact, the only card that seems to fit into a traditional gender role is The Emperor on the active side and The Empress on the passive side. Now, I can hear you calling my attention to the High Priestess card. I get that. I’m going to talk about that, but I want to touch on one topic a bit more first. And while we’re mainly discussing the Major Arcana in this post, I do want to mention the elephant in the room, the Eight of Swords card.
The Eight of Swords is a tough card to see come up as a woman, as anyone really. But in today’s climate, I think women specifically relate to the Eight of Swords. What I find interesting however, is that a man designed its concept. In The Pictorial Key to the Tarot A. E. Waite describes the card, when dignified, as sickness, conflict, or bad news. What’s even more interesting though is the shadow aspect of this card, disquiet, difficulty, and oppression. Rachel Pollack points out that this card symbolizes, quite well in my own opinion, the oppression many feel from a society they don’t align with. I think this is interesting, considering how some see the Rider-Waite Smith as tone deaf.
Alright, back to the High Priestess. What of her non-conformity? Well, interestingly enough, the High Priestess is a card of both lunar and solar energy. In many ways, this makes her a hybrid card. If we view the High Priestess in the framework of solar energy, interesting themes show up. The High Priestess is undeniably feminine, and yet, in a position of power. She literally guards the Temple Veil and holds the sacred Universal Law. And yet, in her power, she’s fully feminine. Isn’t that amazing? Compare her to Justice for a moment. Justice is still feminine, but in a much more androgynous way. This is not true with the High Priestess. Also, consider the mystery behind the High Priestess. She is the Virgin Mother. There is no parameters on her sex life, family life, or even her job. She is fully powerful and all-knowing. To embody the High Priestess in real life would be a stark contrast to traditional gender roles, and yet, her energy is passive.
Another passive figure that may surprise you is The Hanged Man. Why would this be so shocking? The Hanged Man is often linked to Christ for Christian tarot readers. This means that Christ’s energy is strongly feminine. Again, this is not a view common when played out in society today. However, it is strongly rooted in the tarot. Take for example another passive card, that of The Hierophant. This is a card that gets a bad name in many circles. And yet, this is female energy carried forward in an outwardly male way. Both the Hierophant and the High Priestess cards are passive in energy. A little examination and the realization as to why becomes clear. The High Priestess holds the Universal Law, and the Hierophant cannot reveal that information to others without first holding it himself. These two cards convey different aspects of the same thing.
Now, compare those themes to that of the more active energy. I don’t know about you, but the Strength card doesn’t convey the stereotypical strength of men to me. This card shows a deeper understanding of strength than just masculine ability. The Strength conveyed here is that of spirit. Having strength is more about conquering yourself than it is about victimizing others. Notice the flowers on the card? They represent beauty of soul. Notice also the concept of Strength being an evolved form of The Magician? The idea is a powerful one to both men and women alike. Beauty of soul is more powerful than the beauty of the environment you could possibly create. The theme of carefully illustrating power is also backed up by The Emperor, another active card.
To me though, the surprising thing is just how many of the active cards I would consider neutral in gender themes. In many ways, I enjoy thinking of these cards as gender-fluid. The Lovers, Temperance, and Judgement all feature a divine concept of gender-fluid beings. In my view, that is extremely powerful. The Divine has always been conceived in a way that is gender-fluid or shares qualities of both genders. There’s no obvious attention to this in the tarot, but I do think it worth noting now. If we view these cards as Transgender, then that’s some powerful representation. Temperance even symbolizes the complete or whole person. This reminds us that we each need to tap into the masculine and feminine qualities of ourselves to truly be complete. No one is strictly male or strictly female.
After this, we get a surprising number of active cards that are, well, concept cards. These are just pure and simple philosophical ideas. In all, the only truly masculine stereotypical cards in the active category are The Emperor, The Sun, and The Fool. Personally, I’m still not even sure The Fool fits into the strictly stereotypical male category. In society, The Fool would be considered an outcast, and probably someone who does not embody the more sought after masculine traits. Contrast this though with the number of cards that are stereotypical embodiments of femininity on the passive side. We have The Empress, maybe the High Priestess, and maybe maybe The World. Traditionally, The World is seen as a Hermaphrodite. I argue against the High Priestess, but some will not. What I want to point out though, is the ratio remains the same.
I can understand how people have a tough time seeing the gender-fluid aspects of the Rider-Waite Smith, but that’s not how I have come to see the cards. A man who identifies more with The Empress can still draw and connect with The Empress. No book on tarot should ever say otherwise. The concept of gender within tarot is as fluid as we want it to be. We don’t even have to stretch card meanings to make this possible. Justice will always be my female Emperor, and that’s okay. We should all continue to ask questions, seize opportunities for diversity, but also, maintain our history. The Rider-Waite Smith is worth keeping in our tarot community, and we should celebrate it for its diversity. I know I will. What about you?