New-Age ninnies?: Women have jumped on the mystic bandwagon and been taken for a ride, argues Linda Grant

Linda Grant
Saturday 26 June 1993 23:02

COMPUTER down? Subject to sexual harassment? Company about to be taken over by corporate raiders? Oh, life's a trial for the modern woman. Would that all of life's little glitches would go away as if by magic. Well, girls, they can. Help is at hand. 'For the first time in herstory you, my most respected ones, have access to Goddess magic in the workplace. Use it wisely and carefully. Enjoy your newfound power and remember that every time you make a choice, 'Thou art Goddess]' '

The author of this breathless prose is Zsuzsanna Budapest, self-styled feminist witch (and, inevitably, resident of California). Her book, The Goddess in the Office: A Personal Energy Guide for the Spiritual Warrior at Work, to be published in the UK on 12 July, promises to imbue the Shirley Conran Superwoman with the occult powers of Aleister Crowley. Unions? Forget them. Equal Opportunities legislation? Who needs it? Harnessing the awesome powers of the Beyond can turn the lowest member of the typing pool into the managing director.

Women who may be fretting about being made redundant are advised by Ms Budapest to bake a batch of love cookies, ice them with magic runes and hand them out at coffee time. (The boss will instantly change his mind.) Sexual harassment calls for some Full-Force Hexing: make a doll from black cloth and stuff it with stinging nettles, stitch on some hair (some of his if possible) and say the magic words 'I bind your penis that you may not lust after me.' (Also Ms Budapest advises, talk to a lawyer. Just to be on the safe side.) Want a rise? Set up a green altar, burn a green candle nine nights in a row along with some money-drawing incense and chant: 'Money that is needed/Money that is speeded/Money that is mine/ Come] Now is the time.' Then 'wait a moon and ask confidently for a raise. The Goddess in the office will provide.'

The Goddess in the Office, which is only a semi-spoof, is not the product of a vanity press, sold from a stall at a psychic fair. It is published by Thorsons, the highly profitable division of the Murdoch-owned publishing giant HarperCollins. Thorsons has gone all out for New Age with a vengeance. Its latest catalogue includes titles such as Daughter of the Goddess: The Sacred Priestess and Families are Forever: True Stories of Encounters Beyond the Grave. Thorsons is about to embark on a major survey of who buys its books but the received wisdom in the book trade is that the market for New Age writing is overwhelmingly female.

The booksellers Waterstone's are currently running a Mind/Body/Spirit promotion in their stores. 'This is a very high-selling area,' says Michelle Pilley, who is in charge of the promotion. 'It's the highest selling non-fiction subject, and it probably is the case that more women than men are buying. We've seen a steady increase over the past five years. We decided to make these books a focal point of the shop and now other booksellers are following suit.' At the giant Mind, Body and Spirit Festival held at the Royal Horticultural Hall this month, the majority of attenders were also female, the Festival's organisers, New Life Promotions Ltd confirmed.

New Age is a vague and all-encompassing term. Its central tenet is a rejection of Western technological society, its religions and its medicines. The leading New Age centre in London is Mysteries in Covent Garden, an oasis of incense, crystals, tarot readings and herbal remedies. Of the 26 staff (15 are tarot readers) only three are male. The female punters, browsing on a late Thursday afternoon, outnumbered men by three to one. There was not a long cheesecloth skirt to be seen. All of them looked like ordinary women shopping in John Lewis.

'I'm looking at a book about colour therapy,' said Danica Ognjenovic, formerly deputy editor of Creative Review, the advertising trade magazine. She is now 'a full-time mother' and was impeccably attired in a sweaterdress and court shoes. 'I'm waiting for my brother who's having his tarot read. Coming here is a fix. You can indulge yourself a bit, like at the hairdressers. I have my tarot read regularly. Therapists are expensive - this only costs pounds 15. No, there's no rational basis in it. Why should there be?'

An older woman in flowery pastels was looking at a book on astrology. 'I'm reading my horoscope because I'm going through a difficult period in my life. I've just been made redundant. I'm a nurse and my original interest was in healing. I'm interested in what life's all about. There must be another way.'

It is this kind of mainstream woman, never likely to abandon home to become New Age travellers, who forms the greatest potential market for books on all kinds of other-worldly psychic phenomena. Cassandra Eason, wife of a Daily Telegraph journalist, is only at the beginning of a ten-part series of paperbacks with titles such as Runes for Today's Woman and Pendulum Dowsing for Today's Woman (published by Foulsham). The books seem to want to arm housewives with the same magic powers once brandished by Samantha in the Sixties' TV series Bewitched. Eason is aiming her book at the W H Smith market, the most lucrative bookshop trade.

'I feel that women today have a very hard time of it, speaking as a mother of five,' she says. 'The have-it-all message means do-it-all. Women need to stack the odds in their favour. They have a very deep intuitive well, possibly because of conditioning over thousands of years. If women can get in touch with this intuitive wisdom they can get from A to Z without the other letters. By turning to these old systems and using them in a modern way we can access this store we have in ourselves and take control over our destinies.'

That women are 'more intuitive', and therefore more receptive to the occult and alternative medicine, is now the accepted wisdom in New Age circles. Theo Gimbel of the Hygeia College of Colour Therapy in Gloucestershire, specialises in one of the wilder reaches of non-NHS healing which involves patients handling coloured silks or (if they have Aids) wearing white robes. 'The intuitive right-side brain function is open more easily in women,' Gimbel says. 'Men regard colour as feminine. If they could only learn to listen to women they would be better men.'

Two-thirds of Gimbel's patients are women. And two-thirds of Marie Claire magazine's astrologer Chris Marshall's private clients are women. Marshall is less convinced by arguments about women's innate intuition. 'Self-development is a popular cause at the moment,' he says. 'It's a natural development of the health and beauty tips women's magazines have always specialised in. Astrology deals a lot with relationships, which women are interested in. I use astrology as a tool for helping people to know themselves better. There are elements of counselling in it, though I'm not a qualified counsellor.

'Astrology isn't a macho subject. It's seen as soft and flowery because it deals so much with feelings. Men have more problems in admitting that they need help. Many men read a horoscope in their girlfriends' magazines but they wouldn't come and see me because it would be a potential humiliation. But this New Age phenomenon is a bit of a money-spinner so it attracts men as practitioners.'

Despite the two-thirds balance of women to men as clients for colour therapy and astrology, there are equal numbers of male and female colour therapists and astrologers. A survey in 1987 for Channel Four revealed that 46 per cent of women believe in astrology compared with 25 per cent of men.

Horoscopes are uniformly absent from men's magazines. Two years ago Esquire launched 'The First Intelligent Horoscope for Men', but it was quickly abandoned when staff realized that its readers didn't take it seriously. Wendy Grossman, founder of The Skeptic magazine (which investigates the paranormal), argues that the magazine editors don't know that women want horoscopes either. 'What we do know is that the advertisers like them.' So are women stereotyped by the advertising industry?

Grossman apportions blame in two directions. The first is the lack of encouragement given to girls who want to study science at school. Women, she argues, aren't trained in the scientific methods that teach the value of critical thinking and replicable results. The second is feminism. 'The feminist establishment has taught women that science is patriarchal. Men invented the bomb. Feminists like Mary Daly call for women to go into the cult of the goddess, and to go back to some kind of old magic. But if that had worked in the first place we wouldn't have needed science. I think there are more benefits to be gained by women joining computer networks.'

There seems to be a direct line between early Seventies eco-feminism and the present boom in the female New Age market. The Pill-related health scares of the Seventies, and the revival of interest in natural childbirth, have bolstered a movement against orthodox medicine.

Women have become a rich market for alternative remedies. The UK sales of Oil of Evening Primrose, said to alleviate PMT symptoms, are worth pounds 32 million a year. This is despite the fact that there is no convincing evidence that the remedy works, and that a recent study showed that a paraffin oil placebo could be equally effective.

According to Rosalind Coward, author of The Whole Truth: The Myth of Alternative Health, women have been drawn into the alternative health movement in greater numbers than men, and are particularly drawn to those areas such as aromatherapy and reflexology which have close connections to beauty treatments and to 'mystical' areas like faith healing and psychic diagnosis. New Age ideas, she says, 'have a strong ideology of the feminine which is good and nurturing and kind, the antithesis of what they designate as bad - mass production, industrialisation. These ideas fit in with women's fantasies about themselves as being kinder and more sensitive. It's a philosophy which attracts people who are too lazy to really think.

'Interest in alternative health has been the point of entry into that world of spirituality which is looking for some kind of sense in the universe. Women's interest in astrology is partly to do with the fact that it appears to take decisions out of your hands, which will suit people who are powerless because it offers explanations in terms of fate, what's happening in the stars. It removes the sense of yourself as an actor in your own fate.'

Over and over again, New Age practitioners will tell you of women's greater openness to new ideas, their capacity to reject received wisdom, to speculate fearlessly about the unknown. The listener is seduced until, sceptically, one begins to wonder, is it actually true? After all, more women voted Conservative than Labour in the last election, says Ros Coward, and it is often women who uphold traditional morality, most famously in the form of Mrs Whitehouse. And how new is the New Age itself? According to Coward, there's nothing progressive about any of it. 'It's just the legacy of an earlier culture.'

Flattering women into believing they are more in tune with new ideas is the oldest trick in the book. And those with the most to gain from New Age are those with the greatest commitment to some bad old ideas: about making as much money as possible from telling a gullible audience - in this case a largely female one - what to think.

(Photographs omitted)

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