Meeting the women of Our Tarot

Some decks may be stacked against us, but this deck is ours.

In this guest post, Sarah Shipman introduces us to two of the amazing women of Our Tarot, a new feminist tarot deck that celebrates the lives of seventy eight women from history. Our Tarot has just had an incredibly successful crowdfunding campaign and is now fully-funded, but you can still support its production and pre-order the deck right here (code newyear2017 gives you 10% off).

I’ll set the scene.

Six months ago, it was the beginning of summer. I was exhausted from working through yet another episode of clinical depression, drowning  in graduate school applications, and heartbroken after just splitting up with a significant other with whom I’d been crazy-in-love. Oh, and to top it all off: it looked like Donald Trump could actually be elected President of the United States, maybe. (Spoiler alert: Donald Trump was, indeed, actually
elected President of the United States. Yeah.)

So, naturally, instead of dealing with my anxiety and grief by listening to Taylor Swift’s 1989 on repeat (okay, maybe I did that, too), I downloaded a 16-hour series of lectures on the Black Death.

Then another one about the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In between lectures, I’d put on a history podcast, or five. I kept going back to old favorite episodes about Joan of Arc, or this one about Hattie McDaniel, a fantastic actor famous for her performance in Gone With the Wind. (Brief aside: she had a helluva career before that; look her up!)

And, then, sometimes, I’d turn off all the lectures, podcasts, and yes, even Taylor Swift… and pull a card from my Tarot deck. During this time, I was often pulling the Queen of Wands or the High Priestess, and I interpreted the message to me as “Girl, stand on your own two feet.” (I’m curious as to how you, dear Little Red Tarot readers, might read those differently, however!) I think it was during one of the times I pulled one of those intense cards, featuring these archetypal women shining a beacon of guiding light whilst I navigated a storm of emotion, that I realized I could pair up the cards with the women I’d been learning about. Even better, I could make it a personal project to learn about women I’d never researched before, and figure out a Tarot card for them to represent.

Over the rest of the summer, I filled up a notebook and a pack of index cards with biographical details of Hatshepsut, the Bronte sisters, Shirley Chisholm, Rigoberta Menchu, Julia Gillard… I made a secret Pinterest board to keep track of the hundreds of articles and photos I was collecting. I remember starting Emily Dickinson’s card, the Hermit. It wasn’t just because of her tendency toward agoraphobia that I felt she needed to be the Hermit. It was her
deep, prodding spirituality. The way she noticed and described little, much-overlooked things in her poetry. It was also that she had a big black Newfoundland dog, Carlo. You know who was buddies (well, in Greek mythology, anyway) with a big, black three-headed dog? The ferryman who takes you down the river Styx to Hades after you die: Charon, the ultimate hermit. I kinda hope that, somewhere out there in the void, Emily knows that I considered her beloved canine friend when I paired her with the Hermit. I hope she’d like that.

Speaking of crossing important rivers, I want to tell y’all specifically about two cards in Our Tarot, and the ladies who represent them!

First up is Lucy Hicks Anderson, marriage equality advocate, as Six of Swords.

Anderson was born in Kentucky, USA, in 1886. Assigned male at birth, she began living as a girl in early childhood. Her mother had taken her to a doctor, and the doctor advised that Lucy be raised as a girl from then on. So, that was that, apparently. I truly wonder and marvel about this part of Anderson’s story, in particular. I wonder what experiences and knowledge that a doctor and a mother in 1880s Kentucky would’ve had to prepare them to accept Lucy’s identity. Maybe it just seemed like common sense to them that what makes a girl or a boy, or anything in between, isn’t all about genitalia. But I digress.

Anderson went on to work in domestic services, eventually meeting and marrying her first husband. She settled with him in California, and divorced him in 1929. Later, in 1944, she married again – this time to a US soldier named Reuben Anderson. It was during this marriage that she faced the legal troubles and adversities that led me to associate her with the Six of Swords.

At some point, the local county authorities found out that Anderson had been assigned male at birth, and charged her with perjury for obtaining a marriage license. “I defy any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman,” Anderson told reporters during her trial. “I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman.” She was convicted of perjury and sentenced to ten years probation.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The US Army then charged both Lucy and Reuben Anderson with fraud. Lucy was receiving allotment checks, as was her right as the wife of a soldier, but the feds disagreed. In 1946, Reuben and Lucy were sent to prison. After her release, she moved to Los Angeles and died in 1954.

The Six of Swords is a card of necessary change and movement. In Rider-Waite decks, it’s signified by a cloaked figure (a woman is my guess) being ferried across a river, a young child at her side. Is she escaping, I wonder? Allow me to be a huge dork for a sec: I’m reminded of the scene in Disney’s Aladdin when Princess Jasmine is escaping the palace, desperately needing to experience the world in a way that feels more real to her. I think this is the main similarity between the traditional meaning of the Six of Swords and Anderson’s card in Our Tarot: even
though the action is taking place in a transitional, liminal space… a decision has been made; a plan has been set in motion.

In Lucy Hicks Anderson’s card, she isn’t shrouded… she stands in her boat with her suitcases, looking out toward you. In front of her watercraft are six pointed metal ‘swords’ emerging from turbulent waves. At first glance, it seems dangerous for them to be there, so near her wooden boat. But then, I think, maybe she put them there herself, somehow. Maybe she valiantly, defiantly placed those swords between herself and the trouble that lives on the shore. On the other side of the river, a lush California vineyard awaits. Anderson keeps looking at us, as if to say, “So, are you staying or going? Because I’m going.”

Helen Keller, the Two of Swords

I most frequently use a Thoth deck, and I think this is rather apparent in my selection for Two of Swords. Two of Swords in the Thoth deck is the ‘peace’ card – two swords crossed through a pale-colored flower. In the background, there’s a painterly field of green. In the Rider-Waite deck, you see a blindfolded woman holding two swords crossed in front of her. I think both cards call for taking a balanced perspective, maybe even sitting still for a bit while assessing a situation.

This call to peace is what I had in mind when Helen Keller became Two of Swords. Keller, born in Alabama in 1880, contracted an illness at 19 months old that left her blind and deaf. By the age of seven, Keller had many signs she used to communicate with her family. She was able to determine who was near her by the unique vibrations of people’s footsteps on the floor. I imagine that during this time, young Keller lived in an incredible and complex inner world beyond any of her family members’ imaginations. She connected to animals through touch. She enjoyed music through vibration. When 20-year-old Anne Sullivan arrived to teach Helen Keller how to use sign language, Helen was initially frustrated because she didn’t realize that each object also had a word associated with it. When Keller did have that incredible epiphany, it was while water was running over her hand. In Our Tarot, she is sitting in front of a dramatic waterfall, the ever-changing water of life and learning.

Helen Keller went on to learn how to speak so that hearing people could listen to and understand her, and she could also ‘hear’ their replies by reading their lips through touch. She was a world-famous speaker and author. She advocated for women’s suffrage, pacifism, and radical socialism.

I placed Keller on a white lotus flower, not unlike a bodhisattva, surrounded by apple blossoms. She is contemplative; she is balanced between two worlds. One realm is the outer world where language exists, where we make up symbols and sounds to do our best to connect with one another. The other, though, is a limitless place where there are no words. No words are needed there. Helen Keller as Two of Swords invites you to strike that balance between your own worlds, whether there are two, six, or a dozen.

The experience of researching the lives of these women and combining them with the Tarot definitely started out as a pet project for me; I’ve been a professional artist for a while, but I initially thought of this particular endeavor as one that I’d do just for myself. As the political climate here in the US (and in the rest of the world, really) heated up and got worse and worse, I started to feel like putting this deck out in the open was the best way that I could help people look to history, and the people in it, as a way of understanding themselves. And maybe even feeling like they have a little more agency in a tumultuous time. And maybe finding out about someone by whom they feel inspired. That’s certainly what I’ve experienced so far as I’ve been creating Our Tarot, and I don’t want to keep that all to myself.

About the author – and the deck

Hi, I’m Sarah Shipman. I have a Bachelor of Fine Art in Studio Art, and a Master of Fine Art in Painting. Yes, I really like making art, and I have the official pieces of paper to prove it! Currently, I’m getting a second graduate degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Helping people know themselves better and live healthier, more meaningful lives is my ultimate passion as an artist, future mental health counselor, and a citizen of Earth.

In addition to that, I really love history, and I love learning about the people in it. I love learning how the lives of history-making, history-changing people intertwine with our timeline. I love learning how these people were different from me, and in what ways we’re similar.

Our Tarot reflects my values as a person who seeks to empower and promote the rights of women and any and all other groups who have suffered from systemic, societal oppression. I realize that in creating Our Tarot, and in being so transparent about my personal values, I’m risking alienating a great number of people who may disagree with the project’s mission. That’s okay; I wish you all love, light, and meaningful experiences!

However, I hope that in being forthright about my values and mission, you will understand the importance of Our Tarot. Socially, culturally and politically – these times are unpredictable. I want to put Our Tarot in our hands. I want you to feel the power of each card. Each woman’s story. I want this for us. Our time, our experiences – Our Tarot.

You can find out more about Sarah and her project – and pre-order your own copy of the deck – on the Our Tarot website! Use code newyear2017 to get 10% off.

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One comment

  1. Kathleen says:

    I pledged to this Kickstarter right at the beginning – and after reading this, I’m even more excited and moved by the project. I can’t wait to see it come to fruition.

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