REVIEW: Book Views Goddess Spirituality Through New Age Lens
Feminism’s New Age: Gender, Appropriation , and the Afterlife of Essentialism, by Karlyn Crowley (State University of New York Press 2011), 242 pages. Trade Paperback. Also available as hardback and ebook.
A visiting acquaintance glanced at the cover of my trade paperback review copy of Feminism’s New Age and asked, "Is this some sort of satire or humor book?"
The cover art shows two young light-skinned women in two-piece, apparently strapless, black bathing suits and very tall "witch" hats. Their eyes and noses are mostly covered by black half-masks, their lips are lacquered bright red. The women are water-skiing.
I told my friend that the book was not intended as humor or satire but rather as a scholarly work, and was published by an academic press. My acquaintance, not a Witch, not a Pagan, but rather a mainstream Christian, was astounded. So am I.
Often an author doesn’t have much say in the selection of a book cover, the publisher makes the final selection. But from the "particular thank-you" the author gives in her "Acknowledgments" to artist Gilly Reeves-Hardcastle, I can only assume that Karlyn Crowley , who is an associate professor of English and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, was pleased with the selection of "Water Skiing Witches" . Yet oddly, considering the cover, this book has little material specifically about Witches or Wicca. What material there is, is in the "Introduction" and "Conclusion," rather than the chapter devoted to the "American Goddess Movement." So why is a book that covers a whole range of subjects the author defines as "New Age" represented by water-skiing "witches"? Is conflating diverse paths representative of Crowley’s approach?
Chapter 1 covers the New Age in general yet begins with the epigraph "Everything she touches, she changes, and everything she changes she touches," which Crowley sources as "Wiccan ritual chant celebrating female empowerment." This epigraph wording varies somewhat from what I learned and have sung, but you know, She changes everything she touches and everything She touches changes.(from Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, Harper & Row, 1979, p. 89)
So from the start, Crowley conflates, confuses, Goddess spirituality (and Paganism and Witchcraft) with New Age, a view that has been amply refuted by Jacqui Woodward-Smith in her article, "The Goddess vs. the New Age," in the first issue of Goddess Pages (Winter 2006, which you can access from the Goddess Pages Archives or directly here ,and by Monika Sjoo, in Return of the Dark/Light Mother or New Age Armageddon (Plain View 1999), and others.
In Crowley’s Introduction she says that there are "three common gender beliefs" in New Age culture:
(1) Women and men are essentially different from one another....(as in "difference feminism," where women are held up as superior because of innate spiritual and emotional sensibilities); (2) Women and men need to integrate their masculine and feminine sides to be whole, or to reach the goal of "divine androgyny"; (3) Women and men should move "beyond gender" to inhabit a spiritual plane devoid of these "earthly" distinctions.These beliefs are not those of Goddess spirituality, with the possible exception of recognizing a biological difference between men and women but without claims of women’s superiority, yet Crowley has no problem with tossing Goddess spirituality into the New Age pot. She sees women in New Age (most of whom are white, she says) and by extension, women in the Goddess movement, as appropriating, even "fetishizing" non-white cultures, especially "black" cultures.
Before we move on to her views of Goddess spirituality, I want to comment that I feel the use of "black" and "white" for skin color, in this book and elsewhere, polarizes us. Are most of us still thinking in "black and white" terms? If we really observe skin color, we can easily that none of us has white skin and none of us has black skin in a literal sense; we are all various shades of brown, from very light beige to very dark brown, a continuum of color, not a binary. Particularly with this subject matter, and most specifically with Goddess material, it would be more appropriate to talk in terms of cultures (using, when generalities are appropriate, terms such as African American and European American).
In this review, I’m going to focus mainly on Chapter 4: "The Structure of Prehistorical Memory in the American Goddess Movement," because that is the area with which I’m most familiar. I'm inserting results from a survey I undertook while contemplating how to fairly review this chapter. I wanted to get some objectivity into what I felt might be an overly subjective response on my part. I also felt it would be a start on collecting statistical data where no such reliable information exists and we are left to rely on people’s anecdotal impressions. The survey responses are anonymous and none of the respondents were aware of the exact relationship of the questions to the book’s text, although they did know they were related to this book. As far as I know, none of the respondents had access to the book. Respondents are from a geographically diverse group of women who have been involved in Goddess spirituality for at least several years, some for decades. The survey responses in this review are in this color in brackets, and are rounded to the nearest percentage.
The opening epigraph of Chapter 4 is from Barbara Ardinger’s 1992 book, A Woman’s Book of Rituals & Celebrations: "I bless the women of prehistory, the unnamed, the forgotten." Crowley twists this beautiful quote, as well as other material, into the accusation that women involved in the "American Goddess Movement (not some women, but according to her implication all such women) would prefer to live in prehistory rather than in the present.
In the chapter’s opening paragraph, discussing women’s response to their discontent in the 1970s with male-only God language, Crowley states:
Some women tried to reform the religions of their childhoodso far so good
others sought out alternatives to mainstream religion, such as yoga or Scientologynot sure about "yoga" as an alternative to mainstream religion. Does she mean hatha yoga, or some other type—it makes a difference, and where is the data substantiating her claim that women sought out Scientology because they were dissatisfied with all-male God talk?
and still others pursued Goddess worship, a spiritual practice in which women worship a female God often called the Great Mother. Goddess worship presumes that roughly 10,000 years ago women ruled the earth peacefully, and that in future time women will rule again.Notice how many times the word "worship" is used in this one sentence and a half. Also notice that after stating she is writing of "Goddess worship" she needs to define what is "worshipped" as "a female God." In the full sentence, she goes on to use the term "ruled" and "rule" a total misnomer when used about what Goddessians believe. Participants in Goddess spirituality notably do not believe that women "ruled" during prehistory (or any other time). Precisely because of the MISCONCEPTION that what preceded patriarchy ("rule of the fathers’) is its opposite or its reverse, most of those in the "Goddess Movement," especially in North America, avoid using the term "matriarchy" ("rule of the mothers") when discussing cultures in prehistory. Instead we use terms such as matrist, matrix, mother-right and matrifocal to describe not only prehistoric societies, but also ones that still exist today . Based on archeological and anthropological work, what we do assume is that when goddesses were part of a society before the encroachment of violent cultures that have since been defined as patriarchal, the status of women and men was more equal. And in cultures where woman and men are more equal, and in which deity is personified as female, archeology and anthropology substantiates that civilizations are more peaceful. (How many times do we have to explain this?) Riane Eisler in The Chalice and the Blade (Harper & Row 1987) famously calls these "partnership" societies. and invented the work "gylany" (a combination of the feminine prefix "gy" and the masculine prefix "an," linked with a "y") to describe them.
So, to say it one more time, those involved in Goddess spirituality don’t assert that women ever "ruled" over men or over cultures, and we don’t seek to "rule" in the future; we seek equality. In assessing the past, we also recognize (as apparently Crowley doesn't) that different cultures in varying geographical areas, at different times, may have had varying social structures. Crowley links her misinterpretation to an endnote praising Cynthia Eller’s questionable version of Goddess spirituality’s beginnings.
Throughout this chapter, as in the previous quote, Crowley repeatedly uses the term "worship, "worshipping," worshippers," when describing what women do in relation to Goddess, without explaining that many involved in Goddess spirituality don’t use this term, which can imply a lack of immanence and a hierarchy that they are trying to avoid. [In a multiple choice of unlimited answers, respondents completing the sentence "My relationship to Goddess(es) is one of": 41% answered "worship"; 38% "veneration;" 83% "honoring"; 86% "celebrating"; 48% "revering"; 97% studying/scholarship.]
The author moves on to one of her more absurd claims: that women involved in Goddess spirituality seek to live in prehistory rather than in the present. This is for her tied in with using "memory" rather than history. She claims that
present rituals are thought to be exactly like prehistorical ones, worshippers believe they experience prehistory itself through ritual.(italics hers)
To me this is a total misunderstanding of Goddess views and what goes on in Goddess ritual. We are not reconstructionists. We are, at least most of us, creating ritual and Goddess observance for today. Crowley seems to have gotten the information for this misconception from a 1987 book on shamanism by Michele Jamal, and a 1998 article in the journal Diacritics by Peter Ramadanovic. Crowley writes that "present Goddess communication takes them [Goddess worshippers] back to where they always want to go—prehistory." [To the question requiring a "yes" or "no" answer,"Do you agree with this statement: "Women involved in Goddess spirituality are more interested in prehistory than in the present and future," NONE 0% of respondents answered yes; all answered No.]
Crowley theorizes that this desire to go back to prehistory keeps Goddess women from working for women’s equality in the present:
Rather than leave the past behind and work for a "better" feminism now worshippers yearn for the community that once existed [in prehistory], and they do everything in their power to go back and revel in it.[Asked to pick one response to complete the statement, "Since becoming active in Goddess spirituality I am:" women participating in the poll responded: "less active in political feminism 7%; "more active in political feminism" 45%: "about as active as before" 50%: . IOW, 92% are as active or more active in political feminism as they were before.
She also claims that "Goddess worshippers argue that trauma of being separated from the Goddess erased all memory of prehistorical matriarchy, but that these memories can be recuperated." I have been involved in Goddess spirituality since the mid 1970s and have never heard such an argument. Her source for this apparently is Jean Houston , whom she calls a "Goddess psychologist," but who is actually well known as a founder of the Human Potential Movement.
Crowley also claims that "Goddess culture is an attempt to empower women as women outside the constraints of modern-day feminism." This is untrue as simply a glance at books by spiritual feminists and some Goddess blogs reveal that Goddessians express strong political feminist views and are involved in political (and environmental!) activism. Many, including the one writing this review, view their spiritual work as inseparable from political feminism. [Allowed unlimited choice, respondents completed the following: "I see Goddess spirituality as being: Related to political feminism 32%; Unrelated to political feminism 0% NONE; part of politcal feminism 82%]. What Goddessians and other spiritual feminists see is that equality in religion is a key to social and political equality for women. As long as religious beliefs that reinforce inequality are woven into our social policies and political systems, women cannot hope to achieve full, long-lasting equality. If nothing else has convinced people of this, events of the last decade or so, both in the US and worldwide, including current events in the US such as those impacting women’s health, demonstrate this clearly.
Crowley concludes that "women are not merely taking from the past, but never wanting to leave it." Our survey however, shows differently. In addition to the yes-no question several paragraphs above, which was 100% No, participants were asked to answer yes or no to the following: "The main interest of women involved in Goddess spirituality is connecting with prehistoric (neolithic) Goddesses: Yes 4%; No 96%). In an additional optional question, asked to complete the sentence "The most important aspect of connecting with prehistoric (neolithic) Goddess (es) is:" none of the respondents mentioned escaping back to or somehow remaining in prehistory, rather they speak of the relevance of history either personally or to today’s world, some in feminist terms. I’ve placed the responses to this item at the end of this review.
Another of Crowley’s contentions, at least as egregious, is that women involved in Goddess spirituality, whom she characterizes as "white," in personifying the divine as female are fetishizing black women. Where does she get this?
In a discussion of a famous quote from Ntozake Shange’s play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf: "I found god in myself and loved her fiercely," Crowley contends that the meaning of this is different for white and black women. She never quite tells how they are different, but implies that for white women "fantasies of the ever-present goddess in the past rely on a mammy-like, ever-loving dark goddess availability." I find use of the term "mammy-like" here distasteful; it can be considered a racial slur . I reject it not only on racial bias grounds but also because the stereotype of "mammies" notoriously included desexualization and goddesses traditionally are fully sexual. In addition, her use of the term "dark" displays a lack of understanding of how this term is used in Goddess and Pagan traditions. It does not indicate race or skin color, rather it indicates the chthonic, the connection to a mythic "underworld;" or, in particularly in psychology, to nature spirits; or deities whom one may access to work through shadow issues, that is, issues that need to be brought to full consciousness so we can work with (or deal with) them.
According to Crowley, Goddess "worshippers" are attracted to neolithic goddesses because they are "primitive"; by stereotypical extension, this means, to her, that "white" Goddess "worshippers" are fantasizing prehistoric goddesses as having "black" skin color, or as being African. [Responding to a multiple choice statement: "In my mind prehistoric (neolithic) Goddesses have:" responses were: "white" skin 0%; black skin 0%; "brown" skin 3%; no particular skin color 31%; It depends on which Goddess we are talking about 66%].
Crowley uses "primitive" and "primal" as synonyms, which they are not; primal=original, primary; primitive has come to have a negative connotation of not being well- or highly-developed, being unsophisticated and crude. She claims that "White Goddess worshippers take on the primitive body by following certain practices" and cites instructions to assume the pose of a prehistoric Goddess to internalize the Goddess and to feel how prehistoric women felt. Though I don’t doubt that this exercise is done by some women involved in Goddess spirituality—in fact I think that assuming particularly powerful physical positions of females, human or divine, can be kinesthetically instructive—Crowley’s implication that this type of exercise as a way to connect with neolithic Goddess(es) predominates Goddess spirituality does not appear to be correct, either in my personal experience or from the poll data. [People who answered "yes" to the second yes-no question were asked how they define "connecting" with the Goddess(es), allowing unlimited choice: 67% responded "Listening to Goddess"; 67% responded "Talking with Goddess"; 0% NONE responded "Taking a physical position (standing, sitting, etc.) similar to the way to Goddess is portrayed"; 33% chose "Dancing the way Goddess dances"; 67% chose "Channeling or 'drawing down' Goddess.]
The exercise Crowley discusses apparently comes from Hallie Inglehart Austen’s 1990 book, The Heart of the Goddess and is connected to an picture of "Bird-Headed Snake Goddess, Africa, c. 4,000 BCE," which Crowley also includes in her book. This same Goddess is shown elsewhere as white , and light brown on a site that notes that such statues have been found not only in Africa (specifically Egypt), but also in Asia and Europe. I point this out not because I'm questioning that this Goddess was shown as black in antiquity, but to show that she is also imaged in other colors. Clearly, not all prehistoric goddesses are shown as black, nor have they all been found in Africa. Inglehart Austen herself lists some of these in the table of contents of her book: Willendorf (c. 25,000 BCE, found in Austria—the Austrian government issued a stamp in her honor a few years ago); Laussel, Europe, c. 20,000 BCE; Ixchel, North American, 8th Century BCE; Spider the Creatrix, North America c.1300 CE. On her website, Inglehart Austen shares images of neolithic from the Creation section of The Heart of the Goddess , which show, in addition to the bird-headed snake Goddess, goddesses of a wide variety of colors and ethnicities. There is also a Goddess figure similar to the bird-headed snake goddess in the Egyptian collection of the Brooklyn Museum that is brown from waist up and white below. One of the oldest works in the museum, it is made of terracotta. The museum information notes:"small female figures painted on Pre-dynastic [Egyptian] vessels appear to be goddesses, because they are always larger than the male 'priests' shown with them." Crowley fails to take into account what these alternate versions of Goddesses show, that the color of the Goddess statue may be unrelated to skin color. It may be related to the material available to the people who made the statues, such as terracotta or wood (of various colors). Or related to the function of the Goddess. This is more easily seen in later goddesses because we have written material about them from their own time. One example is the Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist Goddess Tara, who is depicted in a variety of colors, depending on her characteristics. The most widely known are White Tara and Green Tara, but She is also shown as red, blue, and other colors. Clearly these are not intended as human skin colors.
The inclusion of non-black neolithic Goddesses in the contemporary Goddess observance would seem to negate Crowley’s contention that Goddess-honoring white women are inordinately focused on black or African goddesses. Nevertheless, Crowley maintains that in their attachment to neolithic Goddesses, white women are "fetishizing" black women. She goes on to see this fixation/fetish as "homoerotic" because the deity is embodied and the women identify with this embodiment. I’d like to ask, if all women are engaging in homoerotic activity by "worshipping" a deity of their own gender, are all Christian men worshipping Jesus (who is also embodied) taking part in homoerotic activity? And what about men who "worship" goddesses (of which there are a considerable number, a fact not acknowledged in this book) and women who worship Jesus? Are they taking part in hetero-erotic activity?
Because Goddess is divine embodied as female, and because we in Goddess spirituality don’t separate body and spirit, there may be an erotic element to some aspects of Goddess celebration at certain times for some people. And for some women, this may be homoerotic. But it is an overgeneralization to apply this to all Goddess women. If I were to label it (which I’m not particularly anxious to do), I would say that it’s more likely to be autoerotic. But, hey, maybe that’s just me. At any rate, so what? Perhaps a better way to phrase this phenomenon is that all non-exploitative varieties of sex can be experienced as gateways to the divine/Goddess (or, as in the Charge of the Goddess, "all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals").
In the last chapter, "Conclusion: Is New Age Culture the New Feminism?" Crowley favorably acknowledges the contributions of Z Budapest and Dianic Wicca to the combining of spirituality and political feminism. Why isn’t this included in the chapter on the "Goddess Movement" to which Z and Dianic Witchcraft are integral? Crowley also discusses, in this "conclusion" the combination of politics and spirituality in African American Womanism. As she described it, this is not very different from what exists in Goddess spirituality, (although the specific politics may differ somewhat due to some difference in the importance of some issues to the two groups). Why was she unable to see the similarity?
I’ve already briefly discussed Chapter 1: "Touched by an Angel: The Feminization of the New Age American Culture." Other chapters are:
2: "The Indian Way Is What’s Inside: Gender and the Appropriation of American Indian Religion in New Age Culture," which discusses sweat lodges, Carlos Casteneda, Lynn Andrews, and Mary Summer Rain, and "white" women’s "fetishization" of the "American Indian."
3: "Gender on a Plate: The Calibration of Identity in American Macrobiotics," which Crowley says she includes, though she realizes its popularity has waned since its heyday in the 1960s, because of its relationship to the current interest in organic foods and to the repression of women through emphasis on diet.
5. "New Age Soul:The Gendered Coding of New Age Spirituality on The Oprah Winfrey Show" follows the chapter on the "Goddess movement." Crowley sees Oprah as "a spiritual leader in her own right," and describes her "embrace of New Age leaders" and her appeal to white women.
*Additional Survey note: The survey was taken between June 30 and July 2, 2011 on surveymonkey.com. Twenty-nine women participated. All responses are anonymous. When asked to identify skin color or ethnicity (without prompts), 19 identified as white, Caucasian, or European American; 6 identified as other ethnicities or skin colors; none identified as black or African American. Three did not respond to this question.
Responses to the question with a write-in reponse, " What is the most important aspect of connecting with prehistoric (neolithic) Goddess(es)?:
--"Learning a new way to connect with the divine."
--"Learning about how women in the past, free of patriarchal brainwashing & constraints, saw themselves, their deity, their world & their religion & mindset so that we can bring a new but old tradition, world view & Goddesses back to life & save ourselves & the planet from the destruction & evil that patriarchy has created."
--"they offer images of female integrity in a cultural context that is largely devoid of such knowledge"
--"learning about the history of Goddess worship and matrilineal societies"
--"letting the past inform the present and future"
--"reclaiming myself - valuing woman"
--"Knowing that society wasn't always as it is now."
--"Understanding the history we are being presented with as in archeological sites and artifacts."
--"Basic historical knowledge."
--"not having to completely reinvent the wheel"
--"Seeing their images"
--"The profound sense of beauty, mystery and continuity"