Women's Spirituality Scholars Speak Out:
A Report on the 7th Annual Gender & Archeology Conference at
By Marguerite Rigoglioso
The purpose of this document is to provide a report, from my perspective, on issues relevant to
women's spirituality that emerged from the seventh annual Gender and Archaeology conference,
which took place at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, CA, October 4-5, 2002.
Perhaps the main event, from the women's spirituality standpoint, is that Cynthia Eller was publicly
and privately challenged by several members of the women's spirituality field about the content
and style of both her presentation at the conference and her book The Myth of Patriarchal Prehistory:
Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future. The title of her conference presentation was
"Religious Uses of Prehistoric Material Culture: Female Figurines and the Feminist Spirituality
Eller's presentation built upon the themes of her book, which is a scathing attack of some of the
scholarship that has been germinal to the field of women's spirituality. In her presentation, she
briefly asserted that we cannot claim that female figurines found throughout Paleolithic and
Neolithic Europe represent goddesses because we often do not know what the precise contexts
of these figurines were within archeological settings, and because many of them were found in
rubbish heaps. [No mention was given to the fact that many of these figurines were found in
obvious sacred contexts, such as graves, shrines, and temples.]
Eller went on to imply that given that we have no basis for claiming that these figurines are, in fact,
goddesses, their use by contemporary Western women for what she terms "religious" purposes is
naive, and, worse, faintly ridiculous. By showing slides of the various ways in which female figurines
have been reproduced and sold commercially, and by maintaining a sarcastic tone throughout her
presentation, she presented what a number of us at the conference felt was a lampooning of large
segments of current women's spirituality movement.
Moreover, Eller attempted to discredit various scholars in the field bycalling their interpretations of
prehistory "fictions" and by implying that differing interpretations they have made on one particular
archeological artifact indicates that the field is rife with shoddy scholarship and a kind of "anything
goes" mentality. [No mention was made of the fact that the traditional archeological literature is
filled will similarly diverse, and often contradictory, interpretations of finds.] Virtually everything that
came up on her slide screen, from ads for goddess pilgrimages and slide lectures, to figurine replicas,
to visionary art work inspired by ancient female figurines, was treated in what many of us felt was a
Max Dashu Takes the Floor
After Eller's presentation on Friday evening, Max Dashu (whose own work was one of Eller's targets)
stood up to challenge her briefly for ridiculing the Goddess movement in a way that would be
unacceptable for any other religious group. She said that, for example, although the weight of
archaeological evidence increasingly disproves Biblical accounts of Joshua's invasion or the "united
monarchy" of David and Solomon, Torah believers are not attacked for embracing historical fictions.
Dashu's main point, however, was that a systematic global study of the controversial female figurines
has yet to be undertaken. Those who interpret them as goddesses may have been faulted for
inattention to their archaeological contexts, but until recently archaeologists failed to report those
contexts, or even the dates and sites where they were found.
She said that it's a question not just for Balkan finds, but for finds on a global scale that exhibit
comparable patterns, such as those of the Valdivia and Puerto Hormigas cultures. Female figurines
have simply not been accorded the careful attention given to "masculine" spheres, such as tool
assemblages. Much more work needs to be done in this arena, but certainly women's spirituality
scholarship is not simply based on "fantasy." Given that it was quite late into the evening, there was
no further opportunity for discussion that night.
[I highly recommend Max's excellent critique of Eller's book. The earlier edition (2000) is online at
http://www.suppressedhistories.net/articles/eller.html and a more comprehensive version is
available by mail (check or money order to Max Dashu at P.O. Box 3511, Oakland CA 94609 USA)
for $7 plus $2. shipping.]
The Explosive Second Day of the Conference
The next day, when discussion opened after the morning's panel presentations, I immediately moved
to continue the dialogue from the evening before. I stated that "one of the presentations" from the
night before was not in the kind of spirit of feminism that I would want to be a part of in the academy
or in the Gender and Archeology group.
I said that I felt a statement needed to be made at this point, because this work had been out in the
public eye for some time now and many people in the women's spirituality field have been disturbed by
it. Like Dashu, I challenged this work [i.e., Eller's] on two counts: 1) its complete dismissal of the entire
body of women's spirituality scholarship; and 2) the derision with which the attack has been perpetrated.
I requested not that everybody must agree on viewpoints, but that if this kind dialogue is going to
happen, that it happen with respect, that the derisive minimalizing and trivializing tone be dropped, and
that we actually have a conversation in which we can discuss data and in which we ALL openly reveal what
our biases and viewpoints are, in terms of ontology, epistemology, and methodology. I said it was
important that we have a dialog that did not simply dismiss an entire emerging and, frankly, cutting-edge
body of scholarship being produced by women. Otherwise, I said, we were just going to be resorting to
The room immediately became completely galvanized, revealing that this issue had been present for
everyone, regardless of where they stood on it, and that it was a highly charged one about which people
had much to say.
It became clear to me that there was much division along ideological lines, and it was my distinct impression,
based on the nature of some of these comments, that many of the people who seemed to be critical of
women's spirituality as a field had, in fact, read little or nothing of the scholarship in this field, apart from
what Eller has offered in her book. One scholar even went so far as to say that she equated people involved
with women's spirituality with "fundamentalists" [without acknowledging that the prevailing positivist, scientistic,
post-modern epistemological framework in the academy ALSO IS A BIAS and can be adhered to in a fascistic
manner, as many of us were witnessing].
Eller herself responded, and although she maintained her stance of critique, she did acknowledge that her
derisive style perhaps was not entirely appropriate.
A few people from the women's spirituality field individually approached Eller afterward to continue the
dialogue. I personally had a conversation with her in which I told her that I did find her book valuable in
certain ways, in that it has inspired me to be even more careful about my scholarship and assumptions, but I
suggested to her that she perhaps update her own reading in this area, as many new and nuanced pieces of
work are emerging as we all continue to grapple with the questions.
One Large Step for Women's Spirituality
The events of this conference, to my mind, represent a significant step on the part of women's spirituality
scholars to assert the legitimacy of our field and claim our rightful place at the academic dinner party. This is
one of the first times that we have worked together as a group to stand up for ourselves and confront the
hostility being directed at us.
The attack that is being leveled against women's spirituality by Eller and others is purported to have the
neutral agenda of keeping the academy free of inaccurate and ideologically biased scholarship. However, its
larger and much more political agenda is to uphold the hegemony of a very limited, narrow, positivist-oriented
ontological, epistemological, and methodological framework.
In other words, the academy is attempting to repress the expanded ways of knowing, seeing, and interpreting
that women's spirituality scholars are bringing to the table, and it is using one of patriarchy's favored methods
to do so: the silencing tactic of scorn. Whether this kind of repression is being carried out by women or men
academics, it is all part of the same patriarchal paradigm. Of course, this is the very paradigm that women's
spirituality scholarship is trying to expose and transform. So the attack has been particularly virulent -- involving
the even more vicious tactic of professional discrediting when scorn alone won't do -- because we pose a threat
to the reigning paradigm.
Clearly, responsible and accurate scholarship is everyone's responsibility and goal. As scholars in the field of
women's spirituality, we are continuing to expand our knowledge in a wide range of disciplines so that our work
can be as informed and accurate as possible. Now it is also time for us to make a collective effort to call the
academy on the carpet for its ideologically motivated repression of expanded modes of inquiry, and to assert
that the denigration of our work cease, so that we can all move onto more constructive dialogue.
Synchronistically, the presentation that Joan Marler delivered at the conference was all about the iconography,
mythology, and history of the Gorgon in Europe. As she described the story of how Athena cooperates with
patriarchy to cut off what I might call her "twin sister's" head -- really, an aspect of herself -- it was clear to all
of us that we were participating in microcosm fashion in this great myth here in the academy, where so many
Athenean women were taking great relish in cooperating with patriarchy to slice the heads off their Medusan
sisters -- we who, through the body of women's knowledge and history that we are exploring, carry the
archetype for the element of chthonic wisdom that has been excised from much of Western culture.
Marler ended her presentation with a statement that, in the end, the Medusa prevails almost in a joyful
fashion, because she knows who she is. "And when we know our full powers, generative AND destructive,
"Marler concluded pointedly, "we don't have to attack anybody, do we?"
Indeed, scholars in the women spirituality community do not need to resort to attack tactics or stoop to the
paradigm of power struggle in order to assert our right to be a part of the academy and have our work treated
with respect. We need instead to use our own Medusan energies responsibly, channeling them into the continued
pursuit of knowledge and the naming of repression and abuse wherever we see it directed at our field.
In doing so, we will be participating in the great cosmic surgery to sew Medusa's head back onto her with her body,
to reunite her with her twin sister Athena, and to incorporate their creativity and wisdom back into Western culture.
I believe that as we continue this work with dignity and dedication, the derisive tones of Eller and others will start to
ring more and more hollow. As that happens, a more constructive scholarly dialogue will begin to be heard.
I call upon women's spirituality scholars to continue to rally together and speak up on behalf of the field. We are
gaining momentum and are assembling in numbers too big to be ignored now. Let's take advantage of that and
keep taking steps to move our field into its rightful place in the academy.
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