Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism, 1945-1990

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Shai Feraro
  • London: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , June
     2020.
     321 pages.
     $71.68.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9783030466954.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Shai Feraro makes a significant contribution to histories of modern Western spirituality in Women and Gender Issues in British Paganism, 1945–1990, his study of the interconnections between mid-20th-century second-wave feminism and magical-religious traditions. Feraro’s book provides a welcome addition to historical analyses of modern forms of witchcraft. Unlike other histories that have tended to focus on the extent to which Wicca and similar traditions are perceived to offer a continuous link with the past, Feraro addresses an underresearched theme: how countercultural magical-religious practices were shaped in wider social and political contexts. Through a comprehensive range of archival data and oral-history interviews, the author demonstrates how the women’s liberation movement, radical feminism, and goddess spirituality had an immediate and long-lasting impact on British Wicca and allied traditions in the 1970s and 1980s.

The early sections of the book sketch the background and rise of Wicca in Britain from occult Victorian Britain to its spread to the United States. However, the primary purpose of these sections is to provide a foundation for more detailed accounts of how North American Dianic and feminist witchcraft was taken up by burgeoning goddess spirituality and matriarchy study groups in the United Kingdom during the 1970s and 1980s. Influential writers such as Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, and Susan Brownmiller are shown to have been absorbed into the beliefs and practices of British witchcraft. These works were amplified by explicitly feminist magical groups established by Zsuzsanna Budapest and Starhawk in California, who used the notion of witchcraft and creative ritual to challenge dominant patriarchal structures. Feraro explores the expanding networks between political and spiritual developments, such as the Greenham Common women’s peace movement, the London occult scene, and Glastonbury. He traces the dissemination of progressive ideas through summer festivals, conferences, and workshops, where visiting American writers and practitioners were welcomed. Relevant themes include how sex and gender were constituted in 20th-century witchcraft and goddess spirituality, as well as identifying some of their more explicitly political dimensions.

One of the most significant contributions is Feraro’s inclusion of countercultural zines alongside mainstream published literature. These primary sources offer some fascinating glimpses into the dissemination of radical ideas generated by second-wave feminism and political activism. Neither witchcraft nor feminism is a unified or coherent discourse, and the use of detailed archival and interview work provides valuable accounts of views that were contested as well as embraced. This is particularly evident in the survey of responses by Wiccan authors to the women’s liberation movement from the 1960s, some of whom are less enthusiastic about the role of feminism in witchcraft. Claims that feminism was seen as divisive by goddess spirituality groups in the 1970s and 1980s, or that feminist witchcraft was a minor strand, are key assumptions that Feraro sets out to dispel as he traces the cross-fertilization between shared interest groups and their political motivations. One chapter is devoted to case studies that outline influential women (including Monica Sjöö, Asphodel Long, and Shan Jayran) who variously brought British Wicca, druidry, and other neopagan traditions together with feminism and goddess spirituality to generate creative contributions to theology and ritual practices.

As Feraro sets out in his introduction, experiences of gender have been central to the development of Wicca and associated pagan traditions, often perceived as a more egalitarian alternative to mainstream religions. The principal time frame in this publication is bookmarked by 1960s second-wave feminist principles of sex-based class oppression and more performative ideas of gender ideology that began to be established in the 1990s. What were seen as progressive ideas about sex equality were manifested in many ritual practices as gender polarity, a concept many 21st-century practitioners consider static and rooted in sex stereotypes. Some of the women at the heart of these feminist debates have more recently been criticized for their adherence to separatist rituals, which is explained through distinctions between radical and cultural feminism. This detailed account of the political and social arena of feminist spirituality and magical-religious traditions between the 1960s and the 1980s provides some much-needed context to how one views the past and its relation to the present.

The emphasis of the latter sections is on how British forms of spirituality took up feminism. Unfortunately some important analytical points about feminism and gender politics are reduced to footnotes. There are sound narratological reasons for this, although it means the reader is required to have a reasonable knowledge of the ebbs and flows of Western second-wave feminism. Obviously, one book cannot address everything, but while this enriches our understanding of modern witchcraft through contradictory factions in magical-religious subcultures it risks simplifying feminist histories. The clear distinctions the author makes between radical and cultural feminism are helpful analytically, but may be more apparent through a historical lens. The gloss of “gender issues” is disappointing: it is not always obvious exactly what issues gender poses. At times feminism and gender are treated as synonyms, and gender used as a shorthand for “women.” Overall though, the close attention to the incorporation of different feminist discourses into modern witchcraft during this period means the book provides a valuable account of political activism.

Feraro has written an accessible academic publication that documents a crucial period of modern British spirituality and witchcraft traditions undergoing significant changes that respond to changing social and political contexts. It has a resounding relevance to debates today and will be of interest to a wider audience. His research reveals creative interconnected movements focused on political change and spiritual transformation, often through grassroots and countercultural activism. This volume provides a valuable platform to build and develop these analyses, and I thoroughly recommend it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Helen Cornish is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Date of Review: 
November 2, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shai Feraro is an adjunct lecturer at Oranim College of Education, Israel. He has published two edited collections with Palgrave in the past: Contemporary Alternative Spiritualities in Israel (2016); and Magic and Witchery in the Modern West (2019).

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