– Review by Dr Kathleen McPhillips, Author of Popular Spiritualities: The Politics of Contemporary Enchantment
– Review by Willow Pearson, Integral Relational Therapeutic Arts
– Review by Keith Price, Integral Institute Australia
– Review by William Harryman, The Masculine Heart & Integral Options Cafe
– Review by Dr Ivy Ireland, Author of Incidental Complications
– Review by Cartia Wollen, Architect
– Review by Gerard Bruitzman, Swinburne University of Technology
This is a really great book. It makes a really important contribution to feminist theory, to integral theory and to studies of mythology. It does so by re-positioning the heroine in the dominant mythological account led by Joseph Campbell to one of central importance; questioning the identity and meaning of ‘woman’ via feminist theory; and then taking this into integral theory as a way of finding a new articulation of woman as divine and heroine. Its lucid, well argued, expansive and deeply wise. It extends our understandings of the importance of mythology in understanding women’s particular identity in a sophisticated scholarly engagement. I heartily recommend it.
In her new book The Evolutionary Journey of Woman: from the Goddess to Integral Feminism, Sarah Nicholson enters into a mutually enriching exchange between Integral theory and Feminist theory, which deepens the embodiment and contribution of each through their union. Sarah provides a nuanced, contemporary vision for “becoming the female face of Unitive development, both wholly beyond gender, and wholly present and realized as the divine in feminine form.” She clarifies her vision, asserting “women’s practice must acknowledge gender specific hurdles on the path” and by foregrounding that “for woman as heroine a central problematic on the path has been her self-abnegation.”
Without essentializing the feminine as woman, or woman as feminine, Sarah opens a space for quickening and recognizing women’s spiritual fulfillment in advocating that “A female genealogy of women who have undertaken this journey, and have revealed the horizon of the divine in themselves, is essential to women’s journey of becoming.” Sarah’s work, providing a non-dual, postconventional reading of Innana, and insights of Tara, for instance, contributes a deeply needed integral chapter to this forever unfolding, inspired female genealogy.
Sarah’s eloquent and poetic voice sounds the heroine’s call: “Just as the divine horizon emerges from the genealogical process of bringing together the many faces and paths of female divinity, with clothes cut from the Integral stage, so too the heroine’s journey emerges from an exploration of the dimensions of women’s history to inscribe a contemporary symbolic, sacred and developmental pathway for the heroine of the present.” Hearing her voice and taking up this call makes a cosmos of difference on the path of truly unitive consciousness.
Willow Pearson, MFT, MT-BC, Psy.D. candidate
Integral Relational Therapeutic Arts
Sarah Nicholson’s “The Evolutionary Journey of Woman: From the Goddess to Integral Feminism” is an ambitious endeavour, pulling together as it does many disciplines ranging from studies of mythology, various strands of feminist theory, both individual and cultural developmentaltheory, psychology, archaeology and, most importantly, integral theory. This she does with notable success, considering the tensions inherent to the project, which are considerable, and which this reviewer, as a long-time integrally informed man, also felt within himself.
As Nicholson discusses in detail, other authors such as Maureen Murdock have raised and drawn out the theme of ‘the heroine’s journey’ as a contrast to ‘the hero’s journey’, as set out magisterially by Joseph Campbell, but few can have pursued it with the subtlety and tenacity that she has. In the process of developing this theme she develops critiques of both certain tendencies within feminist theory and also perceived ‘androcentric’ biases within integral theory, most particularly within the work of Ken Wilber. I find the former rather more compelling than the latter, of which more shortly.
One of the central themes of the book is the need for the heroine’s journey to centrally involve the move out of the ‘village’ of conventional society where women have traditionally been required, or at least strongly pressured, to adopt self-abnegating roles in service to their families and husbands. Nicholson stresses that this move is attended with significantly greater difficulty than the corresponding move in the ‘hero’s journey’, often conceptualised as the break from the primary maternal bond so as to prove himself in the quest and so grow into mature manhood:
“I argue that for women as heroine a central problematic on the path has been her self-abnegation. To overcome this, the heroine must confront the Conventional image of the ‘nice girl’ and ‘good wife’ … It is in claiming the right to her post-Conventional, post-patriarchal eccentricity that she leaves the village andenters the forest to claim her true self.” p.164
It would be a mistake, though, to suppose that this move into more mature selfhood for women must involve the sense of dissociation and alienation so often noted as the characteristic pathology of the masculine developmental path. Indeed, Nicholson notes that post-conventionality need not have this consequence for either sex:
“The Conventional masculine ideal of the separative masculine self is surpassed and out-grown as development moves into the post-conventional realm.”Also ‘Growth … requires the reintegration of the communal modalities marked as feminine. The later stages “are associated with greater nurturance, trust, interpersonal sensitivity, valuing of individuality, psychological mindedness, responsibility and inner control”’ pp. 166-7
These are very important themes indeed, with enormous implications for the parenting, education and socialisation of both girls and boys, though of course the focus here is on girls and women, and the book repays attention amply for this reason alone. I do have some criticisms, however, as alluded to earlier. First, however, I note the very important point, surfaced after extensive exposition and discussion of various feminist positions, that a simple reversal of patriarchal conceptualisations will not serve:
“Radical feminist philosophy has been particularly guilty of a strategic dualism which responds to the patriarchal symbolic by establishing and expelling the male and masculine as Other… As long as the practice of creating and projecting an Other continues, dualism continues unabated. Whether employed consciously or unconsciously, duality denies our intimacy and interconnectedness with the Other… In continuing through and beyond the process of deconstructing God (and without suggesting a return to Good Old God), it remains necessary to acknowledge the sacredness of male bodies, the mind, agency and the masculine divine, alongside the feminine divine, the female body, communion, feelings and earth.”
Having made this critical point, Nicholson goes on to explore the notion of the female archetype of the Self, various ‘third wave’ feminist theories and, finally, integral theory, as most influentially set out by Ken Wilber. While largely endorsing Wilber’s integral framework as ‘the most appropriate’ for the exploration of feminist consciousness, she does have some criticisms. She demurs from Wilber’s endorsement of Jürgen Habermas’ views that ‘social labour’ started with the organisation of male hunting parties, and that the shift from hominid bands to Homo sapiens was bound up with the ‘familialization of the male’ as father. As well, she very much disagrees that men and women could be said to have ‘co-created’ patriarchal society. I will take these issues in turn.
Nicholson points out, rightly in my view, that the paucity of material evidence for social arrangements for hominid and early Homo sapiens societieslends itself to the imposition of broadly ideological master narratives which cannot be easily refuted, for that very reason. One of these is, arguably, ‘Man the Hunter’. The historical circumstance that artefacts of hunting tend to be better preserved in the archaeological record than those used in foraging does make it plausible that women actually had a much greater hand at that time in what Habermas calls ‘social labour’ than he allows. It may also be just too neat and suspiciously in line with easy nineteenth century assumptions to suppose that the development of the role of father can be used as a convenient delineator of the emergence of ‘true’ human society. It is fair, nevertheless, to point out that neither of these points is in any way crucial for Wilber’s argument, as Nicholson herself notes:
Wilber’s presentation of prehistoric evidence is littered with ‘just so’ knots of assumed knowledge with regard to gender. This homogeny is at odds with his Integralmulti-perspectival methodology.
Parenthetically, it might also be added that the role of the father – at least in monogamy – probably properly crystallised much later than Habermas and Wilber suggest – around the end of the Upper Palaeolithic, when multiple lines of evidence suggest that the role of the male in reproduction was finally understood, possibly as a result of observation of domesticated dogs. (See Peter Watson: The Great Divide,Ch.7) This coincides with the beginning florescence of ‘Goddess’ cultures in the Old World, a circumstance that probably deserves much closer consideration by all scholars of the time, regardless of their predilections. In this context, Nicholson’s critique of Gimbutas’ rather extreme version of ‘Great Goddess’ theory is salutary.
There is no more charged issue around feminist theory than the nature of patriarchy: how it arose, what kept or keeps it going and what was or is required to end it. Thus it is no surprise that this is one of the trickiest areas of Nicholson’s argument, and one where I am not altogether in accord. For context, it seems fairly clear that in the Old Worldsometime in the late ‘Mythic’ period and continuing strongly into the ‘Mythic – Rational’ phase of civilisation, control of the ‘means of production’ and social power more generally passed increasingly into male hands, where beforehand there is evidence of a more even power distribution. It is fairly clear that emerging technologies such as heavy ploughing, metallurgy, domestication of cattle and horses and the like put a premium on male physical strength and contributed strongly to restricting women to more ‘domestic’ roles than previously. Accompanying this were laws, social attitudes and finally theologies and philosophies which assigned women secondary status and roles in society, as ‘lesser’ humans.Thus was the practice and theory of patriarchy born.
Wilber argues that this state of affairs was ‘co-created’ by men and women, in that, for instance, it was not in women’s interests to undertake heavy ploughing, in contrast to the hoeing practices of the earlier horticultural stage, due to increased rates of miscarriage. (Although he does not say so, similar arguments may well be applied to such activities as metallurgy and horse and cattle husbandry.)Nicholson does not agree, because the nature of patriarchy has deprived women of the social power required for equal co-creation. It is true that that women exert power at certain levels in conventional society, but ‘[Wilber’s] theory fails to address the broader context in which voluntaristic processes are framed by coercive ones.’
This is a tricky issue, and perhaps somewhat of a moot point. Nevertheless it seems to me that Nicholson’s critique of Wilber oversteps the mark somewhat. For instance, she allows ‘merit’ to Wilber’s argument that “[F]orms of oppression and subjugation…have to be judged, not against today’s structures of consciousness, but against what could have been otherwise at a given previous structure”, but nevertheless insists that ‘it needs to be contextualised within a broader picture’, in which equal co-creation was not possible for women into the twentieth century, the clear implication being that freedom from oppression and subjugation was possible but withheld .
I’m not so sure. It is of the nature of ideology that it provides a post facto rationalisation for already existing states of affairs, which is typically not seen as such by the ideologist, for the very important reason that they are embedded in the relevant world view and see the ideology as just an exposition of how the world actually is. Consequently it can often be hopeless to berate them for not seeing how oppressive their ideology is, as many people have discovered when talking to religious fundamentalists. There is a very real sense in which early forms of mental rationality had to take forms that we see as ideological, and some of these have proved to be very durable in sections of the world population. It is probably futile to dispute about when rationality became mature enough to move past patriarchal ideology. I tend myself to agree with Wilber that it did so (and does) more or less when it was (and is), though Nicholson and others disagree. This is not an issue which will be readily and quickly resolved.
Moreover, I should not finish on this note. Nicholson has done us a great service in synthesising so much material from feminist, integral, developmental and other studies, as part of the vital modern project of articulating the much neglected and undervalued experiences and understandings of women, without which no human flowering is even conceivable. The project of truly integral feminism is as vital as it is challenging to all of us, as it puts in question all our traditional gender stereotypes and causes us to enquire ever more deeply into the meaning of freedom and enlightenment for both men and women. A mature feminism like Nicholson’s in which men are no longer the problematic ‘other’ but very much partners in the development of a synthesis in both theory and practice which is liberational for all of us is a truly important development. Let the journey continue!
When I was 20 years old or so, I began reading the Collected Works of C.G. Jung on the recommendation of an art history professor who correctly intuited my affinity for Jung’s approach to psycho-spirituality. As an adjunct, I also discovered (again) the work of Joesph Campbell, who was the editor of The Portable Jung, one of the better introductions to the writings of Jung, grouped thematically. I was previously familiar with Campbell’s work from his PBS series with Bill Moyers (based on his, The Power of Myth) in the 1980s.
The parallels between Jung’s model of psychological individuation and Campbell’s model of the monomyth took me back to Campbell’s work, especially The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Bollingen Series, No. 17), which then took me back to the work of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner.
In essence, the hero’s myth, which Campbell called the monomyth, is a symbolic narrative of initiation, a process that can be broken down into three stages – separation (from family, community, previous identity), [crossing the threshold in answer to “the call”], initiation (physical and psychological trials, often involving a confrontation with the divine feminine and a need to find atonement with the father), [decision to take the gifts acquired back to the world or not], and return (bringing the “boon” bestowed or earned back to the world, sharing the gift with others, no longer fearing death).
Within those three larger movements, Campbell identified 17 individual stages for the whole process – stages that are common to many (if not most) of the world’s best known hero’s quests.
One thing you may have noticed, however, is that this model is distinctly masculine. While Campbell occasionally made reference to the monomyth applying to women as well, there is little evidence of this in his work.
The question is this: What does the evolutionary journey (individuation) of woman look like? Can her story be framed within this same structure, or is there a unique path that women follow in their own transformational process?
As she explored the areas of mythology, religion, and spirituality, she discovered the “deeply androcentric nature of these worlds.” In her book, Nicholson seeks to find and follow the heroine, to discover and share her story and to “explore woman’s evolving relationship with what it is to be human.”
Her chapters (2 and 3) on the history of feminism are very instructive for readers who are not familiar with this material – and few of us outside of academic feminism read most of the authors she references. They also provide a solid foundation for her later explorations of a uniquely heroine-oriented myth and a critical framework for her deconstruction of gender in Ken Wilber’s integral theory.
Inanna and the Descent to the Underworld
The myth she feels drawn toward is one of the oldest human myths, the Sumerian myth of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and goddess of lust, love, fertility, and warfare. However, it’s important to note that she is not the goddess of marriage. Her domain is lust and she is associated with extramarital sex and affairs, and she can often be found in taverns seeking the adventure of new sexual partners. The Babylonian epic of “Gilgamesh” also makes reference to Inanna’s well-known disregard for her lovers (after the act).
Nicholson understand’s Inanna’s narrative as a classic hero’s tale, or heroine in this case. Her story was the genesis for her book, and even though she chose to expand the study beyond Inanna’s myth, she felt pulled back to the myth.
One of her best known myths is “Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld.” Staying true to her nature, when Inanna is rescued from the Underworld, she must choose someone to replace her there. The first few people they come upon are all mourning servants, but then they come upon her husband, Dumuzi, who is not mourning at all (far from it), and she chooses him to go with the demons and take her place in the Underworld.
Any effort to analyze the goddess figure in history requires discussing and critiquing the work of the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. Despite her popularity among lay readers (especially in New Age goddess movements), archaeologists and anthropologists have offered harsh and thorough criticism of her Goddess Hypothesis. Gimbutas’ main idea is that all of the world’s variety of goddess figures can be traced back to a single neolithic goddess or divine feminine figure. Further, she contends that this period of “peaceful, matrilineal, agricultural and primarily sedentary culture of Mythic Old Europe” ended with the invasion of nomadic herders who brought with them domesticated horses and lethal weapons. According to Gimbutas, these invaders brought to Europe “myths of conquering warrior hero gods” (p. 105).
Aside from the vast criticism of her model in archeological and interpretive grounds (which Nicholson spends a couple of pages outlining), there is also the issue of the pre/trans fallacy (an idea developed by Ken Wilber) in assigning trans-rational capacities to a pre-rational culture. An additional issue is that many anthropologists and archeologists believe that it was agriculture that ushered in the patriarchal dominance from which modern goddess movements seek to extricate themselves [see references: 1, 2, 3], not nomadic herders.
Nicholson uses Ken Wilber’s model of integral theory to underpin her larger project in this book. For this reader, the time spent on Wilber is the weakest part of the book (but I suspect this is less about the book and more about the seeming need for every book using integral theory to spend a couple of chapters explaining Wilber’s AQAL model, as if homage must be paid).
To be fair, Nicholson is perfectly willing to criticize the weaknesses in Wilber’s theory, and when it comes to sex and gender, there is a lot of room for criticism.
Jean Gebser and Jurgen Habermas, primary sources for Wilber’s integral model, also get their due from Nicholson. In chapter four, the author offers a thorough and cogent critique of Wilber’s (via Habermas) views on the division of work and gender roles in the “Magical” stage of human evolution.
The evidence seems relatively clear that early horticultural societies were not terribly divided in work roles according to gender (as Wilber would have it). Wilber espouses somewhat of an essentialist position on gender and gender roles, and while there are essential differences in some respects, gender roles are (or were) more egalitarian and less rigidly divided.
As horticulture became agriculture with the invention of metal tools, especially the hoe and later the sword, humanity moved from a early mythic worldview to a mythic-agrarian worldview. Kinship loyalties now played a lesser role in culture than did political/power loyalties. Dependence on and subservience to a king was now central in daily life.
By tracking these societal changes alongside changes in the Inanna story, the myth becomes reflective of the lives of its tellers.
This is a book I found to be educational, enlightening, thought-provoking, and with which I sometimes found myself arguing. Isn’t that what good books should do? Being as familiar as I am with both Campbell and Wilber, however, it was easy to let Nicholson lead me on the “evolutionary journey of woman.”
As a man who works with other men on issues around gender roles, this feels like an important book for men to read, at least as much so as it is for women. Perhaps nowhere is this so true as in the integral community, with its reliance on Warren Farrell and David Deida as essential leaders in masculinity.
The integral community, in particular, with so many of the primary authors being male and holding essentialist positions, dictated in part by Wilber, has alienated a lot of women.
Seriously? To define the feminine as communal, caring, and immanent and the masculine as agentic, rights-oriented, and transcendent is so painfully reductionist that both men and women should be turned off by this androcentric nonsense.
Now, we have Sarah Nicholson’s book and voice to add some justice, autonomy, and individualism to the heroic journey of the integral feminine.
Dr Sarah Nicholson provides a rich, well-researched exploration of women’s contribution to human evolutionary history in this work. “Women require a figure of the divine in female form,” argues Nicholson and she proceeds to seek out and reveal this divinity, while also exploring the conditions of her oppression throughout human history. Not content with this discovery, Dr Nicholson also looks towards a future that integrates women’s past wisdom with present and future possibilities. I would highly recommend this thought-provoking, intelligent and encouraging book.
History is a wonderful thing to examine but in amongst the battles won and heroes made there is a story often missed. The journey of woman as hero in the masculine landscape of our patriarchal world is investigated by Dr Sarah Nicholson in her recently published book “The Evolutionary Journey of Woman”. From the worship of “Goddess” to the struggles against gender oppression and inequality of power Dr Nicholson delivers a powerful dialogue on woman’s journey and ultimate discovery of self. She further examines what this journey means not only for women but for our evolution as a whole. With insight similar to that of Ursula Le Guin’s classic Earthsea trilogy Dr Nicholson’s book investigates the world of patriarchy to uncover the evolving space women occupy in this world and discovers that this is more incredible and encompassing than any hierarchy can define. The heroines journey is never easy but oppression and sacrifice are only part of her story. Dr Nicholson beautifully captures the spirit of woman through the historical highs and lows of her journey and reveals much of her own path of self discovery. An essential and provoking read for all who are seeking out the truth of our evolution as the heroes of our own stories.
I want to congratulate Sarah Nicholson on a remarkable achievement. Indeed, I doubt that anyone who reads this book will not be impressed by her capacity to hold and weigh so many different arguments in relation to gender relations within her own integral feminist perspective. Very instructive are her critiques of Ken Wilber’s androcentric biases. Indeed, Wilber’s initial proposal for an integral feminism and his readings of gender relations in Sex, Ecology and Spirituality are open to Nicholson’s insightful re-evaluation of integral feminism and the place of women and men during prehistoric and historic times.
Of course, we see what we want to see, especially when we select our particular methods of research. No-one knows what the actual state of affairs may have been in the past. Nicholson, for example, dismisses the perennial philosophy in favor of a neo-perennial philosophy, which reframes the process of human evolution.
The perennial philosophy (as presented in Lings & Minnaar’s The Underlying Religion) teaches that living conditions decline over time from spontaneous spirituality in the Golden Age to gross materialism in the Iron Age or Kali Yuga, from being One with Divinity and the Eye of Heart to increasing alienation from Nature and Divine Spirit in various life-consuming addictions and life-denying allergies.
Nicholson teaches otherwise that human beings have evolved with time from archaic, through magical, mythic and rational, and are on their way to unitive stages of development. At each of these stages of development women and men understand themselves differently. Only with the emergence of an integral feminism do women develop the capacity to hold and weigh the contributions of first, second and third waves of feminism altogether and not dismiss each other in painful alienation.