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Gender dichotomies and visibility

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

I want to recommend the book The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory as a good example of critical thinking applied to an interesting area of academic study which also has implications for our lives today. Its feminist perspective is a refreshing counter to the still pervasive assumptions about sex and gender which mostly rendered women invisible. Its conclusions - and it offers more questions than conclusions - will not make Goddess worshippers stand up and cheer. But they might give us a better awareness of what we do and don't know about our own past and, what's more, better tools for addressing some issues we're struggling with today.


The work itself seems to be a competent and wide-ranging summation and discussion in nontechnical terms about many widely varied trends in anthropology and other areas of research into prehistory. The title is meant, of course, to refer to the way women have been made invisible in most readings of the past. As the authors point out, archaeology was until fairly recently practiced largely by men communicating with other men in mind. Thus it is unsurprising, if disappointing, that the stories they told, and still tell, are largely stories about men.

But the title also seems to me to have another meaning, relating to the authors' secondary theme that sex and gender are not necessarily visible - that is, we can't literally see them in the artifacts that constitute the primary sources for anthropological study of prehistory. Spear points don't come with a daub of blue paint marking them as off-limits to women - and if they did, there's no guarantee that the color blue would be associated with masculinity. After all, just a hundred years ago, it was more appropriate to dress a boy in pink. We don't "see" sex or gender in the artifacts - we read it into them, and that is a process full of pitfalls. The authors also point out that even some of the physical remains communicate ambiguous information about sex, opening a whole other realm of inquiry.

The authors discuss a typical reconstruction of a scene of using cave art as part of initiating adolescent males into adulthood, then point out that the story as commonly told completely excludes women: "There is absolutely no evidence, however, that women and girls were not participants. Indeed, there is not even any evidence that men were involved." (Adovasio, J. M., Olga Soffer, and Jake Page, The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory, (New York: Collins) 2007, 12) 

While working to identify these kinds of biases, the authors do not  rewrite the story focusing on women; the biggest part of their work is trying to identify the hidden assumptions and suggest possible alternatives. As a result, their subtitle is rather misleading: the authors are not "uncovering" the "true roles" of prehistoric women. They have some interesting points to make about what those roles might possibly be, once these biased assumptions are adjusted, but mostly they are asking us to think more widely and openly. This is not a work of conclusive truth; it is a work of critical thinking, which is necessarily open-ended.

Their work is also open in another way. As they point out, the only female figures who have traditionally been "visible" in the record were those of unusually high status. They want to bring back into our awareness "all those women who were neither queens nor goddesses." (26) This is a vital point for all of us who want to engage with the past within the context of women's spirituality. We have largely succumbed to the tendency to go for the easy targets, to concentrate on rediscovering and honoring the ancient goddesses and women of power. I want that work to continue; it has been vital in so many ways. But I'd like to see it balanced by more awareness of our foremothers who were not the unusual ones. This work gives us tools to ask some other important questions: what was life like for our ancestors who lived everyday lives, hunting, fishing, tending crops, making objects, relating to others, contributing to the life of their community? We can ask those questions in so many more was and in so many more areas than just the role of priestesses and matriarchs. 

One of the things I found most fascinating was the authors' focus on artifacts that have traditionally been glossed over. The typical assumptions tell us that "women's work" was more likely to involve organic materials which are more subject to degradation over time - pottery, clothing, and the whole range of fiber work that may have been equally important in terms of how prehistoric groups fed themselves. (24ff) This can be used as an excuse for women's "invisibility" by saying that if the archaeological record doesn't preserve the artifacts, good scientists have no basis for making inferences. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of material that is actually available for scrutiny in this area and the way that a less biased reading of these objects opens up a wide range of possible interpretations about how sex and gender did and did not function in various areas of prehistory.

Of course, the work is not without its flaws. The authors seem to conflate gender and sexual orientation in more than one place. In some of the discussion of fiber arts, there is a mild tendency to go along with the assumption that fiber arts were women's work, possibly as part of an effort to make women visible again. And Pagan readers will note several discussions of monotheistic myths and readings of the past, although most of that is necessary as part of questioning how those myths shaped or mis-shaped readings of gender into the past.

Finally, there is a discussion of Gimbutas and other examples of feminist readings of the archaeological record which includes a sizeable helping of skepticism towards "New Age" spirituality. In my opinion, the authors did try not to be biased towards the entire range of cultural/spiritual movements in general. Their discussion of Gimbutas is well-situated within the context of everything else they have discussed. It is situated towards the end of the work, and you really need to read the rest first, not skip ahead in this case. Their main point is that having identified male biases in archaeology does not mean we can simply replace them with female biases or assumptions. This is perfectly consistent with their efforts in the rest of the work and should be given careful consideration.

They conclude: "Most archaeologists now agree that the image of women in the past has been severely distorted or totally ignored by generations of male archaeologists. In recent decades, attempts have been made by many women and several male archaeologists to rectify this. Occasionally in the deep evolutionary past sex is discernible, but the gender status of humans - be they female, male, or gay - is much more opaque and probably will remain largely so…" (277)

There are two big problems with this passage. First, it conflates gender and sexual orientation, as I mentioned. Second, they seem to have fallen prey to some gender bias in their own language - the people working to correct the bias are "women" and "male archaeologists," rather than "women" and "men" or "female and male archaeologists." Their point is valid - the ways we read sex and gender into the past have been biased - and at the same time the failures in their own writing indicate that dealing with these issues is an ongoing process.

That's why books like this matter. There are two reasons I would recommend this work or one like it. First, I think we should be engaging with this kind of scientific and cultural discourse in an informed and educated way, much like the point that the authors of Witches, Midwives, and Nurses made. We should not reject science out of hand because we want to reject certain readings of gender roles. These authors are actively engaged in the work of trying to change the field. Whether or not you're involved with this on a technical level, if you want to talk competently about prehistory, you need to read this or a work like this.

And today, it seems like we're talking about our imagined prehistory more and more often. The popularity of so-called evolutionary psychology is rising, even though the field mostly consists of untestable imaginations about exactly the kind of prehistoric past that these authors debunk. If our recent evolution wasn't driven by the sexual choices of spear-wielding males who controlled all the food resources, then huge chunks of evo psych are entirely groundless. When people are arguing about how to understand and shape the gender roles in our society today based on some assumed innate characteristics of men and women that are actually just our projections of myths and anxieties onto the past, those imaginings can have very real consequences.

This is something we're struggling with today in Paganism. It is no longer sufficient to claim that we are doing revolutionary work by honoring both parts of a sex or gender dichotomy equally. We are learning, slowly and painfully, to question the fundamental assumptions of those dichotomies. If for nothing else, seeing how the critical thinking of questioning hidden assumptions about gender is applied in this area of research and study can help us reflect on how we can use those powerful tools in our own understanding.

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Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on the history of magic with the support of her husband and four cats. Please note that all opinions expressed here are Literata's alone and do not reflect the positions of any organization with which she is affiliated.


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