The Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco
by Jone Salomonsen
Starhawk, one of Reclaiming's founders, says of this book, "Jone Salomonsen has negotiated the difficult role of the participant observer with grace and integrity... While I'm sure I could find something on every page to debate with her, overall she has created a clear and illuminating portrait of one era in Reclaiming's growth and development: our efforts to embody a new spiritual/political paradigm in our rituals, teaching, and organizing."
The author, from the University of Oslo, lived in the Bay Area for a couple of years, and has visited other times.
The book focuses on Reclaiming as a feminist community, with chapters on the Wiccan Revival, Utopian Witches, Priestessing in Reclaiming, Women's Mysteries, and the Spiral Dance ritual. It is part of a series by Routledge called "Religion and Gender."
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Enchanted Feminism and Courageous Scholarship
a review by 3-D Circle of of Jone Solomonsen's Enchanted Feminism
"Witches" were still devil-worshippers in the public mind, and "Pagans" merely ignorant and superstitious primitives, when Jone Salomonsen, then a Norwegian graduate student in theology, first arrived in San Francisco in 1984 and chose from among dozens of young communities, traditions, and organizations, to study Reclaiming.
This was when a gathering of 50 hardy people on the beach counted as a large public ritual, and attendance at the Spiral Dance was around 350.
Mainstream academics in this country and in Norway told Salomonsen that Goddess worship was an insignificant New Age phenomenon, that Witchcraft was not a religion, and that her work would not be taken seriously. With a mixture of chutzpah and stubbornness, Salomonsen eventually faced down the skeptics, obtained a series of grants, made many trips to California over the course of the next decade, ultimately was awarded a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Oslo, and in 2002 published Enchanted Feminism: Ritual, Gender and Divinity Among the Reclaiming Witches of San Francisco.
Since the book's first appearance we, some of the subjects of the book, have had time to reflect on Salomonsen's work and its value, and on our own experience of being studied at close hand by someone from another culture.
Salomonsen places her study of Reclaiming in the early 1980s in the context of a dominant discourse in her academic field, i.e. the analysis of Judaeo-Christian culture and belief systems, and raises such intriguing issues as the possible connections between the theology of feminist Witchcraft, to the extent it was discernible in the 1980s, and the Kabbalah. She also covers questions which may be of more interest to Pagan-centric minds, such as the familiar one of whether there is convincing evidence of a continuous historical lineage between Witches in Old Europe and modern American feminist Witches, and reaches agreement with the prevailing international consensus among scholars that there is not.
Our focus, however, is not on such theoretical questions but rather on Salomonsen's methodology of living among us and practicing our religion with us, while observing and analyzing us at the same time.
After all, who better to evaluate Salomonsen's innovative approach than us, a few of her actual subjects? How different our understanding of other cultures would be if the subjects of all ethnographic studies of people around the world had this kind of opportunity.
Method of Compassion
First we have to say, knowing this book is on the reading list in various university courses in anthropology, women's studies, and theology, it feels amazing to think that we could all appear in some perspiring student's blue book exam next June! More important, though, the innovative methods Salomonsen developed in the field make her book a lot more significant to her field, and to future Witches, scholars, or others curious about early Reclaiming, than our vanity is.
Some academics may continue to categorize Salomonsen's approach to studying our community as the "participant observer" method often used in ethnographic studies. But the author herself has coined the phrase "method of compassion" for her approach. The difference is that the traditional participant observer joins in some aspects of the life of the studied community with an open mind, in order to have as little effect as possible on the subjects and to be able to describe their activities accurately. The "compassionate" scholar on the other hand, participates in the subjects' rituals, daily activities, and personal lives with an open mind, heart, and soul. This method, which not everyone can honestly achieve, results in an ability to understand the subtleties, complexities, and contradictions in the subject which cannot be achieved by a more intellectually detached method. Harder, but better.
In the field of theology, believers' analyses and explications of their own religious practices and beliefs are par for the course; indeed, they are considered essential to informed discourse. But Salomonsen's choice to blend analytical approaches from theology with the use of ethnology, normally a tool of anthropologists, in order to understand Reclaiming in San Francisco in the 1980s, was original, daring, and yet refreshingly appropriate for her goal: to study this emerging religion as it was being practiced and developed in a shifting and vibrant community of living people.
Still, it's hard to hit a moving target. So Salomonsen made extensive and ongoing use of her informants as critics of her work, both while it progressed and in the months before publication of Enchanted Feminism, repeatedly inviting feedback and input from her subjects. Thus, at several junctures during and after her various trips into "the field," i.e., our community, she offered drafts of her descriptions, analyses, and conclusions to her primary informants as her written work evolved. So drafts of individual chapters or of the whole book were reviewed and criticized not only by academics (theologians and anthropologists) at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Oslo, and San Francisco State Unversity, but also by Reclaiming community members.
That is not to say that Salomonsen yielded her own perspective to her subjects. For example, when informants were invited to preview some of the chapters of Enchanted Feminism, one person voiced objection to the description of what she considered to be "secret" aspects of Reclaiming-style initiation. Salomonsen respected the tradition of secrecy around the subject of initiation by not using her own or any other informant's actual initiation as a source for any of the "secret" material in the book. But she kept this material in, on the grounds that she had taken it only from information already previously published by others, primarily Starhawk, and that omitting these aspects from the section on initiation would be a serious weakness in the text.
This dilemma illustrates the tension created by the method of compassion, the kind of challenge that arises for the conscientious scholar who chooses it, and the fact that resolutions can be found that satisfy both ethical and scholarly standards.
It is very rare for ethnographers to engage in so much consultation with the community they write about, and at least three benefits are discernible. First, the ongoing consultation and feedback process resulted in more valid data.
Also, since Salomonsen could be, and sometimes was, challenged at any point by her informants who had access to her work, the dialogue served to hone her own thoughts and opinions and strengthen her perspective. Perhaps most importantly, the transparency of her approach meant that we in the Reclaiming community, as well as academics outside our community whom the author also consulted, were able to observe Salomonsen's ethical standards throughout her research. This fostered trust and, again, more and better data.
An old joke says that any 12 witches will express at least 13 different opinions on a given subject, and we are sure that others of Salomonsen's subjects would report differently on their experiences of being studied, and on the written product of that study. We do not speak for anyone but ourselves.
Besides, different people will always choose different points to focus on and analyze, and there will always be differences of interpretation as well as points of convergence among an ethnographer and the people she studies. There will also always be omissions, and representations that some will feel miss the point. We have heard one Reclaiming Witch say that she thinks Salomonsen over-emphasized the connections between early Reclaiming and the Anarchist community. Anne Hill, who reviewed the book in RQ#88 (Autumn 2002), believes that she was misquoted in the book. Some of us had a similar feeling seeing our own remarks in print, but actually, all direct quotations in the book were taken verbatim from taped interviews. Still, it is possible that in summarizing or referring to something that a subject said, the author may have unintentionally misrepresented the person's meaning.
But what makes any ethnography useful is not that it provides an exact presentation of the Objective and Real relations that are studied. Rather, it should be an engaged account of the interaction among people that sheds some insight on the topic at hand - in Salomonsen's case, the early years of the Reclaiming community and the fast-changing, living religion which was its heart - and this, the book accomplishes.
Enchanted Feminism is a courageous work that provides our community with one of many possible mirrors. Our continuing discussions about this reflection will enrich our own and others' understanding of our religion, our dynamic community, and ourselves. Blessed be the scholars!
3-D Circle members, since 1984, are: Janie, Joy, Kim, Laurie, Moher, Vibra, and Jone Salomonsen. Jone did not participate in the writing of this review. As it happens, our Circle includes two people (Moher and Kim) with advanced degrees (M.S. & Ph.D.) in anthropology who are especially aware of the challenges of ethnography, as well as someone (Vibra) who has been a Reclaiming priestess and teacher for over 15 years, holds a CoG clergy credential as an Elder in the Reclaiming Tradition, and was a member of the Reclaiming Collective during the period covered by Enchanted Feminism and until its dissolution in the mid 1990s. All of us are longtime participants and volunteers in Reclaiming public rituals.
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