A review of Jean Shinoda Bolen's
Goddesses in Older Women
by Stephanie Hiller
When I am an old woman...
I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me,
And I shall
spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
In our youth-loving culture, aging threatens invisibility. But as the number of women over fifty swells to forty-five
million, older women are refusing to retreat to their rocking chairs. Members of the Red Hat Society, for example, are donning
red hats and purple dresses and going out to party in places formerly reserved for the young. Begun spontaneously when Sue
Ellen Cooper, inspired by Jenny Joseph's poem, gave a red hat to a friend, the group has taken off, with chapters in 29 states.
"We are now in the planning stages for an eventual Red Hat Society Convention," writes Sue Ellen on her website, " -- an entire
hotel filled with women of a certain age wearing red hats and purple outfits! Could world domination be far behind?"
The Red Hats, fond of silliness and mirth, are joking. But Jean Shinoda Bolen is not. With her new book, Goddesses in
Older Women, Archetypes in Women Over Fifty, Bolen proposes that older women come forward and offer their leadership to an
American women who are now grandmothers began the women's movement. Their daughters were beneficiaries, and now they
are passing over the menopausal threshold to be among an estimated forty-five million still-active American women in the crone
phase of their lives…If a generation of clan mothers take on the responsibility to look out for the well-being of the
human tribe, might a "wisewomen's movement" come into being in the first decade of the twenty-first century?
Inspiring such a movement is her mission, and to that end, she has written this book as a "guide to the interior terrain
and a handbook on how to be a green and juicy crone."
It's a gentle guide, aimed at all the baby-boomer women for whom "Goddess" may be a dangerous words. For those who have
celebrated their cronehood with ritual and ceremony, however, the book will be light reading, a pleasant reminder of what
they already know, and not a lot more.
That's ok if you're trying to reach a wider audience of women, those who have not already read Barbara Walker's groundbreaking
work, The Crone, which examines how the traditional honor afforded women elders has been denied and ignored under patriarchy;
or even Women Who Run With the Wolves, in which wise old women as strange as the old Russian witch, Baba Yaga appear. Bolen,
in other words, is not speaking "to the choir"; she seems to have aimed her book for women who are struggling alone to rescue
some sense of self from the losses incurred by menopause.
Certainly a worthwhile endeavour, and Bolen covers the territory adroitly, from "penis envy" to Gimbutas, Hildegard of
Bingen to the Million Mom March. She has a delicate touch even when dealing with difficult subjects like the fear of reprisals
for calling oneself a witch, narrating an interesting incident in which Starhawk speaks directly about her beliefs with a
man carrying a sign saying "Suffer not a witch to live". A skilled storyteller, Bolen covers a wide range of mythology, recounting
the stories of Metis, Kuan Yin, Amaterasu and others. The Iroquois council of women elders and other Native American traditions
are also called into play appropriately.
For Bolen, who is a feminist psychotherapist, navigating the challenging terrain of the third phase of life involves
"activating the archetypes" and making choices that honor the truth of one's soul. Bolen begins with the crone goddesses themselves,
and writes ably of how Sophia, Metis and Hecate come into play as we face the crisis posed by getting older. Without raising
her voice, she manages to be very clear about what has been lost since the goddess was brought down under the rule of monotheistic
To begin with, there is no word in Hebrew for "goddess," so the word cannot appear in the Old Testament. This nondesignation
has the psychological effect of nonrecognition… Without a vocabulary, the idea of feminine divinity is even hard to
imagine. The theology of patriarchy is that God is male, and that men are created in the image of God, and have dominion over
Yet the goddess survived, as Chokmah, whom the Greeks renamed Sophia, whose "concern is with spiritual
or philosophical or religious meaning, which is a third-phase-of-life task." For our assignment as crones is to be a "choicemaker":
A green and juicy crone has a life that is soul-satisfying. Maybe you can fall into such a life with the help of serendipity
and grace. But for a contemporary crone-aged woman, a soul-satisfying life usually involves making choices, as well as taking
Our challenge is assess our disappointments as well as our accomplishments and accept the person we have become.
We call on the archetypes for this work because "the third phase of life needs to be inner-directed if it is to be about the
evolution of the wisewoman in yourself." We must sort through the experiences of the first two thirds of our lives, and choose
the direction we will take for this last.
I found the section on these goddesses of wisdom to be very satisfying, filled with poetry and personal insights that
had to be born of the author's own experience. If only she would tell us more about herself! When she goes on to revisit the
Greek archetypes of her earlier book, Goddesses in Every Woman, I began to skim.
For one thing, I've never really liked books that describe personality by types, no matter how well they are elucidated.
I always find myself trying to figure out if I am an Artemis-type woman or a Hestia-type woman, even though Bolen points out
that we are all guided by a "committee" of archetypes whose conflicting interests lend complexity to our lives. Of course
it was reassuring to read that Aphrodite has a role in our lives, even in old age…
Carrying eternally youthful goddesses like Artemis into old age is an interesting exercise. But I was disturbed to read
the highly psychoanalytical discussion of Persephone in older woman, who, though she may become playful and positive, more
often seems to play like the puella eterna -- the heroine who won't grow up. Certainly such a phenomenon exists, but I hated
to see Persephone's name attached to it.
Encountering goddess archetypes through Jungian analysis has been for many women the first step on the path to goddess
spirituality. Bolen describes feminist spirituality as "third stage feminism"; clearly, she considers it an important development.
She lauds the egalitarian structure of the women's circle as the healing alternative to patriarchal hierarchy, which she described
eloquently in an earlier book, The Millionth Circle (please see our review at http://www.awakenedwoman.com/millionth_circle.htm
). But the role of goddess-centered ritual receives very little attention.
That's too bad. Ultimately we want something more than archetypes, those symbolic entities who live in the collective
unconscious &endash; we want to connect with the power that lies within and without, the Mystery that the Goddess embodies
with which we may interact, but which is ultimately beyond our control. She is as terrifying as She is sweet, for hers is
the power that destroys worlds even as it creates them. As Paula Gunn Allen has written, the experience of the sacred includes
That chthonic and self-existent force is absent from Bolen's book, whether because she does not herself experience it
or because she has chosen to downplay it for the sake of a more timorous reader. She invites us to consider and reflect, but
she stays clear of the dark places where transformation occurs. But for those who journey with Inanna, Ereshkigal, like death
itself, is real. Her grim demeanor is the face that emerges as our bleeding and our capacity to produce life recedes. We must
wrestle her to the ground, if we are to emerge with the confidence and postmenopausal zest which Bolen describes so well.
In that context, depression and rage become, not just pathologies, but occasions for realizing a deeper truth. We find ourselves
in the embrace of the Mother at last.
Even then, Goddesses in Older Women is a lyrical, intelligent and important book, a book that will speak to many women
who might otherwise never know that there is life after wrinkles. It offers us an inspired vision of a productive future by
one who truly does know what it takes:
I think of a wisewoman-crone as a woman who has experienced a shift in her inner world. The Self, rather than the ego,
has become the center of her personality. Instead of a committee meeting with the ego as the chair, a circle meets around
the hearth with Hestia's fire at the center. Once Hestia is the centering archetype in a personality, it's as if the members
of the inner council sit around the fire, speaking or listening, until there is clarity about the situation. With inner consensus,
there is an integrity to what you do and how you live: outer actions become a manifestation of the inner person. An inner-directed
person, I might add, can be very active and effective in the world. This is something that sometimes takes becoming a crone
Hopefully this book will be the first of many, in which the experience of the crone is explored, and sung.