Barbara G. Walker, The Skeptical Feminist

Barbara G. Walker is my role model as a writer. Early in her career, she wrote several knitting books that have become classics, and later she wrote many books about skepticism and feminism. 

Barbara’s best selling classics include:

I have been writing knitting books for several years, and am planning to write about other subjects in the future. As many of you know, I have been working on a de-conversion memoir, to tell the story of how I went from being a born-again Christian to being an atheist. Even though I had no bad experiences as a Christian and I was not abused or misused by the church or by individual Christians, ultimately I found that the teachings of my childhood could no longer sustain me spiritually or intellectually as I learned more about the world in which we live and the larger universe that surrounds us. With that in mind, I asked Barbara a few questions about knitting, atheism, and feminism.

Skepchick: What inspired you to write about knitting in the 1960s and 1970s?  

treasury-coverWalker: Knitting just happened to be one of my “winter studies.” After marriage, it became my habit to give myself a “course” each year, by collecting all the books in the library on a given subject, and taking notes. In this way I went through astronomy, architecture, paleontology, anthropology, biology, and other matters that I felt curious about. 

Knitting didn’t interest me much. I tried it just once, in college, and didn’t take to it at all. But years later I discovered pattern stitches, and then began furiously collecting old ones and inventing new ones. I wrote the Treasury books because I wanted a compendium of many pattern stitches and couldn’t find one at the time. 

sacred-stones-coverBasically, I am a scholar. I like doing research. I am always annoyed by people who are too intellectually lazy to do any serious study of subjects in which they claim to be interested. That’s one reason why I wrote my book on minerals, to debunk some a the foolishness that passes for “mineral lore” these days. Nature’s wonders deserve more respect. The scientific facts about minerals are so infinitely more complex and fascinating than any of the simplistic notions invented by human imaginations. 

The same goes for my rejection of childish biblical myths — which involve, for example, trying to deny the infinitely complex and fascinating facts of evolution. What’s more, the same biblical mythology gave rise to some really pernicious doctrines, such as original sin, and the inferiority of women, which have caused unimaginably vast amounts of unnecessary human suffering. 

Skepchick: How did you make the transition from writing about knitting to writing about feminism and atheism? 

Walker: I didn’t make what you cali a “transition” from knitting to feminist research. I was reading and taking notes on comparative religions and feminist issues ever since I graduated from college. I wanted to know how these improbable ideas arose in the first place. Knitting was just another one of my intere sts — although it was a primary interest, of course, in the years when I was designing for yarn companies and creating the books. I don’t do much knitting anymore, simply because I Live in a warm climate, and besides, I have more than enough knitwear. 

Skepchick: You’ve written several books about subjects such as the Goddess, the Tarot, and crystals. These topics seem to be seeped in superstition yet you are a very skeptical person. Why do you think these topics draw you?

tarot-coverWalker: I became interested in the Tarot when I discovered that it too was basically a religious system having strongly matriarchal, pre-Christian symbolism. I was also inspired to do all the paintings for the Barbara Walker Tarot Deck (available from US Games Systems) and for the card deck packaged with my “I Ching of the Goddess” book — another matriarchal system, quite different from the I Ching currently used, which was changed in the Confucian period when Chinese culture moved toward patriarchy. It’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way.

Skepchick: You’ve written several books about women’s spirituality, including The Essential Handbook of Women’s Spirituality and Women’s Rituals: A Sourcebook. What does the word “spiritual” mean to you? Do you think the idea of spirituality assumes a belief in the supernatural? 

womens-spirituality-coverWalker: I distinguish between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is a feeling; religion is a business. As practiced by patriarchal faiths like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, it is a business created by men, for the benefit of men and for the suppression of women. I think a woman is vulnerable to all kinds of pains and guilts as long as she tries to relate to a god called “he”. 

Skepchick: I find it disturbing that so many feminists feel that science is a “man’s way of knowing” and that women have other “ways of knowing” that are based on intuition and outright superstition rather than on empirical evidence. In your books The Skeptical Feminist and The Book of Sacred Stones: Fact and Fallacy in the Crystal World you address these issues. What kind of response did you have to these books? Are you also frustrated by the conflation of feminism with superstition?

womens-encyc-cover1Walker: All concepts of the supernatural are childish and simplistic compared to the real wonders of the natural worId. A lifetime spent studying any aspect of it is never enough. I certainly don’t put down science as antifeminist. On the contrary, science is the only power that has finally liberated us from the chains of superstition and ignorant misunderstandings of the universe we live in.

Skepchick: What is your favorite of your own books and why?

Walker: Probably the one I most enjoyed writing was “Feminist Fairy Tales,” because it’s lighthearted, frivolous and fun. Most of my other books represent a lot of hard work. 

Skepchick: Do you have any new books in the works that we can look forward to?

Walker: I am working on another book, but I never talk about work in progress. 

Skepchick: Thank you! I’ve enjoyed talking with you and I look forward to reading more of your books in the future.

Cross posted on my personal blog.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. She sounds like a very neat lady. I especially like her idea of taking a “course” on a subject annually.

    I definitely agree with her that there are no such things as “men’s” and “women’s” way of “knowing.” There is only one demonstrably successful way of knowing, and that is the scientific method. I think the alleged split above comes from people that either fear the work involved in true science, don’t really understand how science works, or have an anti-scientific agenda. Unfortunately, I have noticed a trend in feminism towards overly “soft science” and anti-scientific thought, which disturbs me greatly. I think feminism is a great concept, but it must remain firmly rooted in scientific reality, lest it devolve into pseudoscientific, anti-male ranting.

  2. I definitely agree with her that there are no such things as “men’s” and “women’s” way of “knowing.

    I don’t think she believes that at all. I’m not sure where you got that idea.

  3. @writerdd: I don’t. I’m agreeing with your question/statement:

    I find it disturbing that so many feminists feel that science is a “man’s way of knowing” and that women have other “ways of knowing” that are based on intuition and outright superstition rather than on empirical evidence.

    She agrees, too. There ain’t no such animal. :-D

  4. Hee. Hee. Just got a copy of The Skeptical Feminist to read!

    (Dances conga type dance around her living room)
    Got a book to read, huh!
    Gota a new book to read, huh!
    Got a book to read, huh!
    Got a new book to read!
    :D Wootini!

  5. Interesting — I did not know she was an atheist! Indeed, I once met her in person by way of her son, who self-identified as a “technopagan”. (However, this was 20+ years ago, so who knows what the guy’s up to now… after all, I went from Wiccan to atheist over that same interval!)

  6. Yay, new books to read! May I join your conga line JennY?

    And slightly off-topic (please don’t shoot the noob):

    @David Harmon (and anyone else who was formerly religious): I spent 11 years as a pagan, and became an atheist late last year. I’m feeling a little at sea. How did you navigate the transition? What of your practices did you keep – if any – and what did you let go of?

    I still feel the same connection to the earth that led me to paganism, but my belief in the supernatural is gone. Barbara Walker separates spirituality and religion, practice and belief. Can I have a ritual practice and not betray my atheism?

    This atheist thing is harder than it looks! :)

  7. @FloatingAway: If you don’t believe in god(s), you’re an atheist. That’s it. :-)

    There are a lot of Jews who practice for various reasons but who do not believe in God. And some forms of Buddhism don’t suppose the existence of god(s). So I don’t see why you can’t practice in a way that works for you even if you don’t believe in the supernatural. This is something Sam Harris discussed in the last part of The End of Faith. I hope he writes more on this topic in the future.

    Don’t be discouraged if some hard-core atheists and skeptics tell you that you’re stupid if you want to practice or are interested in spirituality. Some people just aren’t interested in these topics and they are sometimes quite impatient with those who are. It’s a topic that comes up here from time to time.

  8. DD – Thanks for the interview. Walker’s “Myths and Secrets” books is one of my favourite books in my library. I often grab if first when I hear some ridiculous claim. Having been student of religion and myth all my life, I so appreciate all the time and effort she put into documenting the things she touches on in there.

  9. Donna, thanks for this neat little snapshot!

    I had not known Ms. Walker was such a kindred spirit to this feminist/atheist/knitter/scholar (err, and real estate agent…)! I was actually working on a PhD at one point that would have incorporated the gem lore passed down to us from the classical past through the medieval period, since I was studying medieval art at the time. I’ve also “studied” the Tarot (from a cultural/symbolism historian viewpoint) and know that just because someone has a curiosity about what people believed in the past (or didn’t but were thought to, or whatever), it doesn’t mean that *she* believes it.

    I’m also frustrated with any unintended consequences of feminist awareness that lead to separatist thinking…whether we are talking about women’s “intuition” or “sciences” or even “women’s art.” As we here know, some people, even some feminists, are absolutely mentally bound by the conviction that “men and women are different” and they cannot rise above strict binary thinking at any point. Extremely irritating. What can we ever do about that?

    And then there’s the sheer unfortunate truth that “there’s a sucker born every minute.” I really wish sometimes that we had some kind of cultural memory where every new person would automatically start out understanding the current state of advancement, instead of having to KEEP on EXPLAINING to THOUSANDS of new ARRIVALS that old beliefs that have been lying around for millenia have been SUPERSEDED already…but things like “mineral lore” keep getting dredged up and repackaged as “ancient secrets” for a new set of suckers. This problem, of course, is the same mechanism by which religion and superstition survive. Oh well huh?

  10. Thank you for lauding Ms. Walker. I stumbled across a copy of ‘Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths & Secrets’ gathering dust in a library reference section the winter my daughter was born.
    That winter and the next were invested in researching random selections – ferreting out as many of the citations as available (during that decade before the internet). Selection by selection confidence built in the quality of Ms. Walker’s scholarship and validity of her conclusions. That any one person could gather so much often obscure difficult to access documentation and commentary left me awestruck. The lucidity with which she conveys her gleanings to us still leaves my in awe 26 years later. I’ve acquired a number of copies over the years – giving them to my daughter’s young friends as they struggled to build a feminist foundation out of history and lore at odds with what they felt and hoped. Trained into skeptical dismissal of all feminist historical interpretations being handed the book by a father-figure (patriarch) gave the encyclopedic critical mass of cultural building material a hold on credibility. I vouched for her facts – what will come of it all who knows. I can’t imagine reading Second Sex – or Elizabeth Gould Davis’ First Sex – without ‘Myths & Secrets’ to refer to. Reading her encyclopedia makes the sordid truth in Marilyn French’s The War Against Women evident – and offers a context for Andrea Dworkin’s Our Blood. And histories like Riane Eisler’s The Chalice & The Blade or works like Walker’s own The Crone are instantly grasped, felt, as living truth. Or if you’re interested in archaeology she does the same for the diggings of Marija Gimbutas or the excavations at Catal Huyuk. The discovery that Ms. Walker is perhaps better known for her works on fabric-making set this guy to wondering why centuries of scholars haven’t given a moment’s thought to the possibility that weaving, knotting and knitting were the catalysts to humanity’s explosive intellectual and technological growth during the Holocene. The mental activity being easily converted into the fundamental abstract concepts on which most technologies are based. Warp and weft equals ‘x’ axis and ‘y’ axis (and when pile is factored in it becomes a ‘z’ axis and it becomes obvious that women have been using so-called ‘Cartesian’ coordinate systems since the middle of the stone age. The contribution Barbara G.Walker has made is enormous – please may it not be left gathering dust on reference shelves. Thanks again for bringing her to a new generation of questing minds.

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