the past thirty years an uproar has arisen over ideas that women once
had power; that people traced their descent through the mother; that ancient
religions embraced goddess veneration. Academia rejected these interpretations
of history in the 1960s, and their massive comeback as a result of the
women's movement has caused an alarmed reaction. The straw doll of "matriarchy"
is again thrown up, its impossibly narrow definition shot down, and the
matter is declared settled. Robert Schaeffer of <patriarchy.com>
can then proclaim that "The feminist / New Age 'Idyllic Goddess'
theory is not an intellectually respectable hypothesis."
this polarization and oversimplification avoids the real issue, which
is not female domination in a reverse of historical female oppression,
but the existence of egalitarian human societies: cultures that did not
enforce a patriarchal double standard around sexuality, property, public
office and space; that did not make females legal minors under the control
of fathers, brothers, and husbands, without protection from physical and
sexual abuse by same. We know of many societies that did not confine,
seclude, veil, or bind female bodies, nor amputate or deform parts of
those bodies. We know, as well, that there have been cultures that accorded
women public leadership roles and a range of arts and professions, as
well as freedom of movement, speech, and rights to make personal decisions.
Many have embraced female personifications of the Divine, neither subordinating
them to a masculine god, nor debarring masculine deities.
Evidence for such societies exists, though there's
no agreement on what to call them. For many people, "matriarchy"
connotes a system of domination, the reverse and mirror-image of patriarchy.
Identified with early anthropological theory and, during the 60s, with
slams against African-American women, it has been overwhelmingly rejected
by feminist researchers. “Matrilineal” is inadequate, focusing
on the single criterion of descent. "Matrifocal" is too ambiguous,
since it could be argued (and has been) that many patriarchal societies
retain a strong emphasis on the mother. A variety of names have been proposed
for egalitarian matrilineages, including "matristic," [Gimbutas,
1991] "gynarchic" societies, [Gunn Allen, 1986] "woman-centered"
societies, or "gylany." [Eisler, 1987] My preferred term is
"matrix society," which implies a social network based on the
life support system as well as mother-right.
Old-school academics as well as post-structuralist
upstarts like to scold refractory feminists about evidence and certainties.
The pretense of disinterested objectivity reminds me of what Gandhi said
when asked what he thought about Western Civilization: "I think it
would be a very good idea." The notion that mainstream academia is
somehow value-free, but feminist perspective is necessarily ideological
and agenda-driven, is still widely held. Covert agendas pass easily under
the banner of objectivity.
The project of reevaluating history with a gender-sensitive
eye is in its infancy, and necessarily allied to indigenous and anticolonial
perspectives. An international feminist perspective views history as remedial
- - because sexism and racism have obscured, distorted and omitted what
information is available to us - - and provisional, because new information
keeps pouring in. History has changed rapidly since the 60s, in every
field: Africana, Celtic studies, West Asian studies, American Indian scholarship.
Thousands of new books come out every year that look deeper into women's
status and stories in a huge range of societies and periods, at a level
of detail not possible before. Fresh interpretations are being advanced
from voices not heard before. It's way too soon for sweeping dismissals.
The deliberately provocative title of Cynthia
Eller's book spells out her approach in a nutshell: it's not about history,
but ideology. The ideas under fire are the insurgent feminist histories
that reject the assumption of universal patriarchy throughout history.
The author aims to critique the views of what she calls "feminist
matriarchalists," but in the process commits the very offense of
which she accuses them. History - - detailed, in-depth analysis of historical
evidence - - takes a back seat to theory (in this case, of the post-structuralist
gender studies variety) scattered with ethnographic remarks.
Eller's standpoint differs from that of the most
ardent opponents of matrix history in being avowedly feminist. But this
does not get in the way of a no-holds-barred polemic, beginning with the
title itself. Eller styles the matristic histories as a "myth"
- - not a thesis or theory. She makes no distinction between scholarly
studies in a wide range of fields and expressions of the burgeoning Goddess
movement, including novels, guided tours, market-driven enterprises. All
are conflated all into one monolithic "myth" devoid of any historical
foundation. [Eller, 11, 81]
Though Eller acknowledges that the vast majority
of feminist thinkers in this area reject the word "matriarchy,"
[Eller, 12] she has chosen this loaded, hot-button label as a descriptor.
Throughout the book she refers to a diverse range of feminist researchers
as "feminist matriarchalists," tossing out broadbrush generalizations
along the way: "Feminist matriarchalists' interpretations of ancient
myth are rather transparently driven by ideology." [Eller, 179] (Since
Eller's label is polemical rather than descriptive, I will abbreviate
it as "fm's" in this review.) But her critical stance disappears
when she cites anti-feminist ideologues, such as the author of The
Inevitability of Patriarchy, currently reissued under the title Why
There are feminist scholars who use the
term "matriarchy." Heide Göttner-Abendroth chooses to confront
the frenzied reaction the term generates, as a strategy to expose the
sexist bias still engrained in academia and the media. Anthropologist
Peggy Reeves Sanday is quite conscious of "the disdain that the term
matriarchy evokes in the minds of many anthropologists," but notes
that the Minangkabau people of Sumatra have adopted the European term
matriarchaat to describe their own matrilineal /local tradition. [See
Sanday, 2002. However, in her presentation at the conference "Female
Mysteries of the Substratum" (Rila, Bulgaria, June 2004), Sanday
said that it is the men, not women, who use the word "matriarchaat."]
Both of these feminist scholars reframe the etymology of "matriarchy";
instead of using the standard derivation of the Greek -archy stem from
"rulership" (as in hierarchy), they use an older form of the
word, -arche, meaning "beginning, origin, first principle."
[Sanday, 2002; Göttner-Abendroth, keynote presentation at World Congress
Luxembourg, Sept 5-7, 2003]
Jomon culture, ancient Japan >>>
The introduction to The Myth of Matriarchal
Prehistory acknowledges "substantial dissension" within
the "matriarchal myth," [Eller, 3-4] but the body of the book
paints a different picture, relegating diverse opinions mainly to the
footnotes. Eller goes for the easy targets and steps well around those
that look like they'll sit up and bite back. She relies heavily on poems
and interviews, quoting from scholarly writers only in brief snippets.
Marija Gimbutas is identified as a major influence, but not heard from
directly on her historical thesis. Gerda Lerner is barely alluded to,
which is strange given her prominence; evidently she would interfere with
the desired impression of a wacko fringe. And where are Miriam Robbins
Dexter, Mary Condren, Asphodel Long, Paula Gunn Allen, Patricia Monaghan,
Pupul Jayakar, Aurora Levins-Morales, Joanna Hubbs, Ruby Rohrlich, N.N.
Bhattacharya, David Bakan, or the Africanists Sheikh Anta Diop and Theophile
The book's tone is sardonic, often openly
sarcastic: Heide Gottner-Abendroth's book is called "a four-volume
opus on matriarchal prehistory." (The book, available only in German,
is really about living indigenous mother-right societies.) Eller treats
the proliferation of products, publications, and classes as harmful, portraying
them as a growing threat spreading into all areas. Even the youth are
being corrupted by teaching of a pernicious "myth" to innocent
first graders. [Eller, 28]
Cynthia Eller has taken feminist spirituality
as her anthropological subject. Her earlier book, Living in the Lap
of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America (1993),
contains a chapter on the same material ("The Rise and Fall of Women's
Power"). In both books, Eller believes her informants define women
"quite narrowly" as mothers, as bodies, sex, nature -- embracing,
she says, the preconceptions of the patriarchy they are trying to escape.
Her critique of what she sees as essentialism is a major theme of The
Myth. The author has no problem positing that all societies have been
male-dominated, but considers any and all proposals of sex-egalitarian
matrilineages essentialist. This is the "invented past" of her
Eller recounts her first encounter
with these ideas in an academic setting, when a male archaeologist suggested
that Crete had been a matriarchal society. She reports an overwhelmingly
negative response that seems to have impressed her deeply: "If a
lot of mockery was all that prehistoric matriarchies could get me, who
needed them?" Historical evidence is not a visible consideration
here. Instead, Eller has chosen to join the camp of the mockers: "For
those with ears to hear it, the noise the theory of matriarchal prehistory
makes as we move into a new millennium is deafening." [Eller, 3-4]
The author does her best to portray this
theory (and for her there is only one) as weird, unfounded, extremist,
and its proponents as blithely unconcerned about historical veracity.
She says that "fm's" want the theory to be true so badly that
they will believe it despite all the evidence. Eller is "appalled
by the sheer credulousness they demonstrated toward their very dubious
version of what happened in Western prehistory." She implies that
the evidence preponderates on the side of neolithic patriarchy, and even
asserts that "the matriarchal myth fails completely on historical
grounds." but as she gets into the meat of her argument, it turns
out to be inconclusive, unproven and (by her own admission) unprovable.
[Eller, 6, 81, 13-14]
Eller's account of how the "matriarchal
myth" originated follows the interpretation of nonfeminists such
as Ronald Hutton: feminists are copying ideas that originated with Johan
Jakob Bachofen in 1861. The Swiss philologist proposed an era of "unregulated
hetaerism" in which women were sexually degraded and defenseless,
followed by an Amazonian revolt that inaugurated an era of mother-right.
In this stage, women created marriage to tame the male. This supposedly
still-animalistic and "backward" era was superceded by a "higher"
stage of human development: patriarchy. But Peggy Sanday points out that
Bachofen never used the word "matriarchy"; it was American translators
who plugged in this term in the mid-20th century. [Sanday, 2002] Bachofen's
own favored word was Mother-Right, the very name of his book. He used
a different term, gynecocracy, for "rule by women".
Nevertheless, because Bachofen and other elite
white male theorists of the 19th century saw patriarchy as an evolutionary
advance, Eller contends there is "nothing inherently feminist"
in the "matriarchal" thesis (by whatever
name). Worse, since it was proposed by "the enemies of feminism,"
[Eller, 8] she believes that it is against women's interests to pursue
this theory. (In that case, consistency demands that we also pitch analysis
based on Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault overboard. Well, maybe Foucault
should be classed as afeminist.) The fact that history was still firmly
in white men's hands in Bachofen's time does not somehow obligate women
today to follow their interpretations. In any case, it's hard to see how
his thesis advanced the patriarchal agenda in a world where male domination
was already a given. In fact, the initial reception of Das Mutterrecht
was hostile. After several decades, the book became influential,
but its pull was indirect (it didn't appear in English until 1967) and
diffuse (the idea of mother-right itself eclipsed the particulars of Bachofen's
Sexist preconceptions aside, the Swiss scholar
seems to have been trying to account for information that didn’t
fit the picture of universal male domination. It wasn't Bachofen's heroic
view of patriarchy that attracted several generations of women researchers,
but his anomalous suggestion of prehistoric female power. By pulling together
little-discussed information to make this case, he did stimulate discussion
of the question of female status from a new angle.
It's worth looking at the history of this idea more
closely. Earlier writers had already begun to address the issue of female
power as they encountered non-European societies in colonial contexts.
Their accounts present a tangle of European projections based on everything
from Greek Amazon traditions to Christian colonizers' claims that indigenous
peoples worshipped devils. They also record their culture shock at encountering
senior priestesses (as in the Philippines and Siberia) and female chieftains
(as in Virginia and Delaware).
In 1724 the French missionary Lafitau expressed
astonishment at the power of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) matrons: "Nothing,
however, is more real than this superiority of the women… All real
authority is vested in them." [Jesuit Relations, I, 66-67,
in Judith Brown, 1975, 238] Lewis Morgan spent four decades studying the
Iroquois and spinning his own theories about matriarchy, published in
1877 as Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress
from Savagery, through Barbarism to Civilization. The unconscious
but patent racism of these categorizations stained the new "science"
of anthropology, as also history and all other disciplines.
Morgan’s work in turn had a tremendous
impact on Engels, who put forth its outlines in The Origins of the
Family, Private Property and the State (1884), and on Marx, who began
writing along similar lines before his death. Eller’s brief summary
indicates that Freud and many other thinkers of the late 19th century
were influenced by these theories of matriarchy, barbarism and civilization,
and that feminists - - notably Matilda Joslyn Gage and Charlotte Perkins
Gilman - - also began to draw on them for their own sociopolitical analysis.
With Gage, however, we come back full circle
to the Iroquois - - but not as anthropological informants, grist for some
elite white theoretical mill. For Gage they acted as teachers who inspired
a very different vision of human relations than the patriarchal European
model, and as elders who honored her with the rank of matron of the Wolf
clan in the Mohawk nation. Sally Roesch Wagner has fleshed out the direct
impact of Iroquois culture on Gage, Stanton, and other founders of the
US women's movement. Her research shows that these early feminists had
frequent contact with the Haudenosaunee and were deeply impressed by the
contrast in women's status in the two cultures.
While US women were legal non-persons lacking rights
to vote, hold property or child custody, and even rights over their own
persons, Haudenosaunee women spoke in council, participated in decision-making,
selected the men who would be chiefs, and had the authority to "knock
the horns off" a chief who failed the people. The chiefs themselves
upheld the traditional respect for women, staunchly defending it to white
men over the centuries. It was not a coincidence that the first women’s
rights conference took place at Seneca Falls, named for one of the Six
Nations of the Iroquois. Even the "Bloomer" dress reform movement,
with "an uncanny resemblance to the loose-fitting tunic and leggings"
of the Haudenosaunee women, started in this region. [See Roesch Wagner’s
groundbreaking Sisters In Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence
on Early American Feminists, Native Voices, 2001]
The must-read exposition of Six Nations history is Barbara Mann’s phenomenal Iroquoian Women: the Gantowisas [New York: Peter Lang, 2000]. She synthesizes the (orally-transmitted) Keepings of her people --the true primary sources--with key written sources, writing with great insight, wit, and a trenchant critique of “Euro-forming the data.” Paula Gunn Allen laid out indigenous antecedents for the European-American women’s movement, going back to the First Wave and before, in her influential essay, “Who is Your Mother: The Red Roots of White Feminism.” She points to “the informal but deeply effective Indianization of Europeans” that seeped in from many directions, including the second- and third-hand accounts of Morgan, Marx and Engels. These influences went unrecognized, since Indians were “officially and informally ignored as intellectual movers and shapers in the United States, Britain and Europe.” [Gunn Allen, 1986, 211, 220]
Seemingly unaware of these studies of American Indian influence on European-American feminists, anthropologists and leftists, Eller portrays the matrix theories as indebted only to male chauvinists. She moves on to a discussion of anthropologists’ repudiation of “matriarchy” after 1900. Her explanation is that evolutionary theory came into disrepute and armchair anthropology gave way to fieldwork. Still, the eminient classicists Jane Harrison and George Thomson, as well as the anthropologist Robert Briffault, continued to mine the cultural record for evidence of early female power.
unaware of these studies of American Indian influence on white feminists,
anthropologists and leftists, Eller portrays the matrix theories as indebted
only to male chauvinists. She moves on quickly to a discussion of anthropologists'
sudden repudiation of "matriarchy" after 1900. Her explanation
is that evolutionary theory came into disrepute and armchair anthropology
gave way to fieldwork. Still, classicists like Jane Harrison and George
Thomson, as well as the anthropologist Robert Briffault, continued to
mine the cultural record for evidence of early female power.
Eller admits that
scholars who did not adhere to the new doctrine of timeless patriarchy
were subjected to "the jeers of most of their colleagues." It's strange
that she so quickly passes over this subject of ridicule, which has persisted
to the present day in academia. In college during the late '60s, I experienced
it full force before I even had a position on "matriarchy"; it was made
quite clear that certain questions were not to be asked. The negation
was so pervasive as to be doctrinal, a trigger for shouting-down rather
than reasonable discussion. Breaches have appeared in the wall since then,
but the threatened behavior persists. Many of its targets have been non-academics,
but the most visible challenge emerged from within the ivory tower, in
the person of Marija Gimbutas.
The Furor Over Gimbutas
Deconstructing "Matriarchal Myth"
Where's the History?
Arguing About the Goddess
Copyright 2000 Max Dashu