KNOCKING DOWN STRAW DOLLS:

A CRITIQUE OF CYNTHIA ELLER'S
The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory:
Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future
(Boston: Beacon Press, 2000)

[Copyright 2000 Max Dashu]

 

 

     In 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."
     All 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 Men Rule.
     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 on
Matriarchy, 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 Obenga?
      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 title.
       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 analysis).
    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]

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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.

     Seemingly 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.

 

(Continued) ............................................. NEXT ------>

The Furor Over Gimbutas
Deconstructing "Matriarchal Myth"
Where's the History?
Arguing About the Goddess
PoMo Prescriptions

Copyright 2000 Max Dashu

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