Knocking Down Straw Dolls:
a critique of
The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory
by Cynthia Eller (2000)

by Max Dashu, 2000. Slightly updated version (2016) with added illustrations.

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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 <> 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...

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