Unearthing Matriarchy

Peter Wood

Ten years ago, Cynthia Eller offered a useful and long-overdue demolition of a mistaken idea that gained widespread currency in women’s studies and in some sectors of popular culture. In The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future (Beacon Press 2001), Eller, who is an associate professor of women’s studies and religious studies at Montclair State University, reviewed the archaeological evidence in favor of the idea that human society had, in a remote epoch, gone through a period when women ruled and showed that this proposition was a tissue of wishful thinking, wild surmise, and aggressive misreading of the available facts.

The fantasy, of course, remains in circulation, often in association with the idea that once upon a time people were generally united in worship of “the Goddess,” in her various guises. The Goddess, according to this story, was eventually suppressed by patriarchal society. Suppressed but not forgotten, she lives on—notably in the syllabi of numerous women’s studies courses and feminist-inflected courses in other parts of the curriculum. Lest this be taken as exaggeration on my part, here is a passage from Gloria Steinem (Wonder Woman, 1972), quoted by Eller (the ellipses are hers) on the opening page of The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory:

Once upon a time, the many cultures of this world were all part of the gynocratic age. Paternity had not yet been discovered, and it was thought … that women bore fruit like trees—when they were ripe. Childbirth was mysterious. It was vital. And it was envied. Women were worshipped because of it, were considered superior because of it…. Men were on the periphery—an interchangeable body of workers for, and worshippers of, the female center, the principle of life.

The discovery of paternity, of sexual cause and childbirth effect, was as cataclysmic for society as, say, the discovery of fire or the shattering of the atom. Gradually, the idea of male ownership of children took hold….

Gynocracy also suffered from the periodic invasions of nomadic tribes…. The conflict between the hunters and the growers was really the conflict between male-dominated and female-dominated cultures.

… women gradually lost their freedom, mystery, and superior position. For five thousand years or more, the gynocratic age had flowered in peace and productivity. Slowly, in varying stages and in different parts of the world, the social order was painfully reversed. Women became the underclass, marked by their visible differences.

By Eller’s account, Steinem dilating in 1972 on the paradise lost of ancient gynocracy was “a voice in the wilderness,” but by 2000, the story had had gained wide acceptance in feminist circles and:

is told in Sunday school classrooms, at academic conferences, at neopagan festivals, on network television, at feminist political action meetings, and in the pages of everything from populist feminist works to children’s books to archaeological tomes. For those with ears to hear it, the noise the theory of matriarchal prehistory makes as we move into a new millennium is deafening.

Academic Credulity

And the base of this popularity turned out to be academe. Eller encountered the full-scale version of the story in graduate school (she was a student of comparative religion) but heard it as well from an archaeologist in Crete who insisted, against the historical record, that Minoan society was “matriarchal.” Eller—herself a feminist—was sympathetic with women’s “struggles to create more female-friendly religion,” and could appreciate “the myth’s appeal,” but she was too much the rational scholar to be taken in:

I continued to be appalled by the sheer credulousness they demonstrated toward their very dubious version of what happened in Western prehistory. The evidence available to us regarding gender relations in prehistory is sketchy and ambiguous, and always subject to the interpretation of biased individuals. But even with these limitations, what evidence we do have from prehistory cannot support the weight laid upon it by the matriarchal thesis. Theoretically, prehistory could have been matriarchal, but it probably wasn’t, and nothing offered up in support of the matriarchal thesis is especially persuasive.

There is no real evidence that humanity every passed through a stage in which society was matriarchal, and abundant evidence to the contrary. Goddesses, of course, appear frequently in the world’s religions and myths, but the notion of a great prehistoric cult of the Goddess in Europe connected to matriarchal rule has no foundation.

Why bring this up now? Because higher education’s relaxed attitude about appointing faculty members who not only believe but who actually teach this moonshine demonstrates the hypocrisy of those who say that faculty members are acting out of the need to protect the university from anti-scientific nonsense when they discriminate against conservative Christian candidates for academic appointment. The possibility that a candidate for a position in biology, anthropology, or, say, English literature might secretly harbor the idea that God created the universe or that the Bible is true, is a danger not to be brooked. But apparently, the possibility that a candidate believes that human society was “matriarchal” until about 5,000 years ago is perfectly within the range of respectable opinion appropriate for campus life.

A week ago I posted to the Chronicle an essay, Preferred Colleagues, commenting on a new book by a sociologist on his research into the admitted biases of academics. InCompromising Scholarship:  Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education, George Yancey offers some startling data on the willingness of professors to “weigh favorably” or to be “less likely to hire” candidates for academic position who possess various group affiliations. It turns out that a considerable percentages of sociologists—27.8 percent for example—“weigh favorably” a candidate’s membership in the Democratic Party. A similar percentage (28.7 percent) would disfavor hiring a Republican. Most startling, however, was the readiness of academics in a whole range of disciplines to be “less likely to hire” conservative Christians. According to Yancey’s data, Evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists face the stiffest barriers to academic appointment.

The comments section ran longer than on any other Chronicle article I’ve published and it fairly bristled with words from indignant academics. A good many were indignant not that large numbers of their colleagues are apparently inclined to discriminate on the basis of religion, but that anyone would find fault with the advisability of keeping the university free of the gross anti-intellectualism, dogmatism, ignorance, and anti-scientific attitudes of people who, by their professions of faith, have offered sufficient evidence of their unfitness for academic appointment. Any rational person would oppose hiring a fundamentalist for a position in biology, no?

This rationalization for bias, like all such rationalizations, is too feeble to withstand much inspection. It involves stereotyping, a readiness to leap from a gross caricature of a group to the presumed qualities of the individual. And it ignores the human capacity to compartmentalize. Theological beliefs may have no bearing at all on a scientist’s ability to conduct science, let alone an English professor’s ability to teach Shakespeare. The right question is “How good are the candidate’s teaching and research?” But there are, of course, myriad ways to bend those questions around the magnetic poles of “How much do I like or dislike this person’s political and social views?”

Christian views—at least those on the theologically conservative end of the spectrum—pretty clearly pose an obstacle for academic appointment. How about enthusiasm for the myth of primitive matriarchy? Yancey, unfortunately, didn’t ask the question. But the answer is certainly apparent in the broader sense. “Matriarchy” taught either as an established historical fact or viable hypothesis about pre-history is a staple of thousands of courses. Books that promote a version of the prehistoric matriarchy thesis, such as Raine Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade and Marija Gimbutas’s The Language of the Goddess, are common fare.

Arguing with those who put stock in the ancient matriarchy story, however, is pretty much like trying to disabuse those who believe that the etchings in the plains of Peru were made by space aliens. Some stories are just too good to relinquish no matter how poorly they stand up to critical inspection.

Back to Bachofen

Eller has now published a sequel, <Gentlemen and Amazons:  The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 1861-1900, (University of California Press, 2011) which pretty thoroughly answers the question: Where did the feminist fantasy of matriarchal prehistory come from? The answer: Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-1878), an eccentric heir to a family of ribbon-makers in Basel, best known for his book, Das Mutterrecht (“Mother Right”) published in 1861.

Bachofen is a familiar figure to anyone who knows the history of anthropology.  He numbers among several 19th century thinkers who conjured grand visions of the human past stretching out beyond written records and encompassing all of humanity. Bachofen was by no means the first Western thinker to conjure up the idea of society ruled exclusively by women. The ancient Greeks had their myth of the warrior Amazons, and that particular imaginary inversion of the known social order remained alive in Western literature well into the 19th century. Bachofen’s innovation was to read the myth of the Amazons as a clue to an even earlier epoch when women were the arbiters of everything:  political, economic, and religious.

Das Muttrrecht is a shambling monster of a book, full of passages in which the author is in ecstasy over his discoveries, alternating with passages where he seems just plain befuddled. Unsurprisingly, Das Muttrrecht was ignored for a long time, but it eventually found a champion in Carl Jung. Eller credits Jung as the key link to modern feminism. But she spends most of Gentlemen and Amazons detailing the other Victorian era enthusiasts for the idea of primitive or ancient matriarchy.

Bachofen focused mainly on reinterpreting Greek myths to recover hidden clues. But not long after he set his ideas out, a British scholar, John Ferguson McLennan, published Primitive Marriage (1865). In it he posited that humanity in its most ancient condition lived in promiscuous hordes, from which it gradually transitioned to an order based on “kinship through females only.” McLennan’s vision lacked all the grandeur of Bachofen’s but it struck contemporary Victorians as closer to the grittier reality.  Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Rochester lawyer Lewis Henry Morgan was attempting to generalize from the matrilineal Iroquois of upstate New York that society based on descent through women must have been at some point universal. McLennan and Morgan, unlike Bachofen, stirred up both scholarly and popular interest in the idea of ancient matriarchy. For several decades, matriarchy ruled—at least in the minds of Victorian gentlemen contemplating the remote past.

McLennon reviewed and dismissed Bachofen’s book; Morgan became Bachofen’s regular correspondent. Morgan’s final synthesis of his own ideas about prehistory,Ancient Society, (1878) came to the attention to Karl Marx in his last days. After Marx died, Engels picked up Marx’s notes on Morgan and adding to them his own divergent ideas wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). I am, of course, telescoping a lot of intellectual history to get to this point. But once we get to Engels, we have a second direct link to scholarship today.

For although no one today credits Morgan’s theory of evolutionary stages (or McLennon’s for that matter), Engels persists as a touchstone for some anthropologists. Engels took from Morgan the idea that the “family” is not a primordial human reality but a phenomenon that emerged out of an earlier more communal set of arrangements. This notion appeals to some anthropologists who would like to deconstruct the apparent centrality of families in various non-Western societies.

Why would anthropologists want to theorize their way out of what appears to be fairly straightforward fact? The spirit of Bachofen might have something to do with it. Bachofen can be thought of as the patron saint of scholars who credit themselves with theoretical insight far in advance of and often in contradiction to the evidence. These days there is a premium on coming up with interpretations of ethnographic evidence that diminish the centrality of marriage and the family to human social order and that posit more pivotal roles for women in what have always appeared to be male-dominated societies.


Eller ends her new book with a chapter in which she ponders why the myth of matriarchal prehistory sprung to life in the 19th century and not before. Her answer is that the patriarchal social order of Western societies had been destabilized both intellectually (by liberal contract theory) and politically, and the myth of matriarchy emerged as an effort by some male intellectuals to shore up the foundations of now weakened patriarchy. In positing an epoch of matriarchal rule in the deep past, Bachofen, McLennon, and Morgan weren’t pointing to the good old days. They were registering what they imagined had been a troubling condition that humanity had fortunately progressed beyond.

Eller plays lightly on the irony that a key conceit of modern women’s studies derives from the anxious imaginations of Victorian men unsettled by the faltering authority of the male-dominated household. The irony is even deeper than she admits. The anxiety of those Victorian gentlemen proved well-founded. The European patriarchal family has disappeared for most Europeans and Americans, and we face societies with low fertility rates (especially in Europe), high divorce rates, high cohabitation rates, high rates of single-parent families, and the numerous pathologies that afflict fatherless children. Women attend and graduate from college at much greater rates than men. The campus life itself, with its persistent “hook-up culture” more closely resembles McLennan’s and Morgan’s picture of primitive promiscuity than anything we know from the ethnographic record.

In these circumstances, to inveigh against “patriarchy” as though it were the prevailing social reality of our time is more than a bit strange. We are dominated at the familial level by improvisations that took hold after the collapse of the patriarchal family. The myth of matriarchal prehistory serves as a way of creating an imaginary foil to a condition—patriarchy— that is itself largely imaginary.

I take it as one of the great intellectual scandals of our age that this nonsense has gained academic legitimacy. Hardly a soul who vehemently defends the university’s need to protect itself from the dangerous presence of Biblical literalists and the like sees anything amiss in having a whole tide of anti-scientific, ahistorical ideological fantasy claim the status of an academic discipline. Could there be a version of women’s studies sans the myth of matriarchal prehistory? Surely there could be, as there are substantial numbers of feminist scholars who reject that myth. But the field as a whole has not done so. If it is necessary that a candidate for an academic appointment in biology demonstrate competence in evolutionary biology, it ought surely be necessary that a candidate for appointment in women’s studies demonstrate show the ability to distinguish historical fantasy from fact.

I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, but it is a useful thought experiment. Why won’t higher education hold women’s studies to ordinary standards of historical accuracy? Because contemporary American higher education cares far more about protecting its favored group of political ideologies than it does its standards of rational inquiry and scrupulous use of evidence. The standards are cited most conspicuously when they lend themselves to fencing off members of disfavored groups. Why is higher education having such a hard time these days attracting public support? A good part of the reason is that it is so self-indulgent.

This article was originally published on April 14, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Image: Wikipedia, Public Domain

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