Politics of Women's Spirituality, edited by Charlene Spretnak, New York: Anchor Press, 1982.
Background on the context in which this essay was written.
Date Reading Was Discussed: September 7, 1993
Present: Colleen M., Kalisa, Karen M., Gina B., Robin Z., Grace S. and
Margot Adler's essay
looks at the political and spiritual significance of matriarchies asserting
that "Goddess worship was widespread in many ancient societies."
Despite academic and religious skepticism, most women at this month's
session shared an abiding ecofeminist belief that power was once held
primarily by women.
A few of us, though,
were reluctant to use the term matriarchy. It is too associated with the
word patriarchy which entails hierarchies and rule over, be it rule
over women, over people of color, over nature, over property-less people,
and so on. Rule by women is believed to have been qualitatively different
and not simply a female version of patriarchy, i.e., women doing the
"lording it over" instead of men.
For years patriarchy
has programmed us to embrace myths such as "man" is basically
greedy or survival of the fittest, as if these anti-social values are
innate to our species. We then view pre-history through this tinted/tainted
lens and assume women-rule likewise involved dominating dynamics. This
formidable bias makes it difficult to conceive of a world where power once
was—and still can be—exercised equitably, peacefully,
and in harmony with all peoples and nature.
Another concern with
using the word matriarchy to describe the era before males came to power
pertains to its literal meaning: "rule by the mother." Some of us
preferred the word matristic, but it, too, implies that women's power is
based on our capacity to procreate and breed.
The real question is:
Were ancient societies mother-identified or women-identified? One
woman noted that matriarchy is not even our word. It was designated by 19th
century male social scientists in their analyses of "primitive"
matrilocal and matrilineal societies. Nowadays it is reductionist to
attribute women's power chiefly to an ability to give birth.
Several of us
responded that women's reproductive powers were highly revered by
early peoples and form the core of cosmology stories of virtually every
earth-based culture throughout the world. It was only 20,000 years ago or
so (some contend with the introduction of animal husbandry) that humans
began to have an inkling males co-participated in the creation of life.
It was long thought
that the wind or other forces of nature made women pregnant. Women were
held in awe because we could create life from our bodies as if by magic. We
produced food from our breasts. We bled monthly, yet did not die. No wonder
female imagery was worshipped and women were accorded exceptional deference
One woman remarked
that all mothers are women, but not all women are mothers. She felt that
gynocracy (gyn = woman) is a more inclusive word and better characterizes
those millennia when woman-rule prevailed. The quandary today is that we
want to honor motherhood and menstruation, yet not be discriminated against
because of our biological differences.
So what on Earth
happened? How did women lose power, status, and respect? Of the numerous
theories proffered, we discussed the pioneering work of archeologist Marija
Gimbutas. She asserts that approximately 5,000 years ago waves of
aggressive, sun-worshipping Aryan warriors from the northern Russian
steppes swooped down on horseback and overran communal, egalitarian,
goddess-worshipping, settle-ments throughout Europe and the Middle East.
expressed frustration that Gimbutas and other scholars never fully explain
how other non-Western cultures or even the Aryans themselves became
patriarchal. One woman speculated that, given the barren frigid climate,
frequent hunting of animals and an excessive carnivorous diet may have made
the Aryans unusually dominating and bellicose. Besides Gimbutas' foreign
invader theory, there is also evidence that internal changes were affecting
Although we may never
know how or why male rule actually displaced female rule, it is notable
that the transition to patriarchy coincided with such new phenomena as men
learning to rape, women becoming the first slaves, and the forceful
overthrow of goddess worship in favor of male authoritarian godheads.
Some women disputed
the notion that men were the bad guys while women were absolved of all responsibility.
They thought women may have begun to abuse their influence or even colluded
opportunistically in the creation of patriarchy. Other women were convinced
that the period was marked by violent physical and spiritual coercion, the
repercussions of which continue to dictate our lives today.
One woman maintained
that she feels very liberated, especially compared to the 1950's. Other
women countered that gains in patriarchy only seem emancipating because of
the erasure of ancient memory. If society were to acknowledge thousands of
centuries of profound gynocentric presence, the inferiority of women's
modern status would be glaring. For a reality check, men own 98% of the
world's resources while women perform 2/3 of the world's labor.
If we are to forge a
just and balanced world, men and women alike must look to the full spectrum
of history for clues, to a time when gender equality and a oneness with
nature may well have existed. Many ecofeminists advocate a more open-minded
examination of prepatriarchal history, not to replicate ancient gynocracies
or to assign blame, but to fuel our imaginations as we explore new,
life-affirming possibilities for the future of our species.
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