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Was It Matriarchy?

In response to:

The Anti-Feminist Woman from the November 30, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

My reference [Adrienne Rich, NYR, November 20, 1972] is tardy but the issue is not. Rich’s sympathetic commitment to the women’s movement, thoughtful enumeration of subtle sexist injustices, and criticism of unreflective anti-feminism is too good to be much weakened by irrelevant speculations about “matriarchy.” But the space that she and too many other leaders in the movement devote to discussion of this tangent suggests that some of them have confused progress into an unprecedented future with regress into a mythical past. A naive search for historic and prehistoric precedents also spent the energies of Marx and Engels, and impeached their ideas among later scholars; despite their poor anthropology the sheer vitality of their social philosophy finally won out, but perhaps later than it would have had their polemic energies been more judiciously directed.

Matriarchy, in the usual sense of normative and practical dominance of a society by women, is largely the speculative construct of smug Victorian patriarchs, pap for the women and salve for their consciences, feigning humility before a supposedly even more golden age than their own. It is surprising that Rich does not suspect this, because her sensibilities are obviously attuned to such subterfuges and she is furthermore doubtful about the dependability of her sources on matriarchy (Bachofen, 1861; Davis, 1971). Moreover, as Mellaart would be the first to admit, the archaeological evidence of female-oriented ritual at Catal Hüyük is no more a substantial demonstration of matriarchy than some future excavations of a contemporary shrine of La Virgen de Guadalupe (or some other cult of the Madonna) might uncover; indeed, such evidence may mask, as it would in this case, a sexist society in the throes of a machismo ideology.

Aside from irresponsible speculations, there is no evidence either in the past or the present of a matriarchal society. (This total lack of evidence cannot be the work of “patriarchal” or androcentric bias in research and reporting, thorough as this bias has been.) In some societies at one time misunderstood as “matriarchal” women occupy pivotal statuses in succession to kin group membership, political office, inheritance, and residence (things of great importance in other societies). But whereas women’s statuses in these few societies are pivotal in the perpetuity of social organization, it is almost invariably their brothers, maternal uncles, and sons who are the real entrepreneurs of their role, and one suspects that such matrilineal norms are just a more clever and patronizing sexist subterfuge than usual.

On the other hand, although there appears to be no evidence for matriarchy, neither has abject acquiescence to sexist oppression ever been accepted by women no matter how “primitive,” Thanks primarily to a new research orientation and critical reevaluations promoted by feminism, there is growing evidence of women’s sub rosa influence in all societies whether their oppression is in accord with or contrary to cultural norms. Similarly, a highly structured conflict between the sexes is often revealed, sometimes ritualized to a point of ludicrous charade which makes us look again at our own peculiar form of sexual antagonism.

All of this is very interesting, especially to the social anthropologist and perhaps to the feminist, but none of it is more than tangentially relevant to the issue at hand: the role of women in modern societies which have the resources but lack the security of mind to accept the demonstrable equality of the sexes, and so relieve themselves of the strain of some anachronistic customs and puerile antagonisms. As is the case with several other aspects of contemporary social change, there is little precedent to appeal to, nor should we need to seek it.

Steven Webster

Auckland, New Zealand

Adrienne Rich replies:

Steven Webster’s letter raises two points which have come up frequently in correspondence and conversation since “The Anti-Feminist Woman” was printed. The first is that “aside from irresponsible speculations, there is no evidence either in the past or in the present of a matriarchal society.” The second is that in seeking social change, feminism needs no validation in a “mythical past” or “golden age.” With the latter point, and with the last sentence of Mr. Webster’s letter, I wholeheartedly agree.

However, I am fascinated by a recurring and often emotional insistence on the “irresponsibility” and invalidity of theories of ancient gynarchy or matriarchy. Mr. Webster states categorically that “this total lack of evidence cannot be the work of ‘patriarchal’ or androcentric bias in research and reporting, thorough as this bias has been.” Why not? If there is such a bias, how can it be so confidently asserted that a “total lack of evidence” exists or that all existing speculations are “irresponsible”? Common sense alone suggests that lack of evidence should be an area open to re-exploration and reinterpretation. Both archaeology and anthropology are incomplete and open-ended, and suffer from a fragmentary patriarchal vision of their materials. Attempts to break the old diagrams—from Bachofen and Briffault, Mitscherlich and Neumann to E. G. Davis and Helen Diner—may serve not only as correctives to that fragmented vision, but as sources for a redefinition of power itself. Or, as Brigitte Berger has put it in her (extremely critical) introduction to Helen Diner’s Mothers and Amazons (Doubleday Anchor Books, 1973): “Because of the existing inadequacy, in fact almost complete lack, of serious research into the questions opened up by Diner, I would suggest that we will have to be partial to developing the much neglected female perspective in studying the primitive field as well as our own society so that a more balanced picture of social reality may finally emerge.”

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