This book is harmless, predictable, and sad. Like much ad hoc journalism, it is shallow, because the writer has set out to label and destroy a developing phenomenon like the women’s movement rather than to reflect on the needs and conflicts that generated it. Midge Decter’s writing lacks any sense of the past and of the ways it continues to haunt, illuminate, and seduce us. She finds that the women’s movement is the product of emotional and intellectual laziness masquerading as a “passion for social justice” and that its effect, if it is allowed to pursue its course, will be that “we shall all of us, men, women and babes in arms, live to reap the whirlwind.”

What whirlwind, or how our lives might be changed, she does not trouble to say. The book is a sermon, addressed to some presumptive band of the faithful. I cannot imagine it being read—really read—all the way through: it contains no fresh perceptions of women’s stake in this society that might revive their faith in it. I can imagine psychiatrists recommending it to their women patients, middle-class husbands presenting it to their wives on their anniversary or Mother’s Day, suitably inscribed. I expect its existence will be temporarily soothing to some people, chiefly men (the admiring comments on the jacket are all masculine)—but also perhaps to some women who imagine that feminism is denying the value of their past lives, is accusing them of having literally let their powers, their resourcefulness, their bravery, their intelligence run down the drain of the kitchen sink. I am more concerned with these women and their lives than with anything else that may surround the publication of Decter’s book.

Still, I find this a sad book, although its appearance was to be expected. Decter is an admirer of American society and I am not; this is one difference between us. She finds all dissenting movements both counter-productive and phony; she has praised the stability of the American system in the face of efforts to subvert it by “glamorous swashbucklers among the heralds of racial revolution; students; women.”1 She reveals, in her social criticism, a strange lack of information about the unfilled needs, let alone the enormous destructiveness, of the social order which she so admires, and which has brought forth the movements she so dislikes.

But her politics do not, in and of themselves, explain the nature of her book. I can easily imagine that, as a political conservative, she feels estranged from the radical left out of which the early women’s movement of our time emerged. But she does not tell us this. I could understand it if she declared that some aspects of the women’s movement with which she has come in contact seem to have nothing to do with her life. Black women have said this, and have been creating a black women’s consciousness of their own. What I wonder at is her failure to suggest, in all the literature she cites, any reflection of her own experience, any affection for other women, any sense of what she herself as a woman is uniquely feeling or has ever felt. Her writing is lifeless because she attempts to stand outside something which, like it or not, is about and within her; and in so doing she manages to sound not like a woman but like a priest lecturing his flock on the newest temptation.

But it is pointless to write off the antifeminist woman as brainwashed, or self-hating, or the like. I believe that feminism must imply an imaginative identification with all women (and with the ghostly woman in all men) and that the feminist must, because she can, extend this act of the imagination as far as possible.

I meet, as it happens, very few antifeminist women. I do meet women who are not feminists: working-class women who identify strongly with their men and who at the same time know that men have often used them badly. I meet many middle-class women who feel that they have solved “all these problems” for themselves, have managed motherhood and career, or achieved some other sort of personal solution. Most do, however, at least acknowledge that “these problems” existed and involved much conflict and required unusual luck—chiefly money—to solve; they are sympathetic, even enthusiastic, about efforts to make the process less wasteful for other women.

I also meet women, black and white, who still feel, as Simone de Beauvoir did when she wrote The Second Sex, that “it is for man to establish the reign of liberty in the world of the given” and that an equal comradeship between man and woman will naturally follow on the heels of socialist or Third World revolution. (Mme de Beauvoir has since carried her feminism further, as a recent interview in Ms. attests.2 ) I know other political women who feel that stopping the annihilation in Vietnam or preventing ecological suicide must take precedence over other politics—women with long and honorable records of opposition to authoritarianism.


I have also known nonfeminist women who have looked long and hard at masculine society and its competitive, paranoiac rules and who say, “There’s something wrong here. Better to stay at home, where at least some semblance of emotional life remains, than go out there and become another emotionless flunky.” For them the choice is based on the old assumptions. Either you stay at home where you can hope to express tenderness, give and receive warmth, behave spontaneously and generously, or you enter the male world and play the game like a man: the game being control, impasivity, ends above means, exploitation.

I also meet women who are trying to rethink their lives, in small and large ways, painfully and fruitfully, as a consequence of the women’s movement, and who share an awareness that has affected popular consciousness, not simply in the form of TV clichés and barbed jokes, but as serious thinking and study and self-questioning—a process Decter’s book is not likely to scare them from. Her book is irrelevant to all this, because what is really “in the air” is not only the politics of housework or new marriage contracts or even, more seriously, equal pay for equal work, but a sense, on the part of men as well as women, that the way we live in a patriarchal society is dangerous for humanity.

In popular culture, The Godfather is of interest here. Again and again it shows men ruling patriarchal families with the most benign authority toward their own women and children but who are capable at the same time of ruthless intimidation and murder; the efficiency of their violent operations depends on their maintaining an artificial and theoretical wall between fatherhood and godfatherhood. When “business” is discussed at the family table, the Family is already in trouble. Women, with their tendency to ask uncomfortable questions and make uncomfortable connections, are to be excluded from all decision making, as the final shot somewhat heavily portrays. It is interesting that Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity—a film of far more serious poetic and political intentions—provides, again I believe unconsciously, similar images: those women who hover at the edge of things, in doorways, while the men reminisce about their acts of resistance; the medal-heavy Luftwaffe patriarch, blandly recounting his Occupation experiences at the wedding banquet of his daughter, while his wife listens and watches with a nervous smile.

Patriarchal organization and culture have been under question for some time; and until recently the best-known questioners have been men. Erich Neumann, a disciple of Jung, wrote in 1952 (in his introduction to The Great Mother):

…this problem of the Feminine has equal importance for the psychologist of culture, who realizes that the peril of present-day mankind springs in large part from the one-sidedly patriarchal development of the male intellectual consciousness, which is no longer kept in balance by the matriarchal world of the psyche.

Engels earlier connected the advent of the patriarchal family with the beginnings of property-hunger, slavery, war as acquisitive pillage, and ultimately the State itself with its sanction and encouragement of human exploitation. Engels had, of course, as little regard for religion and mythology as Neumann has interest in the labor theory of value. Neumann is concerned not with the liberation of actual women, or even with the political organization of men, but with the collective loss and fragmentation suffered by human beings in the denial and suppression of the feminine. He is not interested in establishing that any actual historical “matriarchal stage” existed but he insists that it does exist in the human unconscious and that “the health and creativity of every man depend very largely on whether his unconscious can live at peace with this stratum of the unconscious or consumes itself in strife with it.”

But the patriarchy has come into question in another way: as the natural order of things. There is a line of speculative inquiry reaching back for over a century that suggests that a matriarchal social order preceded the patriarchal: for example, J.J. Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht (1861) and Robert Briffault’s The Mothers, a three-volume study first published in 1927 and reprinted in an abridged edition in 1969. Bachofen maintained that civilizations such as the pre-Hellenic were not simply matrilineal but were based on “the religious and civic primacy of womanhood” and that many of their scientific and cultural achievements were lost when the matriarchies were crushed, some to be recovered only centuries later.


More recently, in a fascinating though problematical book, The First Sex,3 Elizabeth Gould Davis has attempted to bring together evidence of this primacy—anthropological, archaeological, mythological, historical—and to draw connections which have long been left undrawn, or which if drawn, as by Bachofen and in our century by Mary Beard (Woman As a Force in History, 1945), have been largely ignored or dismissed as unhistorical. While Beard was concerned to point out that much has been swept under the rug, Davis tries to assemble evidence that matriarchies existed, that these may have been the “lost” cultures later remembered and mythologized as the Golden Age, and that there was a deliberate effort to obliterate their memory by the patriarchy—as in the case of mother-goddesses who were later transformed into paternalistic and judgmental gods like Yahweh. (Santayana’s remark that “there is no God and Mary is his mother” becomes more than a quip in this context.)

Long before Davis, in the 1930s, Otto Rank was writing that Jewish “monotheism appears as the result of a long struggle against foreign gods who still betrayed the earmarks of an earlier mother-goddess”; 4 and that “the Torah which guided the nomadic Jews through the desert represented an original female symbol, a relic of the great Asiatic Mother-Goddess.”5 Theodor Reik, in his Pagan Rites in Judaism (1964), remarks of the Torah that “She is considered older than the world and is assigned a cosmic role…. Even in this diluted form we recognize the primal female goddess.” Rank points out that the Golden Calf itself was not the proverbial symbol of materialism but a mother symbol.

Implicit in the notion of a matriarchal origin of civilization, or of “gynocentric” or “gynocratic” societies, of course, is the assumption that woman is and need be in no way hampered—rather the opposite—by child-bearing and nurturing, in governing, inventing, establishing religion, creating works of art, enacting laws, healing the sick, designing cities. Davis quotes Bachofen as suggesting that “matriarchal states were famed for their freedom from strife and conflict…. Matriarchal peoples assigned special culpability to the physical injury of any living creature, even of animals.”6 If this seemed wishful conjecture in 1861, recent archaeological discoveries may force us to credit him at least with intuition.

Davis, for example, draws attention to the excavations at Catal Hüyük in Anatolia in the 1960s as revealing a Neolithic matriarchal civilization in which males played a clearly subordinate role, women were heads of households and worshipped as deities, and “there is no evidence of violent deaths.” This is borne out by the archaeologist James Mellaart, one of the excavators, in his Catal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia:

Somewhere during the 58th century B.C. agriculture finally triumphed over the age old occupation of hunting and with it the power of woman increased…. The divine family…was patterned on that of man; and the four aspects are in order of importance: mother, daughter, son and father.

According to Mellaart the majority of skeletons given sacred burial in shrines are those of women, and “there are no individuals…that showed signs of violent death.” Although Mellaart cautions against drawing conclusions about Neolithic social structure, he writes, “In the new economy a great number of tasks were undertaken by women…and this probably accounts for her social pre-eminence…. Hence a religion which aimed at…conservation of life in all its forms, its propagation and the mysteries of its rites connected with life and death, birth and resurrection, were evidently part of her sphere rather than that of man.”

Davis’s book, while it throws out a wide and potentially illuminating spray of sparks, is not, like Beard’s, critical of its sources nor does the author attempt to deal with the special problems of controversy within the fields she draws on. What she does provide is the idea of a historical alternative to a society characterized by dominant, aggressive men and passive, victimized, acquiescent women. Even were only half the scholarship she cites accurate, the idea would remain enormously valuable. Davis’s book also suggests the necessity for a new and demanding kind of critical scholarship—a searching re-evaluation of the “respectable” sources as well as of neglected ones, undertaken in the light of feminist perceptions.

There are certain difficulties which adhere to any discussion of patriarchal society and feminist consciousness, and which I had better delineate here, though I cannot solve them. Kate Millett suggests the larger problem when she writes, in Sexual Politics:

Perhaps patriarchy’s greatest psychological weapon is simply its universality and longevity. A referent scarcely exists with which it might be contrasted (here the concept of the gynocracies becomes indeed compelling) or by which it might be refuted. While the same might be said of class, patriarchy has a still more tenacious or powerful hold through its successful habit of passing itself off as nature…. When a system of power is thoroughly in command, it has scarcely need to speak itself aloud….

In an interesting essay, “Male and Female Principle,”7 Linda Thurston touches on the problem of trying to describe certain experiences within the terminology we have been given by patriarchal culture. She considers alternative ways of thinking about the dualisms we seem to fall into when we use language: active/passive, strong/weak, rational/mystical, giving/receiving, etc.

Thurston traces the differing types of what may be designated as Male or Female processes back to the modes of biological reproduction: “Male processes are those which, like ejaculation, come from a single powerful source and move in multiple directions…. Female processes are those which, like the womb, provide a nourishing environment for growth.” As she makes clear, these biological processes are “strong metaphors for the types of social processes we are concerned with analyzing. Male and Female, as cosmic principles, should not be confused to mean men and women.” If we think of mutuality, wholeness, transformation as desirable in the individual and in society at large, how do we even begin to talk about the dichotomies embedded in our thought and language? I think it is important to keep in mind this “biological metaphor” as a starting point; not because anatomy is destiny—for men any more than for women—but because anatomy suggests certain kinds of imagery and phenomenology that recur throughout our thought.

Biological motherhood has long been used as a reason for condemning women to a role of powerlessness and subservience in the social order. Therefore it is hardly surprising that feminist thinking has had to begin by rejecting physiology as a basis for consideration of ability and by exploring whatever else woman is and might be besides a body with uterus and breasts. However, I believe that a radical reinterpretation of the concept of motherhood is required which would tell us, among many other things, more about the physical capacity for gestation and nourishment of infants and how it relates to psychological gestation and nurture as an intellectual and creative force. Until now, the two aspects of creation have been held in artificial isolation from each other, while responsibilities of men and women have largely been determined not by anatomy but by laws, education, politics, and social pressures claiming anatomy as their justification.

Again and again, as I read the literature of the women’s movement, I am struck by courageous imaginations that are now trying to go further than feminism has gone before: to grapple with immediate political necessities; with the emotional imprintings of the culture; with the great weight of patriarchal scholarship in need of reevaluation; with much lost and blotted-out history and biography, archaeology and anthropology; and with a sense that time, in the sense of human survival, is running out.

To think as a feminist means trying to think connectedly about, for example, the science of embryology as it may connect with sexuality (what does it mean, for example, that in the fetus male differentiation occurs only after several weeks);8 about human body-rhythms and their relation to natural cycles (the menses and the lunar month, the connections between woman, darkness, sleep, and death in the male unconscious; the connections of these with male attitudes and political decisions affecting women); about the uses and criteria of psychology (Phyllis Chesler in her recent Women and Madness begins to connect male theories of female psychology with the political and social order). It is easy to say that we cannot ever know what is truly male or truly female. There is much we can know. We do know that these principles have been split apart and set in antagonism within each of us by a male-dominated intellectual and political heritage. That is at least a starting point.

I would like to clarify here the way in which I am using the term patriarchy. By it I mean to imply not simply the tracing of descent through the father, which anthropologists seem to agree is a relatively late phenomenon, but any kind of group organization in which males hold dominant power and determine what part females shall and shall not play, and in which capabilities assigned to women are relegated generally to the mystical and aesthetic and excluded from the practical and political realms. (It is characteristic of patriarchal thinking that these realms are regarded as separate and mutually exclusive.) Such group organization has existed so long that almost all written history, theology, psychology, and cultural anthropology are founded on its premises and contribute to its survival. Based as it is on genital difference, its concept of sex is genitally centered; entire zones of the body (and soul) are to be used simply as means to a genital end.

At the core of the patriarchy is the individual family unit with its division of roles, its values of private ownership, monogamous marriage, emotional possessiveness, the “illegitimacy” of a child born outside legal marriage, the unpaid domestic services of the wife, obedience to authority, judgment and punishment for disobedience. Within this family children learn the characters, sexual and otherwise, that they are to assume, in their turn, as adults. The parents are expected to deliver the child up to the educational system, which will carry it further in this acculturation process; the parents reinforce the values of school and discourage the child from rebelling against authority, even the most corrupt, lest he or she fail to enter the mainstream of the society.

Throughout, authority derives from a person’s status—father, teacher, boss, lawgiver—rather than from his personal qualities. We all know variations on this pattern and most of us can cite instances of unusual mutuality and liberality in families we know or have been part of; but the fact remains that they do not represent the overruling pattern. The sacredness of the family in the patriarchy—sacred in the sense that it is heresy to question its ultimate value—relieves the titular head of it from any real necessity to justify his behavior.

Within this institution, and largely through maternal influence, have existed tenderness, emotional responsiveness, protectiveness toward nascent states of being, respect for the process of growing, along with mutual vulnerability and, though rarely, nonpossessive love. (Yet Phyllis Chesler points out that mothers tend to nurture their sons more readily than their daughters, at least in the sense that they confirm their sons as potentially strong and active beings, while they encourage their daughters to become good candidates for marriage, confirmers of men rather than of one another.)9 There have been cells of matriarchy within the patriarchal system everywhere.10

Within the patriarchal family, the maternal element has also been variously misread, distorted, and corrupted. We all know the ways in which maternal care and concern can turn into authoritarian control. It is a truism to say that the channeling of female energy into domesticity can produce overprotectiveness, overscrupulosity, martyrdom, possessiveness disguised as sacrifice, and much repressed and displaced anger. We can expect such distortions when nurturance is a tiny enclave in a harsh and often violent society.

The patriarchy looks to its women to embody and impersonate the qualities lacking in its institutions—concern for the quality of life, for means rather than for pure goal, a connection with the natural and the extrasensory order. These attributes have been classified as “female” in part because the patriarchy relegates them to women and tends to deny them—with a certain fatalism—to men. The encouragement of such qualities as intuition, sympathy, and access to feeling by a mother in her sons is deplored because this is supposed to make them unfit for the struggle that awaits them in a masculine world. Thus the “masculinity” of that world is perpetuated.

Most early feminists did not question the patriarchal family structure as such. They wanted education, changes in the marriage laws, birth control, suffrage; the struggle to prove that women could be entrusted with such dangerous tools was energy-consuming—and physically dangerous—enough without taking on the patriarchy en bloc. But recently, as a few, mostly white middle-class, women have obtained token “equality” in the form of permission to attend professional schools, to be pediatricians or psychoanalysts or to argue cases in court, their relationship to the patriarchy has become confusing.

When the professor who directs your thesis, the second professor who interviews you for a grant, the editor who hires you for the staff of his magazine, the government official who offers you a position on his committee, the chief surgeon with whom you work as an anesthesiologist, the reviewer who praises you for “logical thinking,” the analyst who approves your method of dealing with patients in training, the members of the law firm in which you are the first woman partner, all are male, it is difficult to be sure when and where your “success” begins to build itself on a series of denials, small enough in themselves, perhaps, yet accruing through the invisible process such things follow into acquiescence in a system of values which distrusts and degrades women.

I am not talking here about the loss of some fragile “feminine” quality jeopardized by excellence in reasoning and analysis, or by the desire to have original ideas. I am talking about the consciousness of self as Other which Simone de Beauvoir has described as that being toward whom man often feels fear, guilt, and hostility, and about whom he weaves his least defensible theories. Few women have grown up without this knowledge, lodged as it may be in some collective unconscious, disguised as it may be under codes of chivalry, domestic sentiment, biological reduction, or as it is revealed in poetry, law, theology, popular songs, or dirty jokes. Such knowledge—so long as women are not pressured into denying it—makes them potentially the deepest of all questioners of the social order created by men, and the most genuinely radical of thinkers.

It goes without saying that for “successful” women, male hostility usually takes forms less physical and literal than it does in the lives of their “unliberated” sisters. In Bangla Desh during the revolution, it has been estimated that 200,000 women were raped by Pakistani soldiers. Many were victims, according to Joyce Goldman in the August, 1972, issue of Ms., of highly organized, almost mechanized gang rape. Some were children as young as eight. The husbands, fathers, brothers, fiancés of these women immediately disowned them, made them outcasts of that allegedly revolutionary new society. Many of these women committed suicide, others gave birth to children whom they later murdered. Every one of these women was raped twice: first physically by the enemy soldier, then psychically by the enemy in her own household. I wonder how many women there are, however free and fortunate they consider themselves, who would not respond to that double jeopardy with intense and painful recognition.

The “liberated” woman encounters male hostility in the form of psychic rape, often masked as psychic or physical seduction. It occurs overtly in the classroom where a male teacher denigrates female intellect; more subtly in the committee where she sits as token woman and where her intelligence is treated with benign neglect; in the magnanimous assumption that she is “not like other women” and for this reason is so desirable a colleague, figurehead, or adornment to the establishment (the pitting of woman against woman, woman against herself). At the same time that she is told about her “specialness” she is expected to be flattered, like all women, by flirtation. She is also expected to be flattered by man’s sexual self-hatred and sexual confusion, his avowal that “I can talk to women, but not to men,” his romanticizing of his sexual dishonesty: “I can’t talk to my wife, but I can talk to you.”

When she is not flattered, she is accused of causing his impotence. When she responds with strong feeling to any or all of the above, she is charged with emotionalism, hysteria, frigidity, lack of objectivity. A member of the British women’s movement remarked on the BBC:

One of the consequences of living in a world intellectually dominated by men…is that women try to have opinions which will satisfy the approved standards of the world; and in the last analysis, these are standards imposed on them by men, which, in practise, means that our opinions are kept fairly rigorously separated from our own lived experience. If a woman today wants to have opinions which are truly her own, she has to check them against her experience; and often not against her personal experience alone, but against a collective one.11

The token woman may come to believe that her personal solution has not been bought, but awarded her as a prize for her special qualities. And indeed she may—indeed, must—have special qualities. But her personal solution has been bought; her “liberation” becomes another small confirmation of the patriarchal order and its principle of division.

The great loss that the “special” woman suffers is her separation from other women, and thus from herself. As soon as she is lulled by that blandishment about being different, more intelligent, more beautiful, more human, more committed to rational thinking, more humorous, more able to “write like a man,” a true daughter of the father-principle, she loses touch with her own innate strength. Underlying the “successful” antifeminist woman’s thought is surely the illusion that “If I can be a special woman, I can be free”—even though this freedom requires a masculine approach to social dynamics, to competition with others, to the very existence of other human beings and their needs (which are seen as threatening). She may let herself become concerned with the “status” of other “special” women, while she ignores the women typing in the office or serving in the cafeteria.

Even within the women’s movement this fragmentation can be seen, and is hailed with satisfaction by its critics: See, those women are fighting each other! But there is a difference between diversity and fragmentation. Fragmentation is endemic in patriarchal society and is in no way unique to the women’s movement. But many of the most serious and concerned women of our time, having different experiences to bring to the movement, are in serious, affectionate, and difficult struggle with each other as they attempt to sort out the new materials and the long-buried feelings in which the women’s movement is so rich.

The nuclear family is a principal form of social fragmentation. It fosters the sense of biologically determined alliance against an outer world which is perceived (in Decter’s words) as “a polymorphous mass” rather than as a potential community which might be available for mutual help and generosity and mutual transfusions of psychic energy. But this tiny unit, presumed as a sheltering environment, a safe harbor from the violent and aggressive world of the Strangers, is in fact often also dangerous for the psyche. Freud’s own work suggested (though not to him) that the patriarchal family was a source of psychic disorder.

Yet it remains true that within the family the maternal principle has survived in its least damaged form, though drained off from society and channeled into the narrowest possible vessel. Much of the fear that men, and antifeminist women, express at the possible disappearance of the family may be dread that if women decline to become mothers physically we are robbing our culture of all motherly possibilities. And there are passages in Midge Decter’s book that make me think that for her, too, this dread exists. Her real whirlwind, her fear that dares not speak its name, may be that all that she knows is most hopeful in herself and most hopeful to society—however the patriarchy may have taught her to diminish it or to keep it in its place—will vanish with the “end of motherhood.”

One of the devastating effects of technological capitalism has been its numbing of the powers of the imagination—specifically, the power to envision new human and communal relationships. I am a feminist because I feel endangered, psychically and physically, by this society, and because I believe that the women’s movement is saying that we have come to an edge of history when men—in so far as they are embodiments of the patriarchal idea—have become dangerous to children and other living things, themselves included; and that we can no longer afford to keep the female principle—the mother in all women and the woman in many men—straitened within the tight little postindustrial family, or within any male-induced notion of where the female principle is valid and where it is not.

In Les Structures Elémentaires de la Parenté, Lévi-Strauss wrote that “the first problem of mythic thought is that women must be domesticated. I would go so far as to say that even before slavery or class domination existed, men built an approach to women that would serve one day to introduce differences among us all” (italics mine). There are men, dangerous to us all, who have a personal stake in keeping those imposed differences between man and woman and between man and man. To look freshly at, and to revolt against, the sexuality, the family structure, and the politics that have evolved from that patriarchal “approach” is imperative not only for feminists but for our general survival.

One passage in Decter’s book which breaks through her tone of detachment is her description of the loneliness of the pregnant woman. However much the “expectant mother” is told that she is melting into the great stream of being, I think here Decter is right; she suffers from a sense of fear and isolation in this most unmotherly of societies. I wish Midge Decter could sense that in a genuine alliance of women with women, and of women with non-masculinist men, the pregnant woman or the woman in labor would not feel alone; that the women’s movement is struggling to imagine and re-create a more natural environment for the process of becoming a mother, an artist, an originator, a human being. The loneliness of the pregnant woman is an archetype of the loneliness of all life-expanding impulses in a society created out of the triumph of force and will.

This Issue

November 30, 1972