by Cynthia Eller
Beacon Press, 304 pages
Once upon a time, everyone worshipped the Goddess. Women were in charge. Lesbianism was accepted, and private property was unheard of. People appreciated the sacred and holy in even the smallest tasks. Above all, motherhood was respected. Women, like the Goddess, were creative, and their power in society derived from their ability to bear children.
Or so a lot of Americans believe. And not just moon-worshipping, menstrual-blood drinking, coven-forming Wiccans. The idea of a Goddess-worshipping age, when the women ruled the roost, first gained currency in the mid-19th century and was revived in the 1970s, and is surprisingly widespread today. NOW has published pamphlets and organized presentations embracing the matriarchal halcyion days. College textbooks and a few grammar-school primers teach matriarchal prehistory as though it were established fact. Even Al Gore invoked it in "Earth in the Balance."
Sorry, Al. Cynthia Eller, author of a widely-acclaimed ethnographic study of feminist spirituality, "Living in the Lap of the Goddess," says the matriarchy is bunk. According to Eller, most accounts of matriarchal prehistory are based on "a highly ideological reading of prehistoric artifacts accompanied by some dubious anthropology," sometimes with a little astrology thrown in for good measure.
Because there is so little evidence, Eller concedes, it is hard to prove definitively that there wasn't once a matriarchy--but "nothing offered up in support of the matriarchal thesis is especially persuasive."
After demolishing the matriarchal Golden Age, Eller turns her hand to the ideology of matriarchalism. Eller argues the myth of matriarchy is anything but empowering. It's just a variant of difference feminism: the 1980s argument that men and women are different, but that women's special virtues should be accorded equal (or greater) respect than men's.
The matriarchal myth, says Eller, boxes women into narrow and proscribed roles: women don't think, they feel; they don't calculate, they nuture; they're important only because they're mommies. Where does the brainy, childless stock-broker fit into the matriarchal scheme? After all, haven't these virtues been seized by the "anti-feminist" right?
Especially grevious, says Eller, is the suggestion that women "on the very threshold of achievement.find themselves exhausted.unhappy and confused," and therefore ought to "abandon their careers and seek out marriage and motherhood." (Danielle Crittenden and Carol Christ may have more in common than they thought!)
Eller isn't the first to criticize difference feminism, but she falls into the trap of answering with her own extremism. Following the line made famous by Judith Butler, Eller argues that gender has no biological basis at all, but is merely a script that we act out according to society's expectations. Since there is no biology outside of culture, writes Eller, neither "sex [nor] gender.exist preculturally." Being a woman has nothing to do with ovaries--it is about "the experience of being perceived to be a woman and being treated as women are treated." In other words, if I dress up as Groucho Marx for a Halloween party, I cease not only to be feminine, but to be female. Nevermind my having to dash to the bathroom to change a tampon.
There is a middle ground between Eller's assertions that biology is all performance and the matriarchalists' notion that biology is destiny--but you won't find that middle ground in "The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory." Most women would reject the idea that an extra X chromosome doesn't turn all women into tree-hugging, child-loving bread-bakers. But they also would laugh at Eller's suggestion that biology is just performance--try to tell a woman in her first trimester of pregnancy that she's just acting out a script that says she should sleep eighteen hours a day.
Indeed, Eller's gender-is-just-performance line can have consequences for women no less dire than the matriarchalists' vision. If biology isn't real, after all, there's no reason to protect pregnant women or young mothers in the work place. The matriarchalists' solutions to sexism may not get women very far, but neither will Cynthia Eller's.