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False goddess | 1, 2, 3

Eller's arguments would not be disputed by most experts, and indeed she is hardly the first to do the debunking. Lotte Motz, in her 1997 book "The Faces of the Goddess," covered much the same ground, as has Lauren Tallalay at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Eller observes that feminist matriarchalists "find evidence of goddess worship in virtually every scrap of prehistoric art," even though the images they seize upon are enigmatic at best. How, for example, can anyone be sure that all female figurines from the Stone Age are indeed goddesses? Motz, like Eller, has concluded that images of men and animals were just as numerous as those of "goddesses."

Eller also echoes Motz's argument that "there clearly was no imposition of a patriarchal system." If the Kurgan invasions might explain patriarchy in the Middle East and Europe, they surely can't be the source of patriarchy in, say, Borneo or Andean Peru. And while Minoan Crete might look like a matriarchy from the scattered evidence of its few artifacts, nothing is thereby proved. There's not a shred of evidence that government and war in Crete were not the exclusive province of men.

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future

By Cynthia Eller

Beacon Press 304 pages

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Nevertheless, Eller claims, belief in ancient matriarchy is popular among middlebrow feminists: gushy pundits like Steinem, women's studies advocates and sundry activists. Although she names noted academic Gerda Lerner among the tacit -- if not outright -- matriarchy-supporters, Eller maintains that matriarchy is a part of the general feminist atmosphere rather than a tenet of a specific school. She may be right; it is difficult to say one way or the other. But in unraveling the pretensions of matriarchalists, Eller also seeks to show that wider matters are stake. Thus, her book takes off in several tangential directions.

Matriarchal myth, Eller argues, is actively harmful at worst and at best unnecessary. In the first place, she points out, matriarchalists tend to glorify "female essentialness" -- that is, to portray women as innately and naturally good, kind and loving human beings, and to emphasize the undying differences between the sexes. (This latter is of course a no-no among social-constructivist American feminists, who insist that gender differences are mostly a social invention.) Second, Eller claims, the need that romantic matriarchalists have for some kind of precedent for either female dominance or equality between the sexes in the distant past is both wishful thinking and a superfluous craving. "Whether patriarchy is our only history," she writes, "or merely one history, we are not in either case bound to clone the past."

Eller claims correctly that matriarchal myth is largely driven by ideology. But of course the same is also true of much of the "enlightened" feminism that Eller herself speaks for. The term "gender" itself, repeated ad nauseam, is a nugget of ideological implications, going hand in hand with a whole set of assumptions about the so-called construction of sexuality. While the notion of the innate moral superiority of women is troublesome, the suggestion that any innate differences between the sexes is immaterial is equally unconvincing. Eller claims that human cultures have demonstrated a dizzying variety of such constructions and that little in sex is not socially contrived.

"Sex roles," Eller writes, "and gender expectations are extremely diverse from one culture to another, to the point of being completely arbitrary." And she goes on, "Heterosexual sex, present in all cultures for reproduction, is sometimes the norm, the only approved sexual activity, and at other times accepted only as a grudging necessity. Gender, another cross-cultural universal, varies from being tremendously significant to comparatively minor." She also asserts that some cultures have a "third gender."

These assertions are also pure ideology, rather than cultural observation. They express the quintessential Western (and especially American) belief in the optimistic possibilities of social engineering. In which culture, pray, is gender relatively "insignificant"? We are not told. In which culture is heterosexuality regarded only as a "grudging necessity"? We are not told. And if "gender expectations" are really so diverse why is there such a thing as ... universal patriarchy? Feminism, essentially, has no answer to these questions.

The explanations offered by feminist anthropologists like Sherry Ortner, that men more or less "lucked out" because they don't bear offspring, are hardly eye-opening, if reasonable enough. As for the "third gender," it is as mythical as the matriarchs of Eden. It is the irresolvable love-hate agon between men and women that drives all cultures, not a whimsically benign rainbow of artificially manufactured gender hues.

Behind all this is what Eller approvingly calls "gendered archaeology." By this, I think, she means the rewriting of the past according to feminist principles. She contrasts this worthy aim with "the archaeology of gender," which I assume would include the work of Gimbutas. Gendered archaeology would view gender in terms of its "variability, permeability, changeability and ambiguity," while matriarchalists seek the Eternal Feminine under every ancient stone. It's a tossup, though, which is the more woolly.

. Next page | Feminist anthropology is more ideology than evidence
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