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False goddess | 1, 2, 3

For whatever the obvious sillinesses of the matriarchalists, it is not clear either what "gendered archaeology" would have to tell us about ancient times. Feminist archaeology and anthropology are long on hot air, but rather short on empirical detail. So far, neither has fundamentally revised anything in our view of prehistory. I admire the work of Elizabeth Barber on the history of textiles, for example, but the insights we gain into the lives of ancient Mesopotamian women by studying their relation to looms are necessarily limited. Shards of pottery, meanwhile, are not especially eloquent about "gender relations." What feminist disciplines have done, on the other hand, is to impose large amounts of parochial contemporary obsessions upon our reading of later, historical societies like classical Greece.

Eller is fond of quoting ideologues like classicist Eva Keuls, whose rabid and often foolish pronouncements about Greek "phallocentrism" are more an excursion into the grim hinterland of American sexual politics than a measured assessment of the Greeks themselves. Erecting wholesale moral condemnations of long-distant cultures because of your one-sided reading of their sexuality is a dubious enterprise at best. At worst, it is purely philistine. The Greeks are largely unknown for us. What can we categorically pronounce about them? Extreme sensitivity and meticulously evenhanded erudition are needed, and by and large feminism is not especially adept at either. Politics is not scholarship.

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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And here arise paradoxes in Eller's otherwise deft exposť. She correctly accuses feminist matriarchalists like Gimbutas and Eisler of being fast and loose with facts and of being overly given to grand, sweeping assumptions. But could not the same thing be said of people like Keuls or Kate Millett, whom Eller quotes approvingly? Both Keuls and Gimbutas, after all, share a remoralizing about the past in terms of an obsessive preoccupation with victimhood. Neither has much credibility among real scholars. All of these writers are adept only in the use of the intellectual machine gun, not of the patient knitting needle.

Furthermore, if Eller can diagnose matriarchalists as being a pretty homogenous group of mainly white, educated, middle-class women from a tiny number of mainly rich countries (the U.S., Britain, Germany, Australia), then exactly the same can be said of feminism in general. Eller's use of the cozy pronoun "we," when addressing her presumably female (and probably white, educated, middle-class) readers seems clubby and a touch smug to me.

At the same time, however, Eller makes another kind of argument about matriarchalists: namely, that their myths might have some value when understood purely as myths. That is, they might have some value as boosters of feminine self-esteem.

This seems both understandable and a tad condescending. Condescending, because women in reality have no need of self-esteem myths -- and if they do they can always turn to Oprah, not to classical scholars. But sympathetic, too, because goddess-mongering is also a kind of confused, blind attempt to reclaim some form of earthy femininity in a culture that fundamentally recoils from it -- today's divas and Hollywood stars are a pretty sapless bunch.

As our corporatist society becomes increasingly sexless and blandly androgynous, pathological reactions inevitably set in. Matriarchalism could be seen as one of these. Eller herself seems to admit as much. "Messages of female specialness," she notes, "are perhaps especially appealing now, in an era of feminist stocktaking." However, this is not a problem of feminism per se but of the wider culture: Another such reaction can be seen in the romantic masculinism and warriordom of Robert Bly.

Eller is perfectly right that matriarchalists are woozy, sexist romantics. But there's a rub. Liberal feminism itself has missed the boat on many fronts. Art, sexual love and religion, for example, seem somehow to be completely beyond its ken. Nor has feminism exactly eroticized the culture, as it might once have promised to do -- quite the reverse. And despite its endless, droning perorations about gender, feminism has produced little deep imaginative insight into what transpires between men and women. The result has been volcanic frustrations -- or just boredom.

It's possible, then, that in an odd way the sentimental, gawky matriarchalists, with their gung-ho celebrations of seething procreation and female fecundity are addressing something that mainstream feminism ignores or arrogantly trivializes. The resentnik myth is largely twaddle. But its emotional roots may not be so easy to dismiss.

salon.com | June 28, 2000

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About the writer
Lawrence Osborne is the author of "Paris Dreambook" and "The Poisoned Embrace," both published by Vintage. He lives in New York City.

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