Ask An Anthropologist – Were Ancient Societies Matriarchal?

Ask An Anthropologist is an occasional series where I will be accepting reader questions and answering them here on this blog. If you have a pressing question about culture, anthropology, religion, or another relevant topic, feel free to submit your thoughts in the comments below.


So I’m reading this book, From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women in the World by Marylin French. It’s in three volumes, the first (obviously) dealing with pre-history. Much of the evidence for claims made in that volume is based on, of course, the anthropological record.

As I’m reading this, though, I’m a bit skeptical. The author makes a lot of claims that don’t feel fully justified. And I’m not sure if it’s because the book is a sweeping survey and so there is little room for laying out every bit of evidence, or if she’s just plain full of it. I mean, obviously all historians have some agenda, and this woman’s agenda is pretty clear- to write a history that reveals women’s importance in human history. But she seems to be buying into that whole tradition of books like The Chalice and the Blade that argue that all early societies were egalitarian, peaceful, lovey-dovey, and matriarchal before men got together and decided to muck the whole thing up.

While I consider myself a Feminist, I don’t necessarily buy into those visions of history. I quit reading one such book, When God Was a Woman, because frankly it just seemed bogus. The author showed photos of various Neolithic fertility goddess statues and based on that, argued that all peoples of that age worshiped a feminine divine and revered women, and that patriarchy was a later, conscious invention of men intent on enslaving women forever.

Anyway, in French’s book, she argues that because some peoples that have, according her to her, retained Stone Age era traditions (among them the !Kung), have what seems to be a matriarchal society, that we can conclude that all Stone Age groups lived that way. She goes so far as to claim that women invented the concept of the container. Yes, the container. She argues that women were the first to make an apparatus to hold/carry objects because they would’ve needed them for babies. That seems like a huge leap at best. Where’s the evidence for that? Men wouldn’t have thought of the need for a carrying/holding apparatus for water? Meat? Anything?

So I’m just wondering if these claims of French’s seem off to me because she’s basing them on things that are so accepted that she’s not taking pains to prove them. Or if she’s just a nutty revisionist. I’m also wondering what kind of cred these types of anthropologists (Marija Gimbutas comes to mind) have in general amongst other anthropologists, and what’s BS and what isn’t.


Honestly, I love these types of questions. The whole, ‘genders were equal and everything was so much better in the past before these assholes came along and screwed it up’ argument has been sadly pervasive in some circles for the past decade or so. I can certainly go into more detail on this subject later on but for now let me summarize what I can here.

Ok, where to start. I’ll begin by saying that the field of ‘Feminist Anthropology’ has been fraught with troubles lately. There is a pretty significant portion of both the New Age movement and the last vestiges of the 60’s/70’s sexual revolution that has been engaging in some serious revisionist history or, in some cases, outright misrepresentation of evidence. Marilyn French (born in 1929), in particular, is one of these authors. I will give her the credit for being a known pioneer of the Feminist movement, especially in the aforementioned 70’s, but she is about as ‘militant’ as they come. I’m generally loathe to refer to any Feminist by that adjective, because I find it dismissive and prejudicial (I consider myself a pretty hardcore Feminist), but French is well known for taking extremist stances when it comes to gender politics. In her 1977 work, The Women’s Room, she declares that all men are rapists and that modern culture (and by that she means all modern Western cultures) are, by design, contemptuous of women.

She’s also not an anthropologist, she’s an English major. Much of her bias is based on the fact that she is a fan of the works of Simone de Beauvoir (author of The Second Sex), she divorced a husband that she felt was in the way of her ambitions, and supported her daughter following a violent rape. Her main concerns were what she perceived in the 1950’s (when she, herself, was an oppressed housewife) as the training of women by society to be submissive brood mares, the loss of a woman’s identity following marriage, and traditional societal expectations regarding women’s assigned roles. French’s bias is clear but my issue with her works in not her fiction (which was her main career contribution) but her “reinterpretive” take on history. And she’s not the only one.

Marija Gimbutas (also a product of the 60’s and 70’s), who you mention, unfortunately falls in this same school. Her archaeological work is quite sound but her interpretive work is where she runs into trouble. Gimbutas also espoused the idea that early societies were matrifocal and honored concepts of ‘true equality’ but this interpretation is severely biased. Her analysis is interesting and she certainly makes some good points about how we should view and interpret material culture, but much of the evidence she uses to support her theories doesn’t really hold up. For example, she claimed that Neolithic societies were matrifocal because grave goods consisted of female figurines. But she was ignoring the fact that Neolithic grave goods also contained male and asexual figurines. She also claimed something about circle structures being representative of female eyes, and that is simply outright conjecture. The Neo-Pagan movement, and especially Starhawk, really glommed onto Gimbutas, and don’t get me started on her.

Gender and religion through early history are touchy subjects but the main answer to your questions is: No, the archaeological record does not support the arguments made by French and similar writers. The meanings of the female icons and symbols in pre-history are not well understood and anthropology has been clear on what evidence we have and what we don’t. We do know that many hunter-gatherer religions have female deities (and even extremely important female deities) that likely held power over aspects of fertility, hidden knowledge and secrets, the moon, and children. These are not small nor insignificant goddesses but to elevate them to some sort of Feminist ideal society is to, in my opinion, denigrate their real significance. It is also likely true that early societies were more gender egalitarian than later state-level societies, but even the !Kung peoples (who French places on her idealist pedestal) are not matriarchal in the sense that she claims. They are, what we refer to in anthropology, as an avuncular society. The focus is not truly on the power of the woman but on the social power and significance of her male relatives. The family line is traced through the woman (because her relation to the child she gives birth to is obvious, the father’s is not) but the cultural power lies in her male familial relations (referred to as the Avuncular Postulate).

True matriarchal societies (in the way that Western Feminist thinkers dream of) don’t currently exist, and it is hard to say if they ever did. It’s possible, but we don’t really know. It’s more likely that somewhat egalitarian societies existed but they have long given way to more complex cultural constructions of gender. And that’s the rub. Early pre-history concepts of gender and gender roles, even concepts of gender among current hunter-gathers, are not the gender concepts that we in the West have. Writers like French like to ascribe their own gender role analysis to cultures and peoples that don’t really share the Western ideas of gender and that is where their bias becomes problematic. This is not anthropological thinking, this is philosophical conjecture.

You’re correct to see red flags in books like these. Their arguments are hyperbolic and, in most cases, unsupported by any real anthropological evidence. They like to hold up pre-history (an area without much evidence, making it easier to pass interpretive analysis as fact) as some kind of lost Feminist utopia that probably didn’t really exist. And in doing so, they can freely blame men for all their conceptualized troubles (again, not saying that men aren’t to blame for some things, but no gender is responsible for cultural traditions as a whole). In my opinion, they also end up muddying the real significance behind things such as goddess worship (like the doctrines of Inanna or other moon religions), female deification, and early historical gender constructions. They also fail to see the kinds of real power (political and social) women had in places such as ancient Rome and among the nomadic peoples of Russia and Mongolia. Have women been culturally oppressed throughout history? Of course, there is plenty of evidence to suggest so, but much of the Feminist outrage against oppression and gender roles has really only come about from the cultural practices of the Victorian Age. Hell, even in the Middle Ages, we had powerful queens and feared female warriors (see Boadicea or the scourge of the female shogun in China).

To try and summarize everything, many of these authors are engaged in a sort of philosophical ‘ancient history’ legitimation of their views. Essentially stating that, “my views are correct and good, because ancient history supports me.” A lot of New Age philosophies fall into this trap. Instead of claiming legitimacy based on their current understanding and beliefs and current state of culture, society, and thought (a trap Wicca, Neo-Druidism, and Feminism also fall into a little too often) they try to claim legitimacy because “back in the good old days” that’s how it was. Unfortunately for them, the real archaeological and anthropological records don’t bear them out. That doesn’t mean Feminist thought isn’t legitimate. It means that they are simply betting on the wrong horse.

If you want to get into Feminist Anthropology without getting a really bad taste in your mouth, you can always try looking into anthropologists like Caroline Brettell, Lila Abu-Lughod, or Micaela Di Leonardo. I’m not saying these authors are perfect, but they take a bit more of a cross-cultural, less personally biased, view of the subject.

Good Luck!

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