Please, not that again

Mar 1, 2008
I'm trying to read Tim Ward's new book, Savage Breast. (I even got my library to buy a copy!) It sounded fascinating when I heard of it: a man with a personal history of mysticism and religious seeking tries to unpack the problems with his relationships with women through attempting to understand the Feminine Divine. And as far as that part of the book goes, it's great. Unfortunately, he's using as a basis of the book something that's driving me insane. Let me try to explain it without sounding like an anthro term paper.

Although Ward does admit that the actual evidence for ancient matriarchies -- that's societies ruled by women, not egalitarian ones or ones where women bestow lineage -- is scant to nonexistant, he nonetheless uses this theory as the dominant paradigm throughout the book. (Of course, he is focusing on the Hellenic pantheon, which is a great example of goddesses being shoved aside in favor of gods at a later date -- but that's not evidence of a matriarchy, just evidence of more patriarchy.)

What always annoys me about the matriarchy hypothesis, though, is that it feels like giving in. I mean -- rule by women is not inherently better than rule by men. (Look at Margaret Thatcher.) Matriarchy is just patriarchy in reverse; you're still keeping somebody down. Assuming that there must have been a matriarchy before there was a patriarchy, to somehow "balance things out," is dualistic and wrong-headed, and it sounds to me like a theory made up by people who can't think of any other reason for the patriarchy to exist: either men really are better than women, they seem to think, or there had to be a matriarchy first. Why else do all societies that exist today or that we have any evidence of at all tend to privelige men above women? (They do, unfortunately. Even in societies where there are practically no stable status differences, men have higher status than women as a general rule. Sad but true.)

Okay, so how does that make sense, if no one is inherently better than anyone and it's not a matter of men banding together to overthrow a vast feminine monopoly of power? Well, how about this -- In waaaay ancient times (possibly, based on recent evidence, going back as far as Neanderthals and early Homo erectus), there's no such thing as permanent status. If you're good at one thing, you become the Important Person for that one thing, say you're a good singer so you always lead prayers and dances and things. Doesn't make you a priest, just means you're the best at it so that's what you do. Similarly, there's no difference between men and women, so far as status; everyone does what they're best at.

Probably the women take care of childcare. After all, a child definitely belongs to its mother, but only maybe (or probably, if you're monogamous) belongs to its father, and besides, the bottle and formula hasn't been invented yet and Mom has a better shot at breastfeeding the kid. So women are handling the children. And one of the fundamental tasks in a society like this is to gather food; you need to eat. You're probably omnivores, you eat lots of plants and nuts and growing things but also some game. Gathering growing things, that's safe, predictable work, not necessarily physically easy, but not hugely dangerous either. Hunting, on the other hand, is high-stress, high-danger, relatively low-yield work -- it can involve staying away from camp for a long time, and you run the risk of being attacked by whatever you're hunting (or whatever else is hunting it). It makes sense for the women to gather plant food, which they can do while taking care of the children who depend on them, and for men to do the more dangerous stuff; after all, the men are slightly more expendable. Of course, some women might have been hunters because they were good at it, and some men might have been gatherers because they were good at that. But as a general rule.

But then, as the society grows more complex (for whatever reason, environmental change, population growth, charismatic leadership, there's a whole body of literature on the subject of why complexity happens) status becomes more sticky -- instead of just being the Important Person for what it is you do well, doing something well causes you to become an Important Person. And as previously mentioned, gathering work is predictable, varying little from one instance to another -- it has to be, otherwise you'll deplete all the resources and starve to death. So while one person might be better at gathering than another, there'll never be a huge difference between them. One hunter, though, might come back with a squirrel while another kills a mastodon that'll feed the clan through the whole winter. A hunter might kill a dangerous predator and save dozens of lives. The potential status differential in hunting is huge.

And over time, since the majority of hunters are men, the few high-status female hunters lose their importance, and then finally the direction status flows switches again: instead of men being high-status individuals because they're good hunters, hunting becomes a high-status job because men do it (and gathering becomes low-status because women do it). Ta-da! Patriarchy -- and we haven't even gotten to agricultural societies yet.

This status-flow switching, the change between what just is high-status and what bestows high status, isn't necessarily hugely logical -- but it is how our brains work. Language evolves in exactly the same way; we see a pattern and we continue it, and we don't much care whether we're extending it in the right direction or not. (Yargh, now I can't find the citation for the book I recently read that made this point. I'll get back to you on it.)

So patriarchy isn't about fairness, or about who's "better" than who; it's about uncertain parentage and who's more likely to get stepped on by a mastodon. I'm not necessarily attacking Ward specifically for espousing the ancient matriarchy theory, because it's been pretty popular, with everyone from Victorians fond of trying to prove that society is constantly improving to modern-day feminists who are more interested in politics than evidence. (I have nothing against feminism! I am a feminist! But like all other movements, some of its adherents are silly.) I do think that the ancient matriarchy theory is damaging, because it skews our view of both history and the future. Does one gender really have to rule over another? Is the only way we can manage rights for women to put them in charge of everything? Status, remember, is not a finite resource: you don't have to be stepping on someone else's neck to have status and power. If we're going to idealize any ancient practice (that may or may not have existed), let's go back to the free-floating status model, not one that's just what we have now only backwards.


Tim Ward said...

Hi Jenavira:
Nowdon't be paranoid - this is author Tim Ward writing you. I get a google alert everytime someone posts something about Savage Breast on the web, and as this is a rather lazy Sunday afternoon, I thought I'd weigh in on your posting about my book.

I think you've got me pegged wrong when it comes to prehistoric matrirachy. I don't believe in the classic reverse-patriarchy paradigm as you conclude - in fact, not very many of the scholars I have run into in the Goddess movement do either. Women-respecting, egalitarian socieites are much more the rage. I find prehisotric matrirachy is usually put forward as a "straw man" argument by those who want to argue patriarchy is a human constant. My take: if you look at the Neolithic, you do not find evidence for domination in early settlements. And in southen Europe, you find a profusion of Goddess artifacts.

So I don't think you can prove prehistoric matriarchy any more than you can prove prehistoric patriarchy.

Your own theory falls into the category of sheer speculation. Why not women hunters? Women likely spent most of their time not pregnant or nursing - as with modern hunter gatherers. And why not male gatherers? I've never heard a good reason.

Though I do dip into the issue of mat-or-pat in Savage Breast, I'm pretty clear in the intro that I'm not trying to build a case on this issue. My real focus is, as you correctly identify, to take a close look at what the Goddess meant to men - and what reconnecting with the sacred feminine could men for modern men.

So - read on, my friend. I appreciate you curiosity and critical eye.

Tim Ward

Jenavira said...

Hi Tim -- Thank you for the comments, and I'm sorry it took me so long to reply; my schedule is insane.

I understand that you're not arguing in favor of the matriarchy hypothesis, and that it's never said in so many words in the book, but I do think that it exists as a kind of...underlying sentiment, one that's not really repudiated until the Neolithic chapters toward the end (I'm still not quite done reading yet, oops), and therefore it's easy to get a sense of the matriarchy hypothesis kind of hovering around unsaid in the first half of the book, kind of tacitly endorsed. And while I agree that it's not really something anyone in the archaeological community supports, it also doesn't exist solely as a straw man, particularly in some of the less-scholarly-based Pagan communities; that particular rant of mine has been building for a while, and isn't entirely tied to your book. (Less so the further I get in; I'm glad I haven't started writing my proper book review yet, as my opinion seems to keep changing...)

(Of course, I have some issues with Gimbutas as well, mostly that she goes much farther in her theorizing than I think is really justifiable as archaeology, and this from someone who decided not to pursue graduate studies because I thought the discipline was too restrictive in its theory-building. I do think Gimbutas' work is necessary if archaeology is going to get over its somewhat closed-minded and definitely rather patriarchal approach to reconstruction, but the Neolithic world she describes is far too much like a feminist utopia for me to quite believe in it. All of which turns into an argument over the philosophy of archaeology, which is still not what your book is about, maybe I should be writing an archaeology blog instead. Clearly I need an outlet for my academia.)

In defense of my own theory, childcare encompasses much more than just pregnancy and nursing; I was trying to get at the point that women are more likely to be seen as natural caregivers throughout childhood because of their association with birth. Even in a mobile society where children would be considered adults as they hit puberty, that's still a good fourteen years of childhood. As for why men would be hunters and not gatherers, even in societies where there isn't a hierarchical division of groups there are still groups; male and female are pretty basic, indeed natural groups. And, too, that's how it is in pretty much all modern hunter-gatherer societies, although of course that doesn't necessarily mean anything at all about prehistory. I admit it's a weak point in the theory.

This comment is getting quite long, and I still don't feel I've properly articulated what my problem is, and I think it's because I haven't quite worked it out myself yet. It's less to do with the actual subject of the book, really, than the way it's handled. As I said, I am working on a thorough and proper book review, which I'll start writing as soon as I finish reading (which should be soon, at least). At any rate, thank you very much for a book that's giving me this much to think about.