WLRN Edition 21: Edition 21: Ancient Gynocentric Societies
Transcribed by Natasha Y.B. and Julia Beck
“Real Voice” by Thistle Pettersen:
But through the hallways of academia
And on the face of the moon
The footprints of conquest
Haven’t left us any room
To say what we think, or
To speak what we know
To hear different voices
At least a sound from below.
AMANDA : Greetings and welcome to the 21st edition podcast of Women’s Liberation Radio News for this Thursday, January 4th, 2018. Happy New year to all of our listeners! The team at WLRN produces a monthly news program to break the sound barrier women are blocked by under the status quo rule of men. This blocking of women’s discourse we see in all sectors of society, be they conservative, liberal, mainstream, progressive or radical. The thread that runs through all of politics, except for separatist feminism, is male dominance and entitlement.
Today’s podcast looks at Gynocentric and Matrifocal societies throughout history. Women weren’t always under the boot of patriarchy, despite what male archaeologists and historians may claim. It is only through understanding our herstories that we can move forward towards a more feminist future. We will hear interview segments with Max Dashu, feminist women’s historian and the founder of the woman-focused Suppressed Histories Archives; Rianne Eisler, prominent systems theory scholar who wrote The Chalice and the Blade; and Starhawk, influential writer and theorist of feminist Neopaganism.
Today’s insightful commentary comes to us from Sekhmet SheOwl who reflects on the meaning and possibility of gynocentric culture in the 21st century and beyond. Before we dive into today’s discussion of ancient matrifocal societies, here’s Thistle Pettersen with the headlines for Thursday, January 4th 2018.
Thistle PETTERSON: According to a report by the Daily Mail from December 20th, Hundreds took to the streets of Malmo in southern Sweden to protest after three teenage girls were brutally gang raped by men, and police told women to stay indoors. An unknown number of male assailants raped one of the girls in a children’s playground in the early hours of December 16th. The following day, Malmo police issued a warning to local women not to go outside alone at night, and to walk in pairs or use taxis. According to a more recent report from December 30th, another gang rape has occurred in the same city, by multiple unidentified male assailants, but this time the woman they raped was over the age of 18. Malmo police believe it’s unlikely the series of crimes are somehow connected. Referring to the two December attacks which appear to share the same pattern, Malmo police spokesman Nils Norling said, “You cannot immediately say that they are linked to each other, but you cannot rule it out either.”
While Malmo struggles to cope with the wave of sexual assaults, a Swedish court has sparked controversy with its recent decision to release three men accused of raping a woman in the Stockholm suburb of Fittja in 2016. The woman’s lawyer described the ruling as, “an embarrassment” for Sweden’s legal system. The court found the evidence, that included torn clothes and sperm samples, was “simply insufficient for someone to be convicted.” The court argued in its summary that it’s impossible to establish the cause of the woman’s injuries, skin discoloration and scrapes, that she said were inflicted as a result of the incident.
The decision triggered protests, with activists taking to Malmo’s streets with signs reading, “No rapists on our streets,” and calling on Prime Minister Stefan Lofven to tackle the problem. With police seemingly failing to make headway in finding and prosecuting anyone in the attacks, local activists decided to take matters in their own hands and have organized night-time street patrols to reassure neighbors while hoping to keep women safe from all kinds of abuse.
Erica Garner, an activist for social justice, died on December 30th, days after suffering a heart attack, according to her mother, Esaw Snipes. Erica was the eldest daughter of Eric Garner, the man who died by a police chokehold in New York in 2014. Her father’s death contributed to the sparking of the Black Lives Matter movement, a cause which Erica herself rallied for.
Garner, 27, suffered from the effects of an enlarged heart after giving birth to her son three months ago, Snipes said. “I warned her every day, you have to slow down, you have to relax and slow down,” she said. “She was a fighter, she was a warrior and she lost the battle,” Snipes said of her daughter. “She never recovered from when her father died. She is in a better place.”
Police are working to try to unravel the mystery of who killed a black woman, her same-sex partner and her two young children. The bodies of these victims were found in a riverfront apartment house the day after Christmas near Albany, New York. Though this crime has the clear markings of a hate crime against lesbians, major news media are not reporting it as such. Police identified the victims as Shanta Myers, 36; Brandi Mells, 22; Jeremiah Myers, 11; and Shanise Myers, 5. Shanta Myers, the mother of both children, was in a relationship with Mells, the police chief said. Investigators declined to confirm the method of death or any details regarding the scene of the crime but Troy Police Chief John Tedesco was quoted saying, “After being in this business for 43 years, I can’t describe the savagery of a person who would do this.”
A property manager found the bodies on December 26th after being asked to check on the welfare of the residents of the apartment, one of five in a house located in the city’s Lansingburgh section along the Hudson River just north of Albany, police said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that a person who committed this crime is capable of anything,” Tedesco said, adding that police don’t believe there was an imminent danger to the public. Police didn’t know when the slayings occurred, but Tedesco said he hoped autopsies being conducted would provide clues. State police were involved in the investigation along with New York parole officials, Tedesco said.
Police in Iran’s capital announced on December 28th that they will no longer arrest women for failing to observe the Islamic dress code in place since the 1979 revolution. The announcement signaled an easing of punishments for violating the country’s conservative dress code, as called for by the young and reform-minded Iranians who helped re-elect President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, earlier in 2017. But hard-liners opposed to easing such rules still dominate Iran’s security forces and judiciary, so it was unclear whether the change would be fully implemented. “Those who do not observe the Islamic dress code will no longer be taken to detention centers, nor will judicial cases be filed against them,” Tehran police chief Hossein Rahimi was quoted as saying. The semi-official Tasnim news agency said violators will instead be made to attend classes given by police. It said repeat offenders could still be subject to legal action, and the dress code remains in place outside the capital.
Last month, Irma Yolanda Choc Cac traveled from Guatemala with ten other indigenous women to the financial district of Toronto, Canada to testify before a group of lawyers representing the Canadian mining company, Hudbay. It was the first time Choc Cac had ever left Guatemala. But the story that she and 10 other Maya Q’eqchi’ women had come to tell is at the heart of a precedent-setting legal challenge pitting indigenous people against a transnational corporation – and which has cast a chill over Canada’s vast mining industry.
The case centers on allegations dating back to 2007, when the women say hundreds of police, military and private security personnel linked to a Canadian mining company descended on the secluded village of Lote Ocho in eastern Guatemala. A few days earlier, security personnel had set dozens of homes ablaze in a bid to force the villagers off their ancestral lands, according to court documents. The 11 women say they were raped repeatedly by the armed men. Choc Cac, three months pregnant at the time, was with her 10-year-old daughter when she was seized by the men, some of whom were in uniform. Twelve of the men raped her, she said. She later suffered a miscarriage.
The women link the violence to the nearby Fenix mine, one of the largest nickel mines in Central America, and the Guatemalan subsidiary that was overseeing its operations. At the time, the subsidiary was controlled by Vancouver-based Skye Resources. In 2008, Skye was acquired by Toronto’s Hudbay Minerals, who sold the mine to a Russian company in 2011.
A team of Toronto lawyers seized on the Canada connection, filing civil lawsuits that argue that the Canadian parent company, later acquired by Hudbay, was negligent when it came to monitoring the actions of its Guatemalan subsidiary. The lawsuits may offer a legal means of addressing a longstanding obstacle for human rights campaigners: the perceived legal disconnect between multinationals and the local subsidiaries who carry out their operations abroad.
“These are some of the first attempts in Canadian legal history to try to bring some accountability to a Canadian mining company for horrific human rights abuses in another country,” said Cory Wanless of Klippensteins Barristers and Solicitors, the Toronto law firm representing the women. The novel approach scored its first victory in 2013, when a court in Ontario dismissed an application by Hudbay to throw out the case. The decision marked the first time in Canada that foreign claimants had been granted access to the courts in order to pursue Canadian companies for alleged human rights abuses abroad. The Guatemalan women last month travelled to Toronto for the case’s discovery phase, fielding hours of questions from lawyers for the Canadian company, Hudbay. “It’s difficult to sit down and face them,” said Choc Cac, speaking through a translator because she only speaks Qéqchi’. “To sit down in front of those who caused this pain to me and my community is very difficult.” Though the case will likely take years before it reaches the court, “the strength and courage of the eleven women behind the lawsuit has given rise to a new precedent that could shift corporate behavior around the world,” said Cory Wanless of Klippensteins Barristers and Solicitors, the Toronto law firm representing the women.
A feminist campaigner has accused the Labour Party of “an appalling, Orwellian betrayal of women” after she was asked to leave a Labour Christmas party because her views on transgender rights were making guests “feel unsafe.” Venice Allan, 42, a single mother from south London, has been campaigning for a wider debate on the government’s plans to allow a person to self-declare their chosen gender. Ms. Allan said she was asked to leave the Labour Women’s Network Christmas party after meeting Lily Madigan, the transgender teenager whose recent appointment as a “women’s officer” has divided Labour.
A Labour Women’s Network spokeswoman said, “It is important that all Labour Women’s Network events are a safe and welcoming space for all those in attendance. Sadly, following a number of complaints, we had no choice but to politely ask an individual to leave.” Ms. Allan said, “I wanted to speak to other Labour women about the proposals to change the Gender Recognition Act. It was an exceptionally safe space. How can they keep on silencing and censoring women like this?”
In a recent interview with British TV channel 4, Madigan responded to the question of how he will represent women as the new women’s officer with a statement about the validity of his experiences as a woman.
News ANCHOR: And what’s your message to people sitting here now who sort of doubt whether you can be a leader speaking up on behalf of all women. What would you say in a nutshell?
Liam MADIGAN: I’d say that my experiences are mine, and they’re perfectly valid.
ANCHOR: Do you agree with no-platforming feminists who you believe are not debating things in the right way?
MADIGAN: Um, definitely. Yeah, I think there’s a place for no-platforming. I know my university does it the most. I think if people are going to get up on stages and say things that are harmful to people like me, then we have a responsibility to not give them that platform in the first place.
ANCHOR: Isn’t that shutting them down, though?
MADIGAN: There’s a difference between debate and hate speech.
PETTERSON: On Tuesday, December 26th,” Juniper Renee, customer of a vegetarian restaurant and feminist bookstore in Bridgeport Connecticut called Bloodroot, reportedly enthusiastically told the lesbian owners about a trans community she is excited about starting up in Massachusetts. Noel Furie and Selma Miriam are the elderly lesbian couple that owns Bloodroot and have been involved with the space since March of 1977 when it was founded. In response to Ms. Renee’s description of the new trans community starting up, the owners of Bloodroot stated that they are in favor of women-only spaces. This was enough to cause Ms. Renee to post on Facebook that Bloodroot is owned by “HORRIFYING VIOLENT TERFS” which led to the restaurant’s Facebook and Yelp pages being barraged with bad reviews calling for a boycott and accusing them of hateful bigotry.
Many feminists have also taken to reviewing Bloodroot in recent days. By December 31st, over 1,000 reviews appeared on their Facebook page. Prior to the attack by transactivists, the reviews numbered around 300. At the time of this report, the reviews feature of Bloodroots’ Facebook page has been disabled and the owners published a statement which has over a thousand likes and almost 200 shares. So far, the page seems to be keeping the harassers at bay. The final words of the owners read: “Regardless of how you feel about Bloodroot’s stand on this, we will continue to be a welcoming space for all types of people, including those that are transgender, and treat everyone with respect. If you feel our explanation and response is inadequate for you, then you should not patronize us.”
It is too soon to tell if the attacks will negatively impact business at Bloodroot but the owners wanted WLRN listeners to know that they can buy their cookbooks and calendar online at bloodroot.com/cookbooks. The new cookbook and 2018 calendar will be available sometime in January.
In other news, feminists made inroads into progressive circles in December with the publication of a full page ad in the Progressive Magazine calling for an end to the harassment, threats and no platforming of radical feminists who question transgender ideology by segments of the transgender community. The ad was signed by 54 self-described socialists and progressives, both men and women, from a dozen states and four countries, including radical and lesbian feminists, Green Party members, trade union leaders, anti-racist activists, and members of socialist groups. Prominent signers included author and social critic Chris Hedges, novelist Marge Piercy, historian Max Dashu, and Second Wave Feminists Carol Hanisch and T. Grace Atkinson. Also included among the signers are transsexual blogger Miranda Yardley and trans YouTuber, Rya N.T. Jones.
The ad declares that “recent demonization, intimidation, and threats of violence against radical and lesbian feminists by certain segments of the transgender community and their supporters… have had a chilling effect on the ability to engage in open discussion and debate on complex issues of sex, gender, and sexuality, a debate that is sorely needed in order to build an effective united movement.” Included in the ad is the story of Ann Menasche, a long time feminist and social justice activist, who initiated the signature ad campaign after transactivists labelled her a “Nazi” and “rapist” and tried unsuccessfully to get her fired from her job, for merely asserting that persons born female are oppressed on the basis of sex.
Several other incidents of harassment are also described in the ad, such as the no platforming of Julie Bindel, the attacks by transactivists at the Vancouver Women’s Library, and the violent threats against Tasha-Rose Hodges that forced her to drop out of a race for school board. The ad concludes as follows: “We, the undersigned, as supporters of feminism and progressive politics believe that regardless of one’s views on gender, the tactics of name-calling, no-platforming, and threats to individual feminists’ jobs, livelihoods, and personal safety must be wholeheartedly rejected by progressives. Such tactics have no place on the left.” When asked about the significance of this ad, Ann Menasche responded to WLRN with this statement:
Ann MENASCHE: It shows that the left is not a monolith, that there are many people on the left, progressive activists, socialists that agree with us. There are others who are open to democratic discussion and debate and are eager for it, and that we can build some there. We don’t have to be as isolated as we’ve been. I think it’s starting to break open.
PETTERSON: The ad has been republished on the website of the Old and New Project, an anticapitalist revolutionary collective based in New York.
She is Woman Who Sees
She is Woman Who Sees
She is Crone Woman
Moss and Stone Woman
Deep Earth Cave Mother
Dark Moon Blood Mother
She is Woman Who Knows
She is Woman Who Knows
She is Hidden Woman
She is Shadow Woman
Midnight Cloak Woman
Raven Croak Woman
Owl, Bat, Moth Woman
She is Woman Who Waits
She is Woman Who Waits
She is Death Mother
She is Birth Mother
Earth, Birth, Death Mother
She is North Woman
Winter Storm Woman
Ancient Hands Woman
She is Woman Who Sees
She is Woman Who Sees
She is Night Woman
She is Night Woman
Jenna DIQUARTO: That was Night Woman by Carolyn Hillyer. Next, we’ll hear a clip from an interview that Sekhmet SheOwl did with Max Dashu, in which the founder of the Suppressed Histories Archives discusses some of her favorite matrifocal, matrilineal societies in history and what they can teach us. Ms. Dashu is the author of Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion from 700-1100. Her coloring book featuring goddesses and other female figures from the Suppressed Histories Archives, entitled Deosophy, can be ordered from Veleda.net.
Max DASHU: One of the things that I think we have to realize is that in indigenous societies, that’s where the most egalitarian cultures for women have existed in at least the last millennium of time. It’s not to say that all indigenous cultures are egalitarian. There are patriarchies in Papua New Guinea and a lot of other places. But all of the societies that are matrilineal have woman-centered cultural constructs. Peggy Sanday wrote a book called Women at the Center, a writing about the Minangkabau culture in Sumatra. Once we get knowledge that there are these other ways of doing things, then it doesn’t become any more a case of, “Women are like this, and men are like that.” It becomes, “Oh look, we’re looking at systems.”
We’re looking at layers and layers of historical changes and evolutions. I mean, it’s not an evolutionary model. It’s really this pile-up of maladaptive culture which enforces domination by sex, by class, by ethnicity which becomes the racial caste system. All of those layers are related to each other, but a lot of people now can’t see past it. They just think, “This is how things are,” and they assume that it’s always been that way. I can’t tell you, on the Suppressed Histories page, it seems like every time I post something about genocide of Native people or anything about European invasion, or about slavery, then you’ve got people coming out of the woodwork- men mostly- informing you that it’s always been this way: “All societies commit genocide, all societies have had slavery.” And that’s just not true.
These beliefs function in a way to make people think, “Well, there’s no other way to do things.” And we desperately need to figure out how to do things differently. It’s this crucial moment where we’re just slammed up against the very threat to continued survival of the planet, not just human society. We have to do it differently. I think that we need to be able to have a cultural vision that allows us to see that there are different ways of doing things.
The Mother Rite cultures are one group, not one way, but one group of ways of doing things that have patterns within them that can be models. They are collectively oriented. They are not based on nuclear families for the most part, but really more of a collective social motherhood. There’s not one woman with all the kids hanging off of her, and she’s got to hold it all up no matter what. There’s a whole framework: the social fabric is centered around the life support system. That means all the sisters are mothers. You see this in some societies. The aunts, what we would call the aunts, are called mothers. Especially any woman who has taken a child at her breast also becomes a mother to that child.
Women’s life nurturing power in many different ways functions as a maker of kinship. Not the artificial kinship which is a legal bond; this is the marriage. The patriarchal way of doing it is to have a bunch of laws administered, in a great majority of cases, by only males. Then the laws encode a sexual double standard, because in order to have fatherhood as the basis for a social system, to have patrilineal society, then they have to control women’s sexuality to do that, because you can’t know who the father is for certainty. Then they start having all these dire punishments, sometimes more so, sometimes less so, to force women to comply with sexual fidelity to one man, to chastity codes and all that mess about virginity.
You know the obsession with, “Is she a virgin or is she not a virgin?” She’s going to die if she isn’t one, in some cultures, or be cast out. There are certain kinds of outcomes that are already built into the system for women who don’t go with the program.
SHEOWL: What are some of your favorite examples of woman-centric, woman respecting societies?
DASHU: There are some cultures that aren’t very well known, and I don’t have a whole lot about them, but it’s just very amazing to realize that the Wichita in the Southern Plains- I grew up in the United States, and there are all these patches of land around here that had very different cultural patterns before the conquest. The Wichita were matrilineal, matrilocal, and the women built these amazing houses that were thatched out of prairie grass. So tall, maybe the height of a two-story, but it’s all bent saplings tied together. They (used) branches and tied those around and made a framework. Then they would climb up on it and thatch it from top to bottom. I don’t know enough about them, but they existed! The fact they existed is just amazing to me.
I like to look at the really ancient cultural records. We had intensely woman-centric Neolithic societies. The primary images we have out of the culture- it’s not just that they’re female. It’s the kind of female they are. They’re not the simpering, coy, sexualized, sex object type of images that we’re so used to. They’re women who are strong. They’re fully present in their bodies. Their bodies can be shown very wide. They are looking out at you in a bold way. It’s a very different feeling. We can’t really say, or maybe we will someday be able to tell, whether or not they were matrilineal cultures. You know if the genetic influence, the evidence, starts coming through.
There’s an island called Vanatinai which is way out in the north east of Australia in the Coral Sea. The anthropologist Maria Lepowski who wrote the book on this was talking about how most matters, you know, women could trade, women could travel, women could do things. They could become a “gia-gia” which means “a big giver”, because we are the ones that give things away to others. It wasn’t just the men who could do that, but the women also.
Then you have your Pueblo cultures, which would be really interesting to see what they were like in the 1200’s before the Spanish conquest. In those are matrilineal societies, where women are very primary artistic producers and have their own ceremonial societies. The houses are owned and built by the women. Beautiful cultures, very complex, symbolic language. I call it the scripture society. The women are painting on the huge water pots from Laguna and Acoma.
Then in Africa, there’s so many examples. There are some very interesting matrilineal societies in Malawi. This in is a part of the world that- and it’s not coincidentally- the most fascinating female-positive society are ones you’ve never heard of. This is sort of like where sexism and racism converge, because we don’t get real African history. We don’t get an account of African culture, but in Malawi, the country itself was named for the pool of the sacred python. There was a line of prophetesses among the Chewa people called Makewana, which means “Mother of Children.” It’s a title, not of biological mother, but of conceptual mother for the whole community. She is the rain shrine python priestess.
These women were not chosen because they came from a particular family. They were chosen by Spirit so that after one of the Makewanas dies or retires, after a while, a young girl- oh I hate that phrase- maybe a teenage girl would start having symptoms and spirit sickness, and people would start noticing: Okay, she’s behaving really strangely. Then there’ll be a series of tests they would do to see if this is our new Makewana. When they found her, they would install her. This was not the lineage in the sense of descended one from the other familiarly, but a lineage of priestesses that went on and on and on.
There’s a lot of these in southeastern Africa, in Zimbabwe also, even where patriarchy’s been around for quite a while. The Shona people are a patriarchal society, but they had this female spirit power of these prophetesses. There are various named examples, like the Nehanda, a priestess who founded a lineage of oracles. Southeast Africa is really interesting, and also all of Southern Africa actually. You have a very strong female shamanic tradition, even when they’re not anymore a mother-like culture.
I’m going to be doing the matricultures visual talk as part of my online course, so I’ll have a visual talk about that sometime coming up this year between now and June. I have a lot of work to do to bring it up to current speed, but I think that there’s nothing like being able to just visually see what women look like in societies that are either not patriarchal or at the very least we could say less patriarchal.
Matrilineal is not my only criterion for an egalitarian culture. Is it a matri-local society? Is it a polygenist society? There are cultures in Southern Africa that matrilineal, but the woman goes to live with the husband, so she’s separated from her kin, and that counts for a lot. She doesn’t have access to land, so she becomes a farmer. She’s the one who’s doing the farm work. She has to pay her husband a share of her harvest, because it’s his land that she’s farming. Stuff like that. You can see that it’s hard to make broad generalizations, because there’s so much complexity to all of it historically, economically, ethnically. All the variations that exist.
So speak out, speak over, speak under, speak through the noise
Speak loud so I can hear you, I want to know you, I want to hear your real voice
I want to hear your real voice
Your real voice
Your real voice
Your real voice
Jenna DIQUARTO: The following clip was taken from an interview Julia did with Starhawk. Starhawk is the author or coauthor of twelve books, including the essential neopagan text: The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. Since its publication in 1979, The Spiral Dance has become a classic resource on the Goddess movement, modern witchcraft, and spiritual feminism. In the 70’s, Starhawk trained with Z Budapest, a feminist separatist who established female-only Dianic Wicca in the United States. In the 80’s, Starhawk worked with Donna Read Cooper to create the Women’s Spirituality Series, a trilogy of films available in their entirety on The National Film Board’s Youtube channel. Known for her visionary mysticism and ecstatic consciousness, Starhawk shares with us her philosophy of harmony with nature.
Julia BECK: How do we actually know that these communities, or these societies, even existed?
STARHAWK: There’s a tremendous amount of evidence for the existence of matrifocal communities. There’s art, there’s sculpture, and there’s other kinds of archaeological remains. Maria Gimbutas the archeologist collected masses of evidence back in the 80’s and early 90’s. Unfortunately, she died in the early 90’s, and after that there was kind of a backlash against her. Interestingly enough, the archaeologist Colin Renfrew, who was one of her greatest critics, has now admitted that at least one part of her theory is correct and is backed up by all the genetic evidence. A lot of us are hoping that this is going to open up people to actually take a more fair look at what she found.
This summer I was in southern Germany, for example. There are these caves there that people have lived in for 45,000 years. Some of the earliest sculptures you find are of these female images of women, very fecund women’s bodies. All through the period of the Neolithic when people were beginning to do agriculture again you find female images as the image of the sacred, of the divine. You find evidence in places like Çatalhöyük, one of the earliest cities that was excavated in Anatolia, the peninsula that is now Turkey, which goes back to 7500 BCE. What you see there is not big temples, palaces, and evidences of hierarchy. You see smaller shrines that are not that different from houses, and burials that show that women and men were roughly equal, and that there weren’t great class divisions. Those are some of the ways that we know that these societies existed.
The other way that we know is by looking back at mythology and looking at the stories and understanding the ways that they have changed. In my book, Truth or Dare, I look at some of the mythology from ancient Sumer. You can see in the earliest writing, which is already in a time when patriarchy was beginning to encroach, but there’s still a lot memory of an earlier time. You see that the sacred liturgy is all about sex and food. You have the goddess singing the praises of her vulva and her handmaidens bathing her and praising her breasts and her vulva. You see male sexuality as compared to a plow, or compared to something that brings the land alive that causes the lettuce to grow by the water. There’s no identification of that with aggression or violence.
Then a couple thousand years later, you have a very different creation myth. You get the myth of Marduk and Tiamat, where Marduk is the war god and he slays the primal serpent, Tiamat, carves her up and creates the world out of her dismembered body. Those are some of the ways that we can look back and say, “Oh, alright. This all makes sense if we understand that originally we had a very different society.”
Even in Europe and the Middle East where people believed that the forces of life and the forces that create, sustain, and regenerate life are what is sacred. Often that was seen as the Great Mother, seen in female form. Then later there were these invasions and incursions of more patriarchal cultures, and more warlike cultures. War and patriarchy go together.
BECK: What do you think shifted the world’s populations from matrifocal to patriarchy?
STARHAWK: You have to understand that there’s no one process that changed the world. We’re looking at multiple different shifts in different places around the world over time. In the Middle East you had invasions of patriarchal cultures, but you also had a process that went on of cultures becoming larger, having huge projects like irrigation projects, where you could have war by conquest and have a use for your captives and your slaves. There was a shift to, again, a more warlike culture, because some people benefitted from that. Wherever you have war, you tend to have patriarchy, because patriarchy is really the ideology that supports war. In order to have a war, you have to get someone to fight it, and usually that’s men. You have to motivate them to fight it, and the way that men get motivated primarily is both by promising them women as the spoils of war, and by making it so awful to be perceived as a woman or womanlike that it’s better to put yourself in mortal danger than be seen as a coward or be seen like a woman. You need these deep separations between the roles of men and women, and you need to devalue women’s sexuality and women’s agency so that they can be available basically as rewards for warlike men.
BECK: What do you think these relationships were like before patriarchy came on?
STARHAWK: I think that they were a lot more egalitarian, a lot more of in way they are in many, many cultures today, many indigenous cultures, where women and men both have important roles and are respected. In some of those cultures, the roles are distinct, but each has power in their own roles. For example, in the Six Nations, the Iroquois, women have their sphere, and men have their sphere, but women are really seen as the ones who ultimately make the important decisions for their tribe. Many, many indigenous cultures, especially those that involve hunting and gathering and living very close to the earth, which actually everybody did until very recently, because there weren’t any other options, they’re often based very much on sharing and on community and on feeling yourself as part of the community, not on amassing wealth and power, but on how much you can give away and how much you care for others.
There was always a sense that the community is involved in helping to raise and socialize children. Luisah Teish, who’s a wonderful Yoruba priestess, in her book Jambalaya, writes about growing up in New Orleans and how if you did something wrong, everybody would be there. Every aunty on the street would be out there telling you exactly what you had done wrong and scolding and calling your mother. This isolation of the nuclear family is something that’s really very recent and very destructive.
BECK: How do you think menstruation was viewed way back then?
STARHAWK: Well, I think that it was seen as a time of power. Again, there’s still indigenous cultures that think of it that way. Women were considered to be full of spiritual power and life force energy at that time. I think women probably had the menstrual hut or the special place that they went. Without a lot of electrical lights and a lot of things that changed time and day, women were probably more tuned into the moon cycles and menstruating often together, that became a time of sisterhood, and a place where women got to go and hang out. People would bring them food, and they’d get a little monthly rest and a chance to connect and talk with all the other women.
In our tradition, we do a ritual for young girls when they first begin to menstruate, like many indigenous cultures do. We take the girl and her mother out to the beach or up on a hillside and tie their hands together, and they run together as far as the mother can run. Then when she gets tired, we cut them apart, and let the daughter run on alone. Then we bring her back and have an afternoon where we spend the time sharing stories about menstruation, about our own menstruation, giving her helpful advice, and giving her gifts. Then the day ends with a feast that’s prepared by the men: a feast of red foods, and a celebration for the whole community. We want young girls to know that there are men in this world that can see this and understand this as something positive and as a sign of their coming into womanhood.
BECK: Do you think men had a similar role in matrifocal societies?
STARHAWK: Both women and men did lots of things. I think men have great capacity to be nurturing as well as women do, and I think have a great capacity to be wild and aggressive. Assumptions about what those gender roles should be, again, are how patriarchy functions.
BECK: So the men weren’t subordinated, they weren’t in the position that women are now.
STARHAWK: No, I think it’s hard for people to understand that you can actually have a society where nobody has to be subordinated.
BECK: When women were in positions of power, did they behave the way that men do today?
STARHAWK: Again, the way both women and men behave today is a product of a culture that’s patriarchal, that’s capitalist, that requires a certain kind of cutthroat ruthlessness from some people and submission from others. Absent that culture, I don’t think either women or men would behave in that way.
BECK: How do you think we can make a move toward a more matrifocal society? Do you think that would be a good idea in the first place?
STARHAWK: I definitely think it would be a good idea. A magical society is a society where we are connected deeply to nature and the natural world. One thing people can do is make some time each day to be in nature. That doesn’t necessarily mean being out in the wilderness somewhere. It could mean just being in your backyard or taking time to stop and observe what’s growing out of the cracks in the parking lot where you are. Some time to really stop and look and listen and connect to the natural world. When you do that, then I think nature begins speaking to us as well, and that’s the root of all magic.
BECK: Can you talk about your book titled The Fifth Sacred Thing?
STARHAWK: In many, many traditions around the world and indigenous cultures, there are four sacred elements: Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. And then there’s the fifth, which is Spirit. There’s a kind of underlying question, and that question is, “How does a peaceable society defend itself from violence without becoming what it’s fighting against?”
BECK: What do you think we can learn from reading that book?
STARHAWK: When you write fiction, it’s a wonderful process, because you’re not necessarily having to tell everybody something. It’s more like you’re exploring an idea, but you’re exploring it through characters you create and the choices that they make. It’s an emotional experience, not just an intellectual one.
BECK: I think we need to appeal to emotion.
STARHAWK: Emotion and imagination.
BECK: Is this a job solely for women, or do you think men can help here?
STARHAWK: It’s a job for everyone. It’s process that ultimately benefits everyone, because I don’t think men actually really benefit from the current society that we have. I don’t think it allows men to be their fullest selves any more than it allows women to be their fullest selves. I think it’s something that women and men and people who might not identify as either, or whatever, all of us are in it together.
BECK: Is there anything else that you would like to add for our listeners who are largely Lesbian and radical feminists?
STARHAWK: I think this is a very exciting time to be alive. It’s a time where women’s voices and women’s visions really need to be heard. I encourage us all to speak up and take our power and put it out there and create a world that works for everybody.
Tonight I sing soft and low
Just like the moon over the snow
I hear icicles falling in the dark, the dark
We’re just like anyone else
We just want a little bit of sun for ourselves
And a little bit of rain to make it all grow
Maybe a minute or two to get lost in the glow of love
There’s always someone throwing matches around
Waving the shiny new knife
The first to run when the house burns down
I’ve seen it every day of my life
I must confess there appears to be way more darkness than light
I want to fall like a pearl to the bottom of the sea
There no one will find us tonight
DIQUARTO: That was Patty Griffin with her song “Icicles.” Next up, we’ll hear excerpts from an interview Thistle did with Riane Eisler. Riane Eisler is an eminent social scientist, attorney, and women’s human rights activist who pioneered the recognition of women’s rights as human rights. She is best known for her writings, including the international bestseller, The Chalice and The Blade, translated into 26 languages and now in its 57th U.S. printing, with a new epilogue. She founded the first center on women and the law in the United States, wrote the Equal Rights Handbook on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, and is the author of other award winning books as well as hundreds of articles and book chapters.
To hear the full interview Thistle did with Ms. Eisler, find it by clicking our podcast tab and then choose “Interviews” on the WLRN WordPress site.
PETTERSON: I think a burning question for a lot of feminists is, “What is the origin of patriarchy?” How did it get started if it’s not the natural order of things?” which I would argue that most feminists do not believe that patriarchy is inherent within our species, but rather is deeply socialized and constructed socially. Why? Why patriarchy? How did it get started, and how long ago?
Riane EISLER: I’m not either a technological nor environmental determinist. I mean, what happened in history happened. It doesn’t mean it had to happen. I think there’s a great deal of evidence that, at least in the areas around the Mediterranean, some shifts began with the incursions and invasions of nomadic herders who brought with them not only domestication of animals but also what we might call the domestication of women. From there on, as I write in my book, The Chalice and the Blade, as well as in the next book that I wrote, Sacred Pleasure, when civilization resumed- it was really interrupted by this- when it resumed its course, it was more in the direction of domination rather than partnership.
PETTERSON: So these matrifocal societies existed approximately five thousand, but even longer ago than 5,000 years ago, before patriarchy really took hold. What were these matrifocal societies like? How were they organized and ordered?
EISLER: This is a point that I make in my work, which is that we are in a semantic trap where the assumption is that you either dominate or are dominated. You either rule or you’re ruled. The real alternative to patriarchy is not matriarchy, but what I call a partnership society. The indications really are, if you look at the archaeology, there are no signs that men were in the same semi-enslaved position that you find women began to be in, in later parts of pre-history, in the late Neolithic as well as in other places other than Minoan Crete in the Bronze Age. What you find, for example, is interesting. The archaeologist who excavates Çatalhöyük at this point, he wrote in the Scientific American that there are no signs that being born male or female has any impact on either nutrition or on status. He wrote it with sort of a wonder, because we’ve all, as you said, have been socialized to believe that that’s how it is. It’s either divinely or naturally ordained that men rule women.
PETTERSON: If you recreated what the matrifocal societies, pre-patriarchal societies, what their daily lives were like. What were the roles that men and women were playing, and what did they do when they got up in the morning? Who went hunting? Who went gathering? What were the daily tasks that they were engaged in? How were their societies organized? Could you talk about that a little bit?
EISLER: Yes, of course. Again, this is a relatively new branch of anthropology, the study of foraging societies. It’s beginning to fortunately change, at least for some scholars: the standard social, biological, and to some extent the evolutionary psychology dogma is that the problems that we have today of domination, of male violence, etcetera, all stem from the time that we lived as foragers for millennia in the savannah. What we’re finding out through the study of contemporary foraging societies is that actually these societies really orient much more to the partnership side of the continuum. What we find from them is that they are much more peaceful, that while women and men tend to have some differences in roles, one practice there is what scholars would call alloparenting. In other words, it wasn’t only the woman who was supposed to care for the young, for the babies and the toddlers, but that men did too, do too, actually. So do other members of the group. We can infer that this is perhaps because anything in pre-history is really interpretation.
At Çatalhöyük for example, there are a few grave goods, what people are buried with, that don’t show any signs of inequality at all. There are two types of graves that archaeologists have excavated at Çatalhöyük, which is the largest Neolithic site ever excavated, that was peaceful for a thousand years, and there are no signs that there was gender inequality. What we find there is that there are two special graves. One is for priestesses and priests. The graves of what they thought were priestesses had mirrors whereas the priests’ had sort of special belts of some kind. Yes, I think that it wasn’t a completely flat organization.
I make a distinction in my work, because we need new words between hierarchies of domination- and we know those. It’s like, in later art, we see rulers on elevated pedestals with their subjects groveling before them, and they’re bigger. The rulers are male by then, and they’re bigger than their subjects. What we seem to see there aren’t more hierarchies of actualization where the power is used not to dominate- the blade is the symbol of power in domination systems to take life, to instill fear- but to support life, to nurture life, and to illuminate life, which is of course the symbol of the chalice. Yes, it’s inference, but we can infer quite a few things, can’t we?
For me, one of the most interesting remains from Minoan Crete is the so-called Profession Fresco. First of all, the central figure is a female, a woman, a high priestess, bare breasted- the breasts symbolizing not only sexuality but also the power to nurture- with her arms raised in benediction. You know the Pope still has the same gesture. Rather than being on an elevated pedestal, she and the priests who are bringing offerings to her are on the same level. Yes, she has power, but it’s more of the power to bliss.
PETTERSON: Yeah, and it’s specifically female as symbolized through the breasts. That’s where I’m thinking equality doesn’t mean men and women are doing exactly the same things or able to do the same things. We’re different. Max Dashu, I’m sure you’re familiar with her work, she and I had a conversation about gender and how the way it’s constructed under patriarchy as a social system of subordinating females to males. But in egalitarian societies gender could be the culture that’s based off the biology that is a beautiful thing. Women breastfeeding together in a circle and somebody painting that and making a beautiful work of art around that- you know it’s only women who are going to be breastfeeding. There’s nothing bad about that or wrong about that. Instead of this call to abolish gender, rather let’s- and this is what Max was arguing, and I’m not sure where I stand on this actually as a feminist and with today’s lingo the way that it is- not abolish gender, but to create gender in a way that is egalitarian and is respectful of the differences between men and women.
EISLER: This is of course the slogan that we hear so much about valuing diversity, isn’t it? It’s not about everybody being the same. That’s not what equality means. It means more fluid gender roles, certainly, which is what we’re seeing. Some of the young men and some of the older men are feeding babies, changing their diapers, this once despised “women’s work” which was anathema to so-called masculinity. Women are entering positions of leadership, which again was anathema. Women have internalized a lot of this, which is beginning to change, thank goodness. You know, that women are not fit to govern; women are not fit to make decisions; that that is illogical, and they’re emotional. Of course men are emotional too, but men get parceled out in domination systems.
Only those emotions, contempt and anger, are appropriate for those who dominate, whereas women get the soft emotions, which deprives men of their full humanity just as barring women from anger deprives women of our full humanity. We’re in a very interesting period right now of more gender fluidity. This is something I’ve worked on very, very hard in my book on economics called The Real Wealth of Nations. It deals with something that has been disastrous for women, men, and children of both genders, which is devaluation not only of women for so many millennia in most societies (there are some periods where this changes) but also the devaluation of anything stereotypically considered feminine such as caring, caregiving, and nonviolence. That’s what we have to really change. It’s only as the status of women rises. It’s in nations like Sweden, Finland, Norway that you can have more caring policies, because men, not only women, vote for them. As the status of women rises, men no longer find it a threat to their so-called masculinity to also embrace the so-called feminine.
We talk about systems dynamics. That’s what my work is about. It’s not about simple causes and effects, just as it isn’t about so-called patriarchy against so-called matriarchy. It’s about a whole different frame for looking at human possibilities. It’s a frame that actually is more congruent with the evidence that today from neuroscience about human possibilities, the evidence from archaeology, from anthropology. But it’s not an easy frame for people to switch to, because we’re so used to these terms like matriarchy, patriarchy, left versus right, etcetera.
Funky music plays under the t-shirt contest PSA
BECK: Hey Jenna, that’s an awesome shirt you’re wearing. That coffee looks so tasty and warm, and the slogan, “Womyn are why I get up in the morning,” really resonates with me. Where’d you get that shirt?
DIQUARTO: I ordered the shirt online from WLRN. It’s the winning design from their 2017 t-shirt design contest.
BECK: A t-shirt design contest? Wow! Who was the winning designer?
DIQUARTO: Kacie Mills, a Lesbian radical feminist from Baltimore. I think it’s great how she paired such a woman-centric slogan with a steaming cup of coffee.
BECK: Me too. I love women and coffee. How can I get one of those shirts?
DIQUARTO: Just go to wlrnmedia.wordpress.com and click on the “Donate” button. When the Paypal screen comes up, be sure to add the size of the shirt you want in the “Special Instructions” box. If you want to see all the other awesome design submissions, then visit the “T-Shirt Contests” tab.
BECK: Hmm. Money is kinda tight right now. How long will the shirts be available?
DIQUARTO: WLRN is taking pre-orders for the entire month of January.
BECK: A whole month for pre-orders? That’s great! Do you know where the proceeds are going?
DIQUARTO: They’re donating a portion of the proceeds to the We Want the Land Coalition to maintain, preserve, and conserve around 650 acres of woman-only land near the Manistee National Forest in Michigan. You can find out more about this fundraiser at wwtlc.org
BECK: Thanks, Jenna. I can’t wait to order shirts for all my woman-loving, coffee-drinking friends.
WLRN Jingle: You are listening to WLRN brought to you by the totally excellent radical feminists at Women’s Liberation Radio News.
There is a place I know
Only I can know
And no one else can go there for me
“On the Other Side of Here” by Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors continues playing under the commentary
SEKHMET: Depending upon what region of the world we look at, anything resembling what I call a “gynocentric” culture has not existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Patriarchal, androcratic, misogynistic societies have been universal on our planet for millennia, and realistically, we have little reason to believe that this will change anytime soon. There are many different factors involved in the potential shifting from male-dominated, male-controlled, and male-centric culture to female-centric culture, but the most fundamental change, the first step, is a shift in female consciousness. Knowing our history—womyn’s history—is one piece of this shift, but vision is the other. As feminist women, if we have any serious interest in creating even small subcultures that are gynocentric, we have to be brave enough to imagine without limits.
A gynocentric society is the material result of successful feminism. It’s not just a matrilineal or matrifocal society, one that privileges mothers and locates female power and value in motherhood. It is not “matriarchy,” or the inverse of patriarchy, where women oppress men and each other, and society is organized on a model of the dominating mother at the top of a hierarchal structure. A gynocentric culture is one that centers females, the female experience, the female perspective, and female well-being. A gynocentric culture is one in which all women, regardless of their relationship to males, have power, freedom, and value. A gynocentric culture is one that reflects the female at her most natural state, free of all the distortions and perversions that men put on us. It is a culture where all women and girls are female-identified, not male-identified: a culture ruled by female values, not male values. It is a culture where women live and act not in service of male interests, male pleasure, or male approval—but only in service of female interests, pleasure, and well-being. And in a mixed gynocentric society, the males too would put female well-being, perspective, and interests first. A gynocentric culture is a culture without misogyny, without rape, without violence against women and girls.
We may not be able to create a nationwide or worldwide gynocentric culture, but even if we want to try creating one in our own individual lives, imagination is key. We should allow ourselves to envision what a gynocentric community, culture, or society could look like now or in the future, without being limited by our current reality or even by the more woman-friendly cultures of pre-history. Creating a gynocentric culture does not simply mean flipping the role of mother/matriarch in a heterosexual nuclear family with the father/patriarch role. It does not mean everything stays structurally the same but women get government-funded daycare for their kids who they continue to birth in heterosexual marriages. A gynocentric society would be utterly unrecognizable to us, compared to the patriarchal, androcratic culture we’ve all lived in since birth.
I can’t tell you exactly what a 21st century gynocentric culture would look like, but I do know that a gynocentric culture is one that honors lesbians. You could argue that lesbian communities are the only true gynocentric cultures that have existed so far in the world, being that they are both exclusively female and based on a shared love of women. Of course, lesbians exist in the misogynistic and male-centric world, whether they like it or not, and any subculture or community they create still exists in that world. So it’s fair to say that what few lesbian-only cultures exist, if any, are not perfectly gynocentric. They’re not as good as they could be if all lesbians were female-identified feminists, living in a lesbian-loving, woman-loving world. But lesbian culture is a starting point. When we look to the past for examples of gynocentric culture, we can’t forget to look at the lesbian feminist communities, spaces, and lands of the 1970s and 80s.
Lesbian feminists are the examples all other women should look to, when they consider how to become the kind of women who create gynocentric culture. Why? Because lesbian feminists, in the 20th century and today, are the one group of women on earth who have already done the work of determining who they are independently of men. Without deprogramming a lifetime’s worth of male identification, internalized misogyny, and the impulse to please males, a woman can’t create gynocentric culture; she will only recreate the male supremacist culture that instilled male values in her, even if she does it in female-only space.
If women want things to be different, they have to think and act differently themselves. We will not realize a woman-loving, woman-centric society by continuing to live and think the way we always have in the context of this misogynistic, male-dominated world. Gynocentric culture, like historical matrifocal societies, is not achieved at the male whim but first in the female consciousness. That’s the purpose of feminism: to change the female mind, which ultimately leads to a woman acting for female liberation and power.
This feminist consciousness-raising is a constant process, not something that you achieve with finality and can then forget about. We’re constantly submerged in the woman-hating, male-worshipping mainstream culture of our mixed societies and of whatever mixed subcultures we choose to be in. That male supremacist messaging—not to mention the demands of men—never stops. So our feminist consciousness-raising can never stop.
A gynocentric culture is one full of female-identified women, who are loyal to other women first and foremost, not men. If we’re talking about a gynocentric culture that isn’t a lesbian separatist one, then this includes heterosexual women who continue to be sexually involved with men, and it includes mothers of sons. Is this even possible?
Is it possible for women to be sexually engaged with men, in a mixed culture, and still put other women first, personally and politically? How do heterosexual women and mothers of sons become that female-identified? What would that kind of society look like? How would it work? How would those women structure their personal relationships, based on their love, focus, and prioritization of women over men? How would they live their daily lives, thinking of their own and other women’s interests first? What would the relationship between these heterosexual women and lesbians be, in this gynocentric culture? Would marriage still exist? Would the nuclear family still exist? Would choosing a domestic or life partner based on romantic sexuality still be the dominant social model? What would female friendship look like? What would female relationships in general look like, in a culture where women don’t police each other into obeying male rules, where heterosexual women don’t compete for male attention, and where heterosexual and bisexual women care more about lesbians than they care about men?
There are more questions than answers about gynocentric culture, but it’s important for women to think beyond our current reality, just as it’s important for us to know our history. We could have something different than this. We could create communities, a subculture, where women love and prioritize other women instead of men and where everything is driven by a desire for female well-being. We could create a subculture that operates on female values instead of male values, but first, we have to figure out what female values are. And developing a feminist consciousness, through critical thinking and creativity, is the only way to do that.
SEKHMET: That concludes WLRN’s Edition 21 on Ancient Matrifocal Societies and Gynocentric Cultures, produced by Jenna Di Quarto with tender loving care. Thanks for joining us. I’m Sekhmet She Owl.
PETTERSON: And I’m Thistle Pettersen. If you’d like to get in touch with WLRN, please contact us at email@example.com. Also, be sure to tune-in for the LIVE interview I will be doing with Meghan Murphy of Feminist Current and Julie Bindel of the Guardian on Monday, March 19th at 7 PM Central Standard Time on WORT 89.9 FM. It would be great to get as many feminists as possible to call-in to the station that night in the second half of the program to ask my guests questions on the air! Go to WORTFM.org and click on “Listen Live” the night of the show.
BECK: WLRN would like to thank our interviewees for giving us their time and wisdom for this edition. This is Julia Beck, wishing you a happy new year and a lovely January.
AMANDA: And I’m Amanda. Be sure to tune in for WLRN’s next edition, on the politics of romantic and sexual relationships, coming out on February 1, 2018. Let’s reflect on notions of romantic love as we move into the month that celebrates the commercialized holiday known as Valentine’s Day.
DIQUARTO: This is Jenna Di Quarto. Many of today’s musical selections came from WLRN’s music hour DJ’d by our beloved Phoenixx. Be sure to tune-in every other Monday for a new mix from Phoenixx. You can find her music shows on our WordPress site under our “Podcasts” tab.
But how will we find our way out of this?
What is the antidote for the patriarchal kiss?
How will we find what needs to be shown?
And then after that, where is home?
Tell me, where is my home?
‘Cause gender hurts!