False goddess

By Lawrence Osborne

By Salon Staff
July 10, 2000 11:09PM (UTC)
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I'd like to respond to Lawrence Osborne's review of my book, "The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory." First, this review contains several errors of fact: for example, Bachofen's "Mutterrecht" was first published in 1861, not 1926. Second, Osborne persistently misreads my arguments: He says, for example, that I "assert that some cultures have a 'third gender'" when I explicitly question this notion (pp. 88-89 and corresponding footnotes). Most annoying, he casually attributes a brand of feminism to me, which he labels "liberal" or "enlightened." I assume this is based partly on what I actually say about sex and gender. But according to the review itself, it is also based on who I "quote approvingly," as though by quoting Kate Millett's summation of something John Stuart Mill argued over a century ago I am endorsing everything Millett ever said on the subject of feminism; or that by quoting Eva Keuls' statement of several documented facts about classical Greek society (for example, that wives and daughters were sequestered or that the female role in reproduction was denigrated) I am embracing Keuls' supposed "preoccupation with victimhood."

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"Ideological" is an easy accusation to throw around. Osborne himself does this with some abandon, equating the "ideology" of matriarchal myth with the "ideology" of "enlightened" or "liberal" feminism whose central characteristic, apparently, is the claim that gender differences are a social invention. What Osborne doesn't name ideology is his own completely undefended (and, frankly, tendentious) statement that "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." Perhaps ... or perhaps it is the means of production that drives all cultures, or a social contract formed in the war of all against all. Clearly, this point is debatable. While we're discussing ideology, just why is it that "women in reality have no need of self-esteem myths"? Which women are we talking about? And how is it that Osborne has divined what it is that women need or don't need "in reality"?! (As opposed to what? In their own confused minds?) Who's being condescending here?

Osborne concludes by saying that however romantic or sexist matriarchal myth may be, the emotional roots of it should not be easily dismissed. I couldn't agree more, which is why I wrote this book. But the fact that some people, among them Osborne and feminist matriarchalists, have been frustrated or bored with "liberal" feminism and have longed for a return to some good old-fashioned sex dualisms doesn't mean that "liberal" feminism has "missed the boat," as Osborne suggests. It means that it's tapped into something important, something people are afraid of living without: namely, strong gender differences. This is a fear that goes right back to Victorian terrors of what might be set loose if women stopped wearing their corsets. We can either let the fear of a "sexless and blandly androgynous" society drive us unthinkingly back into the arms of our favorite gender stereotypes (or the carefully retooled ones recommended by feminist matriarchalists, and apparently by Osborne too), or we can try to see what possibilities await us on the other side.

-- Cynthia Eller

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P.S. The group I was thinking of who regard heterosexual sex as a "grudging necessity" are the Sambia of New Guinea (see Gilbert Herdt, "Guardians of the Flutes"); those for whom gender is "relatively insignificant" (stress: relatively), are the Mbuti, Huron, Andaman Islanders and WeyHwa (cites available upon request).

While the author rightly, if caustically, debunks the matriarchy myth, this really is old news to any anthropology B.A. graduate in the last 30 years. Going for overkill in his corrective to feminism's ideological usurption of the myth, he neglects to do his own, not necessarily exquisite, in fact basic, research into the anthropology of gender and find, in most introductory textbooks, that, for example, third genders do indeed exist.

In India, for example, hijras (who are born as men, but undergo an operation in which their genitals are surgically removed), are not transformed into women (because they cannot give birth) but into a third gender. In behavior, they mix both male and female characteristics, but within the cultural context of Indian society, the hijras are considered neither deviant nor unnatural, but rather simply an additional form of gender (Scupin and DeCorse 1998: 234).

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-- Walter Huber

I see the whole notion of wishing for a past that never was not only harmful but thoroughly rooted in today's culture. We know that men have ruled long and hard. So, we suppose that women once ruled. First of all, why would anyone want to believe that women were defeated and dethroned by men? I think that's worse than believing that women never had any power. Besides, to believe that women once had power is NOT to believe in a Golden Age of Women but to affirm that humans are, at best, disorganized enough, and, at worst, selfish enough to always need someone on top and to never have cooperation. In a real golden age, there would have been cooperation, not domination.

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-- Susan Wozniak


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