Cynthia Eller
The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory

Matriarchal societies are typically portrayed as being centered around mothers, with households consisting first of a mother and her children, and then possibly extending to include her brothers or her husband. Children took their mother's name and kinship status (matriliny); husbands went to live with their wives or mothers-in-law (matrilocality); women owned or controlled their family's property, insofar as it existed. This is not simply a description of prehistoric social arrangements: it is a statement about what matriarchal societies valued. Matriarchal power is different from patriarchal power, feminist matriarchalists say, because it is based on a natural (as opposed to an arbitrary) kind of power, that of motherhood. 'The mother cares for the baby until it is able to move about easily by itself, find food, and protect itself without her,' Marilyn French explains. 'The mother "rules" by greater experience, knowledge, and ability, but the intention of her "rule" is to free the child, to make it independent.' This is finally the answer to who had social power in prehistoric matriarchies: mothers did; and because they were mothers, it was power handled ably, delicately, and benevolently.

Where did this leave men in matriarchal societies? As Phyllis Chesler puts it, 'There are two kinds of people: mothers and their children.' Men could never become mothers in matriarchal society (or anywhere else, for that matter), so they would then seem to be forever the second kind of person: children. But since, as we have already seen, the women of prehistoric matriarchies were well disposed toward their children, these societies are said to have been good places for men. As Heide Gottner-Abendroth explains, 'In the matriarchal world the man is at once son, husband, and hero and completely embedded in the universe of 'women, who lovingly direct everything.'

Men were not necessarily infantilized in matriarchal societies. Different versions of the myth of matriarchal prehistory give men greater or lesser roles to play as adults. Men are thought to have had important male-specific roles in matriarchal societies: usually hunting, trade, and herding. Some matriarchalists suggest that women's and men's worlds were largely separate. They had separate duties, separate social networks, separate religious activities, and sometimes even separate living quarters. But other matriarchalists fantasize a culture in which women and men interacted constantly and harmoniously. Mary Mackey's characters in The Year the Horses Came rarely perform sex-segregated tasks; even trade and hunting are conducted in mixed-sex groups. Crucially, however, men in prehistoric matriarchies are rarely imagined as having any substantive structural power within the family; certainly nothing that could rival the authority of women as mothers.

One of the most common (and longest-lived) explanations for why prehistory was matriarchal is the notion that prehistoric people—or at least prehistoric men—were not aware of a male role in reproduction. With no connection drawn between sexual intercourse and conception, matriarchalists argue, children would have appeared to be the miraculous product of women alone. This central attention to the fact of childbirth is the hallmark of virtually all feminist reconstructions of matriarchal society. 'Woman, as her name implies,' writes Janet Balaskas, 'is the human with a womb.' When feminist matriarchalists describe women's ability to bear children, they speak of 'mystery,' 'miracle,' 'magic,' and the 'awe' and 'reverence' that this inspired in prehistoric peoples. Feminist matriarchalists expand this to a more generalized reverence for all the sex-specific functions of the female body, including menstruation, lactation, and female sexual response. Menstruation is 'bleeding without injury'; it is 'primeval dragontime blood,' a 'shamanic death and rebirth every month' which indicates women's 'intimate relationship with the mysteries of the universe,' especially 'the swelling and ebbing of the moon.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.