The Mother of Us All

Gentlemen and Amazons:

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 1861-1900

By Cynthia Eller

Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, 290 pp., $24.95, paperback

Reviewed by Corinne T. Field

In 1861, Johann Jakob Bachofen, a conservative Swiss jurist and expert on Roman law, claimed to have found evidence that prehistoric human societies were matriarchal, meaning that women held familial, political, and religious power in the distant past.  Thus began an intellectual tradition that anchored the field of evolutionary anthropology for thirty years, inspired socialists as well as feminists, and piqued the interest of the general public, all before being widely rejected by the turn of the twentieth century. 

In Gentlemen and Amazons, Cynthia Eller provides the definitive account of why men, most of whom were opposed to women’s rights, invented this theory when they did.  Eller convincingly demonstrates that matriarchal history enabled Victorian gentlemen to express deep-seated anxieties about the future of gender relations and, as an added benefit, discuss otherwise taboo topics such as sexual promiscuity, wife capture, and female sexual desire.  When seen in this larger historical framework, what is most significant about matriarchal history is not “its recent feminist message,” but rather its “flexibility” as a justification for everything from patriarchy to feminism, and capitalism to communism.  As Eller shows, “matriarchal history is, at heart, an enormous thought experiment, a play with reversals” that can serve wildly divergent ends. 

Eller, a Professor of Women’s Studies and Religious Studies at Montclair State University, has an ax (or should I say “labrys”) to grind, but it is a useful one, which contemporary feminists should consider adopting.  In her first book, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future (2000), Eller points out that the evidentiary basis for primitive matriarchy is slim at best and urges us to consider how matriarchy functions as a “myth”—in other words, “why the story is told, the uses to which it is put and by whom.” The main benefit of matriarchal history, for Eller, is to boost female self-esteem, as the very things often regarded as disabilities—pregnancy, lactation, childrearing—become keys to an ancient form of power.  The costs, however, outweigh the benefits, she says, as

the gendered stereotypes upon which matriarchal myth rests persistently work to flatten out differences among women; to exaggerate differences between women and men; and to hand women an identity that is symbolic, timeless, and archetypal, instead of giving them the freedom to craft identities that suit their individual temperaments, skills, preferences, and moral and political commitments. 

For a critical assessment of contemporary uses of matriarchal theory—from academic texts to the marketing of goddess-tours—Eller’s first book is a great place to begin. 

Her new book functions as a sort of prequel to the first, explaining why men working more or less independently in Germany, Great Britain, and the United States simultaneously “discovered” evidence of primitive matriarchy in the 1860s.  The reason has to do with conceptions of time as well as of gender.  The geologist Charles Lyell’s interpretation of archeological remains and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution combined to open up a vast swath of human prehistory.  While gentlemen scholars could have filled this prehistory with anything, they focused on marriage, kinship, and sexuality, because these topics were the most unsettled in their own minds.  A few supported moderate reforms, such as opening higher education to women or granting property rights to wives, but all agreed that patriarchy was a decisive step up the evolutionary ladder.  To be sure, a few women’s rights activists creatively employed primitive matriarchy to justify recognizably feminist goals, and socialists used the idea to explain why women would be better off after the overthrow of capitalism, but these were mere sideshows to the main event, which was a triumphant celebration of western civilization.

Eller begins by tracing how ancient Greek tales of Amazon warriors wended their way through Roman texts and medieval romances to shape the stories of Spanish conquistadors and Christian missionaries in the New World.  For Eller, Amazon stories and early ethnography reveal a continuous fascination with “gender reversals”—but they were not the same as the matriarchal myth.  That requires an assertion that all human beings share a common past; it is a story about us, not about them.

This story could not develop among Europeans so long as they regarded the biblical account of human origins as the one true history of mankind.  The first chinks in the framework of the Old Testament were made by Enlightenment thinkers who, while not doubting man’s fall from grace, began to pay attention to the stages by which human societies developed from savagery, to barbarism, to civilization.  Nineteenth-century men then filled in the earliest stages of this evolution by arguing that Amazon stories and matrilineal kinship were not isolated oddities, but survivals of a very ancient past.

The prize for inventing the myth of matriarchal prehistory goes to Bachofen, who first raised the idea in an 1856 lecture and then laid out his evidence in his 1861 tome, Das Mutterrecht (Mother Right)As Eller accurately reports, “Das Mutterrech  is . . . a sprawling, poorly organized work, difficult to follow in German and certainly no easier in translation.” This difficulty—even incomprehensibility—becomes for Eller the very explanation for Bachofen’s lasting influence.  “Bachofen,” she argues,

serves as the perfect synecdoche [for matriarchal myth] . . . [D]epending on what page you turn to in his oeuvre, you can find an idealist or a materialist; a feminist or a patriarchalist; a reactionary or a revolutionary. . . . Feminists and their enemies could both champion Bachofen because their varying visions of appropriate gender relations were in there.

Feminists found much in Bachofen because he presented women as the driving force of social progress in its earliest stages—it was women, he claimed, who invented agriculture, stabilized kin relations, and founded religion.  But for Bachofen, women could carry things only so far, because they were forever mired in material existence, linked to the earth and to the body through their reproductive capacity.  In Bachofen’s essentially Hegelian vision of a dialectical struggle between women and men, matter and spirit, it was only when men established patriarchy that the human spirit could become free. 

If Bachofen was the first matriarchalist, he was not the most influential.  That prize goes to a group of evolutionary anthropologists in Britain and the United States.  In 1865, the Scottish lawyer John Ferguson McLennan, with no knowledge of Bachofen and relying on entirely different sources, published Primitive Marriage.  Over the next three decades, “the matriarchal thesis and the debates it provoked were a key foundation upon which anthropology established itself,” says Eller. In this version of anthropology, amateurs compared ethnographic accounts from around the globe in order to define universal stages of human social evolution.  The key participants in this debate—Sir John Lubbock and Edward Burnett Tylor in Britain; Lewis Henry Morgan in the United States—are now largely forgotten, but together they shaped a consensus, Eller writes: “[F]rom the mid-1860s through to the 1890s, the question was not so much whether ‘primitive’ and prehistoric societies were matriarchal, but in what way.” Eller provides a pithy and insightful analysis of these debates, enabling readers to grasp the central points without worrying too much about the finer distinctions.  For Eller, what matters is not that these men disagreed about the precise number of evolutionary stages, nor even that some supported the cause of women’s rights while others opposed reform.  All of them used matriarchal prehistory to express ambivalence and anxiety about gender relations and thus enabled a broader public to do the same.

Communists, socialists, and feminists used matriarchy to justify clear political goals—they just disagreed with each other.  A great strength of Eller’s book is to place Friedrich Engels Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) in its original context.  She also provides an excellent account of how and why women’s rights activists adopted matriarchal myth.  The surprise is that they did so less frequently or eagerly than one might expect.  Eller explains that matriarchal myth never really took off among first-wave feminists because they were so committed to the general principle of evolutionary progress that they had trouble embracing the ancient past.  Nonetheless, leading women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage made innovative feminist use of the matriarchal myth.  They argued, in Eller’s words, “women could be trusted to manage social power . . .  because they had done so for many millennia during the infancy and childhood of the human race.”

Having located the most influential nexus of matriarchal myth in the field of evolutionary anthropology, Eller then explains how, around the turn of the twentieth century, ambitious academics seized the field from amateurs by killing off their pet theory: “[W]ith a one-two punch of ethnographic evidence and methodological revision, the myth of matriarchal prehistory was down for the count.” As university-trained anthropologists left their living rooms and went into the field, they found a welter of kinship forms that could no longer be contained by a theory of universal evolutionary stages.  Driven from anthropology, the myth of matriarchal prehistory “shifted across the disciplines” to the classics, the history of religion, and Jungian psychology, where second-wave feminists would later find it.

Appropriately for someone who treats matriarchy as myth, Eller begins and ends her study with a discussion of two wildly popular novels.  Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller The Da Vinci Code serves to introduce our contemporary fascination with a feminist version of matriarchy in which “sex is good; women are, at the very least, equal to men; and Christianity has its Goddess again.” H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She—“probably the single most popular book on matriarchy published in the late nineteenth century,” says Eller—returns us to a time when “matriarchal myth was antifeminist as much as it was pro-woman . . . a container for male ambivalence about sexed inequality (or perhaps, more simply, a container for male ambivalence about women).” Haggard, a South African civil servant, racist, and avowed misogynist, presented a dark and terrifying vision of matriarchal power as a threat to civilized men. 

That one idea could inspire both feminist dreams and misogynist nightmares proves Eller’s point.  The myth of matriarchal prehistory is ambiguous and flexible—and for that very reason, endlessly fascinating.  “So long as we remain interested in teasing out the contours of sex and gender, asking what is given and what culturally constructed,” Eller concludes, “matriarchal myth will no doubt remain a compelling story.” Thanks to Eller, this is a story we can better understand.

Corinne Field is adjunct faculty in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia.  She is in the process of completing a monograph, Perpetual Minors: Women and the Struggle for Adulthood in Nineteenth-Century America, which recasts the history of first-wave feminism as a transnational, interracial struggle to win women recognition as fully realized adults.


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