"New Mode of Feminist Historical Analysis" - or Just Another Collusion with "Patriarchal" Bias?

By Kray, Susan | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

"New Mode of Feminist Historical Analysis" - or Just Another Collusion with "Patriarchal" Bias?


Kray, Susan, Shofar


According to the "Lost Eden Scenario," a Goddess-destroying, woman-oppressing culture, that of the ancient Hebrews, generated many of the sexist ills of Western civilization. This scenario finds adherents even among some reputable scholars, including the renowned feminist historian Gerda Lerner in her wide-ranging feminist history, Creation of Patriarchy. It is important to challenge the ways in which such scholars violate the norms of scholarship; in Lemer's case, in defiance of principles of feminist historical scholarship, which she herself had insightfully enunciated years before the publication of Creation of Patriarchy.

Introduction

Historian Gerda Lemer's The Creation of Patriarchy(1) has been in print since 1986 and is sold in Women's Studies sections of such major chains as Waldenbooks, Borders, Bookstar, and Barnes and Noble; it also appears in the Women's Spirituality and Goddess Religion listings of online bookstores www.barnesandnoble.com and www.amazon.com. This book, along with the work of Marija Gimbutas,(2) has, according to scholar of religion Katherine K. Young, "either inspired or influenced feminist theories of the `patriarchal revolution.'"(3)

These feminist theories draw on the "modern tradition" of a "Neolithic great goddess,"(4) a tradition which began with German Romanticism of the early 1800s, followed by Bachoffen's(5) notion of an early gynocratic stage of human history, to which Harrison(6) added a Great Goddess, whom E. O. James(7) dubbed a universal Great Mother Goddess; Hawkes(8) proposed Goddess religion as a model for the future. Gimbutas(9) gave the modern tradition of a Neolithic great goddess its present form, which I call the Lost Eden Scenario. She claimed to have archaeological evidence that a goddessworshipping "pre-Indo-European culture" was "matrifocal, probably matrilinear, agricultural, egalitarian and peaceful" before it was destroyed by ancient, savage males who introduced sexism and injustice into the world.

This Lost Eden Scenario constitutes the underlying explanatory apparatus in many popular and some ostensibly scholarly books describing the place of the Goddess in history: examples besides The Creation of Patriarchy include Merlin Stone's When God Was A Woman,(10) Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future,(11) Barbara G. Walker's The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets,(12) Elinor W. Gadon's The Once and Future Goddess: A Symbol For Our Time,(13) and Sjöö and Mor's The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth.(14) These books claim to be based on archaeological evidence and to constitute important works of scholarship.(15) Scholars with impressive affiliations endorse these books. Indeed, cover copy claims that the authors are scholars.

Some or all of the Goddess-destroying, woman-oppressing males in The Lost Eden Scenario are typically said to be the ancient Hebrews; the proof is supposedly in the Bible.(16) Biblical stories said to provide such proof include two in Genesis 19 and Judges 19-21 in which men offer to throw their womenfolk to a rape-minded mob. Feminist scholars often adduce these stories as proof of real-life sexist oppression. For according to many feminists, Israel is, in the words of one author, "the place that may well have invented patriarchy."(17) Hence Lerner's argument about the creation of patriarchy in ancient Israel is part of a wider feminist discourse about the Jewish people as ultimately responsible for the sufferings of womankind. Of course, this feminist discourse is in mm part of a larger discourse through which the "patriarchies" of Western civilization have attempted to establish historical, transcendent meaning for people's suffering -- all the while deflecting blame from the most powerful groups in their societies -- by attributing that suffering to the supposed wickedness of "the Jews."

Few scholars have looked at Lerner's book critically, but they should, because it is offered as a serious work of historical scholarship.

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