Guest Post by Susan Hawthorne
The Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s led to all sorts of intellectual pursuits, one of which was to ask whether patriarchy had been around for ever. Was it universal and inevitable? We fairly quickly understood that it hadn’t been and lots of women became engaged in reading archeology, world mythology, comparative religion, linguistics and history. I was one of them and in 1979 I decided to enrol in a PhD in Philosophy which I described as a ‘study of belief systems in the ancient world’. At the same time I began studying Ancient Greek. The difficulty I faced was that instead of reading relevant material I was sent off to read Saussure (on semiotics – a foundational thinker for postmodernists which deals with the ‘science’ of symbols) and others. I first heard the word postmodern during this time and that was where I was being pushed. I did not know what destruction postmodernism would wreak on radical feminism. I read some of this material, felt frustrated, angry and more and didn’t quite know why. I ditched my PhD and kept going with Greek where eventually I wrote a short thesis on the Homeric Hymns to Demeter and Aphrodite (and in these you can see how the transition to patriarchy was effected). I was duly punished and pushed out of Classics too.
What happened in the early 1980s, along with the push to postmodernism, was another push in archaeology. Based in Cambridge (England) this school became known as the processural school of archaeology. It is set up to counter the ideas of archaeologists who were really getting places in terms of looking at how women in ancient societies lived. Among their key targets were Marija Gimbutas and James Mellaart – and the crowd of radical feminists who were reading this work and drawing our own conclusions (dangerous stuff). The processural archaeologists claim to use ‘scientific method’. But what this scientific method does is strip away the context in which archaeological finds were made (which is what Gimbutas and Mellaart and others were doing). ‘Processural’ sounds almost feminist doesn’t it? But it isn’t. They have been known to sue scholars who try to publish work that goes against their ideas (they are the MRAs of archaeology).
So here are two areas that feminists were doing great work in. Learning to understand symbols; and finding out about women in ancient societies. Each of these areas needs the other. But under patriarchal scholarship they are stripped of context, stripped of meaning and turned into decontextualised ‘science’ (fake science in fact).
So instead of writing a PhD I went home and wrote my novel, The Falling Woman. Sometimes you just have to get out of academia and find other ways to do things. The scholars like Gimbutas and Mellaart were attacked relentlessly (they are not the only ones but amongst the most attacked).
The other thing that happened is that anything to do with women was turned into a ‘cult’ (patriarchy is very good at distorting and renaming). When women are in cults they become either ‘fertility’ goddesses or prostitutes (the crusty old idea of mother or whore). I’ve recently started learning Latin and am rereading about the Vestal Virgins. These were powerful women and a kind of memory (but watered down) of earlier times. They were Virgins in the Marilyn Frye sense of Wilful Virgin – not the virginal Victorian type. In other societies these Virgins were called temple prostitutes; they were made slaves to the new patriarchal ideology.
So now we have another layer again beginning in the early 80s of no longer talking about prostitutes (other than radical feminists doing so) but ‘sex work’. It is no accident that these forces came to bear at around the same time because radical feminist ideas were really taking off. Some were a bit popularised, some were not for the fainthearted, but such success has to be countered.
What we were left with after postmodernism, processural archaeology and sex work advocates had ploughed through was just a few strands. In the one corner, the goddess movement, too much depoliticised but an important repository for the knowledge; in another people like Marija Gimbutas were being accused of being Nazi sympathisers because she writes at times about the swastika that appears on some ancient artefacts (what isn’t said is that the swastika is an ancient Indian auspicious symbol meaning luck (in Sanskrit it also means a poet and a cake!) which was appropriated by Hitler, just as Mussolini appropriated the double axe as his symbol. A dehistoricised view of the world can ignore the fact that the latest versions of these symbols (ie the Nazi and Fascist renditions) are not any reflection of ancient symbolic meanings.
Women all around the world have been made to pay under patriarchy, through thousands of years – BUT that does not mean that patriarchy is universal – it has not been around for ever – nor is it inevitable. We can change – and the world can change.
I can’t help by finishing with one of best quotes I know from the wonderful Monique Wittig in her novel The Guérillères:
“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember … You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent.”
I take this seriously and try to find the words, to create ways to understand our own words and meanings; and to do whatever I can to remember: in the Dalyesque sense of putting back together the dismembered bodies of women and the dismembered knowledge, languages, memories and stories of women.