The Politics of Patriarchy

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.

Susan Hawthorne is a publisher, a poet and a political activist, blogging at and

  1. goodrumo said:

    Fantastic essays/articles here, really enjoying and getting a lot from them, thankyou so much, am reblogging some also, (hope that is okay). I am ongoing in my quest to understand how humanity has go to this point, and with this system of patriarchy so embedded. I am learning. Learning, learning, thanks so much for all you write and share.

  2. smash said:

    Thank you for this post. I agree with you the patriarchy is not inevitable. As Lishra mentioned in her last post, we should “be utopian”, and be creative when envisioning the world we want to create.

    Also, I love the Monique Wittig quote. So inspiring.

  3. Kate said:

    Wow, thanks for this post! I’m an aspiring Classicist – still an undergrad, haven’t yet been around long enough for my radical feminist ass to be shoved out – and a lot of this resonated with me. Particularly the bit about the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Last semester we read it in my Gender/Sexuality in the Ancient World class and I immediately glommed on to that. For anyone unfamiliar with it a quick summary: all-powerful Zeus (ugh ugh ugh. We’ll get back to him.) promises his brother a wife, forgets about it, and then says, “Oh, yeah, whatever, just take my daughter. I don’t give a shit.” So Hades “rapes” her (“rape” from the Latin “rapere,” to snatch. Bride kidnapping is a popular theme: see, rape of the Sabine women) and takes her to his palace. Her mother, Demeter, goes nuts. She looks all over the world for her daughter, makes the earth barren and refuses to supply grain until she gets back her daughter (hence most people being taught it’s an ancient “explanation” for seasons.) She asks all the other gods for help but the only one who actually tries to help her is Hecate (personal favorite of all gods!). I see this as a nod to lingering female solidarity and resistance during patriarchal upheaval. Demeter travels to Eleusis, works undercover as a mortal nanny, perhaps in hopes of replacing her lost daughter with another child – significantly, an infant boy. There she establishes her cult (the Eleusinian Mysteries), Helios tells her where Persephone is, and mother and daughter are reunited. But because Persephone ate those famous pomegranate seeds, she is bound to hell and her husband forever. She can no longer be a child, and she’ll never be fully with her mother. The old and free matriarchs are cut off from their daughters. Patriarchy takes over – here, under the guise of marriage. Some versions say she took the seeds willingly (perhaps realizing the futility of struggle) and others say she was tricked (more rape!), but the end result is that she is forced into marriage, and so dies. The trope of “marriage as death” (only for women, of course. Then as now, marriage is great for men.) is a popular one in the ancient world, cruelly and literally represented here by the fact that she is actually the queen of the underworld.

    But the theme of men-conquering-women isn’t just in that story. I think the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is almost a sub-plot in the rich and overwhelming blockbuster film that is Patriarchal Revolution in Ancient Literature. It only describes one of the weapons men employed against women – the institution of marriage – to control them. (I actually wrote a paper regarding that for the aforementioned class: literary depictions of rape-as-marriage normalizing, justifying, and perpetuating oppressive institutions, rape and marriage. Once I fix it up, I’ll submit it to the internet.) The entire backbone of Greek religion seems to rest on matriarchy being subsumed by patriarchy. Before the Olympian gods – the sky gods – ruled, there were the chthonic deities (chthonic from Greek “chthonos,” earth) who were dark, wet, and feminine. The most compelling example of them, in my opinion, are the Furies (personified female anger, and justice, I’d say), who, in Aeschylus’s Oresteia (specifically in the final play of the trilogy, The Furies, though the entire series is worth talking about) are mollified and domesticated and kindly trapped in a little temple. Hesiod’s Theogony famously talks of a battle between the (masculine) sky and (feminine) earth gods. I could go on and on about this, but already have and hopefully you get the picture. Male suppression of female power IS greek mythology. Zeus is the ultimate patriarch.

    So what happens when the concept of ancient matriarchy or patriarchal revolution comes up in class? It comes up once, and my male teacher (whom I adore, but, seriously? a dude teaching a women’s studies class?) completely dismisses it. Says it’s discredited and far-fetched.
    The idea that at some point in 200,000 years of humans living, only about 6000 of which have been recorded in any form, it is far-fetched to believe that women were unoppressed by males, may even have been in charge, and that there could be a cultural memory of a potential 194,000 years without patriarchy! And you can discredit something that is impossible to know! You’d think I suggested that we were all actually descended from aliens (at least then I’d get a show on the History channel). I think that Wittig quote is spot-on (I love her!): even if I can never prove that a patriarchal revolution happened, I think understanding patriarchy as a historical movement, as the first shot in the war against women instead of irrefutable and incontrovertible fact (that is, “nature”) is integral to the ending of women’s oppression. How can we end patriarchy if we understand it as The Only Thing That’s Ever Existed?
    Processural archaeology, though, that explains a lot. It really did seem as if all that ancient matriarchy work ended kind of abruptly.

  4. allecto said:

    There is an amazing documentary about Marija Gimbutas and her life and work Signs Out of Time. It is available to watch on youtube, see below, and well worth watching. The idea that male supremacy is not our true state and that a peaceful matrifocal/matrilineal society is the natural order of all human society is one that is truly revolutionary. This knowledge fires up the Background like nothing else.

  5. Marie-France Lesage said:

    Thanks for the link to the YouTube about Marija Gimbutas. It was very moving and inspiring. I was amazed to hear contemporary people from Lithuania singing ancient folksongs with blessings from the goddesses of the earth. Now I want to be a musicologist and find goddess songs all over the world! ;0)

  6. I heard Marija Gimbutas give a lecture once. She was absolutely brilliant – had the audience in stitches over mistaking beards for pubic hair. She led the audience gently through her interpretation and they were totally with her. This was not an audience of radical feminists.

    Kate, you might be interested in our forthcoming book, Invisible Women of Prehistory:

    It’s so great to hear someone else’s telling of the Demeter / Persephone story, it is such a clear story of what happened (unlike some other stories that are taken as history). And we need more feminist classicists – a very underrepresented lot. The backlash has been huge, but maybe we are coming out of that. Please keep studying, reading and interpreting.

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