Friday, June 2, 2017

The Matriarchate: The Use of the Wonder Woman Image in the 19th Century Women's Movement

From Chapter 6, "Our Girls," in Tracy A. Thomas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton & the Feminist Foundations of Family Law (NYU Press 2016)

Toward the end of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's long career advancing women's rights and legal reform, she renewed her efforts to deconstruct the foundations of women's continued subordination.  Why did many women themselves not endorse reform and equality?  Why did so many women say "I have all the rights I want."  Stanton located the source of social subordination in the teachings of the church, which women heard every week from the pulpit and every day in the papers.  She dedicated her last decade of life to challenging the gendered interpretations of the Bible and offering alternative feminist understandings of religious doctrine.

As part of that, Stanton drew  on new emerging ideas of anthropology of matriarchal societies which she used to show that female power and women-ruled societies were viable alternative ways to structure power.  Almost a century later, at the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston, Gloria Steinem embraced Stanton’s theory of the matriarchate, using it similarly to emphasize the viability of an alternative system of female power.

 

The Matriarchate

In the early 1890s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton added to her historical argument of the perversions of the church, by offering an alternative to this ordained gender structure of “the matriarchate.” She incorporated this theory of maternal power into addresses to national conventions, writings on Wyoming’s new grant of women’s suffrage, and in other essays on women’s rights.[i] Stanton drew on emerging anthropological theories of matriarchal societies, prehistoric cultures like the Amazons, Iroquois, and others in which women ruled as the creative force wielding power and peaceful governance. The theory of matriarchy was a popular idea that emerged in the late nineteenth century, originating with Swiss lawyer and jurist Johann Jakob Bachofen and advanced by Marxist thinker Friedrich Engels and others.[ii] The theory of a matriarchal prehistory held that earlier societies existed in which women controlled government and property, created the first families, developed agriculture, and were worshipped as goddesses because of their reproductive and caregiving abilities. A “patriarchy cataclysm” disrupted the peace, harmony, and ecological balance of these matriarchal systems with intervening wars and weapon development, after which patriarchy evolved as the superior social structure and provided survival and advancement.[iii]           

 

Stanton wrote from England in 1890 that she had “been reading the whole year to glean these facts” about the matriarchate by studying British scholars.[iv] She was likely also influenced by her colleague, Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was developing similar theories about religion on matriarchy later published in her magnum opus, Woman, Church, and State.[v] Stanton, like Gage, appropriated the anthropological matriarchal theories of the nineteenth century for her own feminist purposes. For these theories had been developed to justify the converse, the superiority of patriarchy. They held that society had evolved from the unsophisticated, chaotic matriarchal systems into ordered and aggressive systems grounded in patriarchy. Stanton, interpreting the theory through her feminist lens, concluded that the matriarchate provided historical evidence of women’s ability and superior powers and the negative influence of the destructive forces of male aggression and patriarchy. “Thus, instead of being a ‘disability,’ as unthinking writers are please to call it, maternity has been the all-inspiring motive or force that impelled the first steps” toward “the birth of civilization.” Matriarchal theory was attractive because it freed women’s rights advocates from the “charge of their critics that male dominance was biological and eternal, and therefore inevitable and unchangeable.” Stanton used this evidence not to advocate a return to female supremacy, but rather as evidence of women’s capabilities sufficient to support an “Amphiarchate,” a shared power between women and men in the “as yet untried experiment of complete equality.[vi] Second-wave feminists of the late twentieth century resurrected these ideas of the matriarchate bolstered by archeological finds of prehistoric fertility goddesses and a strong current of feminism seeking support for alternative gender structures of power.[vii]

Notes 

[i] “Matriarchate,” 227; “Her Political Status,” Evening Star, Feb. 25, 1891; “The Matriarchate Mother-Age,” Woman’s Tribune, Feb. 28, 1891; “The Matriarchate or Mother-Age,” National Bulletin, Feb. 1892; ECS, “Wyoming,” Woman’s Tribune, July 5, 1890; ECS, “Wyoming Admitted as a State into Union,” 134 Westminster Review 280 (Sept. 1890); “Antagonism”; Mrs. Stanton on Our Foremothers, Woman’s Journal, Dec. 29, 1894; ECS and SBA, “Women’s Rights,” in Johnson’s Universal Cyclopedia v. VIII (Charles Kendall Adams, ed. 1895).

[ii] Bachofen, Mother Right: A Study of the Religious and Juridical Nature of Gynecocracy in the Ancient World (1861); Friedrich Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884).

[iii] ECS, “Karl Pearson on the Matriarchate,” Women’s Penny Paper, Nov. 8, 1890; ECS, “The Matriarchate, or Mother-Age,” National Council of Women, Feb. 22-25, 1891; ECS, “The Antagonism of Sex,” National Bulletin, June 1893; ECS, “Then Woman Said: ‘I Will,’” Dec. 23, 1894; ECS, “Moral Power, or Brute Force?” Boston Investigator, Feb. 25, 1899; ECS, “The Antagonism of Sex,” Boston Investigator, Mar. 16, 1901; Woman’s Bible, 25; Cynthia Eller, Gentlemen and Amazons: The Myth of Prehistory, 1861-1900 6-7 (2011); Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory 3-15 (2000).

[iv] ECS to Clara Colby, Feb. 21, 1891; ECS, “Reminiscences,” Woman’s Tribune, Mar. 19, 1892.

[v] Fitzgerald, xxi; Kern, 67; HWS, v.I, 753; Matilda Joslyn Gage, “The Matriarchate,” 2 The Open Court 1480-81, Jan. 5, 1889. Gage’s son-in-law, Frank Baum, actualized Gage’s theory of matriarchal power in his “The Wizard of Oz” book series.

[vi] “Matriarchate,” 227; “Antagonism”; Woman’s Bible, 25; Eller, Amazons, 123, 130-32.

[vii] Gloria Steinem, Wonder Woman, in Eller, Myth, 1-2; Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (1976); Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (1987).

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/gender_law/2017/06/the-matriarchate-the-wonder-women-of-the-19th-century-womens-movement.html

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