(A sort of book review: The Chalice and Blade, Riane Eisler)
I believe some well-intentioned woman gave me this book 30 years ago, thinking that as the teen daughter of progressive feminists, I would be interested. Poor thing didn’t understand that my father’s “girls can do anything!” attitude was only half the rallying cry, the dependent clause being, “if they act like boys.” I had no interest in this New Agey squishy bullshit, as I labelled it, because I had inherited, unbeknownst to my conscious mind, a real sexist attitude towards many kinds of women, and a complex, befuddled, and nearly unintelligible set of beliefs that led me to obsess about physical strength and independence, yet prized the traits associated with females – care, compassion, community, nonviolence – while fighting against the idea that women should demonstrate those characteristics, or that they could anything but supplemental to established structures.
Sadly, it wasn’t until the #metoo movement that I started questioning my own sexist tendencies, as longtime readers may remember. But nothing sad about that bringing me back to this book, quietly sitting on a shelf gathering dust through 8 moves. (My “important” book hoarding sometimes serves me well.)
So I finally read it. I should look into the provenance of some of the claims, I suppose, but I don’t remember hearing anything particularly scandalous about it, so I’ll proceed with the assumption that the historical facts are more or less accurate. Without going into a summary that would be woefully inadequate, I’ll just say by way of introduction that the first part of the book goes into the archaeological evidence of successful matrilineal societies (not matriarchal – patriarchal practices under female leadership – but a different culture entirely), and the second half promotes the species-saving potential of actualizing such societies today.
I recommend Audre Lorde or Angela Davis if you want a good listen/lesson on intersectionality and the inherent oppression of hierarchy. I think they are particularly good at helping us understand why narrow identity movements – women’s rights, gay rights, Black rights – always fail on some level. Because in prioritizing one cause, one is necessarily marginalizing others, moving your identity one step up the ladder rather than tearing down the ladder entirely. Let’s take feminism as an example. Western feminist movements throughout history have prioritized White women – sometimes incidentally, sometimes explicitly. What would it look like if they didn’t? It would be a movement for racial equity, anti-poverty, LGBTQ liberation, disability rights, multiculturalism, and every other marginalized idea you can think of, because women are present in every group, except perhaps one…
So The Chalice & the Blade is not about feminism or womanism; it’s not even about men. Unfortunately, we have to work with the language we’ve got, and we have a shared cultural belief that certain characteristics are male and others female (or yang and yin, if you prefer) which have stuck, perhaps, because there are a few defining characteristics of the biologically male and female that often apply (greater physical size and strength for the former, the ability to give birth and nourish a baby for the latter) and we have accentuated those out to associate males with violence and women with care, and expanded that further into all of the gender stereotypes we know and love, some of which may be legit – higher testosterone does seem to increase sex drive and decisiveness. Nonetheless, any accuracy about these few features has not been what has kept these stereotypes alive, and certainly not what has kept patriarchy alive. Men dominate because they used strength and violence to gain power, and power to oppress others and perform legitimacy, and legitimacy to claim inevitability. In the process they have oppressed, abused, and enslaved women, minority races and cultures, people with disabilities, the poor, the environment, and any men who don’t buy into or succeed in the “male” structures they’ve imposed. That’s why isolated identity movements don’t work, and why the answer must ultimately be revolution, solidarity not only among oppressed groups, but with all who recognize the nature of society as it is, “ruled through force or the threat of force by [predominantly] men” (p.105), which includes compassionate, hetero, cis-gendered, White males.
Recognizing and unlearning “male” culture is just as difficult as recognizing and unlearning White supremacist culture. (You’re soaking in it!) I don’t have the inclination to ferret out which is which, so I’ll just pull a few items that seem particularly “male” and destructive to me. First off, male supremacy is a Death Cult. I’d heard this phrase before but didn’t really get it until reading Eisler’s book. Don’t get me wrong, as a Smiths and Anne Sexton fan, and someone who has been shaken out of depression more than once just by reminding myself that suicide is an option, I have a bit of an affinity for the death cult. But it’s really not a great way for an intelligent, self-aware species to approach existence. Sure, death and taxes are inevitable (if you’re not filthy rich), but so is birth and growth. A focus on death reframes life as something to be endured and won, rather than explored or enjoyed or nurtured. Here some more crap:
- heaping more praise and rewards on those who kill and die than those who give and nourish life
- promoting guns as the ultimate, sometimes only, response to conflict (standing your ground, rather than finding common ground)
- responding to violence with violence, as in capital punishment and the carceral system
- glorifying physical strength to the extent that those lacking that gift are marginalized and often abused
- shaming people who have not been financially successful in a culture that glorifies work for the sake of work, glory, and accumulation of wealth
- crafting laws and policies in which parents are forced to choose between getting enough money to support their children and raising their children
- idealizing the nuclear family, which looks out only for itself and competes with others for resources and status, rather than mutually beneficial child-rearing, community support, etc. (arguably a failing of the Gay Marriage movement)
- a warped belief in individual accomplishment: by isolating ourselves from those who sustain us – farm workers, factory workers, transportation workers, the natural environment in general – we delude ourselves into thinking we are self-sufficient (I can order my own food!) and thereby continue to destroy land, animals, peoples, and cultures to serve our own needs
- a hierarchical system which requires a “bottom” in order to support a “top”
- a quantitative view of the world, leading to unfettered capitalism, constant growth, parochial thinking, zero-sum thinking, and, if unchecked, the destruction of most life on the planet
- prioritizing competition over collaboration
- a patriarchal view of the world that made it impossible for archaeologists and sociologists to recognize the existence & success of ancient matrilineal societies even when that was the most obvious conclusion (see The Chalice & the Blade,
It’s a lot, I know, and trying to complete this piece has left me hamstrung for weeks, so I’ll wrap it up here. Please contribute your own examples and solutions. I’ll get the populous moving on that revolution asap.
6 thoughts on “Kill the Patriarchy, Save the World?”
Good to get your posts on email. While most of the world’s cruelly may be attributed to men, I don’t think we should let women off the hook entirely. Wonderlist’s “Ten most evil women in the history of the world” describes attrocities beyond imagination and with which I was not familiar. Just as narrow identity movements fall short of the mark in liberating oppressed and abused groups, as you point out, wouldn’t specifying a culture to be “unlearned” by gender have the same result? It seems to me there are two fundamental questions: 1.)What underlies the common threads of cruelty that pervade humankind without reference to gender, and 2.) what are the measures to prevent them in those not yet displaying cruelty and remediate them among those who do. Best, Jim
Thanks, Jim. I tried to be very deliberate about not saying that these issues of violence and oppression are the fault of men, but of what we categorize as “male” or “masculine” thinking and culture. Women have participated in destructive male behaviors just as people of color have been complicit in White Supremacist culture. I don’t think it has much to do with biological gender at all, but what we as a society have chosen to elevate and prioritized, sitting on a history of violence and the threat of violence.
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The book looks interesting, have just ordered it. I find your post very interesting as the idea of a social and business structure that supports community and child-rearing is very much the need of the day.
On your comment on the nuclear family – I see it as a way to bring togetherness, and support for elder and child care, when families live within the same locality a walk away. And a much closer unit than joint families where all generations live in the same home.
The nuclear family helps each family member have space and some autonomy in the way they want their homes and lives arranged, I think. And actually brings people closer and makes them more interested in helping and supporting each other.
Am looking forward to reading the book.
Thanks for your comment, Anitaelise. And sorry for the very late response.
A nuclear family can no doubt be a great thing, and I’m sure that people from supportive family units are capable of bringing great openness and energy to helping people outside of their family. The problem, from my perspective, is when the nuclear family is used as a political tool – look at the fear-mongering around “they’re coming to destroy the suburbs” during the election last year; or folks who won’t leave a “good” job that supports their family, even if that job is clearly contributing to the destruction of the environment or entire cultures.
When people are encouraged to put their own immediate interests above the greater good, it *can* lead to a pretty apathetic attitude towards others in need. But a compassionate and engaged nuclear family doesn’t necessarily do any harm at all.
Thanks for your reply, I do understand your point. I believe that the nuclear family in many cases supports community and even selflessness, as it gives people a chance for some space to keep their individuality while caring for each other. The joint family can support an unhealthy dependence and often the community for most is supported by the oppression of some. That’s been my understanding based on seeing so many deeply unhappy joint families. This might be different for different social groups and I don’t really have the knowledge to speak for all.
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