Feminism, Matriarchy and Patriarchy: Interview with Dr. Cynthia Eller

Cynthia Eller, Professor of Religion, Claremont Graduate University & Editor of JAAR: Journal of the American Academy of Religion. PhD, University of Southern California. Eller teaches and researches in the areas of Women and Religion, New Religious Movements, Religion in North America, and Feminist Theory.

She is the author of Gentlemen and Amazons: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 1861-1900Am I a Woman? A Skeptic’s Guide to GenderThe Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future; Living in the Lap of the Goddess: The Feminist Spirituality Movement in America; and Conscientious Objectors and the Second World War: Moral and Religious Arguments in Support of Pacifism, along with numerous scholarly articles.

Eller has also written two introductory religion textbooks, Revealing Religion and Revealing World Religions, and served as editor for two additional textbooks, Revealing the Hebrew Bible (Barry Sang) and Revealing the New Testament (Stephen Moore). These textbooks are delivered in an interactive, fully digital format, and are in use at colleges throughout the United States and Canada. From 2016 to 2021, she is serving as general editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, which is housed at Claremont Graduate University. Website: www.cynthiaeller.com/

NP:  The subject matter of your research is complex, endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking. How would you describe matriarchy and patriarchy considering their historical roots and the role that understanding plays in the politics of Western society today?

Eller: Matriarchy and patriarchy are most fundamentally ideas—or ideal types, if you will. They are ways that we as humans try to describe our cultural values, kinship structures, economic relations, and religions, among other things. The etymological roots of patriarchy and matriarchy respectively are “rule of the father” and “rule of the mother.” Historically, patriarchy was quite straightforwardly the rule of the father—and of father figures—over all social and juridical matters in society. For example, in ancient Rome, the father was both the representative and the owner of his wives, children, and slaves (this, of course, did not apply to all fathers; class stratification demoted or eliminated the privileges of some biological fathers). Groups of fathers made policy for the larger society, and the ultimate ruler was seen as the metaphorical father of all, able to command and control.

In common parlance, however, patriarchy is usually shorthand for male dominance of any sort, regardless of whether or not fathers hold special power. Matriarchy is the obverse of patriarchy: a society in which mothers rule, or, more simply, women are dominant. There are no known societies in which women—whether as mothers or simply as women—have the powers that men hold in traditionally patriarchal societies, but people have long imagined such societies and called them matriarchies. Matriarchy has also been used to refer to any society that privileges women over men in significant ways. Some people who are interested in seeing gender egalitarian societies either in the past or in the future resist the use of the term matriarchy even if they are describing societies that privilege women over men. Typically this is because they want to stress that women, if given power, would not abuse it as men have, but would ensure equal treatment for all.

In terms of what role matriarchy and patriarchy play in Western society today, I’d think the answer is pretty simple: it’s exceedingly hard to make the case that Western society is now or ever has been matriarchal. There’s much that can be said about the power of mothers, but it does not extend to the sort of socially and legally sanctioned power that fathers have historically had in many societies. Whether or not Western society is now patriarchal is a more controversial question. Some people like to believe that though women’s and men’s roles and realities are different, and men may even appear more powerful in public, in reality both genders exercise significant, and possibly equal power. Others, of course, think that sexism and misogyny are still powerful realities that make the term patriarchy quite apt as a descriptor of Western society today.

NP:  In patriarchal/agricultural cultures is it accurate to say that property ownership served in part as a basis for assuming households (children and wives) as a possession? Does a link still exist between the feeling of possession and gender?

Eller: It’s difficult to answer this question in universal terms. There have been many agrarian societies, and they are not all alike. Some have been extremely patriarchal; others much less so. Some scholars have proposed a link between either agriculture in general; and or animal husbandry in particular, and patriarchy. The thinking is that these economic developments would have been accompanied by a change in mindset. In hunting and gathering economy, it is thought, people would experience the natural world as being in a balanced and mutually respectful relationship with humans. But with the advent of agriculture—so goes this line of thinking—the natural world becomes not a respected partner but rather the property of humans to use and abuse as they see fit. And once it is possible to own and breed animals, it is thought, it occurs to men that they can own and breed females of their own species as well. Though intriguing as a speculative thesis, there isn’t much evidence to support this notion. There are agrarian societies in which men are not strongly dominant, and hunting and gathering societies in which women are grossly subordinated and maltreated.

As to how gender and a feeling of possession relate, it seems to me that people are often possessive of those to whom they feel strongly attached. (This is just my sense; I don’t know that it’s an established tenet of psychology, sociology, or any of the natural sciences.) This possessiveness can range from a positive form of mutual concern and protection to a very negative form of ownership that does not take into concern the feelings or rights of those to whom one feels strongly attached. The problem is that when men are dominant, as they generally have been, their negative possessiveness can be extremely harmful to women, even taking on institutionalized forms. Because women have less social power, even if they are possessive in a negative way, the effects of this are generally less far-reaching.

NP:   Are Western cultures moving towards a greater balance in gender possibilities and tolerance? How so?

Eller: I have long described myself as a glass-half-empty feminist, so you should keep that bias in mind. Women have unquestionably made some great gains, even in my lifetime. But I would never be caught saying that the road only leads up. We’ve had reversals too. I think we’re experiencing one right now in the United States, as the executive branch of the government is filling up with men, men, and more men—and not men who appear particularly sympathetic to the feminist cause either.

NP: What are your hopes for the future in terms of gender, matriarchy and patriarchy?  Where do you think the United States is headed in that regard?

Eller: My fondest dream for gender in the future is that it will come to matter less and less, that people will have fewer and fewer expectations for one another’s behavior, identity, or preferences based on gender. Is the United States heading in that direction? There are times that I feel it is. I listen to high school and college students talking about gender here in the liberal enclave of California, and it gives me a lot of hope. They seem to be actively making more space on the gender spectrum for individual variation. Even understanding gender as a spectrum is a step forward, in my opinion. At other times though, when I hear these same millennials breaking gender and sexuality down into ever-finer and more precise identities (demisexual, transgender, non-binary, and so on) I wonder if this isn’t just another brand of gender coercion, a demand that everybody possess a properly labeled gender identity selected from an itemized list. That is, maybe the menu is expanding, but we’re still forced to choose, and then self-limit—and allow others to limit us—accordingly. I think the jury is still out on this question.

But, as I said, I’m a glass-half-empty feminist, and as far as I’m concerned, where a bunch of leftist, enlightened millennials are going with gender is just one story line. And if that story line feels hopeful, albeit a bit ambiguous to me, the other story line is terrifying, and very real. To be female in America today is to have a high risk factor for being harassed, diminished, underpaid, and abused, and to be instilled daily with ideas about femininity that undermine one’s potential for meaningful life choices and a healthy self-regard.