Recently I picked up a copy of Becoming an Ally: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression, by Anne Bishop. It’s required reading for an English class I was planning on taking this fall (though those plans have changed) and it’s been on my To Read list for a while anyway.
Honestly, I’m disappointed.
Anne Bishop (this is not Anne Bishop, novelist and author of The Black Jewels Trilogy) definitely knows what she’s talking about with regards to the mechanics of oppression and how it perpetuates itself. That’s not where my complaint lies.
My complaint lies with the mounds of feminist revisionist history littering its pages.
I am so, so tired of reading about the “peaceful matriarchy” or the 100 million witches killed during the “Burning Times”. It sucks to see it in Pagan books, though I sort of expect it by this point so I’m never really surprised.* It sucks even more to see it in books that are assigned reading for class.
I no doubt have a bone to pick about this particular bit of revisionist history because I was so taken with it myself for so long – what young, naive, feminist girl wouldn’t be taken with the idea of a time when women ruled the earth? (Probably quite a few, but I’m trying to make myself feel better here.) I spouted the same lies.
Until people who knew better directed me to scholarly sources that showed these lies had been debunked decades beforehand, and what I was spouting was revisionist history. It hurt to admit that I was wrong, but I managed to do it – and life has been much better.
So it angers me to see this revisionist history printed in books that are well thought of, generally, because I think that someone else a lot like me is going to pick up the book and think that that’s the goddess’ honest truth.
The idea of a peaceful matriarchy that existed long before the ebil penis patriarchy took it over (via rape, of course) is actually actively harmful to the modern feminist movement. If we need to imagine a past that didn’t exist in order to lend credence to our fight for equal rights, then that says we don’t really believe we deserve those rights just by virtue of our existence. We don’t need a peaceful matriarchy myth to say “We deserve to be treated like human beings.” We deserve to be treated like human beings even if patriarchy has always been the way society as arranged itself. Traditional does not equal right.
Furthermore, this matriarchy myth keeps our eyes focused on the past and how things “used to be” — instead of looking towards the future we should be working to create, we keep ourselves mired in the past, the “glorious heyday of the universal peaceful matriarchy when everyone worshipped the great goddess. Except for those people who didn’t and systematically conquered the matriarchy.” (Already the myth is breaking down! It can’t hold itself up.)
Why do we need to imagine a past to give our current cause credence? Are our actual feminist foremothers not good enough for us? We set up this ridiculous standard – a universal matriarchy – that we must measure up to. We never will and it’s ridiculous to try – we need an egalitarian society, not one gender dominating the other (as much because it’s still domination as because it encourages the idea of gender binary). Matrilineal I can get behind as it makes sense genetically, but matrilineal =/= matriarchal.
I think from now on if I get assigned a book for class that spouts this bit of revisionist history, I will get a hardcover copy of The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented past Won’t Give Women a Future by Cynthia Eller** and just fling it at the teacher’s head.
Or imagine doing so, because I don’t want to get charged with assault.
*One of my favourite authors, Starhawk, is guilty of this. However, her books were written a while ago, and the notes in the later editions would suggest that she’s seen her initial error. She also talks less about the numbers of the “burning times” and more the why of the when. (IOW, why it happened at that point in history.) I’m still a huge fan of her work and I still love what she has to say; because she’s been so inspirational to me I’m able to overlook her few shortcomings. This doesn’t mean I’ll actively support those same shortcomings in every other book I come across.
**By the way, I haven’t read this yet. I plan on doing so as soon as possible. I’m sure it will give me even better points than the ones I’ve listed in this post.