as I’ve been sorting through these various historical narratives of the origins of women’s oppression, I realized that in fact both “sides” are drawing on the same sources.
Although they seldom make this connection, the proponents of a notion of a matriarchy also derive from the same sources as the historical-materialist explanation of women’s oppression. Engels, relying on Bachofen, an oft cited text for writers about the goddess and matriarchy, postulated the existence of a matriarchal society destroyed by the rise of patriarchy, which was tied to the origins of property and the need to control descent, and thus women’s sexuality to ensure reproduction of a specific male line.
The big three books for the revival of the goddess and notion of matriarchy as a historical period in 1970s feminism are Elizabeth Gould Davis’ The First Sex (1971), Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father (1973), and Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman (1976). To say this line of thinking inspired some rather heated exchanges would be a gross understatement. Proponent of studying religion, mythology and folklore from a feminist perspective could not distance themselves fast enough from the like of Elizabeth Gould Davis, a librarian, or Merlin Stone, an artist who taught in higher education, or Mary Daly, who hung in there at BC FOREVER (as one reviewer remarked her longevity is either a testimony to the true spirit of inquiry allowed by the Jesuits, or the remarkable power of tenure)
Anyway, wending my way through Engels and Bachofen, into the 1970s feminist text, revealed connections, such as Jane Alpert’s controversial “Mother Right,” which takes its title from Bachofen’s central work on matriarchy, without footnoting her male source.
While Engels’ interpretation has been used by many to support the idea of goddess based religions in prehistory, the word goddess appears only twice in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (depending on the translation) and in neither instance does it refer to the “great mother.” Although Engels spends a great deal of time detailing the rise of patriarchal religion over the predecessor, he spends little time on the details of that prior religion, which is not particularly surprising given the dismissal of religion in Marxism. Thus Engels rather tersely notes:
the transition … from maternal to paternal law is accomplished … through the evolution of religious ideas
Instead what Engels writes about extensively is kinship, meaning matrilineality leading to women’s power because descent is reckoned through the mother.
women as mothers, being the only well known parents of younger generations, received a high tribute of respect and deference, amounting to a complete women’s rule (gynaicocracy)
As Juliet Mitchell notes “the end of matrilineage was the world historical defeat of women,” although the same reference to Engels infamous formulation “ “the world historic defeat of the female sex” is often used to describe the end of goddess worship and the rise of patriarchal monotheism.
How then did Engels get tied up in all this goddess stuff? Because Engels’ relied on Bachofen, who did write a great deal about the details of the matriarchate, and the religious significance of women’s reproductive powers. Thus Engels’ analysis of a patriarchal revolution combines with Bachofen’s belief in female deities to create the idea of “ “myth of the golden age of women” (borrowing from Simone de Beauvoir) in which women had social as well as religious power.
Bachofen refers, rather clumsily, to the “primordial tellurian mother” and thus more frequently Neumman’s idea of the “Great Mother” which drew heavily on Bachofen is used by goddess adherents, or an easier translation “earth mother” is referenced. Bachofen uses the word goddess to refer only to specific incarnations such as Demeter or Cybele.
Bachofen is referenced by all 1970s writers on the goddess. Mary Daly in Beyond God The Father argues that Mary, the Mother of God, represents the remaining vestiges “of the ancient images of the Mother Goddess” (p 83?). Daly depicts Mary as a “domesticated” version of her far more powerful, and autonomous, predecessor. Merlin Stone most frequently writes of “the Great Goddess” always capitalized, “the Divine Ancestress” who ruled before patriarchy. Similarly Davis writes of the Great Goddess in capitals who prevailed until the Romans conquered the Celts.
Taken together then, this notion from Engels’ of women’s oppression deriving from a lost matriarchal state and the existence of a matriarchal religious traditions, from Bachofen via Davis, Daly, and Stone, a second narrative emerged in 1970s feminism to explain the origins of women’s oppression, one that lay in the usurpation of her prior powers based on reproduction rather than reproduction as the locus of oppression. Unlike prior narratives, which sought to justify women’s liberation as an autonomous movement separate from the New Left and a focus on sexism, this second narrative was crafted by women well into the women’s liberation movement who formulated an origin story that met their needs at that point, which was empowerment.