Matriarchy to Patriarchy to Equality


A good friend of mine once told me that matriarchy had its run for thousands of years and that progress would not have been made with the continuation of that model. I was taken aback, but decided to explore the topic further. What follows is a brief contrast between the elements of matriarchy and patriarchy. As women assume a greater role in our political and social institutions, we should create an equality model that is not distinguished by oppression of one gender over another.

Our understanding of matriarchal society owes a great deal to archeologist Marija Gimbutas and those who came after her. Writing in the late 20th century, she proposed the existence of a female-centric society in the Neolithic era (approximately 10,000 to 4,000 BCE) prior to the invasion of more warlike and male-dominated Indo-Europeans she refers to as Kurgans.[1] One of her colleagues, Joseph Campbell, stated that this society was probably not matriarchal in the purest sense, but was nonetheless more focused on the relationship between females and the earth.[2] Whether or not a true matriarchy existed at this time, characteristics of early goddess worship affirm several characteristics that are quite opposite of the patriarchy, which established itself in the Bronze Age (approximately 3000 to 600 BCE) and, as most would agree, continues in most societies today.

Before critics jump on this analysis, let me be clear that I am not suggesting a return to nature worship or the Great Goddess. As Joseph Campbell stated, “The important thing about the Goddess is not whether women sat on thrones and ruled in a matriarchal social structure; it is whether the quality of Woman, the being of Woman, the sense of Woman was understood, known, and respected.”[3] Patriarchy, in its present form, must change if gender equality is to be achieved. The U. S. Congress is 80% male. 99% profess belief in one of the organized religions.[4] In the last decades, progress has been stalled on issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment and pay equity. Attacks on the right to abortion, birth control, and other women’s health issues are dominated by religious rhetoric. We will not achieve an equality model until women are more represented in decision-making and religion fades into the background.

Outlined below are the major differences between these archetypes of civilization with questions posed as to the aspects of matriarchy that might be integrated into a more gender-balanced society.

Relationship to nature and the earth

Today we still use the expression Mother Nature to depict the forces of the planet upon which we live. Creation stories show evidence of the difference in relationships of male and female deities to nature. As Peggy Reeves Sanday explains, “Female creators originate from within something – such as earth or water – and create from their bodies. Male, animal, and supreme being creators originate from without – such as the sky or another land – and produce people magically.”[5] The closer relationship to the earth is also seen in the relationship between females and nature’s cycles. The monthly cycles of the moon correspond to the monthly menstruation cycles of women. This relationship is seen in the figurine called the Venus of Lausal, which dates from 25,000 BCE in France. The standing woman has a pregnant belly and in her hand a horn with thirteen slashes. The horn symbolizes the crescent moon with the slashes signifying the thirteen days from crescent to full moon. The fertility of the woman and the earth are also linked together with the advent of agriculture. UnknownAs the gatherers, it is quite possible that women first discovered the ability to harvest seeds and plant them. Agricultural cycles, which corresponded with nature’s cycles, led to celebrations, festivals and rituals timed to them. In later Greek mythology, female goddesses such as Demeter, the grain goddess, dominated the deities responsible for the fertility of the earth. Plow agriculture transferred the bulk of the work of agriculture from women to men.[6] As more scientific approaches to the earth cycles were discovered and the forces of nature were somewhat tamed through irrigation and storage, as well as the ability to predict events such as eclipses, the reverence for Mother Nature began to wane.[7] The three monotheist religions today are all built upon patriarchy with a male deity that is above or beyond nature. In the creation story, god gives man dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:28). As Starhawk explains, this image “has given us a rationale for our own destruction of the natural order, and justified our plunder of the earth’s resources.”[8] If climate change deniers prevail, we may find ourselves just one of the millions of extinct species. While Mother Nature does not require worship, she does require respect.


Early societies with primitive belief systems saw sexual union as a natural phenomenon. Indeed, it is what produced offspring and allowed the tribe to live on. Later on, when gods and goddesses became part of the mythology, the sacred marriage (hieros gamos) ritual arose. Best known from Greek mythology, this ritual involved a man and a woman representing a god and goddess in a sexual setting. In patriarchy, sexuality is turned on its head. The contrast between women’s menstrual cycles mimicking nature and the treatment of menstruation in patriarchal religious teachings couldn’t be starker. What was once seen as a natural process is turned into a shameful, dirty event that leads to the ostracism of women from daily life—not only are they unclean but anyone who touches them during these seven days is also unclean. Once formal houses of worship were built, women having their periods were forbidden from entering, a practice that continues in some churches today.[9] The celibacy of both women and men serving in the Catholic Church today is the final renunciation of nature. Starhawk sums it up well. “Under patriarchy, sexuality provides the rational for violence against women—the stoning of adulteresses, the burning of Witches, the snickering probe into the conduct of rape victims.”[10] Opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, and birth control, as well as abstinence education feeds off this patriarchal control over sexuality. A return to seeing sexuality as a normal part of our lives must be a key element in a new model.

Role of property

Frederick Engels, writing in the 19th century, cites property as the cause of the shift from a society focused more on the matriarchal family to a true patriarchy. Author Rosemary Radford Ruether summaries his views. “The shift from the matrilineal and matrilocal communal family to patriarchy took place with the accumulation of property, beginning with the domestication of animals and the development of herds of cattle, which were defined as private property in the hands of a chief, belonging to him personally rather than to the clan.”[11] The impact of the role of property and patriarchy on women was devastating. The woman became merely the chattel of man having no say in whom she married. Once the bride price was paid, she belonged to her husband. In the Bible, Lot uses his virgin daughters as simple barter to stave off a mob threatening him (Genesis 19:8). If a man married a woman and the “tokens of her virginity” could not be proved, she would be killed (Deuteronomy 22:21). Unfortunately, in some areas of the world, much of this practice continues today. The accumulation of property has led to an extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of the elite in most countries. It was not until 1900 that most states in the U. S. had given women control over their property.[12] A fairer distribution of wealth must be part of a new model.

Ethical obligations and notions of morality

Morality in a matriarchal society stems from kinship. One’s loyalty is to offspring, related family, and the tribe. Taboos are passed down through oral tradition. In the law of the Torah, however, it is the covenant between man and god that sets up the basis for a code of laws. It should be noted that this covenant is sealed with the rite of circumcision and applies to men only. Lawrence Shlain goes so far as to posit that the existence of laws, in singling individuals out who have violated them, contributes to the creation of an elite—priests or god’s appointed rulers—who administers them.[13] It was only with the French and American Revolutions that these codes came to be seen as independent from the church. It is interesting that the Babylonian’s written codes, which predated those of the Hebrew tribes, coincided with the ascendency of the male deity, Marduk, over the female deity, Tiamat.[14] In this type of religious patriarchy, allegiance is transferred from a matriarchal system of devotion to offspring to an abstract god. In this model, child sacrifice is even condoned to appease the god. Read the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22) and the story of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11). In the first, god intervenes to substitute an animal sacrifice—in the second, he does not. Christian apologists attempt to accuse atheists of having no morality. Yet the treatment of women in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, show just whom the codes of morality are designed to support: men. Today, in our complex society, written laws with fairly meted out punishments are required. Yet it is still what is taught to children when they are young that guides them most in later life. The motivations of most religions—shame, fear, and guilt—are not healthy. One of Warren Jeffs’ children spoke out this week about her life within the FLDS community. While this is an extreme example, it shows the utter damage to children from religious indoctrination and abuse in childhood.

This life versus another one

Early religions that revered nature and the earth saw life and death as part of the same cycle since material existence was the only focus. Women, who gave life, also became involved in mourning death. This is still seen in the New Testament where it is women who come to mourn the death of Jesus. Death is seen as final and the end of existence. As Carol Ochs explains, this contrasts with patriarchy where death “is welcomed as a release from the burden of corporeal existence.”[15] The notion of time has been transformed and instead of unending cycles is seen in a linear fashion. This shift makes possible the construction of an end times scenario. The focus of Christianity on a spiritual hereafter distracts from attention paid to the inequities of this existence. Christopher Hitchens frequently criticized Mother Teresa for actually glorifying suffering. He stated that she was “less interested in helping the poor than in using them as an indefatigable source of wretchedness on which to fuel the expansion of her fundamentalist Roman Catholic beliefs.”[16] Contrast the celebratory rites of pagan religions timed to nature’s seasons and the focus of Christianity on the death, after much pain and suffering, of Jesus on the cross. In its extreme, certain religious sects have rejected most aspects of a material existence and isolated themselves from others often eschewing any contact with the opposite sex. This is the antithesis of matriarchy’s focus on offspring and the family. Even today, the Catholic Church excludes women from the priesthood and demands celibacy of its priests.


Joseph Campbell, the preeminent scholar of mythology in the 20th century, has written my conclusion for me.

I taught at a women’s college for nearly four decades, and as I said to my students, all I can tell you about mythology is what men have said and have experienced, and now women have to tell us from their point of view what the possibilities of the feminine future are. And it is a future – it’s as thought the lift-off has taken place, it really has, there’s no doubt about it[17].

Karen L. Garst

The Faithless Feminist

October 2, 2015

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[1] Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row), Introduction, xv-xxi.

[2] Joseph Campbell, Goddesses: Mysteries of the Female Divine (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2013), xvi.

[3] Ibid., 219.


[5] Peggy Reeves Sanday, Female Power and Male Dominance: On the origins of sexual inequality (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 57.

[6] Rosemary Radford Ruether, Goddesses and the Divine Feminine (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2005), p. 39

[7] Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (New York, NY:Little Brown and Company, 2009), p. 88.

[8] Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 10.

[9] William E. Phipps, The Menstruation Taboo in the Judeo-Christian Tradition, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter 1980, p. 298.

[10] Starhawk, 195

[11] Ruether, 264.


[13] Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet versus the Goddess: Male words and Female Images (London, England: Penguin Press, 1998), 52.

[14] Shlain, 51.

[15] Carol Ochs, Behind the Sex of God (Boston, MA:Beacon Press, 1977), 96


[17] Campbell, 263

About the Author Karen Garst


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