Episode 3

The Creation of Patriarchy, by Gerda Lerner, Part 1

Published on: 29th December, 2020

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy, I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. 

Have you ever been to a beautiful city somewhere where there are cafes and shops and businesses built along narrow streets… and you learn that the foundations of the streets were laid thousands of years ago? They’ve been inhabited continuously, with people living their lives, tearing down old structures and building up new ones, over and over again upon that same grid, those same streets, generation after generation. Have you ever wondered, Who decided on this street layout? When? Why? Somebody made it up at some point. Is this city  grid still serving the needs of the people who are building their lives on these streets now? 

Today we will be discussing a book that examines the foundations of patriarchy - the cultural, psychological, and political system upon which humans have been building their societies and their religions and their personal lives for thousands of years. The book is called The Creation of Patriarchy, by Gerda Lerner. Written in 1986, it answers the who, when, how, and why of these foundations. But before we start, I’d like to introduce my guest, Sherrie Crawford! Hi Sherrie!


Sherrie: Hi, Amy!


Amy: Sherrie and I met in Cairo, Egypt, when we were both college students on a semester abroad in Jerusalem. We were in a writing group together, and then later ended up reconnecting as young moms and forming a Joy School together. We’ve been friends all this time, even though we’ve lived far apart, and Sherrie I’m so grateful to have you onboard this project and excited to have you here today!


Sherrie: So happy to be here!


Amy: Let’s start out with an introduction - can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where you’re from, and what makes you you? 


Sherrie:


Sure! I’m Sherrie Crawford. I’m the 5th of 6 children, born into a low socioeconomic status Mormon family. I was born in Utah, and grew up in Arizona, and while my grandparents had money and provided nice Christmases and trips to Disneyland for us, I think of my growing up as being “everyday poor.” 

Education wasn’t encouraged in my family - some of my family members didn’t finish high school, and I didn’t have college aspirations for myself. I kind of “accidentally” went to college, because my seminary teacher Brother Burkhart signed me up for LDS Business College, and I went.

Later my friend Tami told me about the BYU Jerusalem study abroad program, and I signed up. The cost was $8,000, which felt like a million dollars at the time! My grammy and grandpa helped a little and my parents helped a little, I received a scholarship, but I sold my Bronco and earned most of that money myself. 

After Jerusalem I went to BYU Provo, and then I did the next Mormon thing, which was to get married and make babies! I put my studies on hold so that my husband could finish his degree, and we had our first baby right away. My husband stayed in school for 13 years until he eventually earned a PhD in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Utah, and got a job in Idaho Falls, ID, where we live today.

We had four kids along the way, and when my youngest was in kindergarten I knew I needed to change something about my life. Being at home full-time without children wasn't satisfying for me. I searched deep inside and decided to finish my education. I had never planned to finish school and only had envisioned being a stay at home mom for my life. This decision led to a full blown panic attack. I didn’t know what it was at the time - I thought I was having a heart attack - but when I went in to the doctor I learned my heart was just fine. So I went back to school! I attended BYU-Idaho, so I went to almost all of the Mormon schools. Some of my highlights include studying U.S. women’s history with Dr. Andrea Radke-Moss and religion with Dr. Janiece Johnson. With Dr. Johnson I was able to explore the notion of the divine feminine and incorporate more of Heavenly Mother into my spiritual practice. Mormons have a belief in a Heavenly Mother, but we are not allowed to talk about her and definitely not allowed to talk to her, so studying the divine feminine was really powerful for me.

I graduated from BYU-Idaho in (2017) with a degree in Social Work and then went on to get a master’s degree in Social Work from Boise State University. I am the first person in my family of origin to earn a graduate degree. I put in a few years as a psychotherapist before taking a job as an elementary school counselor, which is heart work that I absolutely love.

Oh, and one more thing that’s significant to who I am: I grew up my whole life thinking that my mom’s side of the family was Mexican. My mom’s native language was Spanish, my Grandma Lucero, always used to say very proudly, “We are spanish people!” Well, a couple of years ago we did a 23 and Me test, which revealed my mom’s side is mostly Native American, we believe the Pueblo tribe in New Mexico. And around the same time, I happened to be studying the Spanish conquest of the Americas in my US women’s history class. And I learned - in my class readings - that the Spanish enslaved the Pueblo people of New Mexico. I realized that I was reading about my own family, and that was devastating.

But I’ve been learning more about my family history, and I’m really excited that later in the podcast project we’re going to read about Native American women together, and that will be really meaningful to me.


Amy:


Yes, I am so excited for that, and to go on that journey with you. 

And thank you so much for being here and for sharing your story! I’m so grateful and excited to discuss this text with you. And it’s especially amazing to be talking about the book The Creation of Patriarchy, since it talks about the cradle of civilization, and we met in the context of taking classes on ancient civilizations in the Near East.


So first let’s learn some background on the author of our text, Gerda Lerner.


Sherrie: 

Gerda Hedwig Kronstein was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in 1920. At age ten she was enrolled in a demanding all-girls’ school, where she loved listening to jazz and reading modernist literature.  


In 1934 a virtual civil war broke out in Vienna, between Nazis and leftist workers, and some of the fighting was so close to her home that she could hear the machine-gun fire.  

Many Jewish men were starting to be arrested, so Gerda’s father left the family for safety, intending to send for them later. In his absence the Nazi storm troopers arrested Gerda and her mother instead, seeking to use them as bait to force her father to return.  Gerda and her mother were imprisoned separately, and held in prison for six weeks, and Gerda believed she survived only because some Communist cellmates shared their food with her.  She looked back on these experiences as a Nazi resister and imprisoned teenager as the most formative influences of her life.

She arrived in America in 1939. She soon met Carl Lerner, a Communist theater director, fell in love, and in 1941 married him.  They moved to Los Angeles, where he became a successful film editor, and she began writing. In 1943, she became a citizen. Having mastered the English language with astonishing speed, she collaborated with Carl on some screenplays, including Black Like Me (1964), which he then directed.  Their daughter Stephanie was born in 1946, their son Dan in 1947.  She soon became a national leader in the Congress of American Women, working with poor black women and beginning to understand the limitations of her own middle-class assumptions.

At age 38 Gerda enrolled in college and then graduate school at Columbia, earning both a B.A. and a PhD in six years.  Driven by her developing concern with race and women, and defying warnings and belittlement from those who argued for a more conventional and “high status” topic, Gerda wrote a PhD dissertation about the white abolitionist Grimke sisters. Children of South Carolina slaveholders, they were the star antislavery activists of their era as well as early women’s-rights advocates. [And we will be reading Sarah Grimke in a later podcast episode!]

In her first job, at Sarah Lawrence College, she quickly recognized that merely teaching women’s history would not be enough to build respect for the field, and she strategized to build women’s history programs with high visibility.  Doing this often meant fighting major battles with administrators and faculty members in order to be taken seriously. She began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in 1968 and worked to establish an MA program in Women’s History, which still continues. Twelve years later she won a professorship at the University of Wisconsin, over significant opposition, where she built the country’s first PhD program in Women’s History.  She lectured widely on the importance of women’s history, and one of her most famous quotes is “Women's history is the primary tool for women's emancipation.” 

Her master project of the 1980s was published in the two volumes, The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness).  To do this massive study she left modern American history for anthropology, archeology, mythology and early modern Europe, and read widely in German as well as English. She claimed that depriving women of education and knowledge of their own history was the root of their subordination.

This is why she dedicated her life to women’s history, so that it wouldn’t be pigeon-holed as a separate “field,” left to specialists.  She wanted a holistic history and she wanted a history that served to advance understanding of all forms of injustice.

[Sources of bio: - we don’t have to read this part) :)

http://www.gerdalerner.com/biography/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerda_Lerner]

Amy:

Here I have to add that Gerda Lerner has become hero to me. I had never heard of her until I just happened upon this book, The Creation of Patriarchy about a year and a half ago. It took a few months to read - it’s not hard to understand - it’s very clear writing, but it’s really thorough and densely packed, so it’s not fast reading. But nearly every single page has something highlighted, dog-eared, notes in the margins… my mind was blown by historical epiphanies and personal epiphanies… this was the book I had been searching for for the past ten years or more. And then as I learned about how she went back to college at age 38 and then got her masters and PhD later in life and ended up founding Women’s Studies programs… really it was Lerner’s mission that inspired me to start this project. 

So let’s dive into the book. Like Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, Lerner goes back as far as there are any human records. She begins in the year 3 million BCE, but she goes to greater depth than Eisler does. Today we will cover the introduction of the book, some prehistoric events, as in, developments that happened before there were any written records, then we’ll cover Mesopotamia and the era of the Near Eastern goddesses. Then in the next episode  we will cover patriarchy within Hebrew Civilization and the ancient Greeks.

So first, Sherrie, can you tell us some of the most important parts from the introduction?

Sherrie: 

Yes! I’m going to start with a quote.

(Quote) Women are and have been central, not marginal, to the making of society and to the building of civilization. Women have also shared with men in preserving collective memory. ...History-making, on the other hand, is a historical creation which dates from the invention of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. From the time of the king lists of ancient Sumer on, historians, whether priests, royal servants, clerks, clerics, or a professional class of university-trained intellectuals, have selected the events to be recorded and have interpreted them so as to give them meaning and significance. Until the most recent past, these historians have been men, and what they have recorded is what men have done and experienced and found significant. They have called this History and claimed universality for it. What women have done and experienced has been left unrecorded, neglected, and ignored in interpretation. Historical scholarship, up to the most recent past, has seen women as marginal to the making of civilization and as unessential to those pursuits defined as having historic significance. 

Thus, the recorded and interpreted record of the past of the human race is only a partial record, in that it omits the past of half of humankind, and it is distorted, in that it tells the story from the viewpoint of the male half of humanity only. (End quote) (4)

I think that’s going to be a theme for the whole podcast, right? Almost all of the records we have of human history have been written from men’s point of view. And it makes me wonder - what would history look like if women had been writing the records all of this time? And if women had been interpreting the historical records and creating the stories?


Yes, and that reminds me of another quote from the Introduction, where she says,

(Quote) Women have been… kept from knowing their history and from interpreting history, either their own or that of men. Women have been systematically excluded from the enterprise of creating symbol systems, philosophies, science, and law. Women have not only been educationally deprived throughout historical time in every known society, they have been excluded from theory- formation. (End quote)


Sherrie:

One more quote from the introduction is this one:

(quote) Many men and women have suffered exclusion and discrimination because of their class. No man has been excluded from the historical record because of his sex, yet all women were. (end quote) (5)

This is significant because it’s an argument we still hear all the time. Some people dismiss sexism and say “well men have it bad too -  not all men are leaders, not all men are rich, not all men have authority, not all men have power.” And that’s true! And men are certainly not the bad guys in the story. But the fact is that in a patriarchal system, many men are excluded from power, and all women are excluded from power. So if a man uses that argument on you, now you can quote Gerda Lerner in response. :) 


Amy: Pre-Written-History

[In our previous episode, we emphasized that Riane Eisler claimed that a true matriarchy had never existed. But with that said, one of Eisler’s main projects was highlighting women’s “empowered past.” And we didn’t have time to talk about it last time, but her book, and the work of an archeologist named Marija Gimbutas sparked a kind of “goddess” movement within feminism in the 1990’s. The writer Sue Monk Kidd is really into that - going on pilgrimages to Crete and envisioning a time when women were priestesses, and people do talk about “matriarchies” in the Neolithic era and in hunter/gatherer cultures.

So Lerner chimes in on this topic in the following way:]

“In all hunting/gathering societies, no matter what women’s economic and social status is, women are always subordinate to men in some respects. There is not a single society known where women-as-a-group have decision-making power over men or where they define the rules of sexual conduct or control marriage exchanges.” 

This reminds me of the analogy of the stage that I read in the introductory episode - in some times and places, men have allowed women to have more equal role assignments. And in some families, some women might seem like they’re the ones in charge. But women have never been able to say “I invoke my status as the woman of the house to overrule you in this decision,” the way men can do that any time they want. And to many listeners that will sound like something that used to happen 100 years ago, but I have heard of couples our age where a man allows his wife to think they have equal status, but when it comes down to a big decision, he will say - sometimes forcefully, sometimes gently - “sorry, as the man of the house, I have the final word.” I was in the room where that happened once and my jaw dropped and I have never forgotten it. (Not my parents or siblings).

So now Sherrie and I are going to take turns telling a story of the chronology of our prehistoric human ancestors, and what archaeologists think happened between the time that homo sapiens started walking around on two legs and the time that people developed written language in the fertile crescent in 3,000 BCE. 

  1. Sherrie: 


Here’s a passage from the book:

(Quote) 3 million years ago - 100,000 years ago, as humans evolved, the first characteristic distinguishing humans from other primates is the prolonged and helpless infancy of the human child. This is the direct result of bipedalism, which led to the narrowing of the female pelvis and birth canal due to upright posture. One result of this was that human babies were born at a greater stage of immaturity than other primates, with relatively smaller heads in order to ease passage through the birth canal. Further, in contrast to the most highly developed apes, human babies are born naked and therefore must experience a greater need for warmth. They cannot grasp their mothers for steady support,... so mothers must use their hands or, later, substitutes for hands to cradle their infants against them….the human brain develops for many years during the child’s period of infancy and complete dependency. During this period, the role of females was crucial. Infant’s survival depended on maternal care. (end quote)

So basically, because humans walked on two legs, babies were born earlier in their gestation, which meant that females needed to breastfeed and care for their babies for a long time. And that limits their activities. Plus the women were getting pregnant all the time, which slows women down!! 

HOWEVER, we just read that New York Times article this week about the remains of a 9,000-year-old big-game hunter buried in the Andes. The article says “Like other hunters of the period, this person was buried with a specialized tool kit associated with stalking large game, including projectile points, scrapers for tanning hides and a tool that looked like a knife. There was nothing particularly unusual about the body — though the leg bones seemed a little slim for an adult male hunter. But when scientists analyzed the tooth enamel using a method borrowed from forensics that reveals whether a person carries the male or female version of a protein called amelogenin, the hunter turned out to be female.” And once the scientists knew there was one female, they tested the bodies of 26 hunters, and 10 of them were female! Which challenges the assumptions we have always had about hunter/gatherer societies.

Amy: Yeah, and then later in the article it talks about the skeleton of a viking warrior that was of course always assumed to be male, but upon testing its DNA, it’s female too. 

It’s a really interesting article from January 1, 2021, by Annalee Newitz, if listeners are interested in looking it up. 

Ok, back to Gerda Lerner. She says:

(Quote) “Anthropologist Elise Boulding sees in the Neolithic societies an egalitarian sharing of work, in which each sex developed appropriate skills and knowledge essential for group survival. She tells us that food gathering demanded elaborate knowledge of the ecology, of plants and trees and roots, their properties as food and as medicine. She describes primitive woman as guardian of the domestic fire, as the inventor of clay and woven vessels, by means of which the tribe’s surpluses could be saved for lean times.” (Endquote) (42-43)

[This is the Neolithic era that Riane Eisler and Marija Gimbutas brought to light, where there are paintings and figurines of goddesses everywhere, and it’s obvious that humans worshipped woman as the giver of life. 

  1. Sherrie


Ok, so far we have the factors that 

  1. Women are limited by pregnancy and breastfeeding, 
  2. Early cultures worshipped goddesses for being able to create life,
  3. Women contributed to human survival by their knowledge of plants for food and medicine, and they created clay vessels and woven vessels for storing that food and medicine. And, as we mentioned before, there’s new evidence that women were hunting as well.

So despite different biological functions, early human societies seemed possibly pretty egalitarian. 

BUT…. the next factor that Lerner talks about is that men started wars. And it’s hard to know exactly what happened and why, because this is all before humans started writing anything down. Lerner says:

(Quote) “Theorists have offered a variety of hypotheses to explain the rise of man, the warrior, and the propensity of men to create militaristic structures. These have ranged from biological explanations (men’s higher testosterone levels and greater strength make them more aggressive) to psychological ones (men compensate for their inability to bear children by sexual dominance over women and by aggression toward other men).” (End quote) (46)

I think it’s great that Lerner presents a bunch of ideas, but that she doesn’t say “it’s definitely just testosterone that makes men more aggressive.” Because she is a social scientist and historian, and she doesn’t want to make assumptions, she is just trying to present all the theories and all the data. Which, like we just talked about, is really important because sometimes our assumptions are wrong!

Yes, definitely. And we’re going to come back to men becoming warriors as a result of the Agricultural Revolution, but first, the next step in history that Lerner talks about is that

Men start to see women as commodities 

There is lots of disagreement between scholars about how this developed, and again there is still no written record. But Lerner presents a few different theories.

She quotes Claude Levi-Strauss [a very famous 20th century anthropologist] as saying this: 

‘The “exchange of women,” a phenomenon observed in tribal societies in many different areas of the world, was a leading cause of female subordination. It may take many different forms, such as the forceful removal of women from their home tribe (bride stealing); ritual defloration or rape; negotiated marriages.’ 

Then Lerner says,  (quote) Levi-Strauss and Claude Meillasoux believe that it is the exchange of women through which private property is eventually created. Meillassoux argues that women’s biological vulnerability in childbirth led tribes to procure more women from other groups, and that this tendency toward the theft of women led to constant intertribal warfare. In the process, a warrior culture emerged. Another consequence of this theft of women is that the conquered women were protected by the men who had conquered them or by the entire conquering tribe. In the process, women were thought of as possessions, as things- they became reified - while men became the reifiers because they conquered and protected. Women’s reproductive capacity is first recognized as a tribal resource, then, as ruling elites develop, it is acquired as the property of a particular kin group. (49) (end quote)

So this is the beginning of the “reification” of women. “Reification” means making an idea or a person into a thing. Women, at some point, began to be seen as biological resources - as “things” for men to possess and use.

Sherrie: Yes, And that brings us to The Agricultural Revolution.

Gerda Lerner says:

The material conditions of grain agriculture demand group cohesiveness and continuity over time, thus strengthening household structure. ... Since the amount of food depends on the availability of labor, production becomes the chief concern. This has two consequences: 1. It strengthens the influence of older males, and 2. It increases the tribes’ incentive for acquiring more women. In the fully developed society based on plow agriculture, women and children are indispensable to the production process, which is cyclical and labor intensive. Children have now become an economic asset. At this stage tribes seek to acquire the reproductive potential of women, rather than women themselves. (49-50)

So basically, humans used to be hunter/gatherers, roaming over the land, with men and women doing different work within a somewhat equal power dynamic. But then once they figured out how to grow food, then they stayed in one place, and they started harvesting more food than they needed, which made them have a sense of “ownership” over food, and land, and other human beings, which they could acquire to work the land and then own more stuff and have more power.

Gerda Lerner goes on to say:

(Quote) “The agricultural economic practice reinforced men’s control over surpluses, which may also have been acquired by conquest in intertribal warfare. ...and the asymmetrical allocation of leisure time. Horticultural activities are more productive than subsistence gathering and produce leisure time. But the allocation of leisure time is uneven: men benefit more from it than women, due to the fact that the food-preparation and child-rearing activities of women continue unrelieved. Thus, men presumably could employ their new leisure time to develop craft skills, initiate rituals to enhance their power and influence and manage surpluses.(51)

I do not wish to suggest either determinism or conscious manipulation here - quite the contrary. Things developed in certain ways, which then had certain consequences which neither men nor women intended. ...I have tried to show how it might have come to pass that women agreed to a sexual division of labor, which would eventually disadvantage them, without having been able to foresee the later consequences. (51)

Sometime during the agricultural revolution relatively egalitarian societies with a sexual division of labor based on biological necessity gave way to more highly structured societies in which both private property and the exchange of women… were common. Many societies changed from egalitarian, matrilineal and matrilocal to patrilineal and patrilocal. Nowhere is there any evidence of a reverse process going from patriliny to matriliny. The more complex societies featured a division of labor no longer based only on biological distinctions, but also on hierarchy and the power of some men over other men and all women. (53)

Sherrie: This is mind-blowing. And I think it’s soooo important that Lerner makes a distinction between biological functions - men are typically physically larger and stronger and they do typically have more testosterone which can lead to more aggression. And women are typically smaller and not as strong, and women do gestate and lactate and they do typically take care of the infants. But layered on top of that, because humans discovered agriculture, and because some especially dominant males influenced social evolution, men started treating women as assets and possessions, and they started creating the role of “warriors” in society in order to protect their surplus of food and their women from getting stolen by other tribes, and they had more leisure time than the women did, so they created roles for themselves of being “priests” and “kings” and they started making up stories about how they were supposed to be in charge, to cement their power. And that part is not inevitable. That part was not the case prior to the Agricultural Revolution. Men were not in charge of women before that. 

Amy: And I also think it’s important that this happened really gradually, and with the women’s cooperation. That makes sense to me - even in my own life sometimes I see things in retrospect that I think “why did I go along with that?” but it was just because it seemed fine at the time. These were just humans, living their daily lives, and going along with stuff as it happened, not realizing what the consequences would be.

Amy: Ok, so as a result of the Agricultural Revolution we arrive at “The rise of “civilization” as we know it.

Lerner says that the process by which scattered Neolithic villages became agricultural communities, then urban centers, and finally states has been called “the urban revolution” or “the rise of civilization.” This happened at different times throughout the world: First, in the great river and coastal valleys of China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and Mesoamerica; later in Africa, Northern Europe, and Malaysia. All these civilizations are characterized by:

  • Emergence of property classes and hierarchies
  • Commodity production with a specialization and organized trade over distant regions
  • Consolidation of military elites
  • Kingship
  • The institutionalization of slavery
  • Transition from kin dominance to patriarchal families

And now, ladies and gentlemen… we have written records!! The invention of writing happened in 3000 BC in Sumer, which is between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in modern-day Iraq.

By the time humans started writing, women had already been subjugated for a long, long time, so it was just taken for granted as normal.

And here is an overview of the records we find written about women in Mesopotamia around this time: 

  • Female subordination within the family becomes institutionalized and codified in law
  • Prostitution becomes established and regulated
  • Women are excluded from certain occupations and professions
  • After the invention of writing and establishment of formal learning, women are excluded from equal access to education.
  • Female deities are subordinated to chief male gods, and origin myths legitimate male ascendancy

So I’m just going to read a couple of quotes from the reign of King Urukagina, 2371 BCE:

“Women of former times each married two men, but women of today have been made to give up this crime.” Women committing this “crime” were stoned with stones inscribed with their evil intent.

“If a woman speaks disrespectfully to a man, that woman’s mouth is crushed with a fired brick.” (63)

However, at the same time as those writings, we also find a record that says

that a high priestess needed to be added to a list of funeral officials receiving pay. (64)

Temple of the goddess Bau employed 1000-1200 persons year-round, under the administration of Queen Shagshag. As administrator of these two temples the queen exercised legal and economic authority over her domain. She also functioned as chief priestess in the temple. (65)

1790-1745 BCE Women owned and managed property, could contract in their own name, could sue in court and serve as witnesses. They took part in business and legal transactions such as adoptions, sales of property, the giving and taking of loans. ...Women had political standing and rights. They were scribes, musicians, and singers. They carried out important religious functions as priestesses, diviners, and prophetesses. They were advisers to the king. 

BUT “the wife’s power, like that of the male vassal, depended on the will and whim of the king (70)

[And the existence of educated noble women does not mean that women overall were educated or empowered. That has been the case throughout history - people use anomalous examples of exceptional women to show that women aren’t oppressed. But sorry - the exception proves the rule]


Sherrie: Exactly. Ok, now we are going to go forward a little bit in history and talk about some of the most famous documents from Mesopotamia. The three major preserved collections of Mesopotamian Law are the Codex Hammurabi, Middle Assyrian Laws, the Hittite Laws. We are going to highlight a couple from the Code of Hammurabi and the Middle Assyrian Laws, which were written from about 1700 BCE and onward for a few centuries. And just a warning that some of these are violent and hard to hear.

Some interesting examples:

  • The code of Hammurabi: If a mother commits incest with her son, both the mother and the son are put to death. But if a father rapes his daughter, he just gets banished from the city. If a father rapes the bride of his son before the marriage has been consummated, the father is fined. But if he rapes his son’s wife after the marriage has been consummated, the father is treated as an adulterer and gets the death penalty. (111)


So what that shows us is that once the marriage is consummated, the wife has become the son’s property. The father is punished not because he has harmed a woman, but because he has disrespected a man.

  • Middle Assyrian Law 55 deals in detail with the rape of a virgin. It says,


(Quote) “If a married man rapes a virgin who lives in her father’s house ‘...whether it was within the city or in the open country or at night in the street or in a garner or at a festival of the city, the father of the virgin shall take the wife of the ravisher of the virgin and give her to be dishonoured; he shall not give her (back) to her husband but shall take her. The father shall give his daughter who has been ravished as a spouse to her ravisher.’ If the rapist has no wife, he must pay the price of a virgin to the father, marry the girl and know that he can never divorce her. If the girls’ father does not agree to this, he shall accept the money fine and ‘give his daughter to whom he pleases.” (end quote)  (116)


So if a married man rapes a girl, then the wife of the rapist gets raped by the father of the raped girl. AND the girl who has been raped is considered ruined, and no one will ever marry her, so she is married off to her rapist. Or, if the father of the raped girl doesn’t want to marry her off to the rapist, he still retains his right to give his daughter to whomever he wants. 

Here is another one, and again I’m sorry these are so violent.

  • Middle Assyrian Law 59 says: (quote)  “a man may [scourge] his wife, pluck [her hair], may bruise and destroy [her] ears. There is no liability therefore.” These actions could be carried out in private. But any legally inflicted punishments, such as tearing out of the breasts and cutting off the nose or ears, must be carried out by an official. The implication is that the husband may no longer, as he perhaps did in earlier times, carry out the punishment himself.” (end quote) (117)


And one last one, which demonstrates the degree to which men felt they owned women’s bodies:

  • Middle Assyrian Law 53: If a woman causes her own miscarriage…(quote) “(and) proof has been brought against her, she shall be impaled and shall not be buried… If that woman was concealed when she cast the fruit of her womb (and) it was not told to the king… (and at that point the tablet breaks off)”


This is horrifying, and it’s also really strange because in Middle Assyrian Law if a child is unwanted (specifically a female child), then it was left out in the elements to die. That wasn’t even a crime. So Gerda Lerner goes on to say this:

(Quote) “What is striking here is, first of all, that self-induced abortion is regarded as a public crime, of which the king must be apprised. Impalement and refusal of burial are the severest penalties meted out in the Middle Assyrian legal system, and they are public penalties for high crimes. Why should a woman’s self-adduced abortion be deemed a crime of equal severity to high treason or assault upon the king? 

...The savage punishment against self-abortion has to do with the importance placed throughout the Middle Assyrian Law on the connection between the power of the king and the power of the patriarchal family-head over his wives and children. Thus, the right of the father, hitherto practiced and sanctioned by custom, to decide over the lives of his infant children, which in practice meant the decision of whether his infant daughters should live or die, is in the Middle Assyrian Law equated with the keeping of social order. For the wife to usurp such a right is now seen as equal in magnitude to treason or to an assault upon the king.  The control of female sexuality, previously left to individual husbands or to family heads, had now become a matter of state regulation. (End quote) (121)

So those are some examples of some of humanity’s earliest written laws. These are the foundations upon which human civilization was built. And I should mention too, if listeners are interested in reading more of these laws, there are a bunch on wikipedia if you look up Assyrian Law. They are so misogynistic and so violent, and it makes me wonder again how human history would have evolved if women had been at the table with the men making laws and deciding what was fair and how society should run. 

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assyrian_law)

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Amy: Yes, I wonder that too. Like Lerner points out, these laws require women to be raped and murdered… and yet at the same time the law mentions priestesses officiating in temples. What if those priestesses had had a hand in making the laws? Determining what happens if a woman is raped? Deciding what happens if a woman needs an abortion? It seems like women had some power in the people’s spiritual lives, but that didn’t translate into women’s everyday lives. 

And that leads us to our last topic, which is the ancient goddesses. 

Amy: The Goddesses

So Gerda Lerner points out that for hundreds or even thousands of years Goddesses were still worshipped, priestesses still officiated, female oracles still prophesied, even as the women were losing their rights and their status]. (142)

[Think of Riane Eisler’s description of matrifocal cultures in various parts of the world. Lerner lists several. She says:]

(Quote) “The supremacy of the Goddess is expressed in the earliest myths of origin, which celebrate the life-giving creativity of the female. In Egyptian mythology the primeval ocean, the goddess Nun, gives birth to the sun-god Atum, who then creates the rest of the universe. The Sumerian goddess Nammu creates … the male sky-god An and the female earth-goddess Ki. In Babylonain myth the goddess Tiamat, the primeval sea, and her consort, give birth to gods and goddesses. In Greek mythology, the earth-goddess Gaia, in a virgin birth creates the sky, Uranos. The creation of humans is also attributed to her. In the Assyrian version of an older Sumerian myth the wise Mami, “the mother-womb, the one who creates mankind,” fashions humans out of clay, but it is the male god Ea “who opened the navel.” 

[All of these stories reflect the obvious truth that women have a special role in the creation of life, but also that life is created by men and women together.]

Let’s look at two goddesses, Ishtar (also called Inana) and Asherah. I’ll take Ishtar, and Sherrie, you have Asherah. 

Ishtar/Inana was the ancient Mesopotamian goddess associated with love, beauty, sex, war, justice and political power. She was originally called “Inana” and worshiped in Sumer from 4,000 -3,000 BCE, and was later worshipped by the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians under the name Ishtar. She was known as the "Queen of Heaven,” and she is the first known deity for which we have written evidence!! She is alluded to in the Hebrew Bible and she greatly influenced the Phoenician goddess Astoreth, who later influenced the development of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Her cult continued to flourish until its gradual decline between the first and sixth centuries CE in the wake of Christianity, though it survived in parts of Upper Mesopotamia among Assyrian communities as late as the eighteenth century.

Lerner says:

Worshippers regarded the goddess as all-powerful. In the symbol of the goddess’ vulva, fashioned of precious stone and offered up in her praise, they celebrated the sacredness of female sexuality and its mysterious life-giving force, which included the power to heal. And in the very prayers appealing to the goddess’ mercy, they praised her as mistress of the battlefield, more powerful than kings, more powerful than other [male] gods. ...men and women offering such prayers when in distress must have thought of women, just as they thought of men, as capable of metaphysical power and as potential mediators between the gods and human beings. ...One cannot help but wonder at the contradiction between the power of the goddesses and the increasing societal constraints upon the lives of most women in Ancient Mesopotamia. (143-44)


Sherrie: I like that Lerner talks about what it must have felt like for men and women to pray to a female god who is more powerful than a king. I mentioned in my introduction that I had taken a class that introduced me to the divine feminine, and as part of that class we studied the goddess Asherah, so she is really important to me personally. 

Asherah was the Mother goddess in ancient Semitic religion. She was mentioned in Hebrew, Akkadian, and Hittite texts for many hundreds of years around 2,000-1,000 BCE

She was worshipped as the “Mother of Heaven,” and “the Creatrix of the Gods!!” Just imagine what that means - a female Creator, who even created the gods!! She was also known as the wife of the “King of Heaven,” who was called “El” and later “Yaweh” in the Bible. There are many ancient records that read “Yaweh and his Asherah.” So if you’re looking for a Judeo-Christian divine feminine, or a Mormon “Heavenly Mother,” here she is! 

Her symbol was the tree, and in these ancient texts you hear about “Asherah poles. In the Bible, you hear about Asherah poles and worshipping in groves. This refers to the worship of the Mother Goddess, which often happened in forests. There are also many, many goddess figurines representing Asherah that have been unearthed in Israel and the surrounding areas.

Despite her association with Yahweh in sources other than the Bible, starting in about 586 BCE, Yaweh turned into a jealous god, and the writers of the Bible vilified the goddess and wiped her from memory.

In Deuteronomy 12 Yahweh commands the destruction of her shrines. Remember when Moses and Joshua arrive in Canaan and they kill everyone and destroy their idols? The Canaanites worshipped Asherah, so those records are the Hebrew people claiming that their male father god is commanding them to destroy all evidence of a mother god. Remember all the references to God telling the people of Israel to “burn down the groves?” Those groves were the forests where Asherah was worshipped. This was a culture that used to worship a mother, and was now burning trees down and destroying the divine feminine. The words that appear in the Bible regarding Asherah are “Cut, hewn, burned, plucked…” It breaks my heart. 

And I should point out that this wasn’t just the Hebrews doing this to Asherah - this happened all around the Near East - in the Egyptian religion, in the Minoan religion, in the Myceneaen religion, which became Greek religion.

Amy: Right. This happened everywhere. Lerner says:

(Quote) “The observable pattern is: first, the demotion of the Mother-Goddess figure and the ascendance and later dominance of her male consort or son; then his merging with a storm-god into a male Creator-God, who heads the pantheon of gods and goddesses. Wherever such changes occur, the power of creation and of fertility is transferred from the Goddess to the God.” (145)

Some goddesses were turned into men. Some (like Isis) started out as the supreme being, but became the wife/consort, and morphed into the Magna Mater of Western Asia and Greek/Roman mythology. Some had their various powers and roles splintered into many, less powerful goddesses (like Aphrodite, Artemis, Hera).

Riane Eisler talks about this exact process in The Chalice and the Blade, where the dominator cultures come in and their male gods gradually erase or subsume or subjugate the female goddesses of the cultures that they conquer.

This is what Lerner means when she says “men are the symbol makers.” They not only ruled women, they created the stories and the meaning and the interpretation that affected how human beings so themselves and saw their place in the world.


And…. that brings us to the end of Part 1!

Sherrie, what’s one takeaway for you today?


Sherrie: 

I want to pause and hold sacred space for these women. They were disempowered, dehumanized, raped, abused and forgotten, and it’s all been recorded. In my 40s, I’m now learning about how this oppression was systemic and pervasive across so many cultures. I want to thank these nameless women. I want to give them a moment of gratitude. Today, I’m able to live the life I choose. Amy, I’m also grateful to participate in this podcast and be a small part of the change. Things are better for me and my daughters, but it’s still evident that so much change still needs to be made. 

Amy: 

My takeaway is the quote from Lerner that says “Patriarchy as a system is historical: it has a beginning in history. If that is so, it can be ended by historical process.” (6) Already just knowing this information helps me see the foundations that our society is built on today. And seeing the structure for what it really is reminds us that human beings made it up… and so human beings can dismantle it and build something better in its place. And I think that’s why Gerda Lerner spent her life establishing Women’s History programs in universities, and that’s why I started this podcast.

So Sherrie, thank you so much for reading and discussing with me! 

Sherrie: Thank you! I’m excited to do this again for Part 2!

Amy: Me too! Next time we will tackle the second half of The Creation of Patriarchy, which will start out with the Hebrew Bible and then move on to the ancient Greeks. So listeners, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, check it out if you can! And then join us for the discussion of Part 2, next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.





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Full notes (some of which didn’t make it into the episode)


Lerner begins her book in agreement with Eisler that it is a crime that women have been left out of the narrative for all of human history. 


Quote (needs to be cut down): 


“From the time of the king lists of ancient Sumer on… or a professional class of university-trained intellectuals, have selected the events to be recorded and have interpreted them so as to give them meaning and significance. Until the most recent past, these historians have been men, and what they have recorded is what men have done and experienced and found significant. They have called this History and claimed universality for it. What women have done and experienced has been left unrecorded, neglected, and ignored in interpretation. Historical scholarship, up to the most recent past, has seen women as marginal to the making of civilization...Thus, the recorded and interpreted record of the past of the human race is only a partial record, in that it omits the past of half of humankind, and it is distorted, in that it tells the story from the viewpoint of the male half of humanity only. (4)

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Different from Eisler: 

She is more cautious than Eisler in her interpretation of the evidence of ancient sites like Catal Hayuk and the Minoan Ruins. She points out that cultures with Mother-goddesses are not necessarily egalitarian or woman-friendly. For example, if an anthropologist were to find the art of the Cult of Virgin Mary in the middle ages, cult of the lady of the plantation in antebellum South, or modern movie stars, she might think, “Look at all the goddesses and powerful woman figures! This culture must have been egalitarian and the women must have been empowered in their daily lives!” Which is very much not the case.


She describes Neolithic (late Stone Age) development in more detail than Eisler, and she provides more details about the development of male domination over women throughout the centuries.


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Chronology/Main Themes for Part 1


  1. Neolithic: At some point in prehistory, men started owning women.


Anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss says:

The total relationship of exchange which constitutes marriage is not established between a man and a woman… but between two groups of men, and the woman figures only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners… This remains true even when the girl’s feelings are taken into consideration, as, moreover, is usually the case. In acquiescing to the proposed union, she precipitates or allows the exchange to take place; she cannot alter its nature. (47)

Meillassoux argues that women’s biological vulnerability in childbirth led tribes to procure more women from other groups, and that this tendency toward the theft of women led to constant intertribal warfare. In the process, a warrior culture emerged. Another consequence of this theft of women is that the conquered women were protected by the men who had conquered them or by the entire conquering tribe. In the process, women were thought of as possessions, as things- they became reified - while men became the reifiers because they conquered and protected. Women’s reproductive capacity is first recognized as a tribal resource, then, as ruling elites develop, it is acquired as the property of a particular kin group. (49) This could explain the evolution of “dominator” groups. And perhaps, if there really were “partnership” cultures, they never started stealing and owning women. 

Sometime during the agricultural revolution relatively egalitarian societies with a sexual division of labor based on biological necessity gave way to more highly structured societies in which both private property and the exchange of women… were common. Many societies changed from egalitarian, matrilineal and matrilocal to patrilineal and patrilocal. Nowhere is there any evidence of a reverse process going from patriliny to matriliny. The more complex societies featured a division of labor no longer based only on biological distinctions, but also on hierarchy and the power of some men over other men and all women. (53)

The sexuality of women, consisting of their sexual and their reproductive capacities and services, was commodified even prior to the creation of Western civilization. The development of agriculture in the Neolithic period fostered the inter-tribal “exchange of women,” not only as a means of avoiding incessant warfare by the cementing of marriage alliances but also because societies with more women could produce more children. ...Women themselves became a resource, acquired by men much as the land was acquired by men. (212)

In every known society it was women of conquered tribes who were first enslaved, whereas men were killed. It was only after men had learned how to enslave the women of groups who could be defined as strangers, that they learned how to enslave men of those groups, and later, subordinates from within their own societies. (213)




  1. Mesopotamia: The three major preserved collections of Mesopotamian Law are the Codex Hammurabi, Middle Assyrian Laws, the Hittite Laws.


  • Female subordination within the family becomes institutionalized and codified in law
  • Prostitution becomes established and regulated
  • Women excluded from certain occupations and professions
  • After the invention of writing and establishment of formal learning, women are excluded from equal access to such education.
  • Female deities subordinated to chief male gods, origin myths legitimate male ascendancy

The invention of writing: 3000 BC in Sumer

“If a woman speaks disrespectfully to a man, that woman’s mouth is crushed with a fired brick.” (63)

women of this period were still being trained as scribes. (68)

1790-1745 BCE Women owned and managed property, could contract in their own name, could sue in court and serve as witnesses. They took part in business and legal transactions such as adoptions, sales of property, the giving and taking of loans. ...Women had political standing and rights. They were scribes, musicians, and singers. They carried out important religious functions as priestesses, diviners, and prophetesses. They were advisers to the king. 

BUT “the wife’s power, like that of the male vassal, depended on the will and whim of the king (70)

Polygamy: kings nonchalantly filled harems for their pleasure and power, wives understood this as a matter of course. 

Queen Shibtu’s role of “wife-as-deputy” is the highest to which such women can aspire. Their power derives entirely from the male on whom they depend.Their influence and actual role in shaping events are real, as is their power over the men and women of lower rank whom they own or control. But in matters of sexuality, they are utterly subordinate to men. ...If they no longer please, as in the case of Kirum or Kunshimatum, they are out of power at the whim of their lord. Thus, women came to perceive themselves, quite realistically, as dependents of mne. ...What we see here is the emergence of a set of power relationships in which some men acquired power over other men and over all women…..Women denied autonomy depend on protection and struggle to make the best deal possible for themselves and their children.” (75)

MAL 55 deals in detail with the rape of a virgin. If a married man rapes a virgin who lives in her father’s house ‘...whether it was within the city or in the open country or at night in the street or in a garner or at a festival of the city the father of the virgin shall take the wife of the ravisher of the virgin (and give her to be dishonoured; he shall not give her (back) to her husband (but shall take her. The father shall give his daughter who has been ravished as a spouse to her ravisher.’ If the rapist has no wife, he must pay the price of a virgin to the father, marry the girl and know that he can never divorce her. If the girls’ father does not agree to this, he shall accept the money fine and ‘give his daughter to whom he pleases.” (116)

MAL 59: “a man may [scourge] his wife, pluck [her hair], may bruise and destroy [her] ears. There is no liability therefore.” These actions could be carried out in private. But any legally inflicted punishments, such as tearing out of the breasts and cutting off the nose or ears, but be carried out by an official. The implication is that the husband may no longer, as he perhaps did in earlier times, carry out the punishment himself. (117)

MAL 53: If a woman causes her own miscarriage…

“(and) charge (and) proof have been brought against her, she shall be impaled and shall not be buried… If that woman was concealed when she cast the fruit of her womb (and) it was not told to the king… (the tablet breaks off)”

What is striking here is, first of all, that self-induced abortion is regarded as a public crime, of which the king (the court) must be apprised. Impalement and refusal of burial are the severest penalties meted out in the Middle Assyrian legal system, and they are public penalties for high crimes. Why should a woman’s self-adduced abortion be deemed a crime of equal severity to high treason or assault upon the king? Driver and Miles, whose commentaries on Middle Assyrian laws are considered definitive, state:

...it seems inconsistent to permit the exposure of unwanted infants and to visit abortion with the severest penalties. In the case of a married mother this can be explained on the ground that it is the father who has the right to expose, while the mother has no right to deprive him by her own act of his choice of keeping alive or exposing the child. The reason may be… that the woman by her offence has caused the sacred blood of the family to flow and has thereby called down the wrath of heaven not only on herself but also on the whole community.”

The savage punishment against self-abortion has to do with the importance placed throughout the MAL on the connection between the power of the king (state) and the power of the patriarchal family-head over his wives and children. Thus, the right of the father, hitherto practiced and sanctioned by custom, to decide over the lives of his infant children, which in practice meant the decision of whether his infant daughters should live or die, is in the MAL equated with the keeping of social order. For the wife to usurp such a right is now seen as equal in magnitude to treason or to an assault upon the king.  The control of female sexuality, previously left to individual husbands or to family heads, had now become a matter of state regulation. (121)


  1. The Goddesses


Ishtar worshippers regarded the goddess as all-powerful. In the symbol of the goddess’ vulva, fashioned of precious stone and offered up in her praise, they celebrated the sacredness of female sexuality and its mysterious life-giving force, which included the power to heal. And in the very prayers appealing to the goddess’ mercy, they praised her as mistress of the battlefield, more powerful than kings, more powerful than other gods. ...men and women offering such prayers when in distress must have thought of women, just as they thought of men, as capable of metaphysical power and as potential mediators between the gods and human beings. That is a mental image quite different from that of Christians, for example, who in later time would pray  to the Virgin Mary to intercede with God on their behalf. The power of the Virgin lies in her ability to appeal to God’s mercy; it derives from her motherhood and the miracle of her immaculate conception. She has no power for herself, and the very sources of her power to intercede separate her irrevocably from other women. The goddess Ishtar and other goddesses like her had power in their own right. It was the kind of power men had, derived from military exploits and the ability to impose her will on the gods. ...And yet Ishtar was female, endowed with a sexuality like that of ordinary women. One cannot help but wonder at the contradiction between the power of the goddesses and the increasing societal constraints upon the lives of most women in Ancient Mesopotamia. (143-44)

The observable pattern is: first, the demotion of the Mother-Goddess figure and the ascendance and later dominance of her male consort/son; then his merging with a storm-god into a male Creator-God, who heads the pantheon of gods and goddesses. Wherever such changes occur, the power of creation and of fertility is transferred from the Goddess to the God. (145)

***[Eve, the mother of all living, should have power. But she is superseded by Adam, who names, and this controls, and defines her power. And her maternity is cursed by God. So she is a fertility/creation goddess who is nevertheless subjugated under men]***

In the Old Testament, the Hebrews clung to their fertility goddesses (especially Asherah, in Canaan), much to the fury of Yaweh. Let’s look at that next week when we review the Bible. (159)

No matter how degraded and commodified the reproductive and sexual power of women was in real life, their essential equality could not be banished from thought and feeling as long as the goddesses lived and were believed to rule human life. Women must have found their likeness in the goddess, as men found theirs in the male gods. ...The power and mystery of the priestess was as great as that of the priest. AS long as women still mediated between humans and the supernatural, they might perform different functions and roles in society than those of men, but their essential equality as human beings remained unassailed. (160)


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Themes and Summary:

Women are and have been central, not marginal, to the making of society and to the building of civilization. Women have also shared with men in preserving collective memory. ...History-making, on the other hand, is a historical creation which dates from the invention of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. From the time of the king lists of ancient Sumer on, historians, whether priests, royal servants, clerks, clerics, or a professional class of university-trained intellectuals, have selected the events to be recorded and have interpreted them so as to give them meaning and significance. Until the most recent past, these historians have been men, and what they have recorded is what men have done and experienced and found significant. They have called this History and claimed universality for it. What women have done and experienced has been left unrecorded, neglected, and ignored in interpretation. Historical scholarship, up to the most recent past, has seen women as marginal to the making of civilization and as unessential to those pursuits defined as having historic significance. 

Thus, the recorded and interpreted record of the past of the human race is only a partial record, in that it omits the past of half of humankind, and it is distorted, in that it tells the story from the viewpoint of the male half of humanity only. (4)

 [In addition], men and women have suffered exclusion and discrimination because of their class. No man has been excluded from the historical record because of his sex, yet all women were. (5)

Women have been… kept from knowing their history and from interpreting history, either their own or that of men. Women have been systematically excluded from the enterprise of creating symbol systems, philosophies, science, and law. Women have not only been educationally deprived throughout historical time in every known society, they have been excluded from theory- formation. The tension between women’s actual historical experience and their exclusion from interpreting that experience I have called “the dialectic of women’s history.” (5)

Guiding questions in the book:

What are the definitions and concepts we need in order to explain the relationship of women to historical process, to the making of history and to the interpretation of their own past?

What caused the long delay [over 3500 years] in women’s coming to consciousness of their own subordinate position in society? What could explain… women’s historical complicity in upholding the patriarchal system that subordinated them and in transmitting that system, generation after generation, to their children of both sexes? (6)

Patriarchy as a system is historical: it has a beginning in history. If that is so, it can be ended by historical process. (6)

Summary:

  1. The appropriation by men of women’s sexual and reproductive capacity occurred prior to the formation of private property and class society. Its commodification lies, in fact, at the foundation of private property.
  2. The archaic states were organized in the form of patriarchy; thus from its inception the state had an essential interest in the maintenance of the patriarchal family.
  3. Men learned to institute dominance and hierarchy over other people by their earlier practice of dominance over the women of their own group. Theis found expression in the institutionalization of slavery, which began with the enslavement of women of conquered groups.
  4. Women’s sexual subordination was institutionalized in the earliest law codes. 
  5. Class for men was based on their relationship to the means of production; those who owned the means of production could dominate those who did not. For women, class is mediated through their sexual ties to a man, who then gives them access to material resources. The division of women into “respectable” (that is, attached to one man) and “not respectable” (that is, not attached to one man or free of all men) is institutionalized in laws pertaining to the veiling of women.
  6. The dethroning of the powerful goddesses and their replacement by a dominant male god occur in most nNear Eastern societies following the establishment of a strong and imperialistic kingship. The Mother-Goddess is transformed into the wife/consort of the chief male God.

(However it’s worth remembering that cultures with Mother-goddesses are not necessarily egalitarian or woman-friendly. Cult of Virgin Mary in the middle ages, cult of the lady of the plantation in antebellum South, modern movie stars)

“Men make gods and women worship them,” says Sir James George Frazer. It is men who decide if their supreme divinities will be females or males; the place of woman in society is always the one they assign her; at no time has she imposed her own law. - The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir


  1. The emergence of Hebrew monotheism takes the form of an attack on the widespread cults of the various fertility goddesses. In the Book of Genesis, creativity and procreativity are ascribed to all -powerful God, whose epitaphs of “Lord” and “King” establish him as a male god, and female sexuality other than for procreative purposes becomes associated with sin and evil.
  2. In the establishment of the covenant community the basic symbolism and the actual contract between God and humanity assumes as a given the subordinate position of women and their exclusion from the metaphysical covenant and the earthly covenant community. Their only access to God and to the holy community is in their function as mothers. 
  3. This symbolic devaluing of women in relation to the divine becomes one of the founding metaphors of Western civilization. The other founding metaphor is supplied by Aristotelian philosophy, which assumes as a given that women are incomplete and damaged human beings of an entirely different order than men. It is with the creation of these two metaphorical constructs, which are built into the very foundations of the symbol systems of Westerm civilization, that the subordination of women comes to be seen as “natural,” hence it becomes invisible. ((9-10)


Systemic patriarchy - The analogy of the stage

Men and women live on a stage, on which they act out their assigned roles, equal in importance. The play cannot go on without both kinds of performers. Neither of them “contributes” more or less to the whole; neither is marginal or dispensable. But the stage set is conceived, painted, defined by men. Men have written the play, have directed the show, interpreted the meanings of the action. They have assigned themselves the most interesting, most heroic parts, giving women the supporting roles. 

As the women become aware of the difference in the way they fit into the play, they ask for more equality in the role assignments. They upstage the men at times, at other times they pinch-hit for a missing male performer. The women finally, after considerable struggle, win the right of access to equal role assignment, but first they must “qualify.” The terms of their qualifications” are again set by the men; men are the judges of how women measure up; men grant or deny admission. They give preference to docile women and to those who fit their job-descriptions accurately. Men punish, by ridicule, exclusion, or ostracism, any woman who assumes the right to interpret her own role or -worst of all sins - the right to rewrite the script.

It takes considerable time for the women to understand that getting “equal” parts will not make them equal, as long as the script, the props, the stage setting, and the direction are firmly held by men. When the women begin to realize that and cluster together between the acts, or even during the performance, to discuss what to do about it, this play comes to an end. 

...Finally, in the past fifty years, some women have acquired the training necessary for writing the company’s scripts. As they wrote, they began to pay more attention to what women were doing. Still, they had been well trained by their male mentors. So they too found what men were doing on the whole more significant and, in their desire to upgrade the part of women in the past, they looked hard for women who had done what men did. ….What women must do, what feminists are now doing is tot point to that stage, its sets, its props, its director, and tits scriptwriter, as did the child in the fairy tale who discovered that the emperor was naked, and say, the basic inequality between us lies within this framework. And then they must tear it down.

What will the writing of history be like, when that umbrella of dominance is removed and definition is shared equally by men and women? Will we devalue the past, overthrow the categories, supplant order with chaos?

No - we will simply step out under the free sky. We...now know that man is not the measure of that which is human, but men and women are. Men are not the center of the world, but men and women are. This insight will transform consciousness as decisively as did Copernicus’s discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe. 

We may play our separate parts on the stage, sometimes exchanging them or deciding to keep them, as it works out.We may discover new talent among those who have always been living under the umbrella of another’s making. We may find that those who had previously taken upon themselves the burden of both action and definition may now have more freedom for playing and experiencing the pure joy of existence. We are no more under an obligation to describe what we will find than were the explorers sailing to the distant edge of the world, only to find that the world was round.

We will never know unless we begin. The process itself the way, is the goal. (12-14)

Traditionalists vs. Non-traditionalist views of history

Traditionalists… regard women’s subordination as universal, God-given, or natural, hence immutable. Thus, it need not be questioned. 

Religious traditionalists ascribe subordination to God. (People who believe this may want to look at the historic record)

Scientific traditionalists ascribe it to nature, biology, i.e., women needed to take care of babies; men are stronger and faster and became hunters… thus it must always be that way. 

  • But actually hunter/gatherer societies have the most egalitarian social structures, so that doesn’t hold) (18)
  • “Traditionalists expect women to follow the same roles and occupations that were functional and species-essential in the Neolithic age. They accept cultural changes by which men have freed themselves from biological necessity. The supplanting of hard physical labor by the labor of machines is considered progress; only women, in their view, are doomed forever to species-service through their biology. To claim that all of human activities only female nurturance is unchanging and eternal is indeed to consign half the human race to a lower state of existence, to nature rather than to culture.” (20)

[Non-traditionalists] reason that if the system of patriarchal dominance had a historic origin, it could be ended under altered historic conditions. (16)

Iroquois women were powerful, but…

In all hunting/gathering societies, no matter what women’s economic and social status is, women are always subordinate to men in some respects. There is not a single society known where women -as-a-group have decision-making power over men or where they define the rules of sexual conduct or control marriage exchanges. 

I think one can truly speak of matriarchy only when women hold power over men, not alongside them, when that power includes the public domain and foreign relations and when women make essential decisions not only for their kinfolk but for the community. ...Such power would have to include the power to define the values and explanatory systems of the society and the power to define and control the sexual behavior of men. ...Using that definition, no matriarchal society has ever existed.” (30)


We must explain the central puzzle - woman’s participation in the construction of the system that subordinates her. I suggest that abandoning the search for an empowering past - the search for matriarchy - is the first step in the right direction. The creation of compensatory myths of the distant past of women will not emancipate women in the present and the future (36). (Talk about Gimbutas, Sue Monk Kidd, the Minoans, Heavenly Mother)

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Brief History:

3 million years ago - 100,000 years ago, as humans evolved: “The first characteristic distinguishing humans from other primates is the prolonged and helpless infancy of the human child. This is the direct result of bipedalism, which led to the narrowing of the female pelvis and birth canal due to upright posture. One result of this was that human babies were born at a greater stage of immaturity than other primates, with relatively smaller heads in order to ease passage through the birth canal. Further, in contrast to the most highly developed apes, human babies are born naked and therefore must experience a greater need for warmth. They cannot grasp their mothers for steady support,... so mothers must use their hands or, later, substitutes for hands to cradle their infants against them….the human brain develops for many years during the child’s period of infancy and complete dependency, and that it is therefore subject to modification through learning and intense cultural molding in a way that is decisively different from animal development. 

During this period, the role of females was crucial. Infant’s survival depended on maternal care.


Sometime after that period large-scale hunting by groups of men developed in Africa, Europe, and Northern Asia; the earliest evidence for the existence of bows and arrows can be dated only to 15,000 years ago. 

During the Neolithic (New Stone) age we derive surviving evidence of cave paintings and sculptures suggesting the pervasive veneration of the Mother-Goddess. “The life-giving mother truly had power over life and death. No wonder that men and women, observing this dramatic and mysterious power of the female, turned to the veneration of Mother-Goddess.” (39-40)

Under the extreme and dangerous conditions under which primitive humans lived, the survival into adulthood of at least  two children for each coupling pair necessitated many pregnancies for each woman. Average life span was 30 years for females (34 for males). Women would need to have had more pregnancies than live births. Infancy was much prolonged, since mothers nursed their infants for two to three years. Thus we may assume that it was absolutely essential for group survival that most nubile women devote most of their adulthood to pregnancy, child-bearing, and nursing. One would expect that men and women would accept such necessity and construct beliefs, mores, and values within their cultures to sustain such necessary practices. (41)

Division of roles: “While a baby slung on the back might not prevent a mother from participating in hunting, a crying baby might.”

Later we will read Simone de Beauvoir, who speculated that it was this early division of labor from which the inequality between the sexes springs and which has doomed woman to “immanence” - the pursuit of daily, never-ending repetitious toil - as against the daring exploits of man, which lead him to “transcendence.” But Elise Boulding, in her overview of women’s past, has synthesized anthropological scholarship to present a considerably different interpretation. Boulding sees in the Neolithic societies an egalitarian sharing of work, in which each sex developed appropriate skills and knowledge essential for group survival. She tells us that food gathering demanded elaborate knowledge of the ecology, of plants and trees and roots, their properties as food and as medicine. She describes primitive woman as guardian of the domestic fire, as the inventor of clay and woven vessels, by means of which the tribe’s surpluses could be saved for lean times. (42-43)

Theorists have offered a variety of hypotheses to explain the rise of man, the warrior, and the propensity of men to create militaristic structures. These have ranged from biological explanations (men’s higher testosterone levels and greater strength make them more aggressive) to psychological ones (men compensate for their inability to bear children by sexual dominance over women and by aggression toward other men). (46)


Claude Levi-Strauss: The “exchange of women,” a phenomenon observed in tribal societies in many different areas of the world, was a leading cause of female subordination. It may take many different forms, such as the forceful removal of women from their home tribe (bride stealing); ritual defloration or rape; negotiated marriages. It is always preceded by taboos on endogamy and by the indoctrination of women, from earliest childhood on, to an acceptance of their obligation to their kin to consent to such enforced marriages. Anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss says:

The total relationship of exchange which constitutes marriage is not established between a man and a woman… but between two groups of men, and the woman figures only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners… This remains true even when the girl’s feelings are taken into consideration, as, moreover, is usually the case. In acquiescing to the proposed union, she precipitates or allows the exchange to take place; she cannot alter its nature. (47)

Once married or mothers of children, [women] would give loyalty to their children and to their children’s relatives and would thus make a potentially strong bond with the tribe of affiliation. This was, in fact, the way slavery developed historically. (48)

[Lots of disagreement between scholars - no written record]: Engels think that private property developed first, causing the “the world historic overthrow of the female sex.” Levi-Strauss and Claude Meillasoux believe that it is the exchange of women through which private property is eventually created. Meillassoux argues that women’s biological vulnerability in childbirth led tribes to procure more women from other groups, and that this tendency toward the theft of women led to constant intertribal warfare. In the process, a warrior culture emerged. Another consequence of this theft of women is that the conquered women were protected by the men who had conquered them or by the entire conquering tribe. In the process, women were thought of as possessions, as things- they became reified - while men became the reifiers because they conquered and protected. Women’s reproductive capacity is first recognized as a tribal resource, then, as ruling elites develop, it is acquired as the property of a particular kin group. (49)

This occurs with the development of agriculture. The material conditions of grain agriculture demand group cohesiveness and continuity over time, thus strengthening household structure. In order to produce a harvest, workers of one production cycle are indebted for food and seeds to workers of a previous production cycle. Since the amount of food depends on the availability of labor, production becomes the chief concern. This has two consequences: it strengthens the influence of older males and it increases the tribes’ incentive for acquiring more women. In the fully developed society based on plow agriculture, women and children are indispensable to the production process, which is cyclical and labor intensive. Children have now become an economic asset. At this stage tribes seek to acquire the reproductive potential of women, rather than women themselves. (49-50)

Plow agriculture initially demanded the strength of men, and certainly was not an occupation pregnant women or lactating mothers would have chosen. 

The agricultural economic practice reinforced men’s control over surpluses, which may also have been acquired by conquest in intertribal warfare. ...and the asymmetrical allocation of leisure time. Horticultural activities are more productive than subsistence gathering and produce leisure time. But the allocation of leisure time is uneven: men benefit more from it than women, due to the fact that the food-preparation and child-rearing activities of women continue unrelieved. Thus, men presumably could employ their new leisure time to develop craft skills, initiate rituals to enhance their power and influence and manage surpluses.(51)

I do not wish to suggest either determinism or conscious manipulation here - quite the contrary. Things developed in certain ways, which then had certain consequences which neither men nor women intended. ...I have tried to show how it might have come to pass that women agreed to a sexual division of labor, which would eventually disadvantage them, without having been able to foresee the later consequences. (51)

Sometime during the agricultural revolution relatively egalitarian societies with a sexual division of labor based on biological necessity gave way to more highly structured societies in which both private property and the exchange of women… were common. Many societies changed from egalitarian, matrilineal and matrilocal to patrilineal and patrilocal. Nowhere is there any evidence of a reverse process going from patriliny to matriliny. The more complex societies featured a division of labor no longer based only on biological distinctions, but also on hierarchy and the power of some men over other men and all women. (53)

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The process by which scattered Neolithic villages became agricultural communities, then urban centers, and finally states has been called “the urban revolution” or “the rise of civilization.” Happens at different times throughout the world: First, in the great river and coastal valleys of China, Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and Mesoamerica; later in Africa, Northern Europe, and Malaysia. All these civilizations characterized by:

  • Emergence of property classes and hierarchies
  • Commodity Production with a specialization and organized trade over distant regions
  • Consolidation of military elites
  • Kingship
  • The institutiaonalizaint of slavery
  • Transition from kin dominance to patriarchal families

Mesopotamia:

  • Female subordination within the family becomes institutionalized and codified in law
  • Prostitution becomes established and regulated
  • Women excluded from certain occupations and professions
  • After invention of writing and establishment of formal learning, women are excluded from equal access to such education.
  • Female deities subordinated to chief male gods, origin myths legitimate male ascendancy

The invention of writing: 3000 BC in Sumer

One of the earliest-known portraits of a woman in Sumer: a carefully sculpted head from Uruk, btwn 3100-2900 BCE. Also, founder of the city of Kish was Queen K-Baba, only queen on the list of kings. King of Warka was Gilgamesh. (may have been mythological)

Royal tombs at Ur (remember from the Bible - Abraham) show kings and queens buried with wealth and sacrificed servants

Documents from the reign of Urukagina, 2371 BCE, what is now Iraq:

“Women of former times each married two men, but women of today have been made to give up this crime.” Women committing this “crime” were stoned with stones inscribed with their evil intent.

“If a woman speaks disrespectfully to a man, that woman’s mouth is crushed with a fired brick.” (63)

Says that a high priestess needed to be added to a list of funeral officials receiving pay. (64)

Temple of the goddess Bau employed 1000-1200 persons year-round, under the administration of Queen Shagshag. As administrator of these two temples the queen exercised legal and economic authority over her domain. She also functioned as chief priestess in the temple. (65)

Militarism and the employment of slave women are already well established. However, women of that class had positions of significant economic, legal, and judicial power and could quite frequently represent their husbands in every respect. (But still patriarchal) (66)

“Exchange of women”...marked off daughters of upper-class ruling families for a special and highly ambiguous role. In one sense, they were merely pawns for their families’ diplomatic designs and imperialistic ambitions; not unlike their brothers who were sometimes forced to enter such diplomatic marriages and had no more personal choice in the matter than did the women. Yet ….these princesses were frequently influential, politically active, and powerful. Their role as future wives in diplomatic marriages demanded that they be given the best available education. ..This trend of educating princesses so they might function as informants and diplomatic representatives of their families’ interests once married accounts for the occasional evidence of “equal” educational opportunities for women, even in the face of the general educational disadvantaging of women throughout historical time. What should be remembered is that this tiny group of ruling class daughters never was representative of all women of their time and society. (67-68)

1965 BCE Shin-kashid of Isin established his daughter Nin-shatapad as high-priestess. When the king of Lara defeated her father and ended his reign, Nin-shatapad wrote an eloquent letter to her conqueror appealing to his generosity to spare the city and her temple and to restore her to her priestly duties. This letter became a model of its kind and was included in the curriculum of the school of scribes of which she herself had been a graduate. This incident is important not only in showing us the initiative of a woman in public affairs, but because it gives evidence that women of this period were still being trained as scribes. (68)

1790-1745 BCE Women owned and managed property, could contract in their own name, could sue in court and serve as witnesses. They took part in business and legal transactions such as adoptions, sales of property, the giving and taking of loans. ...Women had political standing and rights. They were scribes, musicians, and singers. They carried out important religious functions as priestesses, diviners, and prophetesses. They were advisers to the king. 

BUT “the wife’s power, like that of the male vassal, depended on the will and whim of the king (70)

Polygamy: kings nonchalantly filled harems for their pleasure and power, wives understood this as a matter of course. 

From this period of Mesopotamian history we see “women - wives, concubines, or daughters - who, so to speak, become the first liege-lords of their husband/father/king. Thus emerged the role of the “wife-as-deputy,” a role in which we will find women from that period forward. We have seen the extent and the limits of her power represented by Queen Shibtu carrying out her husband’s orders in ruling the realm and in selecting women for his harem from among the captives. Heer image can serve as an apt metaphor for what it means, what it meant then, and what it has meant for nearly 3000 years, for a woman to be upper class. Queen Shibtu’s role of “wife-as-deputy” is the highest to which such women can aspire. Their power derives entirely from the male on whom they depend.Their influence and actual role in shaping events are real, as is their power over the men and women of lower rank whom they own or control. But in matters of sexuality, they are utterly subordinate to men. ...If they no longer please, as in the case of Kirum or Kunshimatum, they are out of power at the whim of their lord. Thus, women came to perceive themselves, quite realistically, as dependents of mne. ...What we see here is the emergence of a set of power relationships in which some men acquired power over other men and over all women…..Women denied autonomy depend on protection and struggle to make the best deal possible for themselves and their children.” (75)

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Lerner posits that men’s domination of females was the prototype that gave men the idea to enslave other human beings. (77)

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For women, their place in the hierarchy was mediated through the status of the men on whom they depended. (96)

The three major preserved collections of Mesopotamian Law are the Codex Hammurabi, Middle Assyrian Laws, the Hittite Laws.

Code of Hammurabi: Punishes mother-son incest with death of both parties, but provides only banishment from the city for the father who rapes his daughter. The father who rapes his son’s young bride before the marriage has been consummated is fined. But if he rapes his son’s wife after the marriage has been consummated he is treated as an adulterer and gets the death penalty (because at that point the wife is the son’s property) (111)

The Code of Hammurabi marks the beginning of the institutionalization of the patriarchal family as an aspect of state power. It reflects a class society in which women’s status depended on the male family head’s social status and property. The wife of an impoverished burgher could be a change of his status, without her volition or action, be turned from a respectable woman into a debt slave or a prostitute. On the other hand, a married woman’s sexual behavior, such as adultery or an unmarried woman’s loss of chastity, could declass her in a way in which no man could be declassed by his sexual activity. Women’s class status is always differently defined than that of men of their class from that period on to the present. (140)

Old Testament/Hebrew Law (talk about another week) was influenced by the Hammurabi Codex and Middle Assyrian Law: Women were valued as procreators, and their dependence on men was institutionalized. (111)

Jewish levirate law: The family had paid for her [their son’s widow] and the family owned her… family property … was not allowed to lie fallow… This woman… bought and paid for and capable of wifehood and chidlbearing, could not be allowed to be without a husband. (118)

L.M. Epstein: “the wife owes faithfulness to her own marriage; the husband owes faithfulness to another man’s marriage.” (114)

The various laws against rape all incorporated the principle that the injured party is the husband or the father of the raped woman. The victim was under an obligation to prove that she had resisted the rape by struggling or shouting. 

MAL 55 deals in detail with the rape of a virgin. If a married man rapes a virgin who lives in her father’s house ‘...whether it was within the city or in the open country or at night in the street or in a garner or at a festival of the city the father of the virgin shall take the wife of the ravisher of the virgin (and give her to be dishonoured; he shall not give her (back) to her husband (but shall take her. The father shall give his daughter who has been ravished as a spouse to her ravisher.’ If the rapist has no wife, he must pay the price of a virgin to the father, marry the girl and know that he can never divorce her. If the girls’ father does not agree to this, he shall accept the money fine and ‘give his daughter to whom he pleases.” (116)

MAL 59: “a man may [scourge] his wife, pluck [her hair], may bruise and destroy [her] ears. There is no liability therefore.” These actions could be carried out in private. But any legally inflicted punishments, such as tearing out of the breasts and cutting off the nose or ears, but be carried out by an official. The implication is that the husband may no longer, as he perhaps did in earlier times, carry out the punishment himself. (117)

MAL 53: If a woman causes her own miscarriage…

“(and) charge (and) proof have been brought against her, she shall be impaled and shall not be buried… If that woman was concealed when she cast the fruit of her womb (and) it was not told to the king… (the tablet breaks off)”

What is striking here is, first of all, that self-induced abortion is regarded as a public crime, of which the king (the court) must be apprised. Impalement and refusal of burial are the severest penalties meted out in the Middle Assyrian legal system, and they are public penalties for high crimes. Why should a woman’s self-adduced abortion be deemed a crime of equal severity to high treason or assault upon the king? Driver and Miles, whose commentaries on Middle Assyrian laws are considered definitive, state:

...it seems inconsistent to permit the exposure of unwanted infants and to visit abortion with the severest penalties. In the case of a married mother this can be explained on the ground that it is the father who has the right to expose, while the mother has no right to deprive him by her own act of his choice of keeping alive or exposing the child. The reason may be… that the woman by her offence has caused the sacred blood of the family to flow and has thereby called down the wrath of heaven not only on herself but also on the whole community.”

The savage punishment against self-abortion has to do with the importance placed throughout the MAL on the connection between the power of the king (state) and the power of the patriarchal family-head over his wives and children. Thus, the right of the father, hitherto practiced and sanctioned by custom, to decide over the lives of his infant children, which in practice meant the decision of whether his infant daughters should live or die, is in the MAL equated with the keeping of social order. For the wife to usurp such a right is now seen as equal in magnitude to treason or to an assault upon the king.  The control of female sexuality, previously left to individual husbands or to family heads, had now become a matter of state regulation. (121)

The Code of Hammurabi marks the beginning of the institutionalization of the patriarchal family as an aspect of state power. It reflects a class society in which women’s status depended on the male family head’s social status and property. The wife of an impoverished burgher could by a change of his status, without her volition or action, be turned from a respectable woman into a debt slave or a prostitute. On the other hand, a married woman’s sexual behavior, such as adultery or an unmarried woman’s loss of chastity, could declass her in a way in which no man could be declassed by his sexual activity. Women’s class status is always differently defined than that of men of their class from that period on to the present. (140)

By 1,000 BCE the lifelong dependency of women on fathers and husbands became so firmly established in law and custom as to be considered “natural” and god-given. In the case of lower-class women, their labor served either their families or those who owned their families’ services. Their sexual and reproductive capacities were commodified, traded, leased, or sold in the interest of male family members. Women were excluded from formal education, insofar as it had become institutionalized. (141)


The Biblical narratives of genesis, composed between 1200 and 500 BCE, reflect a social reality similar to that described in the Babylonian sales contract (1700 BCE)


It is the first act of fallen Adam to thus re-name Eve or, rather, thus to reinterpret the meaning of her name. Fallen Eve may take hope and courage from her new redemptive role as mother, but there are two conditions defining and delimiting her choices, both of them imposed upon her by God: she is to be severed from the snake, and she is to be ruled by her husband. If we understand the snake to be the symbol of the old fertility-goddess, this condition is essential to the establishment of monotheism. It will be echoed and reaffirmed in the covenant: there shall be only One God, and the fertility-goddess shall be cast out as evil and become the very symbol of sin. We need not strain our interpretation to read this as the condemnation by Yahweh of female sexuality exercised freely and autonomously.

The second condition is that Eve, to be honored as life-giver, shall be ruled by her husband. It is the law of patriarchy, here clearly defined and given divine sanction. 


Old Testament/Hebrew Law was influenced by the Hammurabi Codex and Middle Assyrian Law: Women were valued as procreators, and their dependence on men was institutionalized. (111)

No matter how degraded and commodified the reproductive and sexual power of women was in real life, their essential equality could not be banished from thought and feeling as long as the goddesses lived and were believed to rule human life. Women must have found their likeness in the goddess, as men found theirs in the male gods. ...The power and mystery of the priestess was as great as that of the priest. As long as women still mediated between humans and the supernatural, they might perform different functions and roles in society than those of men, but their essential equality as human beings remained unassailed. (160)

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The Patriarchs

P 162 - Authorship of the Pentateuch

P 167 - Formation of Jewish culture/scripture/synagogue

As the state becomes more powerful, we find stricter regulation of female sexuality and increasing exclusion of women from public activity. 

The stories of the patriarchs in Genesis offer some indications of a transition from matrilocal and matrilineal to patrilocal and patrilineal. Family organization in some of the tribes. (The reference to a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife in Genesis. This matrilocal marriage (beena) allows women greater autonomy and gave her the right to divorce, while patrilocal marriage (ba’al marriage) abrogated.

The story of Jacob’s courtship and his flight from Laban’s house has been interpreted as implying the transition from matrilocality to patrilocaily. Rachel transferring the teraphim from her father’s house to her husbands house symbolized the change from matrilocality to patrilocality. (168)

In the earliest period the patriarch had undisputed authority over the members of his family. The wife called her husband “ba’al” or “master.” He was similarly referred to as the “ba’al” of his house or field. In the Decalogue the wife is listed among the man’s possessions, along with his servants, his ox, and his ass (Ex 20:17). In this period the father also could sell his daughter into slavery or prosititution, which was later forbidden. (168)

[Lots of rules about land ownership]. The effects of these landholding patterns was to strengthen clan allegiance and to give great stability to the patriarchal-tribal organization from one generation to another. This strong emphasis on the patriarchal control over clan property and the way in which it was structured into the very organization of Israelite society had a great impact on the position of women.

Descent was reckoned patrilineally, with the eldest son succeeding the father in authority after the father’s death. All the sons and their wives lived in the father’s household until his death. 

All Israelite women were expected to marry and thus passed from the control of fathers (and brothers) to that of husbands and fathers-in-law. When the husband died before his wife, his brother or another male relative assumed control over her and married her. (169)

In general, the married Jewish woman occupied an inferior position to that of her counterpart in Mesopotamian societies. Babylonian women could own property, sign contracts, take legal action, and they were entitled to a share in the husband’s inheritance. But we must also note a strong upgrading of the role of women as mothers in the Old Testament. The fifth commandment enjoins children to honor father and mother equally , and women are exalted as teachers of the young. In Proverbs, mothers and fathers are equally praised and honored in their role as parents, and the mother is described in positive terms only. (171)

P 176-177: [Handful of women heroes in the Old Testament do not counterbalance the plenitude of oppressed women.] The Old TEstament text shows a gradual restriction of women’s public and economic role, a lessening of her cultic function and an ever increasing regulation of her sexuality. ...increasingly sharp regulation of women’s behavior, the excessive language of censure against women’s “whoring” in Prophets the pervasive use of woman-the-whore as a metaphor for the evils of sinning society. (177)

Yahweh’s gender identity was unspecified, especially in the earlier texts. What is significant for gender definitions… is which ...explanation the writers of Genesis selected out of the many available sources….If, for example, Yahweh was not conceived or thought of as a gendered God, but rather as a principle which embodied male and female aspects, ...this is significant only in showing us that there were available alternatives to the traditional patriarchal interpretation and that these alternatives were not chosen. The fact is that for over 2500 years the God of the Hebrews was addressed, represented, and interpreted as a male Father-God, no matter what other aspects He may have embodied. This was, historically, the meaning given to the symbol, and therefore this was the meaning which carried authority and force. (178)


The answer to the question, “Who creates life?” lies at the core of religious belief-systems. Generativity encompasses both creativity - the ability to create something out of nothing - and procreativity - the capacity to produce offspring. (180) By the time of the Bible, there is no longer any maternal source for the creation of the universe. (180)

The most powerful metaphors of gender in the Bible have been those of woman, created of man’s rib, and of Eve, the temptress causing humankind’s fall from grace. These have, for over two millennia, been cited as proof of divine sanction for the subordination of women. 

(Two versions: In the J version God creates Eve out of Adam’s rib, while in the P version “male and female created he them.”)

John Calvin’s interpretation:

Since in the person of the man the human race had been created, the common dignity of our whole nature was without distinction… The woman… was nothing else than an accession to teh man. Certainly, it cannot be denied, that the woman also, though in the second degree, was created in the image of God… we may therefore conclude, that the order of nature implies that the woman should be the helper of the man. The vulgar proverb, indeed, is that she is a necessary evil; but the voice of God is rather to be heard, which declares that woman is given as a companion and an associate to the man, to assist him to live well. (183)

[Some feminists try to bend the meaning to make it empowering, “equal to,” but] there is little evidence in other parts of the Bible to support these optimistically feminist interpretations.  (183)

[With the Hebrew Bible we see the ]...dominance of some men over other men and over all women.

The exclusion of women from the creation of symbol systems became fully institutionalized

 in such a way as to take on the life and force of actuality. On the unexamined assumption that this stereotype represented reality, institutions denied women equal rights and access to privileges, educational deprivation for women became justified and, given the sanctity of tradition and patriarchal dominance for millennia, appeared justified and natural. For patriarchally organized society, this symbolic construct represented an essential ingredient in the order and structure of civilization. 

L.M. Epstein: “the wife owes faithfulness to her own marriage; the husband owes faithfulness to another man’s marriage.” (114)

For women, their place in the hierarchy was mediated through the status of the men on whom they depended. (96)

As they did in Mesopotamian societies, Hebrew men enjoyed complete sexual freedom within and outside of marriage. The Biblical scholar Louis M. Epstein states that during the early periods the husband had free sexual use of his concubines and slave women. “If the slaves were his own, not given to him by his primary wife… he could present them to other members of the family… after tiring of them himself…” Polygamy, which was widespread among the patriarchs, later became rare except for royalty, and monogamous marriage became the ideal and the rule. 

He covenanted and contracted only with males. Circumcision as the symbol of the covenant - [a covenant using the penis!!! Couldn’t be more clear that the club is “no girls allowed”] - expressed that reality. 

Only males could mediate between God and humans. This was symbolically expressed in the all-male priesthood, the various ways of excluding women from the most essential and meaningful religious ritual: i.e., their exclusion from the formation of the minyan; their segregated seating in the temple; their exclusion as active participants from the temple service, etc. Women were denied equal access to religious learning and the priesthood, and thereby they were denied the capacity of interpreting and altering the religious belief system. [no seat at the table] (201)

  • The development of monotheism in the Book of Genesis was an enormous advance of human beings in the direction of abstract thought. ...It is a tragic accident of history that this advance occurred in a social setting and under circumstances which strengthened and affirmed patriarchy. Thus, the very process of symbol-making occurred in a form which marginalized women. For females, the Book of Genesis represented their definition as creatures essentially different from males; a redefinition of their sexuality as beneficial and redemptive only within the boundaries of patriarchal dominance; and finally the recognition that they were excluded from directly being able to represent the divine principle. The weight of the Biblical narrative seemed to decree that by the will of God women were included in His covenant only through the mediation of men. (198)


If, then, the male stands for the effective and active, and the female, considered as female, for the passive, it follows that what the female would contribute to the semen of the male would not be semen but material for the semen to work upon. This is just what we find to be the case, for the catamenia [female discharge] have in their nature an affinity to the primitive matter. 

“For the first principle of the movement, or efficient cause, whereby that which comes into being is male, is better and more divine than the material whereby it is female.” ...Aristotle believed that the female’s colder blood prevented her blood from completing the necessary transformation [of female discharge] into semen. It is worth noting how at every point in this explanatory system it so happens that the female’s endowment or contribution is inferior to that of the male.He further postulates that the male is active and the female is passive: (206)

Building blocks of society: “The first and fewest possible parts of the family are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.” (208) [Put this on a timeline with Mormonism’s “Proclamation on the Family.” Progress, but we’re not there]

“For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority, and the child has, but it is immature.”

Aristotle is quite consistent in reasoning that the biological inferiority of woman must make her inferior also in her capacities, her ability to reason and therefore her ability to make decisions. (207)

“The courage of man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying.” (208)

***IT SHOULD BE NOTED THAT WHEN WE SPEAK OF RELATIVE IMPROVEMENTS IN THE STATUS OF WOMEN IN A GIVEN SOCIETY, THIS FREQUENTLY MEANS ONLY THAT WE ARE SEEING IMPROVEMENTS IN THE DEGREE IN WHICH THEIR SITUATION AFFORDS THEM OPPORTUNITIES TO EXERT SOME LEVERAGE WITHIN THE SYSTEM OF PATRIARCHY. (217)

**THE MALE CHILDREN’S SUBORDINATION TO THE FATHER’S DOMINANCE IS TEMPORARY; IT LASTS UNTIL THEY THEMSELVES BECOME HEADS OF HOUSEHOLDS. THE SUBORDINATION OF FEMALE CHILDREN AND OF WIVES IS LIFELONG. (218)

[This can be seen as an act of kindness to the widow, keeping her protected and providing for her, and making sure she’s not cast out into the streets and alone. But on the other hand, why not create a society where a widow has better options than either marrying her brother-in-law or being destitute?? Also, Lerner points out that a woman has to get married again in order to fulfill her purpose as a woman:]    

The family had paid for her [their son’s widow] and the family owned her. Family property was not allowed to lie fallow, so this woman, bought and paid for and capable of wifehood and childbearing, could not be allowed to be without a husband. (118) 

[On some level, women really were seen as breeders.]

Jacob and his favorite wife Rachel couldn’t conceive a child, even though Rachel’s sister Leah had had a baby with Jacob.  In Genesis chapter 30, it reads:

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; that she may bear upon my knees, and I also may be builded up through her.” [This is inspiration for the Handmaid’s Tale]

The sexuality of women, consisting of their sexual and their reproductive capacities and services, was commodified even prior to the creation of Western civilization. The development of agriculture in the Neolithic period fostered the inter-tribal “exchange of women,” not only as a means of avoiding incessant warfare by the cementing of marriage alliances but also because societies with more women could produce more children. ...Women themselves became a resource, acquired by men much as the land was acquired by men. (212)

In every known society it was women of conquered tribes who were first enslaved, whereas men were killed. It was only after men had learned how to enslave the women of groups who could be defined as strangers, that they learned how to enslave men of those groups, and later, subordinates from within their own societies. (213)

By the second millennium BCE in Mesopotamian societies, the daughters of the poor were sold into marriage or prostitution in order to advance the economic interests of their families. (Bride price, etc.) If a husband or father could not pay his debt, his wife and children could be used as pawns, becoming debt slaves to the creditor. These conditions were so firmly established by 1750 BCE that Hammurabic law made a decisive improvement in the lot of debt pawns by limiting their terms of service to three years, where earlier it had been for life. (213) [This still happens]

Claude Levi-Strauss came up with the concept of the “exchange of women.” [Brides walked down the aisle by their fathers, given to the groom].  

The first gender-defined social role for women was to be those who were exchanged in marriage transactions. The obverse gender role for men was to be those who did the exchanging or who defined the terms of the exchanges.

From its inception in slavery, class dominance took different forms for enslaved men and women: men were primarily exploited as workers; women were alwyas exploited as workers, as providers of sexual services, and as reproducers. ...it is ubiquitous and pervasive. For women, sexual exploitation is the very mark of class exploitation.

Class for men was and is based on their relationship to the means of production: those who owned the means of production could dominate those who did not. The owners of the means of production also acquired the commodity of female sexual services, both women of their own class and from women of the subordinate classes. In Ancient Mesopotamia, in classical antiquity, and in slave societies, dominant males also acquired, as property, the product of the reproductive capacity of subordinate women - children, to be worked, traded, married off, or sold as slaves. 

For women, class is mediated through their sexual ties to a man. It is through the man that women have access to or are denied access to the means of production and to resources. It is through their sexual behavior that they gain access to class. “Respectable women” gain access to class through their fathers and husbands, but breaking the sexual rules can at once declass them [but doesn’t for men] (215) [Unless they gain their own access to the means of production through their own work]

For women, other than those of lower classes, the “reciprocal agreement” went like this: in exchange for your sexual, economic, political, and intellectual subordination to men, you may share the power of men of your class to exploit men and women of the lower class.

P. 219 - Pakistan, honor killings

Summary: We have seen how men appropriated and then transformed the major symbols of female power: the power of the MOther-Goddess and the fertility-goddesses. We have seen how men constructed theologies based on the counterfactual metaphor of male procreativity and redefined female existence in a narrow and sexually dependent way. We have seen, finally, how the very metaphors for gender have expressed the male as norm and the female as deviant; the male as whole and powerful, the female as unfinished, mutilated, and lacking in autonomy. On the basis of such symbolic constructs, embedded in Greek philosophy, the Judeo-Christian theologies, and the legal tradition on which Western civilization is built, men have explained the world in their own terms and defined the important questions so as to make themselves the center of discourse. (220)

[Using the term “man” or “men” to describe humankind]: By making the term “man” subsume “woman” and arrogate to itself the representation of all of humanity, men have built a conceptual error of vast proportion into all of their thought. By taking the half for the whole, they have not only missed the essence of whatever they are describing, but they have distorted it in such a fashion that they cannot see it correctly. 

The androcentric fallacy, which is built into all the mental constructs of Western Civilization, cannot be rectified simply by “adding women.” What it demands for rectification is a radical restructuring of thought and analysis which once and for all accepts the fact that humanity consists in equal parts of men and women and that the experiences, thoughts, and insights of both sexes must be represented in every generalization that is made about human beings. (220)

All the important examples [of historical female empowerment] were expressed in myth and fable: amazons dragon-slayers, women with magic powers. But in real life, women had no history - so they were told and so they believed. And because they had no history they had no future alternatives. 

All males, whether enslaved or economically or racially oppressed, could still identify with those like them -  other males - who represented mastery over the symbol system. No matter how degraded, each male slave or peasant was like to the master in his relationship to God. This was not the case for women. Up to the time of the Protestant Reformation the vast majority of women could not confirm and strengthen their humanity by reference to other females in positions of intellectual authority and religious leadership. The few exceptional noblewomen and mystics, mostly cloistered nuns, were by their very rarity unlikely models for the ordinary woman. (222)

Women of all classes had less leisure time than men, and due to their child-rearing and family service function, what free time they had was generally not their own. The time of thinking men, their work and study time, has since the inception of Greek philosophy been respected as private. Like Aristotle’s slaves, women “who with their bodies minister to the needs of life” have for more than 2500 years suffered the disadvantages of fragmented, constantly interrupted time. [de Beauvoir’s “immanence;” Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”] (223)

***...Academically trained women have first had to learn “how to think like a man.” In the process, many of them have so internalized that learning that they  have lost the ability to conceive of alternatives. The way to think abstractly is to define precisely, to create models in the mind and generalize from them. Such thought, men have taught us, must be based on the exclusion of feelings. Women, like the poor, the subordinate, the marginals, have close knowledge of ambiguity, of feelings mixed with thought, of value judgments coloring abstractions. Women have always experienced the reality of self and community, known it, and shared it with each other. Yet, living in a world in which they are devalued, their experience bears the stigma of insignificance. Thus they have learned to mistrust their own experience and devalue it. What wisdom can there be in menses? What source of knowledge in the milk-filled breast? What food for abstraction in the daily routine of feeding and cleaning? Patriarchal thought has relegated such gender-defined experiences to the realm of the “natural,” the non-transcendent. Women’s knowledge becomes mere “intuition,” women’s talk becomes “gossip.” (224)

Women and men have entered historical process under different conditions and have passed through it at different rates of speed. If recording, defining, and interpreting the past marks man’s entry into history, this occurred for males in the third millennium VCE. It occurred for women (and only some of them) with a few notable exceptions in the nineteenth century. Until then, all History was for women pre-History. (226)

In stepping out of constructs of patriarchal thought, she faces, as Mary Daly put it, “existential nothingness.” And more immediately, she fears the threat of loss of communication with, approval by, and love from the man (or the men) in her life. Withdrawal of love and the designation of thinking women as “deviant” have historically been the means of discouraging women’s intellectual work. ...No thinking man has ever been threatened in his self-definition and his love life as the price for his thinking. (227)

In line with our historic gender-conditioning, women have aimed to please and have sought to avoid disapproval. This is poor preparation for making the leap into the unknown required of those who fashion new systems. Moreover, each emergent woman has been schooled in patriarchal thought. We each hold at least one great man in our heads. The lack of knowledge of the female past has deprived us of female heroines, a fact which is only recently being corrected through the development of Women’s History. So, for a long time, thinking women have refurbished the idea systems created by men, engaging in dialogue with the great male minds in their heads. Elizabeth Cady Stanton took on the Bible, the Church fathers, the founders of the American republic. Kate Millet argued with Freud, Moran Mailer, and the liberal literary establishment; Simone de Beauvoir with Sartre, Marx, and Camus; all Marxist-Feminists are in the dialogue with Marx and Engels and some also with Freud. In this dialogue woman intends merely to accept whatever she finds useful to her in the great man’s system. But in these systems woman - as a concept, a collective entity, an individual - is marginal or subsumed. 

In accepting such dialogue, thinking woman stays far longer than is useful within the boundaries or the question - setting defined by the “great men.” and just as long as she does, the source of new insight is closed to her. (227)

To be woman-centered means: asking if women were central to this argument, how would it be defined? ...Women cannot be put into the empty spaces of patriarchal thought and systems - in moving the center, they transform the system.

Since [women’s experience] has usually been trivialized or ignored, it means overcoming the deep-seated resistance within ourselves toward accepting ourselves and our knowledge as valid. It means getting rid of the great men in our heads and substituting for them ourselves, our sisters, our anonymous foremothers.

Being critical towards our own thought, which is, after all, thought trained in the patriarchal tradition. Finally, it means developing intellectual courage, the courage to stand alone, the courage to reach farther than our grasp, the courage to risk failure,. Perhaps the greatest challenge to thinking women is the challenge to move from the desire for safety and approval to the most “unfeminine” quality of all - that of intellectual arrogance, the supreme hubris which asserts to itself the right to reorder the world. The hubris of the god-makers, the hubris of the male system builders. 




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About the Podcast

Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.