The Cynthia Eller Brickbat

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 16, 2011 — 57 Comments

In 2001 Cynthia Eller, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Religious Studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey, published “The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future”, a book that picked apart a theory that had found favor within academia, largely in the field of Women’s/Feminist Studies. Eller’s work fit into a larger trend of scholars taking a more critical look at historical claims within modern Paganism, the Goddess movement, and related groups, receiving quite a bit of mainstream press attention on its publication. However, Eller’s book was documenting a phenomenon that was already on the decline, or at least transforming itself in the face of new evidence, as evidenced by an Atlantic article published that same year.

“…both Starhawk and [Riane] Eisler, along with many of their adherents, seem to be moving toward a position that accommodates, without exactly accepting, the new Goddess scholarship, much as they have done with respect to the new research about their movement’s beginnings.”

The nuances of feminist spirituality and modern Paganism accommodating new scholarship was largely lost on journalists and scholars unfamiliar with the topic. Eller’s book became the go-to brickbat of choice for anyone wanting to take an easy swipe at feminists, Goddess worshipers, or Pagans.  Writers like Ross DouthatPaul Nathanson, Katherine K. Young, and Mark Oppenheimer, have all directly or indirectly referenced Eller to take make cases against Wicca, feminism, or even Dan Brown. Now anthropologist Peter Wyatt Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars (an organization that fights “liberal bias” in academia) invokes Eller’s work to take aim in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog at the trouble theologically conservative Christians allegedly have in obtaining tenure in various departments.

“…higher education’s relaxed attitude about appointing faculty members who not only believe but who actually teach this moonshine demonstrates the hypocrisy of those who say that faculty members are acting out of the need to protect the university from anti-scientific nonsense when they discriminate against conservative Christian candidates for academic appointment. The possibility that a candidate for a position in biology, anthropology, or, say, English literature might secretly harbor the idea that God created the universe or that the Bible is true, is a danger not to be brooked. But apparently, the possibility that a candidate believes that human society was “matriarchal” until about 5,000 years ago is perfectly within the range of respectable opinion appropriate for campus life.

The problem with Wood’s screed is that he provides no evidence, aside from a book written in 2001 (that’s a whole decade ago), that this double-standard is indeed currently rampant. A fact that is pointed out to him in the comments section.

“Wood’s assertion that this paradigm is all-pervasive in contemporary Women’s and Gender Studies programs is false. It was never all pervasive and teaching it today, detached from the context of histories of feminism–where you are most likely to still find it, is *rare* not common.”

Cynthia Eller herself even pops up in the comments to emphasize just how out-of-style matriarchal theory is today.

“It’s my sense that approximately zero archaeologists and anthropologists teach the matriarchal theory as a sound, evidence-based hypothesis these days. Women’s studies programs are probably more tolerant of the occasional believer in the matriarchal theory, just as religious studies programs, even at public universities such as the one where I teach, are more tolerant of the occasional devout evangelical Christian. But I feel quite certain that there are far more gainfully employed academics who are evangelical Christians than there are those who embrace the matriarchal theory, let alone teach it as fact to their students. As myths go, the matriarchal theory is remarkably sturdy and versatile, popping up in all sorts of places in the social fabric, which is why it’s so fascinating as a topic in the history of ideas. It comes and goes, but right now, I’d say that in academic circles, it’s going. I just wish I knew where it was going to pop up again!”

Indeed, the biggest issue within Feminist/Women’s Studies may be its own decline, not that its been infiltrated and taken over by adherents to matriarchal theory. Wood’s argument constructs a straw man (or perhaps matriarchal straw woman) to concoct an illusory double-standard, one not even supported by the source he quotes. As Pagan scholar Chas Clifton points out, the power differential alone strains the comparison.

“…serious peaceful ancient matriarch-ists are tiny in numbers compared to biblical creationists. They do not turn up in state legislatures trying to thwart the teaching of evolution and the choice of school textbooks. They are invisible to the news media.  Having little political power outside Academia and para-Academia, they are treated more gently within its walls.”

One would hope that the revelations found here would trickle down (or up, depending on how you see it) to all the writers who have Eller packed away in their anti-Pagan/anti-feminist arsenal, but I somehow doubt it. For all that Pagans are accused of clinging to outdated scholarship, their critics seem just as, if not more, willing to do the same.

Oh, and for those who might be Eller fans, she has a new book out. “Gentlemen and Amazons: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 1861-1900”. Since this one stops in 1900, it probably won’t ignite the press and pundits, but it might be an interesting read.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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