Matriarchy and madness

A bad take on AegeaNet

The publication of Joan Cichon’s Matriarchy in Bronze Age Crete has led to a bad take on the subject by an evolutionary biologist that I feel should be called out for how offensive it is.

Josho Brouwers

I subscribe to the AegeaNet, a discussion/news group that focuses mainly – as the name might suggest – on the Aegean Bronze Age. It is run by John G. Younger. It usually doesn’t succumb to the petty and often quite disheartening discussions that other (academic) mailing lists are prone to, most notably the risable Classicists List.

Yesterday, a message was circulated about the publication of a new book, Matriarchy in Bronze Age Crete: A Perspective from Archaeomythology and Modern Matriarchal Studies (2022) by Joan M. Cichon. This prompted a response – almost immediately called out by Younger for being impolite – from someone using a pseudonym:

Seriously, why are people still writing about this??? […] California Institute of Integral Studies promotes this sort of irresponsible approach to the ancient world. Huge eye roll.

First of all, people should be writing about how communities were organized in Bronze Age Crete. Moreover, people are writing about the subject, although it is fraught with danger: academia is, after all, dominated by white, heterosexual men, some of whom, at least, do not take kindly to anything that might upset the status quo. Much feminist literature, in particular, has been dismissed – rightly or wrongly – as ultimately irrelevant, such as the work of Marija Gimbutas.

Cichon’s book, which is admirably available in Open Access, is based – almost verbatim from what I can see – on her PhD thesis from 2013. To be fair, the book is not without some substantial problems. Cichon assumes the existence of a “Mother Goddess” in Crete and does not fully engage with the relevant literature on the Aegean side of things.

It is also unfortunate, but perhaps not entirely avoidable, that the book was not updated to incorporate more recent literature. I think that Cichon could have benefited from reading, for example, Ilse Schoep’s “Building the labyrinth: Arthur Evans and the construction of Minoan civilization”, published in American Journal of Archaeology 122.1 (2018), pp. 5-32.

Still, there is much here that is useful, and to dismiss the book out of hand because of “Matriarchy!” is woefully short-sighted. For example, Cichon’s discussion of matriarchy and patriarchy is fine and fairly thorough, and could serve as a useful jumping off point for anyone interested in this topic. And since the book is available to all for free, why not give it a read yourself?

Enter a biologist

John Younger eventually posted what he described as a “thoughtful contribution” by Dr Judith Hand, a “correspondent from close to the beginning”. However, I do not quite see how her response can be considered “thoughtful”, regardless of how long she has been with AegeaNet. Frankly, I found her response offensive, and I think it’s good to articulate precisely why I felt that way.

Let me quote from her response:

I will share with you that I consider the use of the word “matriarchy” by a number of students and people who are looking for societies that are alternatives to patriarchies to be unfortunate and very misleading. My perspective is that of an evolutionary biologist who studies gender differences, especially as our gender differences relate to wars and to governing.

It is a sad fact of life that biologists – evolutionary or otherwise – often feel the need to share their opinions on social matters about which, frankly, they know nothing. Hand here is no different, butting into a discussion and offering a “perspective” that ultimately seeks to silence naysayers because of “science”.

She continues:

Using the word matriarchy is unfortunate because it hides reality. By definition, a patriarchy is any culture we create where governing and decison-makng in public life is under all-male control. Kingships, male oligarchies, tyrannies, dictatorships, etc. If the rules and decisions for public affairs are made virtually only by the men, the society is a patriarchy.

To be a matriarchy, or to use to word matriarchy, is to think of the opposite. It would be a society in which all governing and decision-making in public life is done by the women. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A MATRIARCHY. This is because it would contradict our male and female biological predispositions….and would thus never be stable over time. Primarily because men would never tolerate a situation where they had absolutely no say in any public affairs.

This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what the term “matriarchy” means. It is not intended to be the opposite of patriarchy. They are not on opposite ends of a spectrum. To make this claim presupposes definitions of either that no one actually uses.

Hand claims that “patriarchy is any culture (…) where governing and decision-mak[i]ng in public life is under all-male control.” This is an absurd definition because no society, past or present, would then qualify as patriarchal. In other words, Hand’s definitions here – such as they are – serve only to set up a straw man argument.

Gerda Lerner, in her classic work The Creation of Patriarchy (1986), usefully defines patriarchy as follows (p. 239, emphasis mine):

Patriarchy in its wider definition means the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general. It implies that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power. It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence, and resources.

There is a wealth of anthropological literature on the varied ways in which human beings have organized themselves. These include societies that might fit some definitions of “matriarchy”, such as the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) in North America and the Trobriand Islanders. See also, for example, Peggy Reeves Sanday’s Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy (2002), which focuses on the Minangkabau of West Sumatra.

The way that people do (or don’t) define matriarchy is often revealing in and of itself, and vehement denial of the existence in history of political forms in which women have a say is often in itself political, and evidence of sexist bias. Whenever someone denies the existence of something, especially something that could be aspirational to our modern society, you can assume that some kind of game is being played.

Sex and gender

Lest we be left in the dark regarding Hand’s ultimate motive for sharing her opinion on this matter, she makes clear that despite her use of the term “gender” she has apparently no idea what it actually means.

Biologists who venture into these kinds of discussion typically cannot distinguish between biological sex and social gender. These biologists also tend to regard sex as binary, ignoring the fact that there is such a thing as intersex (where the individual in question does not completely fulfill the biological definitions of either male or female).

Weirdly, Hand undercuts her initial statement on absolute patriarchies and matriarchies by writing the following:

There have been what I’ve called women-centered cultures, where women have prominent and final-say decision-making roles. Typically, women make decisions about some aspects of life (e.g., the gardening, the marketing of garden produce, the production of liquor) and the men make decisions about some other aspect (e.g., the raising, breeding and selling of livestock). Decision-making is thus shared by mutual agreement of the sexes (the Goba would be an example). I frankly believe, based on my own extensive research of the Minoans, that they were that sort of culture and that women were very much in charge of things religious.

Does she not realize what she just wrote?

Apparently not, because in the next few paragraphs she digs a deeper hole:

(…) We are primates. We are a sexually dimorphic species, which is powerfully explored in the primatologist Fran[s] de Waal’s new book Different. (…) And while our male/female differences have and can accept SHARING of power between the sexes in a great many forms, those deeply existing differences cannot accept all-female governing in public life. (…)

The sentence “We are primates”, consciously or not, removes agency on the part of humans; it suggests that we are bound by our biology. It actively denies that individuals are free to experience the world and themselves on their own terms. The statement that humans “are a sexually dimorphic species” with “deeply existing differences” echoes the sentiments of “gender critical” morons, of which so-called TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) – who count writer J.K. Rowling among their number – are the most prominent representatives.

A reference to Frans de Waal’s book, Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist (2022), is not exactly helpful. In the first chapter of my ebook version, de Waal writes the following nonsense:

Men, to feel fulfilled and successful, need to excel at something – to be better at it than other men and better than women.

Every civilization needs to offer men opportunity to realize their potential. A recent survey of seventy different countries confirmed this difference. Universally, men put more value on independence, self-enhancement, and status, whereas women emphasize the well-being and security of their inner circle as well as people in general.

To feel accomplished, women always have their biological potential to give birth. It’s the one thing they can do that men can’t.

If that doesn’t make you angry, I don’t know what will.

De Waal argues a little later that the types of toys picked by “boys” and “girls” in “mostly Western cultures” are determined mostly by their sex! In the following brief discussion on colour, he is clearly confused by an article from 1918 that suggests pink should be used for boys and blue for girls, saying “this is purely a cultural choice” before concluding that, “At the very least, there is much better evidence that culture affects preferences for colors than preferences for toys.” What a way to have your cake and eat it, too.

It is clear that de Waal has not bothered to do a deep dive into the relevant literature published on this subject in the social sciences. How else can we interpret his statement, in chapter 8, that “Male privilege has always been most pronounced in the upper echelons of society. In the lower classes, men and women are equally exploited, mistreated, and impoverished” (emphasis mine)? The book is rife with such ill-conceived, misleading, and downright damaging pronouncements.

In any event, Hand is swift to return to absolutes:

So to summarize, I reject and dislike the use of the term matriarchy to describe any human cultures because it implies something untrue about us. It implies that men would tolerate total governing by women in all public spheres of life.

As I wrote above, there is no definition of matriarchy that assumes “total governing by women”, just like there is no definition of patriarchy that would argue “total governing” by men. It’s nonsense.

Hand continues to argue along similar lines in her closing paragraph:

In fact, I find the relatively recent introduction of the form of governing called “liberal democracy,” not matriarchy, to be the antithesis to patriarchies.

It is a bit hard to understand what exactly she means when she uses the term “liberal democracy” in this case, but let’s go with the majority opinion and assume that she means any modern ostensibly democratic nation, like the United States or Germany. It is hard to see how these can be the “antithesis” of patriarchy. But when you are operating from a false premise to begin with and can only reason in binary terms, such unsophistication is to be expected.

Closing thoughts

AegeaNet is usually a good place to keep up with recent developments in Aegean archaeology, even though it is dominated by English speakers and therefore offers only a narrow subset of international research. Nonsense of the sort that I have discussed in this blog post occurs rarely, but it’s worth calling it out when it does.

Since the original message, other responses have been posted to AegeaNet as I was writing this; I also subscribe to the digest version, so updates do not come in as quickly! Larissa Tittl’s reaction was similar to mine, saying that “the response based on an evolutionary biology mired in a sex-based and gender-based essentialism” was “a little troubling and lacking in nuance”. A bit of an understatement, to be sure. Louise A. Hitchcock added some good commentary and provided criticism of the book, pointing out some of the deficiencies in Cichon’s bibliography.

With regards to the existence of “matriarchy” in Bronze Age Crete, AegeaNet founder John Younger himself has written, in Women in Antiquity (2016), edited by Stephanie Lynn Budin and Jean Macintosh Turfa (p. 587):

Neopalatial Crete presents the best candidate for a matriarchy – if one ever existed. The period marks a cultural peak in the Aegean world (…), and no one denies that Minoan women were prominent then. Women play important roles in large-scale frescoes; they are seated or enthroned (men rarely) and are attended by standing people and by animals; women tend to be represented at a larger scale, in central positions, in landscapes, and with elaborate costumes.

There is more to be said about this subject, but I am saving some of it for my upcoming review of The Dawn of Everything (2021), the exciting new book by David Graeber and David Wengrow. The book is important because it doesn’t just say what might or might not have existed, but actually emphasizes different ways of looking at things, and has a strong political slant. It fits Rachel Crellin’s definition of a “grand narrative”.