Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Partnership versus dominator societies: An introduction to the work of Riane Eisler

Last summer, I was surprised and disheartened when a friend told me some sociology and history classes still teach that society has always been male-dominated. Though it hasn’t become mainstream knowledge, there is plenty of sociological and historical evidence to show that’s not true. Even in more recent history, there have been tribal groups where women and men still share power more or less equally. I have often wondered why the latter isn’t the norm, and why people ever thought to value one gender more than the other in the first place. I never received any answers to these and my related questions until I read Riane Eisler’s books.

In The Chalice and the Blade, Eisler cites historical accounts and archeological findings that point to many ancient societies being partnership-oriented, meaning women and men worked together as equal halves of humanity to build and maintain more peaceful societies than the ones we have today.

These societies tended to view the Creator as female, the Great Goddess: New life comes from the bodies of women, so it made perfect sense to assign female rather than male gender to the Creator.

Goddess worship did not necessarily make these societies matriarchal, however, as some historians and writers (such as Merlin Stone) assume it does. Matriarchy is just as flawed as patriarchy, because it means exalting one gender over the other, therefore making it easy to condone abuse and exploitation of the devalued half of humanity.

What Eisler saw in the records and art left by these societies was a balance of what today are considered typically masculine and typically feminine traits. Rather than split these traits into two disparate categories, the full range of humans’ most gentle to most aggressive traits were viewed as just that: human. Certain traits weren’t considered to be exclusively masculine or exclusively feminine, so people had more freedom to be who they naturally were—men weren’t considered unmanly if they were more sensitive or lacked brute physical strength, and women weren’t rebuked for being “unladylike” if they were bold sexually, athletically, or in business.

One thing I like about Eisler’s writing is she doesn’t idealize these societies, or give a two-dimensional diatribe against “dominator” societies, the term she uses for male-dominated societies founded on conquest that idealize war and heroics while downplaying peace and negotiation, and which institutionalize violence by making it into entertainment and by linking brutality with sexuality in pornography that focuses on domination and submission rather than on equal pleasuring. She points out that even if we had a partnership-oriented society, it wouldn’t be perfect and completely free of violence or foolishness, because those traits are natural to humanity too.

In Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body—New Paths to Power and Love, Eisler asserts that both these extremes—partnership and domination—as well as everything in between are all part of human potential, and thus are natural to humanity. That being said, just as we acknowledge that certain tendencies which come naturally to us are weaknesses, everything that is natural to humans is not equally beneficial or condonable.

Thus, Eisler’s argument is that dominator societies are dangerously imbalanced in that they give preference to humanity’s more destructive and uncaring traits, including the use of violence for conflict resolution, putting individual ambition over the needs of family or community, convincing men that they are more manly if they are competitive and suppress unaggressive tendencies and emotions, and teaching women they can be self-actualizing to a point but would still be more desirable to society if they conform themselves to male standards of beauty, focus their sexuality on pleasing men and giving men children, and on denying their own pleasure and other needs.

In dominator societies, men are socialized to take, and women are socialized to serve. A perfect example of how tragic and demented this imbalance is can be found in the laws the United States created to articulate the status and treatment of its slaves: Eisler pointed out the model for these laws was the social restrictions on and treatment of women at that time in U.S. history.

So the question is, why on earth did society ever switch from a more humane, peaceful model of society to one which causes so many problems for not only women, but for men, since it does no good for men to force them to suppress half their range of human expression?

In Sex, Death, and the Angry Young Man: Conversations with Riane Eisler and David Loye, in which these two are interviewed by Mathew Callahan, David Loye gives a condensed quickie of how this happened. Dominator societies started off as a “fringe phenomenon,” as he called it, the fringe being the less-hospitable regions of the globe. Eisler, author Merlin Stone, and historian Marija Gimbutas all cite a group called the Kurgans from the Russian steppes as the originators of the world’s dominator takeover.

The Kurgans were probably originally more peaceful and agrarian, but as their habitat gradually dried up and become colder, they were pressured to adapt in aggressive ways in order to survive. Loye describes how these people likely learned to suppress their more gentle and cooperative traits by having to rely more and more on killing animals as their main food source when crops would no longer flourish.

They had to harden their hearts even more when they had to start killing their own animals, sheep and whatever herd creatures they’d nurtured and raised and eat them. As the environment became more and more depleted, these people had to become nomadic to find better land.

Neighboring tribes were doing the same thing, so they began running into each other, and this led to competition for the same lands, which evolved into institutionalized warfare. By the time these groups moved far enough south and west into Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe to encounter the more abundant lands of peaceful agriculturalists, the Kurgans were so accustomed to taking what they needed by force and with little feeling, that they decimated or took over the more partnership-oriented societies, gradually corrupting most of the Eurasian continent over a period of several hundred years with an economic structure more suited to nomadic desert or tundra living than to stationary agricultural or forest living.

That model of survival and growth achieved by brutal conquest evolved into the militant and ethnocentric world superpowers we have today, including the United States.

As you can see, modern efforts to reclaim gender equity, Goddess-centered religions, and more stereotypically feminine methods of conflict resolution are about a lot more than women’s rights.

The label “feminism,” as Eisler points out in Sacred Pleasure, sounds too much like part of a pair of binary opposites—the “masculism” of the present day being its opposite—rather than a movement for balance between extremes. This is why she and Loye use the term partnership rather than feminism, because it’s not a matter of men versus women biologically, but about the values which are stereotypically assigned to each. This struggle has the illusion of being about gender conflict when it’s really a matter of power—who has it and how they use it.

Now, if you’ve never heard about these ancient partnership societies, or about Riane Eisler’s and David Loye’s work, you’re probably wondering why. The answer lies in who funds and is responsible for conducting archeological work and for disseminating its findings. Many archeological digs and other scholarly research have uncovered non-male-dominant, sexually liberal, Goddess-worshiping societies around the world that contradict the claims of men in power today, who think that that the aggressive, male-dominant, Euro-American model of government, religion, and social order is the best, most evolved, and most democratic.

So, naturally, the people who are profiting the most from this imbalanced present-day system, who also happen to be the ones researchers rely on for funding, don’t want people to know how successful and culturally advanced these ancient societies evidently were. The wealthy, mainly male, mainly white privileged minority that runs the world would rather invert reality, like newspaper journalists skewing the meaning of statistics with ambiguously-worded headlines, by making it seem like these peaceful and egalitarian societies were the fluke, the fringe phenomenon, rather than the norm for several thousand years.

On that note, I’ll leave you with a quote from Booker T. Washington: “There are two ways to exert one’s strength—One is pushing down, the other is pulling up.”


Image: “The Chalice and the Blade” by Karla Joy Huber, 2010; Colored pencil, Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Sharpie pen, metallic Sharpie marker


  1. Hmmmm....interesting.....I would venture to research where the male domination attitude came from because I am pretty sure that this is a attitude that sprang up from multiple primitive cultures not just the predominate one ( one exmp. off the top of my head...would be The middle eastern cultures has had pretty strict Gender roles for centuries before Europe knew they existed) But as for the spirit of this article..I whole heartedly agree with the concept of partnership. I would like to see you do a deeper dive into the nature of the sexism beast that you are chomping away at here and ultimately strategies on how to defeat it! This is Hopefully the first in a great series that I can't wait to read!! :-)

  2. Thank you for the well-thought-out comment, Joe, and for being my first commentator! :) Yes, Riane Eisler discusses how multiple dominator societies sprung up more or less simultaneously with partnership societies, and the key is inhospitable environment, including scarcity of resources. So, as you suggested, the barren regions of the Middle East had indigenous dominator societies as well as indigenous partnership societies. This blog entry is meant to be a teaser trailer, to entice people who resonate with these ideas to read the books. I've got Sacred Pleasure and Sex, Death, & the Angry Young Man if you'd like to borrow either. I'll probably go into more depth on these themes in later blogs, but I don't want to rewrite what Riane Eisler's already written, so for specifics, reading the books is best. I will, in the context of other blog entries, mention more from these books, including other obnoxious and inhumane--and in some cases scientifically untrue, Eisler cites studies showing--dominator society traits, such as the prohibition / condemnation of homosexuality. I was fascinated with what she had to say about that, particularly refuting the whole notion it's "unnatural" by citing animals don't have that tendency--some animals do, actually, and it's always been part of human society--all that's varied is how human society has dealt with it. Remind me to tell you about how the "winkteh" (not sure if I spelled it right) are viewed in some Native American traditions...