Yikes. The deadline to submit a post to the next Carnival of Feminists is today, and the host, Sour Duck, is looking for posts on 1970s feminism. I've had a particular topic in mind for a while but procrastinator that I am, have only just gotten around to it:
During the 70s, one of my mother's favorite books was The First Sex by Elizabeth Gould Davis (published in 1971). I read it myself in middle school and found it entrancing. My grandmother (the minister's wife) read it and burst into tears because it convinced her that she had been duped all her life by a patriarchal agenda.
Presented as an historical work, The First Sex posited a prehistoric matriarchal society in Europe in which women - agriculturists, inventors, artists, queens, and civilizers - were the original leaders of the human race. According to Davis's theory, a patriarchal revolution then occurred in which nomads from the east invaded the settled queendoms and attempted to destroy all traces of female dominance. The Old Testament, Davis argued, was a patriarchal rewriting of history that cast old matriarchal deities as villains defeated by the new patriarchal God. (I seem to remember that the serpent in Genesis was supposed to represent the old matriarchal religion, which was quite serpent-friendly.) For the remainder of western history, women were conned into believing they were the inferior sex.
According to Wikipedia, Davis was a librarian, not a professional historian. When I took a college course on "Feminist Theologies," I learned that Davis's book was not taken seriously by the mainstream academic community. Some of her theories are indeed laughable -- that women had (on average) physical strength equal to men's until men deliberately started choosing to mate with weaker women, or that the XY chromosomal combination is some sort of abnormal, genetic mutation. And Davis's conclusions are overly sweeping given that she based them primarily on her reading of mythology and archaelogical evidence that could have multiple possible explanations. Davis's primary influence today is therefore felt not in the realm of historical scholarship but in the realm of feminist theology and goddess worship.
But, boy oh boy, could Davis write. Fabulous images of strong, powerful women-- decisive leaders with long flowing hair. An alternate reality in which women were not the historically despised and subjugated half of the species. Davis gave women the tools to imagine that there really could be a society in which the sexes were equal. And, as the saying goes, what can be imagined can be achieved.
Of course, I believe that feminism has to be grounded in reality. I am not going to subscribe to a belief in a widespread, ancient matriarchy if it was not so. To insist that a wistful daydream is reality would deprive feminism of its credibility. As a feminist, I am not afraid of the facts whatever they may be. While I may secretly enjoy the notion of a long lost matriarchal paradise, my feminism is strong enough to withstand unpleasant truths. So what if patriarchy was the norm in virtually every society until now? So what if men have always been the dominant sex? What can be imagined CAN be achieved, and I fully believe in the capacity of human beings and human societies to change and grow and evolve towards better and more just ways of doing things.
I still have a dog eared copy The First Sex lying around somewhere, and I wouldn't be above re-reading it, enjoying the enchantment, and sighing a little regretful sigh. What does it stand for in my mind? It stands for hope and also for my faith in women and my love for women. But, more importantly, my experience of reading it (and my subsequent disillusionment) stands for the importance of a clear-eyed willingness to seek truth wherever it may take us and to work from there.
(UPDATE: I should clarify that I certainly would not think wistfully of a female dominated society for its own sake. A female dominated society is not the goal of feminism. But, during the '70s, the notion of a female dominated society in the past made the possibility of an equal society in the future seem like a more realistic possibility.)
(SECOND UPDATE: Based on Morgaine's comments, I would also note that I am not discounting Davis's overarching theory. The main point is that feminism is the way to go even if Davis turns out to be wrong.)