Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Gould Davis’

A Book Look: The Lost (And Found) Matriarchal Past

December 29, 2010

When Wonder Woman gave up her superpowers and became a normal human being in the late 1968, it did not go over particularly well.  Nowhere was this more true than in the burgeoning women’s liberation movement, who quickly adopted the Amazon Wonder Woman as a feminist icon and advocated for a return to her roots.  It is in this period that Wonder Woman appeared on the first issue of Ms. magazine and Gloria Steinem published a collection of Wonder Woman stories from the 1940s.  Many feminists saw Wonder Woman as a powerful symbol, and ultimately the classic star-spangled costume came back in 1973, along with all her superpowers.

The restoration of the Amazon Wonder Woman brought in some new readers, and one of their letters gives us a cool insight into the beliefs of the women who saw Wonder Woman as a feminist symbol.  This letter is from Wonder Woman #212, published in June 1974… I pasted the letter page header on top of the letter just for fun:

First off, I doubt that “Forfreedom” is her real last name, though that would be really fun if it was.  OH COOL I just googled “Ann Forfreedom”… it seems that she’s sort of a big deal!!  Look for a separate Ann Forfreedom post later today.  SPOILER ALERT:  “Forfreedom” is not her real last name.

But on to the letter.  Forfreedom writes that “we contemporary women are now beginning to realize our great matriarchal Amazonian heritage,” and goes on to say that “our real foremothers combined many characteristics, which is precisely why patriarchs could not accept the continued existence of such all-female societies.”  Forfreedom is talking about the Amazons as if they were real, historically speaking, which may strike you as a little bit odd.  But the actual existence of the Amazons is only the tip of the iceberg.

In 1971, Elizabeth Gould Davis published The First Sex, which argues that humanity was originally a peaceful, matriarchal society in which everyone worshipped a female deity and things were lovely and harmonious.  Then men took over with violence and war, put in place male deities, and set about subjugating women for the next several thousand years.  Davis was building on the work of writers such as J.J. Bachofen and Helen Diner, who had made similar claims.  Diner’s most famous work was entitled “Mothers and Amazons”, while Bachofen wrote that “Amazonism is a universal phenomenon,” a step towards the matriarchal utopia at the dawn of all human societies.  “Amazon” did not strictly refer to the warrior women of Greek myth, but rather to this larger concept of matriarchal prehistory.  It is likely this broader definition that Forfreedom refers to, the idea of a powerful and peaceful era of humanity when women ruled.

This concept was empowering for many women in the early 1970s.  It suggested that men had not always been in charge, and thus offered inspiration to their efforts for equality.  This powerful matriarchy may have been lost, but knowledge of its existence gave hope that it could be restored.  Although this concept is less popular today, it was a source of great interest for many feminists at the time, and was linked to Wonder Woman beyond just this letter.  In her preface to Steinem’s Wonder Woman story collection, Phyllis Chesler wrote an imaginary conversation between herself, Bachofen, and Diner, linking Wonder Woman explicitly to their theories of originary matriarchy.

While this concept was a popular one, it was also largely hokum.  And I’m not saying that because I am a tool of the patriarchy, trying to keep women down… damn near every feminist with any historical or anthropological background has dismissed these theories as wildly inaccurate.  But regardless, this concept of a past matriarchy sheds light on why Wonder Woman became such a potent feminist symbol in the early 1970s.  Her direct connection to the Amazons, the most famous matriarchal society of all time, resonated strongly with those in the women’s liberation movement who drew hope from The First Sex and other similar books.  Wonder Woman was a link back to the era they aimed to restore, and was thus an inspiring symbol for many.


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