Once upon a time, the many cultures of this world were all part of the gynocratic age. Paternity had not yet been discovered…Childbirth was mysterious. It was vital. And it was envied. Women were worshipped because of it, were considered superior because of it…. Men were on the periphery—an interchangeable body of workers for, and worshippers of, the female center, the principle of life.
The discovery of paternity, of sexual cause and childbirth effect, was as cataclysmic for society as, say, the discovery of fire or the shattering of the atom. Gradually, the idea of male ownership of children took hold….
Gynocracy also suffered from the periodic invasions of nomadic tribes…. The conflict between the hunters and the growers was really the conflict between male-dominated and female-dominated cultures.
[W]omen gradually lost their freedom, mystery, and superior position. For five thousand years or more, the gynocratic age had flowered in peace and productivity. Slowly, in varying stages and in different parts of the world, the social order was painfully reversed. Women became the underclass, marked by their visible differences.
The foregoing account was penned by Gloria Steinem in 1972. The theory of a Neolithic matriarchy, though, did not originate with her. It was advanced over a century before her by the Swiss philologist Johann Bachofen in his 1861 book, Das Mutterrecht. It was popularized in the United States in the mid-twentieth century by psychologist Erich Neumann, then by Marija Gimbutas, and then, of course, by Gloria Steinem.
The principal evidence for the theory consists of primitive artifacts depicting feminine shapes and images. The reasoning is that since people crafted female figurines during the Stone Age, it may be inferred that they must have worshipped goddesses.
Scholars recently have begun to question the soundness of this reasoning. Professor Lotte Motz, for example, correctly observes that Stone Age images of men and animals are just as numerous as images of women. Moreover, there is no evidence that Stone Age female figurines were created for the purpose of goddess-worship. It is possible they were fertility symbols, sexual objects or simply artwork. Finally, even if goddesses were worshipped in the Stone Age, that does not necessarily mean that women enjoyed higher social or political status than men. Examples of artistic exaltations of femininity and motherhood in patriarchal societies are plentiful.
According to Motz, “there clearly was … no imposition of a patriarchal system….”
Women’s Studies Professor Cynthia Eller has characterized the Neolithic matriarchy theory as a myth driven by ideology, an inversion of antifeminism.
Whether the first human social organizations were matriarchal, patriarchal or egalitarian may never be known. It is possible that they were matriarchal; it is equally possible that they were not. Without written records from the period, we have no real knowledge, and can only speculate.
In any case, even if it is assumed, for the sake of argument, that a Neolithic matriarchy existed, it is far from certain that women’s superior political and/or social position would have ensured them a superior right to the custody of children. Social hierarchical position and political power do not always correlate positively with child custody rights. In fact, the correlation, in many cases, appears to be an inverse one. In patriarchal cultures it is typically women, not men, who possess superior rights to the custody of children, when the contest is between the mother and the father of a child. It is entirely possible that in a society ruled by women, men might have been confined to the role of tending to the children. Delegating the child-care role exclusively to men certainly would have afforded women the freedom and time they would have needed to go about the business of ruling the world.
The truth is that nobody knows whether prehistoric civilizations viewed children as the property of their mothers, their fathers, both or neither. Nobody knows how the issue of child custody was addressed. It is possible it was never addressed at all.
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 Gloria Steinem, Introduction to William M. Marston, Wonder Woman (1972)
 Johann J. Bachofen, Das Mutterrecht (Stuttgart, Krais & Hoffmann 1861); cf. Lewis H. Morgan, Ancient Society (New York, H. Holt 1871)
 Marija Gimbutas, Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe, 6500-3500 B.C. (1974); Erich Neumann, The Great Mother (Ralph Manheim trans., 1955); Steinem, supra note 1.
 Lotte Motz, The Faces of the Goddess (1997)
 See Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy 29 (1986)
 Motz, supra note 4 at 35.