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Gentlemen and Amazons

The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 1861–1900

Cynthia Eller

Publication Year: 2011

Gentlemen and Amazons traces the nineteenth-century genesis and development of an important contemporary myth about human origins: that of an original prehistoric matriarchy. Cynthia Eller explores the intellectual history of the myth, which arose from male scholars who mostly wanted to vindicate the patriarchal family model as a higher stage of human development. Eller tells the stories these men told, analyzes the gendered assumptions they made, and provides the necessary context for understanding how feminists of the 1970s and 1980s embraced as historical "fact" a discredited nineteenth-century idea.

Published by: University of California Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-10


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pp. ix-x

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

I like to tell my daughter that I’ve been working on this book her entire lifetime, and in one sense, that’s true. I’ve paused from this research at numerous points to take on other projects, but the history of matriarchal myth has been the guiding passion of my scholarly work for fourteen years now. ...

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1. The Travels and Travails of Matriarchal Myth

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pp. 1-14

In 2003, Dan Brown became an overnight success and a media sensation with the publication of The Da Vinci Code. The novel is formulaic: a thriller. Before the reader can adjust her chaise longue and slather on her sunscreen, our hero, Dr. Robert Langdon, is falsely accused of a heinous crime at the world-famous Louvre Museum in Paris. ...

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2. Amazons Everywhere: Matriarchal Myth before Bachofen

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pp. 15-35

Prior to the publication of Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht, most of the Western world was convinced that the patriarchal family was the original human society, since it was laid out as such in the book of Genesis.1 Bachofen was the first to offer something very different, a coherent narrative that gave women and goddesses primacy in an early phase of human history ...

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3. On the Launching Pad: J. J. Bachofen and Das Mutterrecht

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pp. 36-64

Bachofen has been described by one of his twentieth-century disciples, Berta Eckstein-Diener, as a “soft, corpulent Basler patrician with a wonderful, half-open child’s mouth [and] over a million Swiss francs, a professor of Roman law with many honorable titles and an almost inconceivable knowledge . . . about the feminine age under the hem of history.”1 ...

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4. The Matriarchal Explosion: Anthropology Finds Mother Right (and Itself )

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pp. 65-99

While Bachofen labored away in relative isolation in Basel, a thriving fraternity of matriarchalists—including some of the most respected scholars of the day—was gathering in England and Scotland. As George Peter Murdock reflected in 1931, “The authorities for many years were all but unanimous in accepting the priority of mother right.”1 ...

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5. Making Matriarchal Myth Work: Communists and Feminists Discover the Mother Age

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pp. 100-132

The political use of matriarchal myth was a natural fit in the wider social context of the late nineteenth century. “The woman question” (die Frauenfrage, in German), as it was typically known in that era, was the focus of intense debate,1 especially as it swept up with it concerns about sexuality that were ultimately to mark the end of the Victorian era. ...

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6. Mother Right on the Continent

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pp. 133-161

At the same time that socialists and first-wave feminists were experimenting with the political uses of matriarchal myth, its popularity within anthropology spread from England to the continent. Anthropologists in continental Europe came to matriarchal myth a bit later and less enthusiastically than the British anthropologists had, ...

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7. Struggling to Stay Alive: Anthropology and Matriarchal Myth

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pp. 162-179

Among all the iterations of matriarchal myth that were narrated in the late nineteenth century, it is the myth’s heyday in Great Britain among the evolutionary anthropologists that most demands explanation. Bachofen, who brought together so many sources in such a unique— not to say quirky—way had an enormous but delayed impact. ...

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8. Matriarchal Myth in the Late Nineteenth Century: Why Then? Why Not Before?

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pp. 180-192

It is a matter of historical record that in the early 1900s, matriarchal myth lost most of the ground it had gained among anthropologists in the late nineteenth century; but what is perhaps more curious is why it ever attained such currency in the first place. As we have seen, this was no marginal or passing fad, but a theory that sprang up in several places virtually at once ...


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pp. 193-246


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pp. 247-264


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pp. 265-275

Production Notes

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pp. 292-292

E-ISBN-13: 9780520948556
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520266766

Page Count: 290
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 759006983
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Gentlemen and Amazons

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Women, Prehistoric.
  • Religion, Prehistoric.
  • Matriarchy.
  • Matrilineal kinship.
  • Patriarchy.
  • Feminist theory.
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