The richness and complexity of women’s history: the artist-philosophers who created magnificent scriptures of signs in neolithic ceramics, the python-oracles of southeast African rain shrines, the female clan heads of the Mosuo in Yunnan. Legends tell of women who invented agriculture, who founded peoples, cities, or religions. Rebel priestesses like Muhumusa in Uganda or Veleda in the Batavian uprising against Rome or the Tongva shaman Toypurina where Los Angeles now stands. Nonconformist poets like Walada bint-al-Mustakfi in Spain or Akka Mahadevi in south India: women who defied the rules of patriarchy and empire, courageous clan mothers, women who dared to love women, feminist and labor organizers, indigenous sovereignty activists, freethinkers and mystics.
We’re seeking out strategic knowledge, what Gloria Anzaldúa called conocimiento, “a little serpent for counter-knowledge.” History can empower — finally, after centuries and millenia of patriarchal and colonial manipulation to prop up power structures and burnish dynastic pedigrees. It contains what the powers-that-be never intended us to discover. “Subjugated knowledges,” in the words of Maori thinker Linda Smith. We are decoding the written record, pulling aside its systematic bias to see what patterns reveal themselves.
None of this means taking a romanticized or oversimplified view. We’ve been told for so long, countless times, that women are inferior, that men have always dominated, that whites are superior, that Africans are lesser, “underdeveloped,” lacking in “real” history; that aboriginal religions are invalid, their sciences insignificant, and their historical orature irrelevant. A shift in thinking is right and necessary, and in recent decades scholars have been running to catch up to the realities, the obscured achievements, and the chronologies that go back much further than the old “experts” thought. Now coming into wider view are the strengths of all those interlocking groups and categories, their achievements and beauties, in spite of the ways they’ve been oppressed and kept down.
Reweave the connections: map the pre-conquest American Indian countries (yes, countries, think about that) and the vast tracts of Asia that are left out of history texts. The gender-egalitarian matrilineages of the Vietnam highlands and Cambodian lowlands, with their longhouses and female courtship customs. The African chronologies, religons, and archaeology; the syllabaries of Ethiopia and Meroë, Vai and Malinke; the architecture of the Sahel and Old Zimbabwe; the impressive female megaliths of Ethiopia which are missing from virtually all books on African history, archaeology, or art.
Take into account the sea links across the Indian Ocean, and across the Pacific, bringing Asian chickens to Chile in the 1300s. (See “Radiocarbon and DNA Evidence for Pre-Colombian Introduction of Polynesian Chickens to Chile,” 2007.) Bring forward connections that only archaeological specialists know about, like those between Ecuador and western Mexico. Know that the Chumash plank canoes have Pacific Island prototypes, and are called by a name derived from Polynesian languages. (“Diffusionism Reconsidered: Linguistic and Archaelogical Evidence for Prehistoric Polynesian Contact with Southern California,” 2005.)
DNA researchers of human origins and migrations are now talking about “cryptic population histories.” One of the oldest is the first African diaspora, over 50,000 years ago, whose short-statured Black descendants are scattered from Oman to southern Thailand to the Philippines, and across various Indonesian and Melanesian islands. Linguistic keys point to ancient kindreds between Florida and Veracruz, between North and South American peoples. So much we are only beginning to learn—and what will the aboriginal histories add to all this? They are so rich in female founders, in truly democratic polities and spiritual philosophies.
So we reconfigure to an international perspective, toward chronologies not generated by empire-builders, but revealed in a dawning awareness of Brazilian earthworks and canals, East African and Pilipino land-terracing; megalithic statues of Sumatra and Sulawesi, France and Portugal, Ethiopia and Colombia; Mississippian mound temples, trade networks, and inscribed tablets, Moroccan stone circles, and those really ancient connections between the Saharan river peoples and the Khartoum neolithic. The breathtaking ceramics, so many millenia ago, of Moravia (Czech Republic), of the Amur river valley in Manchuria, of medieval Arkansas and Tennessee, New Mexico and Arizona.
This kind of history takes into account the great religious movement of Isis veneration, that spread from Egypt to Sudan and across the Mediterranean to Lebanon, Greece, Italy, Tunisia, Sardinia, Spain; to Britain, Germany, Hungary, and from Syria and Iraq unto Kazakhstan. This transnational religion overcame Roman state persecution, was a major competitor of early Christianity, and made its last stand on the sands of Nubia, when the Beja fought Byzantine armies sent to crush all other religions than the one decreed by latter-day Roman emperors.
What happened in Europe? patriarchy, yes, empire and feudalism. But also the internal colonization of its ethnic cultures, destroying aboriginal ways, suppression of the priestess, shaman, diviner, of the drum, sweatlodge, sacramental dance. The totalitarian union of church and state, begun under the late Roman empire, expanded across the continent over centuries. Judicial torture was adopted from Roman law, and used to inculcate diabolist ideology (“Diana is the devil,” and all other non-Christian deities got the same treatment). This spilled out far-reaching effects on cultural attitudes toward women, sexuality, peoples of color, and non-christians, from Jews and Romany to Indigenous peoples in the path of European empire. Even after centuries of witch hunts, some local, marginalized cultures managed to preserve some of the ancient traditions. The long-reviled and devalued female powers are now being recovered and restored.
If we can name something, it becomes possible. The medieval Spanish spoke of convivencia: the ability of different cultures to live together. They succeeded rather well, for a time, producing a blend of Iberian and Moorish and Visigothic culture, of Catholic, Muslim and Jew, with a old Pagan admixture. Then the Reconquista polarized all these identities, and the Spanish Inquisition arose with along with the racist code of limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”). They propelled expulsions of Jews and Moors, forced hundreds of thousands to convert, and persecuted their descendants with fire and iron, locking down the peninsula and its colonies for centuries.
We need to understand patterns of social control. Totalitarian doctrines brook no questioning, no challenges, driven by what
Diana Eck calls “imperial certainty.” We can also name this “patriarchal absolutism,” with women only as a backdrop, invisible sustainers with duties but few rights, in ranked societies that put property before people, and enforce domination with violence, open and covert. Humans caught in these systems must step carefully, negotiating under pressure for even small shifts in constrained circumstances.
Time to stop looking past the crushing confinement of females in so many societies: “For after obedience, poverty, and pure chastity, you have holy enclosure to hold on to, enclosure in which you can live for forty years either more or less, and in which you will die. You are, therefore, already now in your sepulchre of stone, that is, your vowed enclosure.” –Testament of Saint Colette (addresssed to early modern Italian nuns) Or the Afghan Shi’a jurists’ pronouncement in 2009 that women had two rights: to obey their husbands and to pray, but not in the mosques. The repression of women as women would fill books: too many instances to list now, but you can read more here.
To talk about patriarchies means confronting a powerful social taboo charged with tremendous amounts of fear, anger and denial. These systems of domination are based on violence and pervasive coercion which are, literally, unspeakable. In my lifetime I’ve watched women rise to courageously name the injustices, and also witnessed a falling away in times of backlash, divisions, diversions and dissimulations. It’s crucial for us to undo the cultural spells that decree who women must be. They have seduced so many into settling for the false, subordinated identities peddled by the consumerist mass media spectacles. The real spectrum of female humanity is far greater, full of valor, creativity, inventiveness, daring, and generosity.
Silencing is fully active for the dire realities of genocide, colonization, and destruction of culture. Not just in a willfully-forgotten history that
talks about “vanishing” peoples, but in the ongoing Now of land seizure, logged forests, dams, poisoned watersheds, toxic mines and oil-drilling; of indigenous refugees forced into urban slums, where they join other peoples trapped in the racial caste system that is the legacy of enslavement, conquest, and empire. Many of them make long journeys in a desperate struggle to survive, and become peons-without-papers laboring in the industrial farms that feed the empire. The corporate maw chews up workers to feed the voracious mass-market of manufactured desire, and tosses them away when their bodies are broken, or in order to relocate to countries where labor is even cheaper, places with regimented factories whose workers are housed in barracks. And the women working for bare-survival wages in these places raped, sexually harassed, stalked as they make their way home, and sometimes murdered, like the maquiladora workers in the femicide capital of the borderlands, Juárez. In the US territory of Saipan, companies tied to anti-abortion extremists back in the USA even force women workers to have abortions. (It’s true: search for “forced mandatory abortions” on this page.)
We need to understand that overturning these structures of domination is an act of love. That they go to the very heart of the disorder, which now endangers human survival and the world itself. The Big-Man hierarchy of force, exploitation and accumulation has allowed the worst to take charge (or to force the hand of those who know better). Look where it’s gotten us.
Time to move away from maladaptive fixations and refocus on what is good, what will help. Divide and conquer has stopped people from understanding how the systems of domination intertwine. Playing off one liberation against others has created conflict, what Rachel Bagby called “ism schisms,” and has prevented solutions. There are other options, other ways to live. That’s not “utopianism,” it’s the historical reality.