by Jane Clare Jones
Max Dashu founded the Suppressed Histories Archives in 1970 to research and document global women’s history. She built a collection of 15,000 slides and 30,000 digital images, and has created 150 slideshows on female cultural heritages over time. Dashu’s work bridges the gap between academia and grassroots education. It foregrounds Indigenous women passed over by standard histories and highlights female spheres of power retained even in some patriarchal societies. Dashu is internationally known for her expertise on ancient female iconography in world archaeology; female spheres of power and matricultures; patriarchies and allied systems of domination; medicine women, female shamans, witches, and witch hunts. Dashu is author of Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100 (2016) and a new book on women in Hellenic mythography and patriarchy forthcoming in 2022. These books are part of a larger 15-volume series Secret History of the Witches. Dashu has also produced two videos: Woman Shaman: The Ancients (2013) and Women’s Power in Global Perspective (2008).
Jane Clare Jones: So we’re doing this issue on ecology. That’s not the central area of your study, but I’ve wanted to have a reason to talk to you about your work for a long time, because it’s so fascinating. I thought this issue might be a good place to explore your idea of ‘matrix cultures’ and the ‘web of life’ and how non-patriarchal cultures might be more respectful of that. But to start us off, can you just tell the readers a little bit about your background and your work?
Max Dashu: I’ve always been interested in cultural meanings, symbols, what myths carry historical narratives, all these things. I went to college in this very idealistic mode, thinking that unlike my little football town, they care about ideas. And I found out that no, it’s just football by other means. We’re talking about 1968, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University. One of the most sexist academic institutions in the world. Still is. And an intensely competitive prestige culture, governed by this very male dominant narrative, you know — the assumption, first of all, of universal transhistorical patriarchy.
I had an anthropology professor, who brought up matrilineal societies just in order to say, ‘But it doesn’t make any difference, because all human societies are male dominated.’ And I’m just sitting there going, ‘matrilineal societies???’ I had never heard this word mentioned before. But I knew immediately what it meant, and I wanted to know more. I quickly grokked that inside that very hierarchical structure, where you would be graded down for any dissent from the going dogmas, that it wouldn’t be possible to pursue this research. And because of other patriarchal traumas, and the fact that in 1969, everything was blowing up — the anti-war movements and the breakout of feminism and black power — I thought, ‘What am I doing in this ruling class college?’ So I gave up my scholarship, and I hightailed it out of there. But I still had my library card.
I began researching on my own, and I was looking for an answer to the question, ‘Where, if anywhere on this planet, are women free?’ I was looking for history other than what they’ve shoved down our throats. You know, the Greeks and the Romans, the Mesopotamian patriarchs. One of my starting points was to look at archaeology. I had two intuitions. One is that the further back in time you go, it’s possible to find something different — that these accretions of domination have been built up historically. The other thesis was that Indigenous societies may have been organized differently, especially around women’s status. We had learned in anthropology that they were less likely to have class systems. They’re often described as being egalitarian societies. But as far as I could see, that term never was applied to sex, which was really never addressed. They were strictly talking about absence of class systems and state apparatus.
I posited that aboriginal societies might not have those types of power relations, or perhaps a less intense degree of them. We weren’t ever taught about the history of these cultures, growing up in North American settler society; we only learned about the quote unquote, ‘Indian wars,’ which were actually European invasions. It took me well into adulthood to find out that much of North America was matrilineal. The Indigenous models are really important, because they tend to have a much more collective orientation, with caregiving at the community level, where there’s an ethic of value placed on the life support matrix. And that includes nature, that relationship to the entire biosphere. You know, the waters, the forest, and holding all things sacred.
Jane: Yes. This is the kind of thing I wanted to discuss in relation to your idea of the ‘matrix.’ Because that relates to understanding social organization in terms of a network of life-sustaining entities and forces, and also the relationship to the land. If we’re looking at this from a materialist perspective, you have a set of needs which arise from, as Engels would say, ‘the production and reproduction of immediate life.’ And meeting those needs has to be undertaken and organized in some way. There’s an assumption inside patriarchal systems that the only way those needs can be met is in the mode of dominance. That’s why it’s so important to recover other possible modes of social organization.
Max: Yes, exactly. And even the Marxist formulation, ‘reproductive labour.’ It was good, because they’re naming what needs to be named. But I think we need to reconceptualize even those kinds of terms into something more oriented to sustenance. That’s one of the things I was trying to get at with the idea of ‘matrix.’ I have mostly stopped using ‘matrix culture,’ because of the way it got culturally branded by that movie. As we know, men have this power of naming everything, defining everything. And that’s what happened. Some filmmaker took a really key concept for women’s culture, and branded it as totalitarianism, as mind control. Ultimate patriarchal reversal.
[Max begins showing some slides from her presentations]
Anyway, this show has existed in various forms since about 1980. So matrix means ‘womb’ in Latin, also ‘source’ or ‘origin’ — similar to yoni which also means both ‘source’ and ‘womb.’ Matrix comes from mater, ‘mother.’
Jane: Which is also the root of ‘matter.’
Max: Right. Then, by extension, matrix comes to mean a place where something grows or is situated. And ultimately, it becomes a concept in mathematics, which refers to a constellation of interrelationships.
Jane: It takes on the meaning of kind of a web.
Max: Yes, yes. I put this labyrinth icon in the image, because this is a symbol for womb in a lot of cultures, and it indicates that web-like quality also. When I started my research, I wasn’t calling it ‘Suppressed Histories,’ I was calling it ‘Matriarchives.’ I wound up changing it because people kept thinking, ‘It’s only about matriarchy.’ And I was looking at so much more than that. It was about patriarchy; it was about empire, class systems, colonialism, all these issues. So I changed the name in 1976, to widen out the description.
‘Matriarchy’ is such a fraught term. People interpret it as if it were just a mirror image of patriarchy. That’s the big error. It’s not female domination. And that’s why I stopped using the word ‘matriarchy’ somewhere in the mid-70s. Because you just wind up in arguments about terminology and never get to actually talk about the subject. People will say, ‘Well, there are no female-dominated societies.’ And I’d say, ‘That’s right.’ But there are societies which are not male-dominated, and we need a name for them.
Jane: Right. We’re aiming at anti-domination. It’s such a perfect representation of patriarchal logic. Things can only be conceptualized by reversal. There is so much investment in the refusal to conceptualize something that would function according to a different logic, a totally different paradigm. Inside the logic the two sides are actually just part of the same thing. There’s just one thing and the projection. And then people just flip backwards and forwards and you’re like, ‘No, could we just get outside of this entire paradigm and just do this completely differently?’
Max: If I had $100 for every time I’ve said, ‘matriarchy is not the mirror image of patriarchy.’
Jane: But the whole of patriarchy is a hall of mirrors, right? And they can only think in terms of mirror images.
Max: Speaking of binaries.
Jane: Right. Exactly.
Max: Exactly. And we do have societies in which women are equal, although I don’t want to put it that way. But egalitarian societies in which women have governance and authority. Not to the exclusion of men, but in a cooperative mode. And governance in proportion to the amount of labour they’re actually doing. Those societies exist, have existed, but we don’t have a word for them, because ‘matriarchy’ has already been taken out, by defining it as female domination. Anyway, I started using ‘mother-right.’ I like this term. Right as in women’s rights, also rights of the mother as well as rights and identity derived from the mother. And, in many European languages ‘right’ also has to do with law.
There are various concepts women have used to name this. ‘Gylany’ is Riane Eisler’s term.1 ‘Gynarchy,’ I think that was Paula Gunn Allen’s formulation. ‘Matristic’ was what Marija Gimbutas came around to using, with that same intention of bypassing the deliberate misunderstanding of matriarchy. Then I came up with this concept of ‘matrix cultures,’ based on this idea of the web of life and the ultimate value being the sustenance of life. And cooperation of human communities in relationship to each other, and to life, to the Earth.
Jane: I really like it.
Max: I like it too. But it has to be explained because people don’t understand the meaning of ‘matrix,’ but tend to think of the movie The Matrix. Then this last term, ‘matricultures,’ is something that Indigenous feminists in Canada came up with, as a description for their own societies. I liked it a lot because it doesn’t cause that reactivity that immediately derails the discussion. And I think ‘matriarchy’ is also a more narrowly defined category, which we do need a word for. This is what I’m about to come to, ‘matrilineal,’ ‘matrilocal,’ all these aspects of matriarchy. But ‘matriculture’ shows us more of a spectrum, a set of historical transformations, because a lot of societies on the planet are not fully patriarchal. Even now, there are elements of matriculture that women keep alive, and sometimes men participate in too, whether it’s goddess traditions, or certain kinds of ceremonies, even social customs. I think that a multiplicity of concepts is desirable, because there’s a range of situations to describe.
This is a flyer for the slideshow from about 20 years ago, where I’m calling it ‘mother-right.’ Mother-right societies centre women as the ones who bear children, through matrilineage and matrilocal residence — which means that men come to live with their female partner and her family. The social bond is kinship through the motherline. The primary relationship is not husband/wife, but sister-brother. The patriarchal marriage tie is a legal artifice which disadvantages women in all kinds of ways. It is full-on oppressive, locking women in, and yet also unstable and fragile, as we see in modern societies.
In the matricultures, there can be no illegitimate children. The sexual double standard doesn’t exist, because there’s no need to control paternity, as a patrilineal system does. And women and children are not being rendered homeless by divorce or abuse. They stay with their mother-kin. Matrilocality also gives protection against violence because the woman’s kin are around, and a husband can’t beat her up or otherwise abuse her. Mother-right also allows for ‘social motherhood,’ collective assumption of responsibility for the young and very old, for anyone who needs special care. In Western civilization, women are often impregnated not by their plan — whether they’re raped, or wind up having children before they wanted to, or when they didn’t want to — and that constrains their possibilities in all kinds of ways. And they are alone in the nuclear family. Or they become single mothers. Maybe he sticks around for a couple years, and then he’s gone. And now she’s in poverty with all these children.
In a social motherhood system, you have an entire generation, actually tiers of generations, that are caring for that child. You have societies where all of the women of the mother’s generations are called Auntie and are even regarded as mothers, addressed as mothers. And the brothers are responsible as well, particularly in matrilineal societies; it’s the mother’s brother who takes much of the role that we think of as ‘father.’ Social motherhood is a built-in support system, putting women and their life-giving power at the centre of the life support network.
Jane: This is the mistake Firestone makes where she equates the biological family with the patriarchal family, and makes biological reproduction the problem …
Max: I’m glad you mentioned that, because yes, the body is not the problem. And artificial wombs and technological gestation are certainly not the solution.
Jane: The body is not the problem. The problem is … and this is also why I get so annoyed with transactivists … because we have to organize reproduction in some way. We’re animals, we have to reproduce, and there are more or less just or equitable ways to organize reproduction so that women are supported, the labour is distributed, and women are not alienated and exploited. And we have to think about that …
Max: Right. Women are bearing a massive load, and nobody wants to even look at
it, or think about how it might be organized fairly, so that it isn’t so arduous and alienating and exploitative. Social motherhood means shared caregiving and cooperation. The kin shares resources. Non-aggression is also really important. And this is not necessarily only matrilineal societies, because it’s also true in a lot of foraging societies — which tend to be bilateral. They have very strong enforcements against aggression.
Jane: Peggy Sanday has done work on this, right?
Max: Yeah. She’s done a lot of measuring of different indicators. Particularly on the correlation between rape and male dominance. And Barbara Alice Mann talks a lot about the massive stigmatization of rape in native North American societies. They didn’t have prisons, but they would throw rapists out. They’d be cut off. They don’t have kin anymore, and that was a very serious thing. They became a lone wolf out there, where anything can happen.
In matricultures you also have female elders and ceremonial leaders, women’s spiritual leadership, the female shaman and the medicine woman, but not exclusively. Again, women are not dominating men. There are also men’s councils, and men’s priesthoods. There are also quite relaxed gender roles. And this includes gender-variant categories, but in a very different mode than what we have seen during the backlash. What’s important to note about this, in all cases that I’m aware of, is that they do not use the same word for women and transwomen. A lot of the names mean something like: ‘wants to be like a woman,’ ‘dresses like a woman,’ ‘woman-man,’ a lot of different terms that recognize the reality of the sexed body while acknowledging gender variance. So I think there are ways out of the head-banging around this issue, but not at the expense of erasing sex, or the oppression of women, or the authority of women to define, and to decide ‘these are our peers,’ or not.
So, as we already discussed, matricultural patterns include an absence of sexual stigma, especially the sexual double standard, virginity, illegitimacy — all that stuff. Easy divorce. No social penalties on that. And really, everybody is happier. And then finally, prestige, not from accumulation of wealth, but in a lot of matrilineal societies, prestige from generosity and service. So there’s a gift economy aspect.
Jane: This is fascinating. I was wondering, to tie things back to the theme of this issue, if you could tell us something about these matricultural societies, and how those structures relate to the means of subsistence. I’m thinking here about Gerda Lerner’s argument, and the idea that the development of patriarchy is impacted by the transition to agriculture.
Max: There’s a range of ways that can play out. Patriarchy is a historical process, and this gets us down to real basics. There is no single cause for patriarchy. There’s no single chronology for patriarchy. It varies really widely geographically, depending on which people you’re talking about, and occurs in different timeframes. What happened in Mesopotamia at the end of the fourth millennium BCE has an entirely different chronology to lowland South America. It’s complicated. One of the mistakes that feminists and non-feminists have made is an attempt to boil this all down to a single narrative. Richard Leakey was saying: it’s foraging societies, where male hunters brought in the food and they had control, where patriarchy prevailed; and then women’s status improved with agriculture. Contrariwise, you have the more prevalent theory now, which is that agriculture caused patriarchy. And this is linked to ideas which have some merit, about accumulation, and storage of goods and inheritance of goods and control of inheritance and wealth. But there is a big difference between horticultural or garden societies, which most matrilineal societies have been, and plough agriculture in feudal or imperial societies.
However, that’s been complicated very recently by the discovery, for example, at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, of a foraging society which created megalithic architecture. Also, the societies of Western Canada, on the eastern coast of the Pacific: they had a foraging economy that enjoyed great abundance, and so they do evolve class systems, slavery, big chiefdoms. So we cannot posit any single cause, or kind of economic system, and say, ‘that’s where patriarchy began.’ We’re going to have to look at patterns and correlations a lot more than many people have been willing to do.
Jane: But it sounds like from what you’re saying that accumulation or abundance is one of the correlations.
Max: Yes. That is because, and I think this is really the most critical element when we’re talking about patriarchy, it is certainly correlated with class domination systems. For example, the Roman patricians — ‘those of the fathers’ — as opposed to the plebeians — ‘those of the people.’ There was a saying that patricians know their fathers, and plebians don’t. These patterns of patriarchy are class related, and we can document many instances of that.
Jane: So there’s that relationship between patrilineal inheritance and accumulation, that repeats, and accumulation turns into class systems.
Max: Yeah. Because they solidify, they calcify. Groups that were one people become separated out in classes. But here’s the key point. Patriarchy is the colonization of women’s bodies. It is male sexual access. It is control of women’s procreative power. It’s sex and birth being hemmed in by male control. I’m not saying only men here because some women will participate in that, in the patriarchal family. They’re not advantaged by it in the ways that men are, but they get cookies, so to speak, for colluding with it.
There’s four key elements to patriarchy. The first three are sexual control, control of women’s procreative power, and exploitation of women’s labour. It’s not meaningful to talk about ‘unpaid labour’ in pre-capitalist societies, but there is definitely a relationship between the work that women do, the amount of responsibility women shoulder, and whether or not that translates into having a social say, into decision-making power, into public authority — or not. The fourth element — and we are very familiar with this, in our current situation — is the psychic colonization of women. The internal mental induction of women into patriarchal behaviours and allegiances, by means of culture, whether that’s romance novels, magazines, or religious dogma, you name it. Women police themselves and each other.
But it’s really important to understand that the development of patriarchy is not an immediate, one-time event, but rather a long-range trend, unfolding over millennia, depending on where you are. In the 70s a lot of the talk was about conquest by patriarchal invaders. And that’s one way it can happen. Sometimes, conquest is a direct means of patriarchalization which happens in a relatively rapid manner. That’s what happened to a lot of the North American mother-right societies, which were overrun by Europeans.
And this brings us back to the theory about agriculture. You have to be clear whether you are talking about plough agriculture, and peasant societies under the control of lords, or the priestly hierarchies out of the temples in southern Iraq, or similar extractive ways of relating to the land and labour. Because a lot of the Indigenous North American cultures were gardening on a considerable scale, and, importantly, women controlled the food supply. They were raising the corn, squash and beans, and they had these massive storage setups, and ways of drying and preserving. But then the men go out and hunt. They had deer parks, created by controlled burns. It’s not wilderness. It’s a managed ecosystem, with what early settlers described as almost tame deer. And once those men hunt the deer, the elk, or whatever, it’s the women who go out and bring the deer in. They process it, they butcher the meat, they prepare the hides, you know, they famously use all parts of the animal. But one of the key points that some Native women writers lay out is that, from that point on, the women controlled the distribution of meat.
And then there’s this massive technological expertise that women evolved, contra the idea that technology is male. Archaeologists have been obsessed with massive tables classifying different types of spear or arrow points. And there’s something to the classification. It helps to show shifts over time periods or cultural differences. But until recently there has been very little attention given to what women were doing. Some of the early female scholars were looking at women’s invention of netting or cordage for carrying devices, because they were the ones that were carrying the food and children. There’s something I call ‘mother tech,’ which includes not only farming but the biochemical technologies of food preparation and storing: smoking, salting, drying, fermenting, brewing, leavening, the making of butter, yoghurt and cheese, all of that. Also, weaving, ceramics, housebuilding. We think of architecture as a male sphere. But over much of the world, architecture was a female sphere. Even to the point where, when the Spanish arrived in New Mexico, and they start commandeering the men to build a mission church, everybody is standing around laughing, because whoever has heard of men building with adobe bricks!
This is the problem, if we get really lost in the theoretical and the long-range theory about causative factors: actually our ability to perceive the reality is down in the details. You have to go local, you have to find this particular place, this particular native society in Southeast Asia or wherever, and find out how they do it. You cannot theorize it without studying it at that level of detail. And that’s why what I do is provisional. Some of the things I intuited were true and right, and other times I had to modify my initial ideas about them. Because when you get closer to authentic aboriginal testimony, and descriptions of societies that we are normally not exposed to at all, you begin to see how things actually worked.
For example, in south-eastern Africa, in Malawi and some other places, you have the maternal line, women are at the centre of things. Most of the brothers marry out. But there’s also an important role for one of the brothers. They will pick which brother they want to rely on. They have a male agent, a male executor, and he may go other places and carry out what women are saying they want done. This has also been extensively described for the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations of the Iroquois. Then when the Europeans arrive, they think he’s the boss. They conclude, ‘Well, the chief, he’s the big man, he’s the power,’ and then they’re astonished because, they thought he’s the one with all this wealth, but he’s giving it away. They don’t understand that’s integral to the role, because in that particular society the prestige is in the giveaway. And he’s kind of an admin that distributes collective wealth to the ones who are without, who are in want. But not without input from the Council of Women Elders or the Men’s Council. There are these interlocking directorates, these circles of decision-making. They will hold council about what is needed; if there’s a crisis, what do we do about it?
Jane: And this thing about the interlocking systems or circles brings us back to something I’d like us to unpack a little bit more, which is this idea of the web, and why you think that’s important for describing these cultures. Because there’s something very evocative about that. And it captures something that’s very different from a hierarchical system.
Max: Or a mechanistic one.
Jane: Yeah, it connotes a lot of things that I find very resonant. I was just wondering if you could talk more to us about that …
Max: Peggy Sanday was really struck by the Minangkabau [from West Sumatra, Indonesia] saying, ‘Growth in nature is our teacher.’ And that’s magnificent. It’s so meaningful, because really, in my own life, this has been how I have been able to heal and deal with difficult situations. Just through the wisdom of nature, relating to what is ultimately real and not man-made, observation of natural patterns. Even in linguistics, we use the metaphor of the tree. And the net, or the web, is a big one. Not all societies are weaving societies, although most will have some form of basketry or netting. There are all these ways of using these metaphorically. There’s this really beautiful book, Hilando al norte, about Indigenous Mexican philosophy — not the Aztecs, but other Mexican peoples further west.2 It looks at the interlinking between weaving, the fibres of being, creation, pathways, strands, threads — and the way that all of those things in turn form a matrix. A resonant web. It’s like the spider’s web, the spider perceives vibration. That’s how they know something landed in their net.
All these concepts have to do with energy and are full of animacy. I don’t know if you’ve come across this term. There’s this Potawatomi botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer, I’d call her a philosopher, and she has this great discourse about ‘the grammar of animacy.’ Anthropology came up with the term ‘animism,’ which comes from the Latin word for ‘spirit.’ But its usage became highly objectifying and rigid. It’s been used in very condescending ways to objectify native philosophies, and it came into disrepute for that reason. I loved what the term was trying to name, but I realized I had to stop using it because it was just tainted. What Kimmerer did is took this term and wrapped it around in a new way, because Potawatomi — and a lot of not just native North American, but world languages — are what are called agglutinative languages, or synthetic languages. They are verb-based, process-oriented, with complex possibilities of indicating relationship and movement. In synthetic languages, the verb is the sentence stem, and is modified in all kinds of ways: by number, direction, intention, speed. There are many possible modifiers — prefixes, infixes, and suffixes — and that verb can become a whole sentence, and usually does. And this is what’s so philosophically meaningful about it. It’s hard for us to understand because we’re used to ‘subject verb object,’ to the much more objectifying quality of Indo-European languages.
I’m very interested in language as a conceptual matrix. I was going to be a linguistics major in college. I’m interested in how language itself is a philosophical framework through which we view the world. When Kimmerer talks about the ‘grammar of animacy,’ what she’s saying is: ‘Our language is based on a worldview of the verb, everything is a process, everything is an action, all things are beings, everything is full of vital force and consciousness.’ So even the stone has a vital power to it. You know, if you lie on rocks in the mountains, and you’re feeling it, breathing it in, and you reorient to a natural energetic pattern, you’re relieved from your suffering. There’s something real there, that heals you in some way.
Going back to the web … this is something that came up a lot in my research on witches. I begin Witches and Pagans with the web.3 The first chapter is called ‘The Webs of Wyrd.’ It’s about the Three Fates and all the different names for them in various ethnic traditions, and the idea of spinning the fibres of being, as the act of creating a life, the pattern of destiny that will unfold in the life. So, there’s both spinning and weaving. The weaving could be the whole web of all these lives and the way that they interact, as well as the fact that what happens in the past doesn’t absolutely determine the future, but it certainly impacts it.
Jane: So it’s temporal and spatial. The web is in time and in space.
Max: Yeah, absolutely. It’s an important metaphor, which extends in many different directions culturally. Just dealing with the Indo-European cultures, we don’t even realize that the word ‘text’ has to do with weaving, with textiles. And the tissues of our body: ‘tissue’ is a cloth, from French tissu, and we speak of bodily tissues, because our bodies are woven, they grow from interwoven fibres, bones and muscles and nerves. These metaphors also play out in South Asia, where sutra means thread. Or the Greek rhapsodies: “songs sewn together.” In the Mexican instance, this metaphor of weaving is meaningful for life, the progress of energy, the development of events, the growth of living beings. There are just all kinds of different ways this gets extrapolated as metaphors for reality. And for process.
Jane: So it works as a metaphor for process, and also for interconnection, for relation.
Max: Right. So that first chapter in my book Witches and Pagans talks about the mythic aspects, and the various forms of The Fates in all these different cultures. And then I go into witchcraft. The etymology of witch hasn’t really ever been settled. One possibility is wych, a sort of animacy root, of that which is living (latin vicus, and the same root in English place names Sandwich, Warwick). Another one has to do with twisting, turning or bending, like wicker-work, and more of a spinning metaphor. But the wycce is kind of like a human manifestation of The Fates. She can manifest through breath and incantation, but also spinning and ceremony. She can affect reality, she can cause changes in the way that things unfold. This varies widely, but this is a global shamanic pattern. Working with animacy, the world as a resonant sphere. And the idea that everything is conscious and in relationship.
I started working on this book in 1978, and it took until 2016 to actually get it out. Toward the end of writing it, I discovered one last keystone piece. I had been tracking the vǫlur, which is the name for female seers in the Scandinavian world, literally ‘staff women.’ And I was staying at Joan Marler’s house, who has part of Marija Gimbutas’s library. This wasn’t one of her books, but there was this thick Cambridge or Oxford Encyclopaedia of Archaeology. I stayed up half the night looking at this huge doorstop of a tome. There was one article on the vǫlur showing that these priestesses were buried with magical staffs, which I eventually discovered took the form of distaffs. [Author’s Note: A distaff is a stick used to hold flax or other fibre to draw down in spinning. It then comes to be associated with women and women’s work, and was used to describe the female line of genealogical descent, the ‘distaff side.’]
I started researching these vǫlr staffs, also called sei∂stafr (trance-staffs). They have a very strange shape — long metal rods that balloon out into curved spokes near the top. I couldn’t figure out what this strange formation meant, until a Norwegian archaeologist provided the missing piece: they are shaped like distaffs. The ceremonial wand of the Norse seeresses took the form of the spinner’s distaff. The curved spokes are the part around which they would wrap the combed-out flax or the wool, and then they would pull it down and start spinning from the distaff. So, the trance priestess — who was the most prestigious spiritual leader in the Scandinavian world — is using a wand in the shape of the spinner’s staff, and spinning is a central metaphor for witchcraft. That blew my socks off. And you know, we’re talking about Vikings here. Even in this very violent, slaving, class-stratified patriarchal society, these female spheres of power survived. Some less, some greater, but in both Europe and some parts of Africa, you have the persistence of female spheres of power in the spiritual realm, even in patriarchal societies.
Jane: The last thing I want to ask you about is your relationship to the academy, how your work has been received, and how that all relates to the current backlash.
Max: Well, I bailed in 1969. I saw it. I knew I wasn’t going to survive intact if I had to go through that programme. I was very defiant. I’m just going to boldly go where they won’t let any woman go, and centre women. I didn’t really decide to start an archive. It just happened in the process of research and assembling evidence (because I knew I would have to document everything) and it grew. Very early on I began to assemble a collection of images, non-literate testimony, a different kind of cultural record than historical literature, alongside that.
In the 80s, I started getting nervous, because feminism was becoming professionalized and over time, we lost some of the vibrant culture, free schools and all the breakaway activities that feminists had been doing. There were fewer places to do my work, as the centre of gravity began to move to the academy. I got a modem, got on the women’s studies listserv. I watched all this happen — the rise of postmodernism, of queer theory — and tracked the way the discourse changed to de-centre women once again. In the early 80s, I managed to fight my way back into academia, by doing visual presentations at the women’s centres, which were much more activist than the formal Women’s Studies programmes. It was hard, because I had no degrees or traditional backing — except that, you know, I had the goods.
Jane: Yeah, you do.
Max: I went to Northwestern University six times, they had me back at MIT a couple times. I would travel and do the presentations, and then I would come home and resume my cleaning jobs, my eldercare work. I was being stretched psychically between these extremes. Being a working-class woman scrambling for a livelihood, and an independent scholar outside the academy. Things really got dire after 2000, because Women’s Studies was in the process of transmogrifying into Gender Studies. Some of the early expungements were going on. And by about 2004, the portcullis descended, and I was no longer able to get university bookings. It all dried up.
Women’s Studies was a new field, created by insurgent feminists. The first decade was really about rediscovering women’s voices, women’s testimony, women’s literature, and history. It centred women analysing our realities. But in the 80s, there came the ‘linguistic turn,’ as they call it, toward post-structuralist high theory that recentred prestigious male theorists over women’s ideas growing out of our experience.
At this point, you start to see a lot of talk about ‘biological essentialism.’ The problem with this is that it wilfully misinterpreted feminist analysis of structural material oppression under patriarchy and labelled it as ‘biological essentialism.’ We weren’t being essentialist. We were analysing patriarchy, which demands that women be defined by their sex as an object of exploitation, to be instrumentalized for the purposes of dominant groups in society … men, the upper classes, the capitalist, the slavers, whoever. We were describing oppression on the basis of sex, and the behavioural patterns that have been encoded in culture, that enable hierarchy and domination and exploitation. But they didn’t want to look at that part, the material oppression of women. Everything had to just stay safely in the realm of theory.
And then you have the rise of queer theory. Mostly gay men who were not enamoured of feminism and wanted that high theory — you know, the prestige culture of academia can never be discounted in this whole unfolding. Of course, Foucault was right at the forefront of that. Foucault, who wanted to talk about ‘disciplining’ and repression and authoritarianism during the period of the witch hunts — without ever addressing them. And this development was horrifying to a lot of us because we were trying to build a new framework of analysis for the entire cultural record, and what happens to women inside of that, and an analysis of power relations. And all of a sudden, by the time we get to Butler, it’s all about ‘performativity.’ Power is power, and it’s not oppression on the basis of sex, it’s not racialized caste, it’s not colonialism. According to this ideology, power cannot ever be overthrown, only satirized.
Jane: And then we actually return to just another iteration of where we started, with your Harvard anthropology professor telling you in 1968 that there’s only male dominance, that there is no other way.
Max: Exactly. And it’s just not true. There is.
1 Riane Eisler, The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1987).
2 Hilando al norte: Nudos, redes, vestidos, textiles, ed. by Arturo Gutiérrez del Ángel (Mexico: El Colegio de San Luis, 2012).
3 Max Dashu, Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100 (Veleda Press, 2016).