Who Are These Women?

Austria, 25,000 BCEAlong the ramparts of the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art, there is a small exhibition of ancient female figurines, among them the oldest sculpture in the museum’s collection. What strange forms! Where are the supermodels, where are the Barbie dolls?

At the confluence of second-wave feminism and post-Freudian psychohistory, the mid-twentieth century saw a great burst of scholarship on images like these: the Great Mothers, the goddesses of wisdom and guile, the powerful matriarchs. These, the story goes, fell victim to the patriarchy of monotheistic religion (particularly Nicene Christianity) and were lost to the West, the lands of chivalrous knights, repressed popes, and femininity enslaved.

Egypt, 3650-3300 BCEThrough these figures, feminism found a prehistory. Its radical critique became more conservative than thou, a calling-back to those enigmatic epochs from which the stone and clay fragments came. The future no longer needed to be conjured out of thin air, for now feminism had a past to ground its future.

But who are these women? Do we know them, really? Are the psychohistorians correct?Northern Iran, 1st millennium BCE Scholarly whims can always change their tune—and in this case, often they did. Upon such rocks the future might be betrayed as well as built. Wouldn’t it be safer to make our revolutions ex nihilo, out of certainties in our hearts, rather than the vagaries of artifacts?

Eve ate of the apple and shared it with Adam, the apple that gave them knowledge of good and evil. Before you ask, Why Eve? (that important feminist question) ask, Why the apple? An apple isn’t some ancient flash drive upon which data might be stored. It contains no knowledge. Its contents download to the digestive system and only reach the brain when thoroughly rendered. Why, again, like the figurines, the object? Why are we so unable to conceive of new futures without entrusting ourselves to objects?

The objects, after all, have a life of their own.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.