For Document, the two authors meet to discuss the role of law in shaping society, the allure of prehistory, and how to adopt new modes of thinking
Riane Eisler was born in 1931 in Vienna, Austria. In 1939, she and her parents fled the Nazi invasion of their country. They went to Havana, Cuba, where they lived in an industrial slum for seven years before moving to the US and settling in Los Angeles. Eisler married, had two daughters, earned a law degree from UCLA, divorced, practiced family law, and then wrote or co-wrote thirteen books. She is the president of the Center For Partnership Systems, and the editor in chief of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies.
Her most influential book, The Chalice and the Blade, published in 1987, has sold over half a million copies and been translated into 27 languages. I read it in 2014 and found it revelatory and amazing. A holistic study of human history, it took into account important aspects that are normally, in our global dominator society, ignored: women and prehistory. Eisler shared evidence from archaeology, mythology, art, religion, and sculpture that strongly suggested that humans lived in relative peace and harmony, with gender-and-class equality, worshiping nature as a female deity, until only around 6,500 years ago. It was then, according to archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and other researchers, that dominator culture took over, spreading west and south from Eastern Europe, eventually conquering most of the planet.
Besides teaching a fuller version of history, The Chalice and the Blade also introduced Eisler’s Cultural Transformation theory, which proposed that the two underlying models of society are not capitalist and communist, religious and secular, or right and left, but “partnership” and “dominator.” Dominator societies—popularly called authoritarian and patriarchies or matriarchies—are characterized by sexism, which leads to other inequalities, chronic war, nature-destroying habits, the devaluing of caring work, and other dysfunctions. Partnership societies, by valuing diversity, instead of ranking it, feature equality across all differences, from sex and gender to age, race, and appearance, leading to peace and veneration of nature.
After reading The Chalice and the Blade, I read Eisler’s sources—Marija Gimbutas, James Mellaart, Merlin Stone, others—and began to use her terms in my writing, including, eventually, in my books Trip and Leave Society. This year, soon after Leave Society came out, Eisler saw an interview with me in the Los Angeles Review of Books in which I discussed her work. She contacted me by email. I was very surprised. I offered to send her my novel, and, again to my surprise, she read the whole thing and then proposed we speak on a video call. I agreed. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Tao Lin: Your late age in publishing seems inspiring. How old were you when you published your first book, Dissolution?
Riane Eisler: That was in ’77, so let’s do the quick math: I was in my mid 40s. The subtitle was ‘Marriage, Divorce, and the Future of Women.’ It was about no-fault divorce. It drew from my experiences as an attorney, specifically as a divorce attorney at that time. I founded the first women’s center in Los Angeles [in 1969], as you probably know. And then I founded The Los Angeles Center Women’s Legal Program, which was the first legal program in the United States focusing on women and the law. People at that time said, ‘What do you mean by women and the law?’ We had taken it so for granted—the discrimination against women. That book basically came out of my experiences.
Tao: What was something the Legal Program did?
Riane: We wrote a brief to the Supreme Court, arguing the then-radical idea that women should be considered persons under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. We also provided free legal advice on family law to poor women.
Dissolution discusses what happened with no-fault divorce law [which states that the dissolution of a marriage does not require a showing of wrongdoing by either party]. A very good law—doing away with the fictions about infidelity and so on—except for one problem: it had the result, as I predicted, of what later became known as the feminization of poverty. What happened is that a lot of middle class women and their children dropped into poverty, because that law no longer punished, so to speak.
Tao: Before no-fault divorce, which began to be adopted in the US in 1969, there was a ‘guilty’ person in each divorce, and that person, usually the man, had to pay alimony and child support.
Riane: Yes. Instead of considering the contribution that a wife made and the importance of the man also caring for children, no-fault divorce simply got rid of punishments. It was domination model. But with the punishment gone, and the expectation that care work should be done for free by a woman in a male-controlled household, women and children got almost nothing.
So women and children dropped into poverty; men’s incomes stayed the same, or even rose. It’s a very fair law, but unfortunately it’s not an even playing field. I realized that women and children were going to be at a terrible disadvantage because no provision is made for rewarding the work of care.
“I realized that women and children were going to be at a terrible disadvantage because no provision is made for rewarding the work of care.”
Tao: When did your second book, The Equal Rights Handbook, come out?
Riane: In ’79. It also [arose] out of my legal background, and was the only mass paperback on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, but it was too little too late [because the amendment didn’t pass].
Tao: Your third book, The Chalice and the Blade, came eight years after that. It seems to have hit really big. Were you surprised?
Riane: Very. I didn’t know what to expect, because my conclusions [in the book] were so different. I was challenging everything. Not just laws, but the whole idea of what we considered truth, knowledge, reality, not to speak of history or human possibilities. And of course there were those who hated it. Including the woman who wrote a review for the New York Times. She was noted for chopping other feminists, but she was also a Marxist. I think what really got her was this idea that you don’t have to have violent revolutions to achieve change.
Tao: And she probably didn’t like that your partnership-dominator continuum was a deeper view of social organization than the capitalist-Marxist dichotomy. Fortunately, your book also reached many people who ‘got it.’ I like the quote on your book’s cover by anthropologist Ashley Montagu that says, ‘The most important book since Darwin’s Origin of Species.’
Riane: The University of California [Press] sent blind copies out, and that’s how we got [that quote]. I knew Ashley Montagu slightly—that was a funny thing about it—but he didn’t know that the book was by me because it was a blind copy. And he loved it. But see, he came wanting it to be true, whereas the woman who wrote the review came thinking only violence. In other words, her view of ‘human nature and human possibilities’ was the old dominator view. Even though she ran a women’s studies program [laughs], but I think it was the kind of feminism that just wanted a bigger piece of the existing pie. Rather than baking a new, better, fairer, more equitable pie.
Tao: That review said your book argued that ‘the forces of good and evil are those of female and male,’ even though you explicitly say the problem is the dominator model, not men. When I searched this review online, the first result was a letter written in response to it by 19 social scientists and scholars, saying the review distorted and misrepresented your book. How do you deal with the different sides arguing?
Riane: Well, it’s all of the above [laughs]. Human beings, we don’t like to be attacked. I in particular, being a child refugee from the Holocaust, have a visceral reaction to attack. On the other hand, I obviously also have the equanimity to say, ‘Of course, you challenge the sacred cows, right?’
Part of me expects resistance, attack. When The Real Wealth of Nations (2009) came out, in the Women’s Review of Books, two so-called feminist economists wrote that women need care like fish need a bicycle. Which is very clever, but totally nuts, because women need care, and they need the valuing of care. Part of me expects it, and part of me, when I read these attacks on my perspective and on my research, says, ‘These people don’t bother reading anything, and even if they did, they would find something wrong with the research, and you can always find something wrong with the research.’
“I was challenging everything. Not just laws, but the whole idea of what we considered truth, knowledge, reality, not to speak of history or human possibilities.”
Tao: In The Chalice and the Blade, you wrote about history a lot. I feel like I don’t remember what I learned in school about history.
Riane: A lot of wars and revolutions, I’m sure.
Tao: I remember that part—names of generals, places, battles—but I don’t remember the prehistory part, or the Egypt and Sumer part. You were in Cuba for a lot of your childhood. How did you learn about history while growing up?
Riane: It’s funny, Tao. I had a teacher very early who talked about prehistory. I have no idea what she said, but I know that it touched me. And I wanted to know more about it, even as a very young child in Cuba. I went to bilingual schools. My parents’ Jewish tradition is ‘invest in education.’ My mother sold her jewelry that she had managed to get out of Vienna in order to send me to private schools. I had a very good early education. Then I came to the United States [where] high school—it was ridiculous. I was bored to tears.
Tao: So you learned of the fuller version of history first. And then you encountered everything else.
Riane: I was so fascinated. As I said, I don’t remember what she said about prehistory, but just that it existed. Something about it stayed with me. And many years later, when I was a housewife going a little crazy in the suburbs, I became very interested in so-called mystery cults [religions in the Greco-Roman world that reserved their secret theology and practices for initiates]. At that time, any information about those—it was crazy—was in the reserved stacks of the public library, locked. I had to get special permission to access them. Why? I wondered first about Christianity, because it was so clear that the death and coming back to life cycle had very early roots in the mystery cults, if not earlier, as I later found through my research.
Tao: Do you remember when you first heard of people in prehistory having gender equality?
Riane: I didn’t know about it until I read some of the archaeology. [James] Mellaart [the British archaeologist who first excavated Catalhoyuk], [Marija] Gimbutas [the Lithuanian archaeologist who coined the term ‘Old Europe’]. [Nikolaos] Platon [the Greek archaeologist who excavated Minoan Crete]. I met Platon before he died in Greece. He was a lovely old man. I started to read them and I thought, ‘Wow.’ And then I started to put the pieces together.
“People hear partnership and they think, ‘Oh, it only means working together.’ And it doesn’t. People work together in domination systems. Cartels work together, monopolies work together, terrorists work together, gangs work together.”
Tao: Do you remember when you thought of the terms ‘gylany’ and ‘partnership society’ to describe societies with gender equality?
Riane: It took me 10 years of research. And even before that, I had made a contract through another agent with McGraw-Hill to write Dissolution. I submitted this manuscript [laughs] that went way back into prehistory. This poor editor at McGraw-Hill was a little shocked. She wrote me back this very diplomatic letter saying, ‘This is interesting, but it’s not what we contracted for.’ Somehow my mind was searching. And my background in systems analysis, as well as my education as an attorney, [were also factors]. The first job I had out of college was as a junior social scientist with the Systems Development Corporation, which was an offshoot of the RAND Corporation. That was in the 1950s when nobody talked about systems analysis. But they did. And I began to understand this whole approach of having to look at all the important elements of the system. I don’t think it was a linear process. I think it was more like a series of, ‘Oh, well, if that is so, then it must follow that that is also so.’
Tao: You collect so much evidence. It seems very much like a gradual process.
Riane: It was very gradual. At first, I didn’t use the terms ‘partnership’ and ‘domination.’ It was only after a friend of ours from Europe came to visit. He was known as the father of the German peace movement. He’s dead now, but he said, ‘Look, androcracy and gylany, you’ve got to find something else. Because people will want [something else].’ So one configuration I kept seeing was very clear—’dominator,’ ‘domination.’ ‘Partnership’ was hard. I’m sometimes sorry that I chose that [term]. I chose it because as an attorney I was looking at ‘partnership’ as a legal term, defining a relationship of partners. Which in theory is supposed to consist of mutual accountability, mutual benefit and respect, mutuality. But then when the term became co-opted to mean only ‘working together,’ the problem arose. People hear partnership and they think, ‘Oh, it only means working together.’ And it doesn’t. People work together in domination systems. Cartels work together, monopolies work together, terrorists work together, gangs work together.
I sort of wish I had chosen another term, but it has become well known enough, and I’ve written so many books using it, that I feel kind of stuck. I sometimes wish that I had stuck to ‘gylany,’ in a sense, because that explains the gender component more, but I didn’t.
“I’ve noticed that when I learn things that aren’t the prevailing paradigm, if I don’t keep learning new things about it, I return to the old way of thinking because I’m surrounded by it.”
Tao: I’ve always liked the term ‘partnership.’
Tao: There’s a passage in The Chalice and the Blade that I especially enjoyed. This quote starts mid sentence, ‘…this truly huge block of new knowledge about millennia of human history so contradicts all we have been taught that its hold on our minds is like a message written in sand. The new knowledge may linger there for a day, or even a week. But relentlessly the force of the teaching of centuries works to undermine it, until what is left is merely a fleeting impression of the time of great excitement and hope. Only through reinforcement from other sources—both familiar and unfamiliar—can we hope to retain this knowledge long enough to make it our own.’
And then you talk about sources of reinforcement that you found, like chaos theory, Mesopotamian legends, and other cultures with stories of a time of harmony in prehistory. I like this idea of sources of reinforcement. Like you, I’ve noticed that when I learn things that aren’t the prevailing paradigm, if I don’t keep learning new things about it, I return to the old way of thinking because I’m surrounded by it.
Riane: I know.
Tao: The searching for sources of reinforcement feels really meaningful to me and can be fun. One book I read after reading The Chalice and the Blade is The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture by a group of scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Science. I read it in English. It showed that Chinese prehistory was similar to the West, how it started off with partnership societies. The book was inspired by your book, because in your book you mentioned that you suspected something like that, because in Daoism the force called Dao was viewed as a feminine creative force.
Riane: You can find the traces in all [cultures]. Shinto, the Japanese Goddess, what’s her name? I think it’s Amaterasu. The emperor to this day has to legitimize his rule by having intercourse with a priestess of the Goddess. The roots are there of a balance that includes women and the ‘feminine,’ but the research hasn’t been [there]. This has not been a focus of research except by a few feminist scholars. I contributed a piece to an encyclopedia on women in religion. But even there, a lot of the focus was on what we today consider religions, the contemporary ones, and of course calling the earlier ones ‘cults’ rather than ‘religions’ gives you a clue.
Tao: I read the book by the second excavator of Catalhoyuk, Ian Hodder, and he has this popular misconception of your work and Marija Gimbutas’ work, saying that you all thought that people in prehistory lived in matriarchies, rather than in gylanies.
Riane: I’m going to put you in touch with Daniel Glick who, with his wife, has been working on a documentary on my life and work. It’s very imaginative—it doesn’t have much gravitas—but he’s an Emmy-winning director and he interviewed Hodder, and he says that Hodder now agrees that these were partnership societies.
Maybe [Hodder] still hasn’t read my work [laughs], but he was interviewed, among other people. Daniel and his wife Lucia interviewed quite a few experts corroborating my conclusions.
Tao: I read an article where Hodder was quoted saying that there was gender equality at Catalhoyuk. So it seems like he agrees with you, but he lacks the terms ‘gylany’ or ‘partnership.’ It can be hard to add a new word to your language. Sometimes you just don’t have room for another word.
Riane: We’ve got to get people to make room, because as long as they look through the old categories, their consciousness is totally fragmented.
“We’ve got to get people to make room [for new language], because as long as they look through the old categories, their consciousness is totally fragmented.”
Tao: And without ‘partnership’ and ‘gylany,’ they can’t discuss the idea as well. They have to resort to inaccurate words. So part of the effort is to try to just convince people to start using these new terms.
Riane: That’s what you are doing so well. And that’s what attracted me so much when I found out that you are doing this, because we have to bring it into the mainstream. You know how change works. All you need is enough norm changers so that it becomes a new norm.
Tao: It could just be like 1 percent or 5 percent.
Riane: I don’t know what the percentage is, but I know it happens.
Tao: I remember first hearing about you from Terence McKenna.
Riane: He was a lovely man, and I was so sad that he died so young.
Tao: Only 50-something. He really liked your terms, ‘partnership’ and ‘dominator.’ He used them in his books. He liked how they elevated the conversation out of blaming men.
Riane: Men have had a terrible time in domination systems. For centuries men had to give their lives because some guy on top wanted more land, more real estate. It’s a system and that’s just part of it. Psychologically, men have had to suppress such a big part of their humanity.
Tao: And most men are oppressed by other men. And if you’re a king or something, that’s not going to make you happy. You’ll probably feel worse than everyone else.
Riane: Yes. I mean, basically it’s always the fear of the other.
“Men have had a terrible time in domination systems. For centuries men had to give their lives because some guy on top wanted more land, more real estate. It’s a system and that’s just part of it. Psychologically, men have had to suppress such a big part of their humanity.”
Tao: McKenna thought one factor in the shift from partnership to domination, in and after prehistory, was the reduced use of psychedelics.
Riane: I think it was more than that, and you can use psychedelics and have very bad trips, too. If you have the traumas that are built into domination systems. I had a very bad trip, inadvertently. I thought it was grass and it was laced with something else and it was terrifying, probably because of the trauma of my childhood. I think psychedelics can open up the consciousness, but they can also put you in touch with the terrors.
Tao: I agree. Horse riding is another factor theorized for why the dominator model took hold.
Riane: We see it in the invasions of Latin America, where the armed man on the horse was terrifying. I’m sure that was a factor, but I think it was part of the process. The real question is why did they use the horse to attack? And why were they so enamored of weapons?
Tao: Are there novels you’ve read that you would view as good spreaders of partnership information or qualities?
Riane: Years ago somebody wrote a book called Moon Over Crete, which was a children’s story. I have not read many novels. I read yours because I was interested. I’ve been so busy keeping up with information. Neuroscience became a passion of mine, as you know from reading Nurturing Our Humanity, and economics also. But I think it’s very, very important that we have novels.
Tao: There have been many partnership revivals and surges throughout history. I remember you called Jesus one part of a ‘gylanic counterrevolution.’
Riane: Yes. I think he was. The more that you read the Gnostic gospels, the more you realize how the official New Testament is a distortion of Jesus. Like the role that Mary Magdalene played was very, very big. Even in a time when women had very low status. But it was a time of resurgence of partnership ideas, even in the Roman Empire. I think these are very useful lenses to analyze almost any period, including where we are now.
Tao: Have you spent time thinking about what it could be like 50 years from now? If our global culture will be more partnership or dominator?
Riane: I can’t really predict which will prevail, because you see trends in both directions. And people who are brought up in domination environments when they’re little find it familiar, want it.
Tao: People spend so much money on military, and the US leads by far.
Riane: The thing that’s so bizarre is that so much of the weapons investment is in fighting wars through a rearview mirror, because they invest in all these things that aren’t even relevant, like aircraft carriers. I mean, please. It’s crazy.
“If you subordinate women you subordinate those traits that are in dominator systems stereotypically associated with women and the feminine. Caring, caregiving, nonviolence.”
Tao: I feel like, partly, it’s happened in the US because after World War II, the US became a leader in power, and its strategy in that position was to maintain having the most power.
Riane: That’s right. Look, in a world where there are regimes that are even more domination oriented than the United States, I, as a Holocaust survivor, have always felt we need some defense, but what we have is ridiculous. Overkill is a very accurate description. Eisenhower said it’s the military industrial complex that is being fed. I think that, to his credit, Biden is trying to maneuver us into a more caring society.
Tao: I feel like more people have become aware of the problem of sexism against women.
Riane: If you subordinate women you subordinate those traits that are in dominator systems stereotypically associated with women and the feminine. Caring, caregiving, nonviolence. So it’s only as the status of women rises that the value of the ‘feminine’ caring for people and nature rises—the two go together: women can rise more when there is more reward for being caring, for being nonviolent, for caregiving. At the same time, as the status of women rises, then there are more women in government, more women making decisions. And even though there are very uncaring women and very caring men, as a group women do embrace caring more. But it’s more complicated, because it’s the system’s dynamics that we’re talking about.
Tao: Have your daughters read your books?
Riane: Yes. And they agree with me. But it’s very difficult having a somewhat famous parent.
Tao: I don’t know what that would be like. With my parents they have a somewhat famous son.
Riane: That’s right. So is it difficult for them? No, because they’re proud of you. But for children it’s a little different.
Tao: When you published your first book, they were how old?
Riane: I had my children in ’59 and in ’61. So they were little. And then by ’87, they were already in their 20s.
Tao: The Chalice and the Blade, published in 1987, was your third book, and now you’ve written or co-written thirteen. I loved your memoir The Gate, which told about your childhood in Cuba.
Riane: While the book essentially describes my childhood in Cuba, it is not, strictly speaking, a memoir. The publishers wanted to call it a memoir, so that is how it was marketed, but it is really a cross between the literal truth and the symbolic truth. It was a difficult book to write, as I was a traumatized child, and my parents were also traumatized by suddenly becoming hunted with license to kill in Vienna, and having to flee to save our lives, leaving everything they knew and just about everything they had behind.
“We can build a better world, but only by looking at the whole of society, including our foundational parent-child, gender, and other intimate relations.”
Tao: How was it writing a personal narrative after writing more scholarly books?
Riane: Doing so brought back painful memories. Still, I felt it important to share at least some of what it was like as an immigrant child in an unfamiliar land, starting with our sudden poverty and the anti-Semitism launched by the Nazis to justify the Cuban government at that time to not honor the landing permits of the 1,000 Jewish women, men, and children on the St. Luis. We were on one of the last ships with refugees fleeing the Nazis that was allowed to land before the St. Luis was sent back to Europe, where of course many of those on board eventually were killed in Nazi concentration camps. It was so hard to understand how nation after nation in the Western Hemisphere, including that [the] United States, refused to let the St. Luis land!
Tao: How did these experiences influence your life?
Riane: It was these early experiences that led to the questions my multidisciplinary, cross-cultural, transhistorical research sought to answer about whether all this cruelty, insensitivity, and violence is inevitable, and if not, can we build a more equitable, caring, and sustainable world? The answer to that question is that we can build a better world, but only by looking at the whole of society, including our foundational parent-child, gender, and other intimate relations—a conclusion now documented by neuroscience, which supports my findings.
Tao: I found your most recent book, Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future (2019), calming and illuminating, especially its research on the deep history of love and care—how animals laid eggs and didn’t care for their kids until mammals evolved. Do you have any plans for another book?
Riane: I have been wanting to write a short book, something for the general reader, about the partnership movement, which encompasses current movements that are all related, from the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements to the environmental movement. In addition, I would like to put together a book on the work of my wonderful partner-husband David Loye debunking the conventional views on Darwin, who has falsely been used, in David’s words, ‘as an 800-pound gorilla for domination systems maintenance.’
Tao: Do you have unpublished books, or ideas for as-yet unwritten books?
Riane: I have two books of short stories that I never published—very personal stories that draw on my own life trajectory. One is called Next Year Jerusalem and, from a woman’s perspective, spans the period from early 20th century Eastern European Jewish villages to the creation of the State of Israel. The other book is Talk Louder, It’s Snowing, drawing from my awakening to gender and sexuality as key factors in our lives and in the values of a society, which includes surrealistic tales. I also have notes for a book on fairy tales and romances, and the terrible models for relationships and identities the traditional ones have provided.
I don’t know if I will ever get to any of these, as I am so passionately committed to the work of cultural transformation from domination to partnership systems, starting with a caring economics of partnerism and the new Social Wealth Index that a group of economists is developing through the Center for Partnership Systems.
“Those of us who want a more equitable, peaceful, and sustainable world must focus attention on the foundations on which domination systems keep rebuilding themselves: the four cornerstones of childhood, gender, economics, and story [and] language.”
Tao: Can you tell me a little more about the new Social Wealth Index?
Riane: This new metric documents the enormous economic value of the work of caring for people, starting at birth, and caring for our natural life-support systems. Changing our metrics is urgent: this vital work is systematically devalued in our current economic rewards system if it’s done in the market, and if done outside the market, it’s just ignored by current measures of economic health such as GDP and GNP.
Tao: Do you feel hope these days?
Riane: We are in the midst of a massive regression to the domination side of the partnership-domination social scale. No wonder many people feel hopeless. But it is not hopeless if we act now.
Tao: What can people do?
Riane: Those of us who want a more equitable, peaceful, and sustainable world must focus attention on the foundations on which domination systems keep rebuilding themselves: the four cornerstones of childhood, gender, economics, and story [and] language. Once we do, we can see that there are also important trends in a partnership direction. Consider the growing recognition that we must move past economic institutions and values that fail to recognize the economic value of the work of caring for people, starting at birth, and caring for our planet. Consider the global movement to leave behind domination gender stereotypes by women, men, and non-binary people. Consider the new awareness of the prevalence of trauma, which is built into domination systems, starting in authoritarian, punitive, rigidly male-dominated families. We must accelerate this forward movement. We can start with contradicting the stories that falsely claim that injustice and violence are inevitable. It is up to every one of us to change the prevailing worldview, and strengthen the movement toward partnership in all areas of our lives.