French’s thesis is that the first three millennia of civilization were organized into what she calls matricentries, societies in which women were of central importance and in which fertility, continuation, and sharing were dominant. Patriarchy all but destroyed these primitive egalitarian societies and inaugurated a rule in which men, now perceived as distinct from animals, controlled women and nature and vied with one another for domination.
Primitive peoples, French contents, worshiped goddesses who were immanent in nature. As societies grew larger, however, and as the old relationships between men and women were transformed into male-supremacist societies in which the coexistence of people was based on coercion, not sharing, women became ineradicably linked to a fallen, imperfect nature and were relegated to submissive roles in which they could be admired as sweet and fragile.
French shows the ways in which women, from the time of ancient Greece through the twentieth century, sought to adapt to or escape from patriarchal bondage. She also documents the ways in which women have moved out into the world and functioned with the lessening of patriarchal control.
Asserting that her vision of patriarchy must be emphatically negative because of the urgency of the issues, she articulates in two final chapters a new definition of feminism that offers alternative moral structures to authoritarian regimes and the tragic consequences of power.
French’s ambitious denunciation of the excesses of patriarchy (she cites some eight hundred works with almost two hundred footnotes) and her examples of those who have sought opportunities for personal equality and spiritual fulfillment provide another attempt to resolve our sexual anxieties and to realize that men and women share the pains and joys of the human condition.