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My Story and My Calling

In this her first of two articles for the Sisters, the internationally renowned cultural scientist, historian, theorist, and campaigner Riane Eisler reflects on the inspiration for her life’s work.

Riane Eisler as a little girl. (Author's collection)

I was born in Vienna, and my parents and I lived there until Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. On Kristallnacht, so called because of all the glass shattered in Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses, a gang of Gestapo men broke into our home and dragged my father off. That was terrifying. But that night I also witnessed something I carried with me the rest of my life. My mother stood up to these men. She recognized among them a young Austrian who had been an errand boy in the family business, reminded him how kind her husband had been to him, and angrily demanded they let my father go. My mother could have been killed. Many Jews were killed that night. But by a miracle she was not. By another miracle she later obtained my father’s release, and a short time after that we fled Vienna in the middle of the night, taking with us just what we could carry.

Cuba was one of the only two countries in the world letting desperate refugees from Europe in, selling them entry permits. My parents purchased one before the Nazis stole everything they had. So, I grew up in the cockroach-infested industrial slums of Havana and learned first-hand what dire poverty means.

These were traumatic experiences. Not only for me as a child, but also for my parents. We were the only ones from our large extended family to escape Europe. When World War II ended, we learned what happened to those left behind: most had been brutally murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

I could not understand how people could be so cruel. This question haunted me. It stayed with me when I went to college and studied sociology and anthropology, after I married and had two daughters, and later when I went back to law school and obtained my Juris Doctor (JD) degree.

I was expected to be the ‘little woman’ behind the important man, a role I tried to fulfil but never could. Back then, divorce was rare and stigmatized. Despite that, I eventually got a divorce.

Discrimination against women was normal. Job ads were segregated by sex, with all the good jobs listed under 'Help Wanted Men'. In the rare cases when women reported being raped, they were the ones essentially on trial, pilloried for any prior sexual activity.

Like most people at that time, I was brought up to accept all this, indeed, not even to notice it. Then, along with thousands of other women, I suddenly awoke to realize that many problems I had thought were my fault were actually social problems.

Riane as a law school graduate. (Author's collection)

I threw myself into the women’s liberation movement that was just starting. I incorporated the Los Angeles Women’s Center, the first such centre on the West Coast, and founded the first centre in the United States on Women and the Law. In 1969, we filed a Friend of the Court brief with the Supreme Court of the United States in a case involving extreme gender discrimination, proposing the then radical idea that women should be considered persons under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment – a notion that the Court initially rejected, until a few months later it finally struck down a grossly discriminatory law on those very grounds. I then introduced egalitarian pre-nuptial agreements in my own family law practice, and lectured widely on the then new subject of women and the law. I wrote Dissolution, No-Fault Divorce, and the Future of Women, which predicted what became known as the ‘feminization of poverty.’ I wrote the only mass paperback on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment: The Equal Rights Handbook: What ERA Means for Your Life, Your Rights, and Your Future. But it was too late, and that simple Amendment, which would only have required an end to government discrimination based on sex, failed to obtain the needed number of ratifying states.

I was exhausted and discouraged. I was still lecturing on women’s rights, travelling, trying to raise my children as a single mother, and practising family law to make a living. After the sudden death of both my parents, I became very ill.

The questions of my childhood were still calling out to me, and I began to reflect on what I wanted to do with my life. As there still is today, there was then much talk about cultural transformation. But the issues for me were: transformation from what to what? What are the key elements of a more just, less violent world? What are the main obstacles to getting from here to there? I gave up my law practice and spent the next ten years living on my savings, immersed in researching these pivotal issues.

I was by then painfully aware that everything I had been taught in all my years at universities that was classified as important knowledge and truth barely mentioned anything by or about people like me and my daughters: women and children. I also realized that looking at human societies from the perspective of familiar social categories – right vs. left, religious vs. secular, Eastern vs. Western, capitalist vs. socialist, Southern vs. Northern, and so forth – was not useful. All these categories have included violent and repressive societies. And none take into account how a society constructs gender roles and relations.

The new method of social analysis I developed – the study of relational dynamics – draws from a database that, unlike conventional studies (often aptly called ‘the study of man’), includes the whole of humanity: both its female and male halves. Instead of focusing only on the ‘public sphere’ of politics and economics, it also includes the ‘private sphere’ of family and other intimate relations, especially gender and parent-child relations.

Looking at this larger picture made it possible to answer my question about what the key elements of a more just, peaceful, and caring society are. It revealed two contrasting social configurations historically and cross-culturally that had not been visible before. There were no names for these two different social configurations. I called one the partnership system and the other the domination system, and introduced a new lens for analyzing social systems: the partnership-domination social scale.

The Nazi rightist regime oriented closely to the domination side of this social scale. The same configuration can be found in leftist societies such as Stalin’s Soviet Union. It can also be seen in religious ones like Khomeini’s regime in Iran. While different in other respects, all these societies have the same mutually supporting elements at their core: an authoritarian family and state, the rigid subordination of women and the ‘feminine,’ and the idealization of domination and violence, which is associated with ‘real masculinity’.

The Chalice & the Blade front cover.

My first book drawing on this research was The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. It demonstrates that the status of women is integral to the partnership or domination configuration, and therefore to whether a society is more warlike and inequitable or more peaceful and equitable. It provides evidence that for most of prehistory, women and the ‘feminine’ were highly valued, until there was a shift in a domination direction some 5,000 years ago. It further shows that over the last centuries there has been strong movement towards partnership, punctuated by periodic regressions, and warns that advanced technologies in service of conquest and domination could take us to an evolutionary dead end.

In 1987, when The Chalice and the Blade was first published, we were already regressing to the domination side of the scale, not only in the United States, but in many world regions; for example, through the global rise of religious fundamentalism. Having been born into a time of severe regression to domination, I am determined to do everything in my power to change our course – starting with the empowerment of women as a prerequisite for building a more equitable and peaceful partnership world.

Riane speaking at the National Press Club. (Author's collection)

Riane Eisler has dedicated her life to empowering women’s voices in the legal system, the social sciences, and the world at large to the end of bettering society for everyone. She is a social and systems scientist, a lawyer, and an author. Her work has garnered global recognition and a host of awards, including honorary PhD degrees, the Alice Paul ERA Education Award, the Feminist Press Pioneer Award, and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Distinguished Peace Leadership Award. She is the only woman among 20 great thinkers including Hegel, Adam Smith, Marx, and Toynbee selected for inclusion in Macrohistory and Macrohistorians in recognition of the lasting importance of her work as a cultural historian and evolutionary theorist, and she is included in the award-winning book Great Peacemakers as one of 20 leaders for world peace, along with Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King. Dr Eisler keynotes conferences and speaks at universities worldwide, and consults to business and government on applications of the partnership model introduced in her work. She has spoken at the United Nations General Assembly, is a member of the Club of Rome and the Social Venture Network, a Councillor of the World Future Council, and a fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science and World Business Academy. She has written many critically acclaimed books, including the internationally renowned The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future as well as Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth, and the Politics of the Body, and The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics.


For more information regarding Riane’s books, please explore the links below by clicking on the titles:

For more books by Riane Eisler:

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