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SDSU Women's Studies goes back to the potato goddess

Daughters of Pachamama

Venus of Dolni/Vestonice.  “They have been interpreted as fertility objects, because of the breasts. But then we have found some that are very lean."
  • Venus of Dolni/Vestonice. “They have been interpreted as fertility objects, because of the breasts. But then we have found some that are very lean."
  • Image by Margaret Davenport

Enter now the spirit world of the South American Indian. Barbara Watson, assistant professor of women’s studies at San Diego State University, is telling me a myth of Bolivia’s Tacana people, a story of powerful male spirits who rape women. “All kinds of horrible, very often one-legged male spirits are supposed to go after women who walk through the forests.” she is saying. “But it’s not like in our society, where the woman will be told in court. ‘Oh, your skirt was too short,’ or all those terrible things said to make the woman the one who is responsible for the crime.

Barbara Watson: In East Germany, "I could not study anthropology."

Barbara Watson: In East Germany, "I could not study anthropology."

“In these stories.” Watson continues, “after the rape, the woman follows the spirit — of course, in the spiritual world, these spirits act like real people — and she finds the home of this man and confronts him. He denies it. but this comes in what is almost a confrontation between the rapist and his wife. The wife questions him. and finds out. and the wife then turns against the husband and sides with the woman.”

“I think the whole matriarchy question should be laid on ice."

“I think the whole matriarchy question should be laid on ice."

It is not that this outcome seems unfair, hut something about this gloomy little tale is out of kilter, alien to me. Watson and I are talking in her living room on a rather warm Saturday afternoon. She grew up in Germany, and though she speaks fluent English, an accent remains. “Oh. my students ask me about it all the time. ” she says with a laugh. “I mean, it’s so thick.” While she rambles adeptly through the most difficult pronunciations of technical terms, she has apparently refused to exchange the German "ja ” for the American “yeah,” not that that shows anything but good taste on her part. Now in her early forties, she has lived in San Diego since 1968.

I've come to visit because a letter she had written to the editor of the Los Angeles Times had caught my eye. “Please let your readers know,” it had said in part, "that the potato, like other plants grown in the Andean region, was associated with a powerful goddess, usually known as Pachamama, the Earth-mother. Her cult is older than the Inca empire and has remained alive to this day .... Identifying and remembering ideologies that present powerful female beings as the creators of major food resources is important in a world that essentially ignores women’s knowledge and contributions .... Women’s voices are hardly heard in the battle against world hunger, but they are expected to prepare and serve meals every day, everywhere!”

I have not been entirely oblivious to the women’s movement, since most of the females of my family have spent some time out there in the trenches, but I'd had little to do with what seemed at first glance to be loose furniture in the academic attic of feminism; namely, little-known Indian goddesses. And so my curiosity had brought me to chat with a scholar 1 hoped would be both up to her elbows in research and able to explain how that research could improve the lot of women in the world. As it happens, I could not have picked a more appropriate, time to become curious, since only a couple of weeks ago, on March 8,

San Diego State’s women’s studies department — widely respected, well staffed and funded, and Barbara Watson’s place of employment — celebrated its tenth anniversary. San Diego State, concurrently with Cornell, was the first college in the United States to offer courses in women’s studies.

But back to the spirit rapist’s fate. Watson is now explaining to me why that tale has an eerie tone; It comes from a culture more diverse than ours, one that has a history of reverence for Earth-mother, female deities as well as male ones.

“I think that’s a very interesting story,” says Watson, an anthropologist by training, ’’because it does show a sense that, yes, the woman was abused; yes, a crime had been committed. It seems like those stories of powerful male spirits — which also do all kinds of things/«r the Tacana people — and the story of the Earth-mother kind of fuse. And I think there are many areas in the world where you could show this, that there are conflicting traditions coming together and giving us different ideas about the distribution of power between males and females. In our culture, however, we don’t have this. God is male, the Virgin Mary must simply suffer. Eve was terrible. And so women have totally internalized the notion that they are helpless and anyone can do anything with them. ”

To change the way a society treats women, then, means changing our views of women and power, which is why so many feminists have spent so much time pointing to examples of women in positions of authority. Or, in crude terms from the other point of view, if women have never run the show in the past, doesn’t it make common sense that they ’re not going to in the future — and perhaps for good, if as yet unknown, reasons?

Early in the history of anthropology, in fact, a theory surfaced that women , had run the show for a while. “At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century,” says Watson, “it was pretty much accepted in academic circles that the family and social system had always been the way it was then, and then it was pretty much the way it was in the Bible. I am simplifying terribly now, but it was a patriarchal model where the man was head of the household and women were men-defined individuals — I should say men-defined beings, since they lost their individuality in that process.

“And then, through Darwin and this new interest in really finding out about social processes, people dug a little deeper into all this and finally, in 1861, two books appeared which dealt with the question: Were women and men always in history where they are today (in relation to each other)? J.J. Bachofen, a Swiss lawyer, said, ‘No, there was a matriarchy in the beginning.’ ”

The matriarchy — or matriarchate, as it is also called — that Bachofen and others described, was a society run by women. The theory, simply put, was that the first family unit, like many today, consisted of the mother and her child, since in these early, unsentimental days of humankind, most people lived in a state kindly referred to in scientific terms as “primeval promiscuity.” Fathers did not hang around, and so family ties — and as it developed, civil authority — centered on adult females.

Henry James Maine, an English lawyer, also published a book, this one called Ancient Law. “He had lived in India for a long time,” says Watson, “and so he had become interested in Hindu law and all kinds of other things. And Maine said, ‘Well, there never was a matriarchy. The world was always patriarchal.' And the matriarchy debate was on . . . In fact, it became one of the prominent issues in Soviet anthropology, from an odd twist in history. “Bachofen was not the only one who said that women ruled first, ’ says Watson. “One person who supported him and who actually corresponded with him later on was Henry Morgan, an American lawyer who lived among the Iroquois. ”

Iroquois women elders nominated chiefs, and lineage and inheritance was traced through the mother’s side of the family. And so Morgan had lived among a people whose women were strong and had significant decision-making powers. He agreed with Bachofen’s theory of a women-run state in prehistory. “But he also believed, like Bachofen, that what came later — the patriarchy — was socially more perfect and stronger for many reasons,” Watson goes on. “The whole approach to history in Morgan’s book attracted the attention of many people, including Marx and Engels. And so Morgan's discussion of the Iroquois became rather well known among socialists in Europe. Workers in some factories who would not, you know, have any sophisticated education, would know about the Iroquois because of this. It’s kind of a funny story. ”

Here is Friedrich Engels describing his vision of human society before the dawn of civilization as we know it: “No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits — and everything takes its orderly course. ” Most nineteenth-century theories of a reign of women, however, described it as a time of irresponsibility and flagrant sexual activity, an era that simply could not last forever.

Bachofen, who has occasionally been mislabeled a feminist hero, speculated that as men started to take matters firmly in hand, women fought to maintain control — thus creating the Amazon myths — but lost to the more civilizing influence of the new men-centered system.

A few feminists apparently still refer to this fabled matriarchy, but anthropologists do not. Margaret Mead, for one, called for an end to all preconceptions about women, including “hazy reconstructions of idyllic periods of history when women ruled and all was peace . . .

“I don’t think there was a matriarchy,” says Watson. “I think the whole matriarchy question should be laid on ice. But I am convinced that in many places and at different times, women had much more power and influence than in our society. I mean, I’ve seen such women with my own eyes. I’ve talked to them.”

The women Barbara Watson is thinking of are the women of the Guajiro people, Indians who live on the semiarid northern tip of South America, along the border of Venezuela and Colombia. In the ethnologist’s lingo, theirs is a matrilineal — rather than matriarchal — tribe. That is, while tribal leaders may be men, all matters of inheritance and family lineage trace through the mother’s side of any family. The Iroquois. Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo in North America, and the Khasi in Africa, are also matrilineal tribes.

The 100,000 or so Guajiro have no central authority as we know it, and live scattered around the cactus- and thom-bush-covered Guajira Peninsula on ranchos, which are basically extended family households not unlike family-owned cattle ranches in the American West. In fact, cattle raising, as well as hammock weaving, and, for centuries, a form of commerce that non-Indian authorities call smuggling, are the major sources of income for Guajiro men and women. The strength of their culture is such that the Guajiro have actually increased their numbers in the 500 years since they were first in contact with Spanish explorers.

To those of us steeped in patriarchal concepts, matrilineal societies seem turned on their head, even on an everyday level. For instance, when a Guajiro man marries, he customarily lives with his wife’s family on their rancho. Even when he and his wife set out on their own, for the first few years they will live near his wife’s relatives. Though fathers support their children, children inherit wealth only through their mother’s relatives. So a man’s worldly goods after his death go to his sister’s children; his own children will inherit the cattle and money of his wife and his brother-in-law.

“In such a system,” Watson says amiably, “a man is more important as a brother than as a husband. He has all kinds of obligations towards his sister, and so he often will not even be home as a husband. He will go and visit his sister and take care of problems she has. This also means, of course, that his wife will have the assistance of her brother.”

In such a system, there can be no illegitimate children because both boys and girls carry the mother’s family name, which does not change even when they marry. “Ja, that’s it,” says Watson enthusiastically. “You keep your identity. There is no disruption at marriage. ”

Among the Guajiro, most religious leaders are women, women often negotiate disputes among people who are not members of their families, and the most formal and expensive education goes to the young women of the tribe. This involves the seclusion of the girl for from one to five years — depending upon the wealth of her parents — after she begins menstruation. During this time, she is taught the art of weaving to ensure her economic independence, though she will probably own cattle, too. She is taught to use medicinal plants and about such adult concerns as contraception.

The boys at this time are learning, in an informal fashion, how to tend cattle. But the girls, hidden away in their huts learning to weave, are building their reputations. “It is for this work that she does inside,” says W atson, “that she gains her reputation on the outside, because suitors will get interested in marrying heron account of the work she docs. So in this society, she doesn’t get the man by the way she looks, but really for her skill.

“That doesn’t mean that beauty isn’t important. You know, they say she becomes very light and pale in there, and she grows long, black hair — there’s a lot of talk about her physical beauty, too. ”

Guajiro hammocks, by the way, are famous in South America, both for their design — they are comfortable even in hot weather — and artistic merit.

The upshot is that Guajiro women don’t even subconsciously believe themselves to be of lesser value. A recent article in Natural History magazine was illustrated with a photograph of a remarkably attractive Guajiro woman shoveling salt in a Colombian saltworks, and the observation that, “The sight of stately Guajiro women striding down the main street of Riohacha, a town at the western edge of the peninsula .... has affected Colombian national consciousness. These are citizens to be proud of in their independence.”

Barbara Watson recalls a more personal experience. “One of the big things in Guajiro society is that you have to be good at expressing yourself verbally. They took it very hard that I didn’t do well in their language .... They said, ‘What’s the matter with you? You’re a woman and you don’t know?’ So you see, in such a society there’s no excuse; you can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m a woman. 1 ’m just a poor little one.’ No, no, no. It doesn’t work.”


Barbara Watson has been interested in the American indigenous peoples since she was young. “I then thought of them in very romantic European terms,” she says, “as this kind of ‘world of the Indians.’ I don’t see it in those terms anymore.

“This actually goes back to my school days, when I read a book that was called The Book of the Indians, by a famous East German ethnologist, Eva Lips. She talks a lot about the importance of dreams in American Indian culture, it’s such an important feature. Even in my field work later I collected dreams, and it has made me very interested in my own dreams, too. ”

Watson herself was brought up in East Germany. Though she doesn’t like to go into detail about it, she left for the West because she was not able to continue her studies in anthropology there. "I'm not totally sure why myself.” she says. “But you know, after 1945 in East Germany, there was a strong trend not to let children from bourgeois families go to the universities. My father was a schoolteacher, so he certainly was not a person in power, but when you really think about it. education is part of the superstructure and every person who participates in it is then suspect of supporting the wrong side. So, while I was the best student in school, I could not study anthropology. They told me that they didn’t have any spots that year, but then I tried again the next year and I still couldn’t. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and I left.” She studied in West Berlin and Frankfurt, where she vividly remembers a lecture by Egon Schaden, a famous visiting ethnologist and a specialist on the Brazilian Indians.

“He spoke not only about the cultures, but he gave us a very good idea of the problems the Indians had and how important it was that you really try to understand, that you accept the fact that they would teach you. rather than that you would impose your views on them. I think this is too much the case, you know, in modem social science. The researcher controls everything, in effect telling the subject what to do and what to think and what to say.

“So this professor really instilled a deep feeling of respect in me. And it was very curious — we students were all ready to pack up our suitcases and go to South America. Oh, it was marvelous.”

Her Ph.D. thesis advisor did not share her enthusiasm, however, and when she said she wanted to do field work in Venezuela, he balked. “He said to me, ‘What are you going to do when you are there with all those men in Caracas?’ That’s almost verbatim, ‘all those men in Caracas.’ And I said, 'I'm not going there to get involved with men in Caracas. I'm going to do my field work with the Indians.’

“Well.” continues Watson with a shrug, “they thought that was too dangerous for a young woman. By then I was already twenty-eight years old; I mean, it was ridiculous. But my professor said that I should first come to the United States, to UCLA, which has a Latin American studies center, and that I should prepare myself first. So I went for half a year and it was helpful, but I wouldn’t have needed even six months. You know, it just wasn’t necessary.”

She did do her field work, came back to UCLA, got married to a fellow anthropologist she met in the course of her research, then she returned — without her husband — to spend a final year in Europe finishing up her doctorate. (“People thought I was totally crazy, but my husband was very supportive of this. ”) She has been associated with San Diego State’s women’s studies department since 1974.

“I’ve always been interested in the woman’s side of life,” she says. “But in anthropology, you are trained to ask, ‘What do other people do? What’s the other side of this?’ And in our culture we always say that Woman is the ‘other. ’ Our whole culture is male-oriented. If you really want to know what women are after, what women think, I think anthropological training is very helpful, because you practically have to brave the unknown. Women’s life, even in our own society, is unknown.

“Oh, I’m a feminist,” Watson says with a cheerful shake of her head.

“It’s very important to me.”

She offers examples of how male-oriented research has distorted anthropological concepts. “For instance,” she says, “if you look at the interpretations of prehistory, there is an incredible emphasis on the hunting experience of men. It's only relatively recently that social scientists have come to speak of 'hunting and gathering' people. Well, of course, if you leave the 'gathering' out, you leave the women out. In theory, we have changed this. And now we do know that for contemporary hunters and gatherers, gathering provides more — more in amount and a more reliable source of — food than hunting. But in spite of all this, some people have not stopped emphasizing the importance of hunting to human evolution.”

Another example comes directly from her study of the Guajiro. "I tend to think that both the maternal uncle and the mother are very important in this kind of society. But there’s a rich scientific literature only on the maternal uncle. Well, you see. even that is male-oriented, if you see that fathers aren't very important in the social orientation, then you tend to look at the next most important man — that’s the maternal uncle. But anthropologists, or any other social scientists, still have a hard time looking at the women. Sexist science.”

She recalls an interesting set of conversations with her Guajiro subjects during her work in Venezuela, exchanges that show how sins of omission can weaken years of research. "Earlier accounts had reported that the Guajiro have spirits that arc associated with the animals, and these spirits are always reported to be male. I was really surprised. I thought. 'Why don't they have female spirits'? That doesn’t make sense.’ So I asked.”

She talked with different subjects (or informants, as researchers term them) in a variety of ways. Still, the answer came back: There were male spirits only. "I must say I was disappointed.” allows Watson. "It didn't quite fit into the way I wanted things to be. They kept saying each time. 'They are male, they are male.' But they usually would give me one complete example. They would say. ‘There is this spirit, and he is the master of the deer. And he takes them down under and they die. ’ and this and that. It was always a very complicated case. And then I asked. ‘Well, aren’t there any female spirits? Aren't there any mothers?’

” ‘Of course.’they said. ‘Of course.’

“And I said. Well, you never talked about this.’

“ ‘Well, you never asked.'

"I think a lot of our lack of knowledge of women and the female experience has to do with never having asked.”

Watson has now moved over next to a coffee table, where she turns on a slide projector. And as a plump, stylized figurine comes into focus on the screen — the sort of fist-sized ceramic piece that appears regularly in the National Geographic — we return to the realm of goddesses.

The goddess issue is rather complex, but one aspect of it is the question of whether women have been active creators in historical terms, and if so, for how long? Pachamama, the potato goddess, like other peoples’ goddesses, is generally believed to be an Earth-mother figure, and is often given short shrift — especially when compared, for instance, to most any sun god.

"What does it mean to create?” asks Watson. "On which levels women create? Do they create the same things men create, and do they create them in a different way? Are these things less important?

"For a Judeo-Christian. God creates the Earth, right? He is not the Earth; he is obviously spirit and not material. But the Earth-mother is the Earth. She doesn’t have to create the Earth: it’s already there.

"I have the impression.” says Watson, getting down to the nut of the matter, “that in our society, that is much less respected. You’ve got something and you don’t have to work that hard for it. It goes against our achievement ethos, right? Of course, that overlooks the fact that you have to shape up in order to get something from Pachamama. You have to behave well; you have to make the right sacrifices; you have to say the prayers when you go to the fields in the beginning. But obviously that isn’t taken seriously by many people who look at this data.” _

A vegetation goddess from 2500 B.C. has been replaced on the screen by a goddess from the early Iron Age in Denmark, when the bog people roamed. She is followed by figurines with masks, or holding stylized, two-bladed double-axes, or with features suggesting some close association with birds. At one point, Watson announces the image of the Venus of Willendorf (named for the site in Austria where it was found), the oldest depiction known of the human form, dating from anywhere from 18.000 B.C. to 25,000 B.C. Only an anthropologist could love it.

Though some similar male figures have been found, it turns out that the vast majority are female. “Usually they have been interpreted as fertility objects,” says Watson, “because of the heavy emphasis on the breasts, on the abdominal area and the swollen belly. But then we have found some that are very lean — they look like they were on a diet, you know. So I think that they do mean different types of things. People have tried always to explain their meaning by one particular idea: fertility, or some have said it’s erotic art. I think that is really dumb, because it means that nudity has always meant the same thing over time. And I think that even the fight over Black’s Beach shows that different people have very different ideas about nudity.”

But. I ask, aren’t there even today probably more pictures painted of women, by men, than the other way around? Couldn't this explain the preponderance of female figures?

“People have said that these figurines are like a Paleolithic Playboy,” Watson says, “and that this doesn’t indicate in any way female power. Someone wrote an article in the 1940s that explained them as erotic art. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s true. But that’s a male-oriented interpretation. Our whole world is so male-oriented that we do not have a halfway objective view. And, of course, what is objectivity?”

To bring the whole matter back to Earth, Watson points to the practical consequences of perceptions that are reinforced through generation after generation rather than being examined and, if need be, discarded. “When you consider the whole controversy over the priesthood in the Catholic Church — I mean, to me that is the perfect example. It wasn’t long ago that this report came out discussing the question; Can women be priests? I am surprised that people still ask that question. And then they came up with all kinds of things that they saw as standing in the way of women becoming priests. One question that came up was; Can they carry out Eucharistic rites? Women are perfectly capable of giving food to people every day. In fact, they are expected to. But when it comes to sacred food, then we need a different type of expert. I don’t see the logic of this. I understand the power, the framework behind it, but I don’t think there’s any logic to it.

“We don’t cherish the female experience. I think we have a terrible stumbling block about women being able to make decisions and being in control. You know, it’s just this very basic point.”

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