Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features social systems scientist Riane Eisler, J.D., Ph.D., president of the Center for Partnership Studies (CPS). Please note that Riane Eisler will be joining Helen LaKelly Hunt and other leaders for a webinar on September 12.
What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
I wish I’d had a feminist consciousness. Instead, I just accepted the status quo when I embarked on my first profession, as a social scientist at an offshoot of the Rand Corporation, and then, after I returned to law school, as an attorney at a Beverly Hills law firm. I had internalized the cultural devaluation of women – so much so, that when the law firm’s senior partner praised me about how I handled a case, telling me, “You don’t think like a woman,” I thought it was a compliment! That was in the late 1960s, before I woke up, as if from a long drugged sleep, and used my legal training to end women’s subordination, including, through the LA Women’s Center Legal Program, which I founded, writing a brief to the US Supreme Court making the then radical argument that legal equality for women should be protected under the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause. Since then, empowering women has been central to my professional work as a researcher, writer, speaker and organizer.
What is your current greatest professional challenge?
I now know, as in the title of my Women’s History Month speech to the US State Department, that “what’s good for women is good for the world,” and vice versa. My research shows gender roles and relations are not just women’s issues but are inextricably connected with whether a society has high or low levels of violence and injustice. This is why repressive societies, whether secular like Hitler’s rightist or Stalin’s leftist regimes, or religious like ISIS and the Taliban in the East or fundamentalists in the West, prioritize preserving or returning to a rigidly male-dominated, highly punitive, traditional family. There is reason these connections have not been visible. Most studies of society, as well as categories like right versus left, religious versus secular, Eastern versus Western, ignore or marginalize women and children, even though they are the majority of humanity. By contrast, the new social categories of the partnership system and the domination system reveal these connections cross-culturally and historically. But helping people think in new ways is a big challenge.
What inspires you most about your work?
My passion for my work is rooted in my experiences as a child refugee from Nazi Europe. After my father was dragged away by the Gestapo, my mother miraculously obtained his release and we fled to Cuba, where I grew up in the industrial slums of Havana. These traumatic events led to recurrent questions. Are violence, cruelty, and injustice, as we’re often told, inevitable? Or are there alternatives, and, if so, what are they?
Years later, I set out to answer these questions using a research method that includes the whole of humanity, both its female and male halves, and the whole of our history, including the millennia of our prehistory. One of my findings was that for most of these millennia human societies were more equitable, peaceful and gender balanced. As archeologist Ian Hodder wrote about one of them, women and men were equally valued. These were not matriarchies ruled by women, but partnership rather than domination societies, where difference, starting with the differences between the male and female forms, was not equated with superiority and inferiority, dominating or being dominated, being served or serving. The knowledge that we can build a better world once we pay attention to these connections has inspired me, and women and men worldwide.
How does your gender identity inform your work?
In addition to my early experiences, being a woman in a male-centered world motivated my research, writing, speaking and organizing. It also made rejecting old gender stereotypes easier, though today more men are doing so, as we struggle to leave traditions of domination behind. Domination systems have rigid gender roles and rank males and anything stereotypically considered masculine over females and anything stereotypically seen as feminine. So caring, caregiving and nonviolence are considered soft or feminine, while traits and activities considered masculine like domination and violence are idealized. Caring and nonviolent men are despised as sissies or weak sisters, and there always seems to be enough money for prisons, the stereotype of the punitive father, and for weapons and wars, the violent hero, but no money for caring for children, peoples’ health, and other activities considered soft or feminine. This gendered system of values must be left behind to build a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world.
Do you think your gender identity has affected your career?
Being a woman affected my career in many ways. For instance, as one of just a handful of women attending the UCLA School of Law, I graduated in the top ten percent of my class, so the big LA law firms automatically interviewed me. But, as for the male law students who did not want to seminar with me any more after I got higher grades than they did, it was clear that my gender identity was a problem for them. Most importantly, my gender deeply influenced my research method, as I realized that over my many years of higher education there had been hardly anything by, about, or for people like me, women. Indeed, to this day, conventional social analyses fail to include the importance of raising the status of women if we are serious about moving forward. By contrast, these systems dynamics are extensively documented in my social analysis.
How can philanthropy support gender equality?
The most realistic way to achieve gender equality is showing that it will benefit everyone: women, children, men, our economy, our society, our natural environment. Philanthropy that helps support and spread the growing body of research demonstrating this will change the prevailing paradigm. As futurist Daniella Meadows pointed out, transcending paradigms is the most effective way of changing social systems because these underlying thought structures, often below the level of consciousness, determine how we think about our world, and hence what we do, including the policies we support. The interdisciplinary field of partnership studies recognizes that the underlying paradigm of partnership versus domination permeates societies worldwide. In contrast to earlier social categories, these classifications take into full account matters traditionally marginalized or ignored, the cultural construction of childhood and gender. When these matters are taken into account we see that authoritarian societies have their roots in authoritarian families: that the domestic sphere and the public sphere are fed by the same domination paradigm. Supporting partnership studies is therefore essential if we are to build a world where women and the feminine, such as caring, caregiving and nonviolence, are no longer devalued.
In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equality movements taking us?
We have made progress. However, we still carry a heavy inheritance from more domination-oriented times. While women have broken into once all-male professions, workplaces, and our larger socio-economic systems, were not designed to take into account the female half of humanity. This is why whole-systems change is essential, as extensively documented in my books. If we succeed, in 10 years we will see major changes not only in gender roles and relations but also in families, education, health care, politics, economics, the environment and every area of life. Otherwise, we will see more regressions to domination, as in the US today, where strongman rule, male-dominance, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and economic inequality are resurging, along with policies and practices destroying our Mother Earth’s life-support systems. Traditions of domination and violence in gender and childhood relations provide foundations on which domination systems have kept rebuilding themselves. Leaving these traditions behind is essential if we are to have foundations for a more equitable, peaceful, and caring partnership world.
More on Riane Eisler:
Riane Eisler is president of CPS, editor-in-chief of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Partnership Studies at the University of Minnesota, and author of, The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future, now in 27 foreign editions and 57 U.S. printings, and other books. Her recent, Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives and Future, co-authored with anthropologist Douglas Fry, combines her research with the latest findings from the social and biological sciences. Eisler keynotes conferences nationally and internationally and speaks on the applications of the partnership model at corporations, universities and platforms such as the United Nations. She received many honors including the Feminist Press Pioneer award and the Nuclear Peace Leadership award, earlier awarded to the Dalai Lama. Her other books include Tomorrow’s Children, Sacred Pleasure, and Women, Men and the Global Quality of Life, documenting the key role of women’s status in a nation’s quality of life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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