Episode 3

The Creation of Patriarchy, by Gerda Lerner, Part 1

Published on: 29th December, 2020

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy, I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. 

Have you ever been to a beautiful city somewhere where there are cafes and shops and businesses built along narrow streets… and you learn that the foundations of the streets were laid thousands of years ago? They’ve been inhabited continuously, with people living their lives, tearing down old structures and building up new ones, over and over again upon that same grid, those same streets, generation after generation. Have you ever wondered, Who decided on this street layout? When? Why? Somebody made it up at some point. Is this city  grid still serving the needs of the people who are building their lives on these streets now? 

Today we will be discussing a book that examines the foundations of patriarchy - the cultural, psychological, and political system upon which humans have been building their societies and their religions and their personal lives for thousands of years. The book is called The Creation of Patriarchy, by Gerda Lerner. Written in 1986, it answers the who, when, how, and why of these foundations. But before we start, I’d like to introduce my guest, Sherrie Crawford! Hi Sherrie!

Sherrie: Hi, Amy!

Amy: Sherrie and I met in Cairo, Egypt, when we were both college students on a semester abroad in Jerusalem. We were in a writing group together, and then later ended up reconnecting as young moms and forming a Joy School together. We’ve been friends all this time, even though we’ve lived far apart, and Sherrie I’m so grateful to have you onboard this project and excited to have you here today!

Sherrie: So happy to be here!

Amy: Let’s start out with an introduction - can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where you’re from, and what makes you you? 


Sure! I’m Sherrie Crawford. I’m the 5th of 6 children, born into a low socioeconomic status Mormon family. I was born in Utah, and grew up in Arizona, and while my grandparents had money and provided nice Christmases and trips to Disneyland for us, I think of my growing up as being “everyday poor.” 

Education wasn’t encouraged in my family - some of my family members didn’t finish high school, and I didn’t have college aspirations for myself. I kind of “accidentally” went to college, because my seminary teacher Brother Burkhart signed me up for LDS Business College, and I went.

Later my friend Tami told me about the BYU Jerusalem study abroad program, and I signed up. The cost was $8,000, which felt like a million dollars at the time! My grammy and grandpa helped a little and my parents helped a little, I received a scholarship, but I sold my Bronco and earned most of that money myself. 

After Jerusalem I went to BYU Provo, and then I did the next Mormon thing, which was to get married and make babies! I put my studies on hold so that my husband could finish his degree, and we had our first baby right away. My husband stayed in school for 13 years until he eventually earned a PhD in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Utah, and got a job in Idaho Falls, ID, where we live today.

We had four kids along the way, and when my youngest was in kindergarten I knew I needed to change something about my life. Being at home full-time without children wasn't satisfying for me. I searched deep inside and decided to finish my education. I had never planned to finish school and only had envisioned being a stay at home mom for my life. This decision led to a full blown panic attack. I didn’t know what it was at the time - I thought I was having a heart attack - but when I went in to the doctor I learned my heart was just fine. So I went back to school! I attended BYU-Idaho, so I went to almost all of the Mormon schools. Some of my highlights include studying U.S. women’s history with Dr. Andrea Radke-Moss and religion with Dr. Janiece Johnson. With Dr. Johnson I was able to explore the notion of the divine feminine and incorporate more of Heavenly Mother into my spiritual practice. Mormons have a belief in a Heavenly Mother, but we are not allowed to talk about her and definitely not allowed to talk to her, so studying the divine feminine was really powerful for me.

I graduated from BYU-Idaho in (2017) with a degree in Social Work and then went on to get a master’s degree in Social Work from Boise State University. I am the first person in my family of origin to earn a graduate degree. I put in a few years as a psychotherapist before taking a job as an elementary school counselor, which is heart work that I absolutely love.

Oh, and one more thing that’s significant to who I am: I grew up my whole life thinking that my mom’s side of the family was Mexican. My mom’s native language was Spanish, my Grandma Lucero, always used to say very proudly, “We are spanish people!” Well, a couple of years ago we did a 23 and Me test, which revealed my mom’s side is mostly Native American, we believe the Pueblo tribe in New Mexico. And around the same time, I happened to be studying the Spanish conquest of the Americas in my US women’s history class. And I learned - in my class readings - that the Spanish enslaved the Pueblo people of New Mexico. I realized that I was reading about my own family, and that was devastating.

But I’ve been learning more about my family history, and I’m really excited that later in the podcast project we’re going to read about Native American women together, and that will be really meaningful to me.


Yes, I am so excited for that, and to go on that journey with you. 

And thank you so much for being here and for sharing your story! I’m so grateful and excited to discuss this text with you. And it’s especially amazing to be talking about the book The Creation of Patriarchy, since it talks about the cradle of civilization, and we met in the context of taking classes on ancient civilizations in the Near East.

So first let’s learn some background on the author of our text, Gerda Lerner.


Gerda Hedwig Kronstein was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in 1920. At age ten she was enrolled in a demanding all-girls’ school, where she loved listening to jazz and reading modernist literature.  

In 1934 a virtual civil war broke out in Vienna, between Nazis and leftist workers, and some of the fighting was so close to her home that she could hear the machine-gun fire.  

Many Jewish men were starting to be arrested, so Gerda’s father left the family for safety, intending to send for them later. In his absence the Nazi storm troopers arrested Gerda and her mother instead, seeking to use them as bait to force her father to return.  Gerda and her mother were imprisoned separately, and held in prison for six weeks, and Gerda believed she survived only because some Communist cellmates shared their food with her.  She looked back on these experiences as a Nazi resister and imprisoned teenager as the most formative influences of her life.

She arrived in America in 1939. She soon met Carl Lerner, a Communist theater director, fell in love, and in 1941 married him.  They moved to Los Angeles, where he became a successful film editor, and she began writing. In 1943, she became a citizen. Having mastered the English language with astonishing speed, she collaborated with Carl on some screenplays, including Black Like Me (1964), which he then directed.  Their daughter Stephanie was born in 1946, their son Dan in 1947.  She soon became a national leader in the Congress of American Women, working with poor black women and beginning to understand the limitations of her own middle-class assumptions.

At age 38 Gerda enrolled in college and then graduate school at Columbia, earning both a B.A. and a PhD in six years.  Driven by her developing concern with race and women, and defying warnings and belittlement from those who argued for a more conventional and “high status” topic, Gerda wrote a PhD dissertation about the white abolitionist Grimke sisters. Children of South Carolina slaveholders, they were the star antislavery activists of their era as well as early women’s-rights advocates. [And we will be reading Sarah Grimke in a later podcast episode!]

In her first job, at Sarah Lawrence College, she quickly recognized that merely teaching women’s history would not be enough to build respect for the field, and she strategized to build women’s history programs with high visibility.  Doing this often meant fighting major battles with administrators and faculty members in order to be taken seriously. She began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in 1968 and worked to establish an MA program in Women’s History, which still continues. Twelve years later she won a professorship at the University of Wisconsin, over significant opposition, where she built the country’s first PhD program in Women’s History.  She lectured widely on the importance of women’s history, and one of her most famous quotes is “Women's history is the primary tool for women's emancipation.” 

Her master project of the 1980s was published in the two volumes, The Creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness).  To do this massive study she left modern American history for anthropology, archeology, mythology and early modern Europe, and read widely in German as well as English. She claimed that depriving women of education and knowledge of their own history was the root of their subordination.

This is why she dedicated her life to women’s history, so that it wouldn’t be pigeon-holed as a separate “field,” left to specialists.  She wanted a holistic history and she wanted a history that served to advance understanding of all forms of injustice.

[Sources of bio: - we don’t have to read this part) :)




Here I have to add that Gerda Lerner has become hero to me. I had never heard of her until I just happened upon this book, The Creation of Patriarchy about a year and a half ago. It took a few months to read - it’s not hard to understand - it’s very clear writing, but it’s really thorough and densely packed, so it’s not fast reading. But nearly every single page has something highlighted, dog-eared, notes in the margins… my mind was blown by historical epiphanies and personal epiphanies… this was the book I had been searching for for the past ten years or more. And then as I learned about how she went back to college at age 38 and then got her masters and PhD later in life and ended up founding Women’s Studies programs… really it was Lerner’s mission that inspired me to start this project. 

So let’s dive into the book. Like Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, Lerner goes back as far as there are any human records. She begins in the year 3 million BCE, but she goes to greater depth than Eisler does. Today we will cover the introduction of the book, some prehistoric events, as in, developments that happened before there were any written records, then we’ll cover Mesopotamia and the era of the Near Eastern goddesses. Then in the next episode  we will cover patriarchy within Hebrew Civilization and the ancient Greeks.

So first, Sherrie, can you tell us some of the most important parts from the introduction?


Yes! I’m going to start with a quote.

(Quote) Women are and have been central, not marginal, to the making of society and to the building of civilization. Women have also shared with men in preserving collective memory. ...History-making, on the other hand, is a historical creation which dates from the invention of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. From the time of the king lists of ancient Sumer on, historians, whether priests, royal servants, clerks, clerics, or a professional class of university-trained intellectuals, have selected the events to be recorded and have interpreted them so as to give them meaning and significance. Until the most recent past, these historians have been men, and what they have recorded is what men have done and experienced and found significant. They have called this History and claimed universality for it. What women have done and experienced has been left unrecorded, neglected, and ignored in interpretation. Historical scholarship, up to the most recent past, has seen women as marginal to the making of civilization and as unessential to those pursuits defined as having historic significance. 

Thus, the recorded and interpreted record of the past of the human race is only a partial record, in that it omits the past of half of humankind, and it is distorted, in that it tells the story from the viewpoint of the male half of humanity only. (End quote) (4)

I think that’s going to be a theme for the whole podcast, right? Almost all of the records we have of human history have been written from men’s point of view. And it makes me wonder - what would history look like if women had been writing the records all of this time? And if women had been interpreting the historical records and creating the stories?

Yes, and that reminds me of another quote from the Introduction, where she says,

(Quote) Women have been… kept from knowing their history and from interpreting history, either their own or that of men. Women have been systematically excluded from the enterprise of creating symbol systems, philosophies, science, and law. Women have not only been educationally deprived throughout historical time in every known society, they have been excluded from theory- formation. (End quote)


One more quote from the introduction is this one:

(quote) Many men and women have suffered exclusion and discrimination because of their class. No man has been excluded from the historical record because of his sex, yet all women were. (end quote) (5)

This is significant because it’s an argument we still hear all the time. Some people dismiss sexism and say “well men have it bad too -  not all men are leaders, not all men are rich, not all men have authority, not all men have power.” And that’s true! And men are certainly not the bad guys in the story. But the fact is that in a patriarchal system, many men are excluded from power, and all women are excluded from power. So if a man uses that argument on you, now you can quote Gerda Lerner in response. :) 

Amy: Pre-Written-History

[In our previous episode, we emphasized that Riane Eisler claimed that a true matriarchy had never existed. But with that said, one of Eisler’s main projects was highlighting women’s “empowered past.” And we didn’t have time to talk about it last time, but her book, and the work of an archeologist named Marija Gimbutas sparked a kind of “goddess” movement within feminism in the 1990’s. The writer Sue Monk Kidd is really into that - going on pilgrimages to Crete and envisioning a time when women were priestesses, and people do talk about “matriarchies” in the Neolithic era and in hunter/gatherer cultures.

So Lerner chimes in on this topic in the following way:]

“In all hunting/gathering societies, no matter what women’s economic and social status is, women are always subordinate to men in some respects. There is not a single society known where women-as-a-group have decision-making power over men or where they define the rules of sexual conduct or control marriage exchanges.” 

This reminds me of the analogy of the stage that I read in the introductory episode - in some times and places, men have allowed women to have more equal role assignments. And in some families, some women might seem like they’re the ones in charge. But women have never been able to say “I invoke my status as the woman of the house to overrule you in this decision,” the way men can do that any time they want. And to many listeners that will sound like something that used to happen 100 years ago, but I have heard of couples our age where a man allows his wife to think they have equal status, but when it comes down to a big decision, he will say - sometimes forcefully, sometimes gently - “sorry, as the man of the house, I have the final word.” I was in the room where that happened once and my jaw dropped and I have never forgotten it. (Not my parents or siblings).

So now Sherrie and I are going to take turns telling a story of the chronology of our prehistoric human ancestors, and what archaeologists think happened between the time that homo sapiens started walking around on two legs and the time that people developed written language in the fertile crescent in 3,000 BCE. 

  1. Sherrie: 

Here’s a passage from the book:

(Quote) 3 million years ago - 100,000 years ago, as humans evolved, the first characteristic distinguishing humans from other primates is the prolonged and helpless infancy of the human child. This is the direct result of bipedalism, which led to the narrowing of the female pelvis and birth canal due to upright posture. One result of this was that human babies were born at a greater stage of immaturity than other primates, with relatively smaller heads in order to ease passage through the birth canal. Further, in contrast to the most highly developed apes, human babies are born naked and therefore must experience a greater need for warmth. They cannot grasp their mothers for steady support,... so mothers must use their hands or, later, substitutes for hands to cradle their infants against them….the human brain develops for many years during the child’s period of infancy and complete dependency. During this period, the role of females was crucial. Infant’s survival depended on maternal care. (end quote)

So basically, because humans walked on two legs, babies were born earlier in their gestation, which meant that females needed to breastfeed and care for their babies for a long time. And that limits their activities. Plus the women were getting pregnant all the time, which slows women down!! 

HOWEVER, we just read that New York Times article this week about the remains of a 9,000-year-old big-game hunter buried in the Andes. The article says “Like other hunters of the period, this person was buried with a specialized tool kit associated with stalking large game, including projectile points, scrapers for tanning hides and a tool that looked like a knife. There was nothing particularly unusual about the body — though the leg bones seemed a little slim for an adult male hunter. But when scientists analyzed the tooth enamel using a method borrowed from forensics that reveals whether a person carries the male or female version of a protein called amelogenin, the hunter turned out to be female.” And once the scientists knew there was one female, they tested the bodies of 26 hunters, and 10 of them were female! Which challenges the assumptions we have always had about hunter/gatherer societies.

Amy: Yeah, and then later in the article it talks about the skeleton...

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About the Podcast

Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.