Perhaps it was the death of famous journalist and reporter Cokie Roberts or, possibly, it was the fact that I was celebrating another birthday which was unfortunately attached to an alarmingly high number. Whatever the reason, I recently found myself reflecting on the entirety of my life and the major societal changes I have been witness to.

I mention Cokie Roberts because for years she was a staple of my morning routine as I commuted to work with my radio permanently transfixed to National Public Radio. She was an insightful and brilliant journalist who was a trailblazer for women in the news industry. In addition to providing cogent reports on the nation’s political machinations, she, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted, “brought the role of women to light by telling stories of the unsung women who built our nation.”

The rise in prominence of Cokie Roberts and so many professional women after her in countless segments of our society is indicative of a societal shift more monumental than any other in my lifetime. I remember when I entered Fordham Law School in 1971 and found myself in a class whose gender composition was 99% male. Two years later, as editor of the student newspaper (the Advocate), I dedicated an entire issue to the question of why this inequality existed. Although I doubt my efforts had any impact I am happy to report that women comprise at least half of the Fordham Law School student body today. But it’s not just in law schools where women have made inroads, it’s evident everywhere you look.

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I remember when the first black woman elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm, visited my law school after announcing her candidacy for president in 1972. I was fortunate to get an opportunity to speak with her back then. She told me of the incredible pressures against her as she boldly attempted to challenge the accepted norm that only men should run for the presidency. Today, several women are aspiring to the highest office in the land and, although there are some pockets of resistance, it appears that the gender bias barrier is slowly diminishing. 

In 2019, women are breaking down immense barriers, societal and legal, which have been in place for thousands of years. Improbably, a close examination of history reveals that it was not always this way.

Archaeologist, scientist and author Dr. Marija Gimbutas has written a series of eye-opening books (“The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe,” “The Language of the Goddess,” “The Civilization of the Goddess”) which carefully and meticulously document the existence of a single coherent civilization that flourished throughout Eastern and Southern Europe and elsewhere lasting from 10,000 B.C. to around 3000 B.C.

Documenting her findings through the examination of over 40,000 artifacts,. Gimbutas paints a picture of a dominant culture (which she calls Old Europe) where women were in equal control with men in almost every aspect of society. Whereas male-dominated societies leave remains glorifying war, weapons, dominance, etc., this society left a strikingly different archaeological legacy.

It’s truly astounding to realize that in the civilization unearthed by this author’s painstaking work the society was matriarchal and matrilineal. Descent and inheritance were traced through the mother. Men and women were treated as equal with neither gender dominant in law or in practice. Unlike male-dominated societies, this one was classless, with men and women in equal possession of the material wealth. Women played leading roles in government and even in religious affairs.

As for religion itself, thousands of miniature figurines of the Goddess were unearthed. Goddess inspired her followers to see the universe as an ever-present source of life and nurturing. This society deplored war and aggression, instead emphasizing a feeling of awe at the mystery, beauty and sanctity of life. No evidence of slavery, royalty, human sacrifices, military fortifications or classes could be found, all of which are the clear legacy of male-dominated societies.       

Even more importantly, the values emphasized couldn’t be more dissimilar to what we experience today. For them, the primary purpose of life was not to conquer, fight or destroy others. All of society’s resources, both masculine and feminine, were dedicated to promoting and enhancing the quality of life of all its members. Gimbutas detected a special emphasis on the arts. As you may have guessed, there existed a rather advanced appreciation of beauty both physical and spiritual. All of this was maintained within the context of an agricultural lifestyle whose main emphasis was peaceful coexistence.

Was this matriarchic society successful? Gimbutas felt so, “if one defines civilization as the ability of a given people to adjust to its environment and to develop adequate arts, technology, script, and social relations, it is evident that Old Europe achieved a marked degree of success.”

After thousands of years the matriarchal civilization was overpowered by a patriarchal culture. As our author notes, “Towns and villages disintegrated, magnificent painted pottery vanished; as did shrines, frescoes, sculptures, symbols and script. The taste for beauty and sophistication of style and execution withered.” With the new male-dominated society came weapons as well as warrior gods with accompanying evidence of slaughter, slavery and the treatment of women as property.

Any hope that the kinder, gentler, more humane matriarchal society may reemerge was utterly shattered by three powerful factors: 1) a strict professional bias against women which claimed to have its roots in an analysis of “human nature,” 2) a chauvinistically biased assumption of the superiority of males, and 3) a deeply religious bias promoted by patriarchal and male-dominated religious institutions.

The result of all this, according to our author, has been a male-dominated, chauvinistically driven society which has inhibited and stifled the growth of women. But as Bob Dylan was famous for noting, “the times, they are a changin’.” After thousands of years of struggle, the chains of oppression, bias, prejudice and outright subrogation of women are gradually and begrudgingly being lifted. Cokie Roberts and hundreds of brave women like her have to be given credit for doing their part. My only regret is not possessing the temporal longevity to witness the true accomplishments of what I predict will be the Century of the Woman.