Riane Eisler: navigating transformation

Riane Eisler, a scholar, writer, and social activist

Riane Eisler, a scholar, writer, and social activist

Riane Eisler is an Austrian-born American scholar, writer and social activist.

Her research as a cultural historian and evolutionary theorist cites archeological evidence that neither men nor women dominated one another in past cultures. This groundbreaking work resulted in a revolution in our thinking regarding the need to re-conceptualize history and created a new vision for a possible future which included full equality and value for the role of the feminine in our world.

Born in Vienna, her family fled from the Nazis to Cuba when she was a child and later immigrated to the United States. She recalls this pivotal moment in her life as it began to shape her questions about the world around her.

“I remember having to flee with my parents when I was very very little from the Nazis from my native Vienna. I saw from one moment to the next that I went from being this little girl that people patted on the head, to my family being hunted with a license to be killed. The gestapo came for my father on Kristallnacht.”

On the night of November 9, 1938, remembered as Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass,” violence against Jews broke out across the Reich.

“I saw some life-changing things that night. Of course cruelty and violence as they dragged him away and pushed him down the stairs, but I also saw the spiritual courage that my mother displayed; the courage to stand up against injustice out of love.”

Her mother recognized one of the men as an errand boy for the family business.

“My mother got furious and said, ‘How dare you do this to this man who was so kind to you.’”

Her mother could have easily been killed for that courage.

“By a miracle, she wasn’t killed,” she says. “Eventually she obtained my father’s release.”

This experience, coupled with being plunged from affluence to poverty in the industrial slums of Havana, led her to the question that would drive her work of four decades. “Does it have to be this way?” she wondered as a child.

“My work, many many years later is designed to answer that question. Whether we can find a better way, which is what I’ve been studying for four decades, writing about, organizing around , and speaking about,” she says.

The second pivotal moment that turned Dr. Eisler into a lifelong changemaker was in the late 60’s.

She explains, “Along with thousands of other women, I suddenly woke up from a long drugged sleep. I suddenly realized that many of the problems that I thought were things wrong with me were actually cultural and social problems.”

“We were doing these consciousness raising groups and we found out that we all shared the same problems, the devaluation of women, the devaluation of things associated with women, and with caregiving work.”

She describes herself as “flying herself” into the women’s movement. As an attorney, Dr. Eisler was one of the founders of the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first legal periodical to focus exclusively on women’s rights.

Her first book, Dissolution, predicted what later became called the feminization of poverty as formally middle class women were being plunged into poverty; not because no fault divorce wasn’t sensible, but because it wasn’t a level playing field.

She recalls that as important as changing the laws were, which was critical and which succeeded in a piecemeal fashion, what was really needed was a massive cultural change.

Dr. Eisler also had training as a social scientist and systems research analyst.

“I decided to take a risk,” she says. “I spent ten years doing cross cultural historical research.”

2chalice coverThe result of this risk was Dr. Eisler’s international bestseller in 1987

The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future.

The book was praised by anthropologist Ashley Montagu as “the most important book since Darwin’s Origin of Species.” It has been translated into at least 26 languages.

In her book she proposes that we need new social categories that go beyond conventional ones such as religious vs. secular, right vs. left, capitalist vs. communist, and Eastern vs. Western.

“None of these categories gives visibility to the importance of the roles and relations between the two basic halves of humanity,” she notes.

She points out that societies in all these categories have been repressive and violent, and that a road map to a more equitable and less violent social structure requires a new framework that describes social features that are ignored or marginalized in conventional worldviews, particularly the social construction of the foundational parent-child and gender based relations.

“I had to coin new words and describe what I saw. I had to describe the hidden ways our social roles are constructed.” she explains.

She coined the term domination culture to describe a system of dominance based hierarchy ultimately backed up by fear or force. One of the core components of this system of authoritarian rule in both the family and the state is the subordination of women — whether in Nazi Germany, Khomeini’s Iran, or in earlier cultures where chronic violence and despotic rule were the norm.

She noted the correlation between these repressive, authoritarian, warlike regimes, and the tie to what she calls the erroneously titled “traditional family” structure. She points out the original family structures were not this way. They were not male dominated, highly punitive family structures that form the basis for dominator systems.

“What my work shows is that we can create a better way of living and relating to ourselves, to others and to our planet really if we have the configuration of the partnership rather than the domination configuration.”

Riane Eisler 020Her 2003 book, the Power of Partnership, expanded her insights on this partnership paradigm. It is filled with powerful examples  and extensive research that shows how a simple shift in perspective can help us break free of domination’s shackles and discover the power and joy of partnership in every life relationship, including our relationship with ourselves, our loved ones, our co-workers, our community, our nation, and our world, as well as our relationship with nature and with spirit.


She also reminds us that raising the status of women is good for everyone.

Dr. Eisler points out, however, that raising the status of the women is not enough.

“We also need to change the economic system. But in reality changing the status of women will change the economic system. It’s essential and without it we don’t have the foundation for the needed changes.”

Her 2008 book, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, proposes a new approach to economics that gives visibility and value to the most essential human work: the work of caring for people and the planet.

She notes, “I have become more and more action oriented in my writing and my books have more or less followed this trajectory.”

She explains that, “change happens through an interactive process of awareness and action. Awareness means looking at the world differently, seeing different possibilities. And the more we act the more things change and we become more aware of new possibilities and further action. And so my work really is about that.”

As president of The Center for Partnership Studies she is dedicated to answering these big questions.

“The question we ask at the Center is ‘What are the interventions that have a cascade of systemic effects?’”

Dr. Eisler has been brilliant at building new mental constructs to expand how we relate to reality. This pattern of her work and her gifted use of language as a writer expand our thinking outside our static old paradigm thinking.

She says that her most personally prized work today is around building a Caring Economy Initiative.

She notes, “Putting caring and economy together is really interesting, speaking of a new mental construct. But isn’t that a terrible comment that we have been conditioned to expect that uncaring values should drive economic systems?”

“There is another way,” she asserts.

The Caring Economy Campaign consists of building a grassroots coalition through organizing, now representing over sixteen million people, an online leadership and learning program, and public policy.

Dr. Eisler asserts that there is an emerging consensus that something is missing from our thinking about our economy.

To help identify these missing links in economic indicators, the Center for Partnership Studies is launching a new report, “Social Wealth Economic Indicators: Measuring Economic and Social Success,” this fall which introduces the new measurement of economic health called Social Wealth Economic Indicators (SWEIs).


She explains, “The old view of wealth is of strictly material or financial things, such as land, stocks, and earnings. As we shift into the knowledge-service era, there is growing recognition that a healthy and prosperous economy largely hinges on the contributions of its people, and hence on the state of a nation’s human capacity development,” often called our “human” capital.


Social Wealth Economic Indicators (SWEIs) measure both the state of our nation’s human capacity development, such as levels of education and health, and other variables such as support for care work, access to early childhood education, gender and racial equity, and other investments in the development of every individual’s full capacities throughout the whole life span.


SWEIs substantiate the enormous economic returns from the essential work of care, primarily performed by women. This care work is systematically under-paid and under-valued, contributing in large part to the disproportionate poverty of women and communities of color.

SWEIs also reveal the real value of care work in terms of its contribution to national economic competitiveness and shine a much-needed new spotlight on economic inequality.

They highlight the fact that worldwide women are the poorest of the poor and the mass of the poor, and show that women’s poverty rates — and with these, child poverty rates — can be massively reduced through policies that support care work.

“We know that care work is extraordinarily valuable, in human terms and family terms, what we are showing is that this caring work has enormous economic value, yet has been ignored,” she notes.

“The categories we have for counting what is valuable are so limiting,” she adds. Women or gender are often ignored in the field of economics in addition to measurements for caring.

The report shows how family-friendly policies lead to lower poverty rates and improved family/employment balance, as well as business and national economic success.

Scheduled to be released this fall, it compares the U.S. to other developed OECD countries, and finds that the United States is way behind in support for care work.

“We are the only nation that doesn’t have government supported paid parental leave in all the OECD nations. All the others make an investment in high quality early childhood education,” she states.

“This is disastrous for our nation economically, especially as we enter the service-knowledge age where what we need more than anything else is high quality human capital as the prime ingredient for success.”

“We have to show business leaders that what’s good for women and families is good for them.”

“My work has been about connecting the dots,” She adds. “And we see that huge dots are not even visible. We need to make them visible so we can see what’s hidden in plain sight.”


Read the forthcoming report or learn more about how to join the Caring Economy Campaign. 

Learn more about the Center for Partnership Studies and Riane Eisler.

your thoughts?