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Promoting Demeter


Ruth El Saffar


IN DON Quixote's hymn to the Golden Age in chapter 11 of Don Quixote , part 1, the mad knight of La Mancha juxtaposes what looks like a classical beatus ille topos with a remark rather out of keeping with the tradition of Theocritus generally associated with the speech. After expressing regret that attitudes of exploitation and competition have broken humankind's symbiosis with the Great Mother, Don Quixote appends the somewhat more idiosyncratic observation that in the present “detestable age” young maidens are no longer safe, being constant prey to “strangers' licence or lascivious assault” (86).

It took me many years to understand what bound together the apparent inconjuncts in Don Quixote's famous Golden Age speech. How was the greed that severed humankind from the bounties of Mother Earth linked to the lust that threatened young maidens? Why would the loss of the Great Mother's beneficence especially endanger young women?

That I didn't reflect much on how Don Quixote's beatus ille strays from its classical model comments on the psychological landscape I had been roaming as an academic woman. Like the withered Elysian fields of Don Quixote's imagination, the academic turf has long been inhospitable to “young damsels.” On the one hand, it has traditionally given scant value to the nurture associated with the mother image and has provided little occasion for attention to female voices and perspectives. On the other hand, it has not infrequently been the site of sexual power plays, as Evelyn Fox Keller and Helene Moglen have shown.

Reflecting on the conflicts that develop as more and more academic women get tenure and hold full professorships, Keller and Moglen note that in the past “younger women seeking avenues to success begged their maps—and were sometimes asked to buy them with their bodies—from the males who agreed to be their mentors” (469). If once, a generation ago, women sought their maps from male mentors in keeping with Don Quixote's “crazed” description of our fallen world, now, in the 1980s, female mentors may at last be appearing on the horizon. How these entirely new figures balance the demand for professional excellence with concern for those who look to them as role models has become a critical question.

In offering a vision of a newly fashioned female academician, I draw on figures long familiar to the classical tradition to which Don Quixote alludes in his excursus into the ills of the Iron Age. From the perspective of life in the late 1980s, however, I will be looking beyond the parched plains that Don Quixote knew only too well to places where the warring impulses of Mount Olympus's gods and goddesses may be resolved.

Key to establishing a vision of female mentoring that does not mimic past failures is our capacity to understand and resurrect the mother-daughter bond that the Eleusian mysteries represent between Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, and Persephone. In a dimly remembered time before time, according to the myth embodied in the Homeric hymns, mother and daughter lived in Eleusis, until the day that Hades, lord of the underworld, emerged through a crack in the earth to carry off Persephone. After a fruitless search for her daughter, Demeter resigned herself to a caretaker position and lived in obscurity as nursemaid to the mortal child Demophoon. Her period of secondhand mothering ended suddenly, however, when her admittedly strange efforts to make a god out of her young charge were interrupted by the child's mother. Despondent over the loss of this second child, Demeter became so depressed that she refused to allow anything to grow. In the face of this calamity, Zeus—who was Persephone's father and who had authorized Hades to abduct her—finally permitted Persephone to return to her mother.

Most of us recognize the Demeter in ourselves. She is the archetypal figure who brings forth life only to have others seize the fruits of her labors and bear them off triumphantly as their own. Many of us have been socialized to validate ourselves in the world as nurturers, generally of the self-abnegating variety. In the academy, until recently, women with a primary Demeter identification contributed to the teaching and service branches of the profession without enjoying the rewards that their hard work or long service might have merited. Our academic cutting-room floors are littered with the remains of such women.

Despite the neglect that Demeter figures generally experience, it is clear that the academy, like the groves of Eleusis, lives or dies by Demeter's work. Separated from her daughter, she has generally assumed the burdens of a caretaker and has lingered in the penumbrae of glory. In the old days, when people could still be tenured without promotion, she might have remained in the same position forever. With today's more rigorous standards, however, few Demeters are destined to last in that role or even to feel drawn to the profession in the first place. Yet the colleges and universities, and the students they house, continue to cry out for her favors.

With Demeter rendered by now all but dysfunctional, to whom do her tasks of maintenance, preservation, and nurture fall? What rewards do we offer to those who take them on, with fewer and fewer Demeters to be found in university settings? These are questions Keller and Moglen address in their article, questions that may be answered by pushing further into the pantheon of those gods and goddesses whose interpersonal behavior so resembles our own.

Instead of reaching prematurely for resolution, however, we need to delineate another major archetypal figure once familiar in academia and now, like Demeter, on her way to obsolescence. Before their dramatic influx into the academy in the 1960s, women in higher education who did not play Demeter roles were identified with Athena, the classic father's daughter. The one child that Zeus apparently conceived alone, Athena sprang, conveniently full-grown, from her father's head and never acknowledged having a mother. Loyal to her origins, Athena could be counted on to support patriarchal structures. Though she always came to the aid of heroes, her treatment of what we might call her female colleagues was something less than charitable.

In her famous contest with the mortal Arachne, Athena turned her competitor, as is well known, into a spider. Less well known is the reason. Arachne's big mistake was her choice of subject matter, not so much her challenging or besting a goddess. On her three tapestries she wove repeated images of Zeus as imposter and seducer: as a swan with Leda, as a bull kidnapping Europa, as a golden shower impregnating Danaë. For daring to show the archetypal patriarch in a negative light, Arachne was turned into a spider.

It takes little imagination to read Athena back into the figure of the woman who survived in the academic world when each of us was seen as an exception. We all have traces of Athena within us. By the very nature of our chosen work we are to some degree fathers' daughters. Psychological portraits of successful women often reveal in the background a father who stimulated, encouraged, and supported his daughter. Only now, as feminist analyses begin to pick up Arachne's needle once more, are we coming to understand how easily father the stimulator and encourager can become father the seducer.

Freud saw it all too clearly in the early years of psychoanalysis when his work focused on female hysterics. Again and again, reporting to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, he expressed astonishment at his patients' repeated stories of paternal sexual abuse. He further noted that the patients got well when they were able to tell their stories. But the community to whom Freud reported his findings in 1896 was no more enthusiastic than Athena had been to see patriarchy's dark side exposed. By 1897 Freud was able to write to Fliess that he “no longer believed” in his “neurotica” (265).

In the 1980s the story is coming up for another airing, as Christine Froula has suggested in her reading of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. As Demeter discovered in searching for Persephone, the father and the abductor, if not one and the same, often work in collusion to separate the daughter from her mother. In the process, mother and daughter both experience devaluation and disorientation.

To take the metaphors back once again to the academy, it is clear that until recently women have faced an alien world, one in which they could survive either by accepting second-class status or by renouncing what they knew of the mother aspect of themselves. Women had to operate at one or the other of the archetypal extremes, serving as either Demeters or Athenas in an environment that could not assimilate whole female beings.

Walter Ong has described the academy as founded on a model of conflict rooted in the territorial struggles of males in the animal kingdom. His account of the essentially all-male university world provides historical support for Ellen Silber, who discovered when she tried to introduce French women writers into her course offerings that her “fine education in French had been designed for a gentleman”—that she had been taught a “white male curriculum” (28).

Ong's analysis of the university also underwrites Christine Froula's more encompassing observation that

for the literary daughter—the woman reader/writer as daughter of her culture—the metaphysical violence against women inscribed in the literary tradition … has serious consequences. … Like physical abuse, literary violence against women works to privilege the cultural father's voice and story over those of women, the cultural daughters, and indeed to silence women's voices. (633)

This brings us, finally, back to Persephone, who lingers in the domain of Hades, listless and without appetite since her abduction. In the custody arrangement that Demeter worked out with Zeus, Persephone was to spend part of each year with Demeter in Eleusis and the other part with Hades in the underworld. Persephone had to accept this settlement because, shortly before her departure from Hades, she had agreed to eat a few of the pomegranate seeds her abductor proffered her. By this act, though she never admitted it to Demeter, Persephone had made connections to the underworld that were important to her. She voluntarily returned each time to Hades, since she clearly enjoyed the power that she had been given as queen of the underworld.

Persephone's double loyalty can be experienced as a dilemma—as I discovered over the many years I literally ran back and forth between my world as mother and my world as professor. It can also be welcomed as a privileged opportunity for mediation. As more and more women both pursue academic careers and embrace motherhood—biological or psychological—we have the opportunity to introduce into the once all-male enclave of the academy a consciousness born of our mixed emotional and intellectual heritage. As we reflect on Persephone's position within us—no longer regarding mother and father, nature and culture, nurture and insight as separate aspects of consciousness but as complementary pairs that can enhance awareness of each aspect—our institutions must of necessity change.

It is a critical and exciting time. Feminist scholarship has begun to unearth women's texts that have been subjected to centuries of neglect and misinterpretation. Editing projects are under way; new texts are being fashioned. Women's studies programs are growing up across the country, and many curricular development projects are aimed at bringing into the mainstream works and viewpoints that once were restricted to marginal and poorly funded programs outside the normal departmental structures.

As the work of recovery goes on, it begins to dawn on us, with varying degrees of intensity, that we have indeed lived our past years separated from our mothers, and that it is the mother's voice in us that can bring life back into the arid groves in which we have been toiling. A glance at any MLA convention bulletin reveals the extent to which women's issues are revitalizing academic discourse.

Erik Erikson once wondered “what would happen to science or any other field if and when women [were] truly represented in it” (292). For the first time ever in the history of academia, women are not anomalies, exceptions. In the academy today we face the long and difficult process of defining at the curricular and structural level what it means for women to be “truly represented.” How can work assignments, the reward structures, the hiring decisions, the advisement system, and, perhaps most crucially, the vision of culture and consciousness be reshaped better to fit not only women's needs but the needs of the university, whose ultimate role is to educate men and women for the tasks of the twenty-first century?

As women who spend at least half our time identified with our mothers and the mother within us, we should strive in the academy not only to support Zeus and the projects dear to him but also to promote Demeter. As we move into the next decade and experience success and power in the “underworld” that the academy has long been for us, it is crucially important to remember our ties to Demeter and to Eleusis. Unlike her female predecessors, the Persephone figure who emerges in the 1990s will bring a balanced mother-father consciousness to her work and to the students and colleagues who share her terrain. She will make it possible—without reverting to Don Quixote's solution of taking up arms—for young maidens to “walk in safety” once again.


The author is Professor of Spanish at Northwestern University. This article is based on a paper presented at the ADFL Seminar West, 16–18 June 1988, in Boulder, Colorado.


Works Cited


Cervantes, Miguel de. The Adventures of Don Quixote . Trans. Walter Cohen. Baltimore: Penguin, 1947.

Erikson, Erik. Identity: Youth and Crisis . New York: Norton, 1968.

Freud, Sigmund. The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887–1904 . Trans. and ed. Jeffrey M. Masson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.

Froula, Christine. “The Daughter's Seduction.” Signs 11(1986): 621–44.

Keller, Evelyn Fox, and Helene Moglen. “Competition and Feminism: Conflicts for Academic Women.” Signs 12 (1987): 493–511.

Ong, Walter. Fighting for Life . Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Silber, Ellen S. “Teaching French Women Writers—the First Time.” ADFL Bulletin 18.3 (1987): 28–30.


© 1989 by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. All Rights Reserved.

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