WHAT DOES MATRIARCHY MEAN?
First, let’s draw a distinction between ‘matriarchy’ and two other words beginning with ‘matri-‘:
The single universal covering primate and ungulate (hoofed) species, indeed all mammals and much other animal life as well, is that the core of society, the center of whatever kind of social group exists, is mother and child. Such a social organization is called matrifocal or matricentric.Marilyn French, Beyond Power: On Women, Men & Morals, 1986
Words which appear binary opposites of one another are often no such thing. For example, ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ co-locate in the common phrase, “Ladies and gentlemen”. But ‘ladies’ carries different connotations from ‘gentlemen’, which explains why more women reject ‘lady’ as a descriptor for themselves, while most men are happy to roll with the intent of deference and politeness when it comes to ‘gentlemen’. So it is for ‘matriarchy’ and ‘patriarchy’. They look like a equivalent pair.
These terms are not the same as matriarchal, a word formed by analogy with patriarchal, which denotes leadership (from the Greek root arche, meaning chief, and archein, to be first, to rule). A matriarchy would thus be a society in which mothers rule in the same way fathers have ruled for the past few thousand years.Marilyn French, Beyond Power: On Women, Men & Morals, 1986
As the female counterpart of ‘patriarchy’, ‘matriarchy’ is not a thing.
There is no evidence that a matriarchy ever existed on earth. A society in which someone rules is factitious, manufactured: a person or group decides that one person shall dominate and others obey. Matricentric societies are spontaneous, organic; the mother cares for the baby until it is able to move about easily by itself, find food, and protect itself without her. The mother ‘rules’ by greater experience, knowledge, and ability, but the intention of her ‘rule’ is to free the child, to make it independent.Marilyn French, Beyond Power: On Women, Men & Morals, 1986
Notice how Marilyn French says “there is no evidence” of an historical matriarchy. That’s how scientifically-minded people speak, not because Marilyn French hadn’t looked for one.
It is hypothetically possible that a matriarchy existed in the Pre-Neolithic era but there’s no evidence of that. Safe to say, the last 10,000 years of human society have been patriarchal. More likely than matriarchies in the Pre-Neolithic era: male sexual coercion.
MATRIARCHAL DOES NOT MEAN MATRILINEAL
Matrilineal: of or based on kinship with the mother or the female line.
Around 15% of modern societies are matrilineal. In some matrilineal societies women inherit land. We know matrilineal inheritance is more common in fishing communities. What have matrilineal societies to do with fishing? Well, women are working the land because the men are away at sea.
Matrifocality or matricentrality refer to a focus on the mother, her centrality within a family group. Matrilocality means dwelling where the mother dwells after marriage — that is, the groom goes to live among his wife’s people. Matrilineality refers to reckoning of descent. Young animals know their mothers and, to the degree that they have a consciousness of identity, know themselves to be her offspring, her matrilines. They do not have any idea who their father might be, and it is probable that few animal mothers possess this information either. Among humans, matrilineality is the reckoning of descent through the female line, which was common in past ages. Both matrilineality and matrilocality still exist among some peoples.Marilyn French, Beyond Power: On Women, Men & Morals, 1986 (footnotes in Chapter One)
Let’s return to the definition of patriarchy:
Patriarchy: a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.
Some definitions of patriarchy include patrilineage, but that’s an expanded definition. Patrilineage isn’t a given in a patriarchy, though the two definitely correlate. The vast, vast majority of societies are patrilineal. (And all societies are patriarchal.)
A matrilineal society is not a matriarchal society, because women do not use their power to exclude men. If women work the land and then pass the land onto family members who will also be working that land (i.e. their daughters) does that mean women rule the society? No. That’s what equality looks like.
Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other.bell hooks
When women occupy 30% of speaking time in mixed gender meetings, men perceive women to have ‘dominated’ the conversation. That same bias as at play when reading about societies with examples of equality and calling them ‘matriarchal’, or ‘ruled by women’.
Equality looks like domination to those brought up in a sexist culture.
EXAMPLES OF SO-CALLED MATRIARCHY AROUND THE WORLD
But if you spend ten seconds on the Internet, you can find examples of matriarchies, right? The following cultures are commonly offered as examples of matriarchies:
- The Mosuo of China: Matrilineal. Women inherit land. Women don’t marry. Women bring up the children.
- The Bribri of Costa Rica: Women inherit land. Women have an active role in sacred rituals. (Only women may prepare the sacred cacao drink.)
- The Umoja of Kenya: Founded in 1990. Men are banned from the village because the village serves women who have escaped violence at the hands of men. This is not a ‘matriarchy’. It is not even matrilineal. This is a women’s refuge shelter.
- The Minangkabau of Indonesia: Women are said to rule the domestic sphere. Marriage partners sleep separately.
- The Akan of Ghana: Men and women hold leadership positions within a ‘matriclan’. A matriclan is a clan with membership determined by matrilineal descent from a common ancestor. Again, this is not matriarchy. This is matriliny.
- The Khasi of India: Only mothers and female relatives are allowed to look after the children. The society is matrilineal. Children inherit the names of their mothers, not their fathers.
- The Estonian islands of Kihnu and Manija (the last matrilineal society in Europe)
HAVE HUMAN SOCIETIES ALWAYS BEEN PATRIARCHAL?
In 1986, the same year of Marilyn French’s book mentioned above, Gerda Lerner published The Creation of Patriarchy. Lerner traced the development of patriarchy to the second millennium B.C.E. She argued that until ~4,000 years ago, male dominance was not a general and expected feature of human societies.
WHAT ABOUT POLYANDROUS SOCIETIES?
Polygamy: Husbands have multiple wives or female partners.
Polyandry: Wives have multiple husbands or male partners.
There have … been polyandrous societies, where women have multiple male partners. These are rarer, but recent research has found that they are not as rare as previously thought, and they occur worldwide. (Intriguingly, polyandry does not generally give rise to a gender-flipped patriarchy [i.e. the hypothetical matriarchy]; it is more common in egalitarian societies.Carrie Jenkins, What Love Is And What It Could Be (2017) p. 92
WHAT WOULD A TRUE MATRIARCHY LOOK LIKE?
- Female dominance, not just in domestic sphere but throughout wider society. Women would control society as well as the family. Women would be head of the family, leaders of social groups, boss of the workplace and hold positions in government.
- Female centred-ness with a bias against men. Men would enter the workforce where they are useful, but they would be paid less because the work typically done by men would be valued less.
- Female obsession with control. Women would be very reluctant to lose gender-based power and there would be a system of enforcement in place to keep women in power. If this hypothetical police force existed, it might be called misandry, based on the word misogyny, which describes a real thing. Men would consistently fight, even after hard-won gains, for the right to control their own bodies.
“how does misandry affect you” *describes the patriarchy*@tamesis
THE MATRIARCHY IN FICTION
A blockbuster example of matriarchal society in fiction: The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016).
In THE POWER, the world is a recognizable place: there’s a rich Nigerian boy who lounges around the family pool; a foster kid whose religious parents hide their true nature; an ambitious American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But then a vital new force takes root and flourishes, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power–they can cause agonizing pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world drastically resets.
Other examples of (so-called) fictional matriarchies:
- The Aes Sedai from The Wheel of Time fantasy series by American author Robert Jordan. The Queen passes her crown to her daughter. The accurate word for this is ‘matrilineal’. Women are responsible for maintaining the peace. Again, this isn’t a correlate of patriarchy. A woman is on the throne, but rights in this world are not sex based. A patriarchy maintains power, oftentimes at the expense of peace. So would a matriarchy, if such a culture existed.
- The Amazons from DC Comics world, based on a race of warrior women from Greek mythology. These women live together in a segregated community on Paradise Island. According to mythology, Amazonians were created by Aphrodite (or in some stories by Olympian gods) to promote peace and justice. If they don’t leave their island, they don’t age. They live apart from men because men are depicted as hostile and dangerous.
- In a 1988 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Angel One”) the Starfleet crew visit the 24th century, where they encounter an oligarchy of women.
- The Asari from the Mass Effect universe. They are femme-coded in appearance, pansexual, panromantic and can reproduce with any species. The Asari egalitarian, which, once again, is not the definition of ‘matriarchy’. There are clear links to the Amazonians of Greek mythology.
MYTHICAL MATRIARCHS OF THE VALKYRIES
In Norse mythology, a valkyrie (“chooser of the slain”) is one of a host of female figures who guide half of the souls of the dead to the god Odin’s hall.
What might be behind the idea of the strong, powerful Nordic woman?
Well, researchers know from studying skeletal teeth that women in and around Scandinavia enjoyed good health compared to other European samples from the Medieval period. Compared to other European women, Nordic women were taller, stronger and fitter.
A possible explanation: Nordic cultures specialised early in cattle farming. Women took on a valuable role in the farming of cattle which meant they contributed significantly to their family’s income. This gave Nordic women status which stuck around even after industrialization.