In a matriarchy, power lies with the women of a community. Conclusive evidence for the existence of true matriarchal societies turns out to be elusive. There are examples, both historical and current, of societies in which lineage is determined through the mother, or in which women hold dominant positions in the family structure. However, such societies generally occur in times of societal stress or instability, where the men are absent or unreliable. Successful societies, in which children are raised to continue and advance their culture, are those in which men and women together take responsibility as spouses and parents in the home.
A matriarchy is a tradition in which community power lies with the women or mothers of a community, rather than with the men in a patriarchal community. The word matriarchy derives from the Greek words matēr (mother) and archein (to rule). Use of the term is sometimes extended to "government by women," although this is more technically termed "gynocracy."
True matriarchal societies were, and are, extremely rare. Anthropologist Donald Brown's list of "human universals" (i.e., features shared by all current human societies) includes men being the "dominant element" in public political affairs (Brown 1991, 137). This "human universal" of male pre-eminence holds true for historical as well as current human societies. Wherever human societies have been found, be they ancient or modern, there has been a marked preference for men to hold the reins of power.
An apparent exception that comes readily to mind might be Great Britain, where strong women rulers have left their marks in history. Elizabeth I is considered by many historians to have been the best monarch England has ever had. Victoria was another famous British queen. The present queen, Elizabeth II, has been on the throne for decades. Great Britain appears to have strong matriarchal tendencies.
However, Great Britain is not a matriarchy. Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II, and Victoria came to the throne in the absence of male heirs, not because of a system designed to place women in positions of power. Succession to the throne in Great Britain goes from the first son to the first son. If the first son were unable to assume the responsibilities of the throne, preference would go to a second or third son. Only in the absence of sons would a daughter ascend to the throne. Henry VIII's famous marital exploits are believed to have been motivated, in part, by his desperate desire to have a male heir, thus avoiding a crisis of succession. In the absence of a prince to ascend to the position of king, succession crises have been resolved by elevating a princess to the position of queen.
Societies that have been characterized as matriarchal have been subjects of anthropological debate. The Wemale culture of western Seram, which was studied by A.E. Jensen during the Frobenius Institute expedition of 1938, and who are often indicated as an example of matriarchy, are not thoroughly and consistently matriarchal. Karl Kerenyi noted this in the introduction to Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter (1967, xxxii). Feminist Joan Bamberger notes that the historical record contains no reliable evidence of any society in which women dominated (Bamberger 1974). The Trobriand Islands were considered a matriarchy by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. However this view has engendered considerable dispute. Peter N. Stearns and other historians have speculated as to whether or not agricultural Japan was a matriarchy prior to contact with patriarchal China (Stearns 2000, 51). On the other hand, anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday favored redefining and reintroducing the word matriarchy, especially in reference to modern societies like the matrilineal Minangkabau. This group lives in West Sumatra and numbers about four million. Sanday argued that this society is a modern matriarchy defined not in polar opposition to patriarchy, but on unique terms. Some, particularly feminist anthropologists, such as Heide Göttner-Abendroth, use matriarchy in the sense of "motherly beginning," arguing that the term comes from matēr ("mother") and archê ("beginning, origin") rather than archein (rule) (Vonier 2007).
In any case, true matriarchal societies were and are few and far between: "There is no 'complete matriarchal people' known today ... this description will be 'fictional' and somewhat theoretical (Vonier 2007). Such societies appear more in the realms of mythology and legends than verifiable history.
Matrilineality, on the other hand, is a more common form of female pre-eminence in society. Matrilineality is distinct from matriarchy. In matrilineal societies, children are identified in terms of their mother rather than their father, as in the Jewish tradition. Extended families and tribal alliances form along female bloodlines in matrilineal societies.
Men holding the reins of power in traditional Jewish society was a given; yet women's behind-the-scenes influence is theorized by some to have contributed to the society becoming matrilineal. In Proverbs, the "capable wife" is the bulwark of her husband's reputation (Prov. 31:23). It is implicitly due to her that he is "respected at the city gate" and "takes his seat among the elders of the land." That is, it is due to her wise ways that he is publicly prominent. She husbands his wealth, increases it with her labors and supervisory abilities, and protects it with charitable giving (Prov. 31:13-22). It is she who earns the respect and accolades of their children (Prov. 31:28)
The mother's influence on children was one of the reasons why matrilineality is theorized to have arisen in the Jewish tradition: the children become what the mother teaches them to be. Susan Sorek offers a thesis that women's contributions in the area of loving kindness or charity – hesed – made them so important and influential in the salvation of the nation of Israel that the Rabbis adopted a matrilineal system.
There are several existing societies that are matrilineal. Two current examples are the Mosuo people of China, and the Minicoy islanders.
Societies wherein women hold a pre-eminent place in kinship structures are called "matrifocal" rather than matriarchal societies. Anthropologist R. L. Smith (2002) refers to matrifocality as the "kinship structure of a social system where the mother assumes prominence."
The traditional Nair community in Kerala, South India is matrifocal (in today's modern world, this system is rarely practiced among the Nair, however. Members of the community now live in nuclear families). A Nair matrifocal family is called a Tarawad or Marumakkathayam family. A traditional Nair Tarawad consists of a mother and her children living together with their mother's surviving eldest brother or eldest surviving maternal uncle who is called Karanavan. In a Nair family, among all the women at home, the eldest mother would become the head of the family. However this does not imply that the decision-making was in the woman's hand. The Karanavan was responsible for making most decisions. The main significance of this system is that the heirs to the property were the women in the family and the men folk were only allowed to enjoy the benefits during their lifetime. The naming system of the Nair community had the prefix of their mother's "family name" and they adopted the mother's surname.
In other matrifocal societies, such as those found in the Caribbean, the most significant and power-laden relationships in a village tend to be between women—either relatives or friends on the same age level, or between mothers and daughters. These relationships include economic generation and cooperation as well as shared childcare responsibilities and authority. Men tend to be peripheral.
Some societies define their homelands as "mother" rather than "father." They define “Motherlands” instead of “Fatherlands,” such as can be found in the Polish use of "Motherland," and the Russian references to "Mother Russia." Also, nature – the world around us upon which we are utterly dependent for sustenance – is referred to as "Mother Nature."
More recent uses of the theme share essentially the same narrative, but root for the vanquished matriarchy. Goddess worship is one motif referred to by James Joyce in his novels such as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Robert Graves and poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound also made use of this theme.
Mary Renault's historical novels about Greek mythology and history, such as The King Must Die, combine motifs of political conflict between goddess and god worshippers with The Golden Bough's hypothesis about dying and reviving gods. The patriarchal conquest of matriarchy motif is found in literally dozens of fantasy novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley's historical revisions of Arthurian literature and the Trojan War; to works of pure fantasy such as Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne.
One area where written myths are available from an early period is the Aegean, where the Minoan "Great Goddess" was worshiped in a society where women and men were apparently equals. However, modern self-described "Goddess women" are too quick to assume that any culture that worships a "Mother Goddess" must be a matriarchy. Historian Ronald Hutton has argued that there is no necessary correlation between the worship of female deities and relative levels of social or legal egalitarianism between the sexes. He has pointed out that within European history, in seventeenth century Spain there were many religious institutions staffed exclusively by women. A female quasi-deity was a conspicuous part of public religious veneration, and cult images of female supernatural beings were frequently encountered. Spain can be compared to the seventeenth century Netherlands, where the worship of female quasi-deities was emphatically rejected and female clergy did not exist. Yet, the social and legal status of women was much higher in the Netherlands than in Spain during this period. In the Netherlands, women were freer to move about unwatched, and could own businesses of their own as well as separate property. In Spain, their public roles, and their rights under both law and unwritten custom, were sharply circumscribed.
Greek mythology, despite the insistently patriarchal Olympian mythology of classical Greece, contains traces of earlier matrilineal systems. For example, Jason is linked to the "Minyan" daughters by his mother Alcimede. Another famous legendary matriarchy (and gynocracy) on the edges of the Greek cultural horizon was Amazon society, which took shape in the imaginations of classical Greeks, based on reports of Scythian female status and even female warriors. However, extreme caution is called for in determining to what extent, if any, such myths or oral traditions reflected reality. Regarding the Amazons, Michael Grant notes that these female warriors were said to live at the boundaries of the world to which Greeks had traveled, making them kin to marvelous beings or monsters supposed to dwell in distant lands, like the Blemmyes or the Cynocephali.
Regardless of actual historical fact, many cultures have myths about a time when women were dominant. Bamberger (1974) examines several of these myths from South American cultures, and concludes that, by portraying the women from this period as evil, they often serve to keep modern-day women under control.
Whether matriarchal societies might have existed at some time in the distant past is controversial. The controversy began with the publication of Johann Jakob Bachofen's Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Juridical Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World in 1861. Several generations of ethnologists were inspired by his pseudo-evolutionary theory of archaic matriarchy. Following Bachofen and Jane Ellen Harrison, scholars, arguing usually from myths or oral traditions and neolithic female cult-figures, suggested that many ancient societies were matriarchal. It was even proposed that there existed a wide-ranging matriarchal society prior to the ancient cultures of which we are aware (see for example The White Goddess by Robert Graves).
Belief in a matriarchy, and its subsequent replacement by patriarchy can be linked to the historical "inevitabilities" which the nineteenth century's concept of progress through cultural evolution introduced. Friedrich Engels, among others, formed the curious and rather racist notion that some primitive cultures had no clear notion of paternity. According to this hypothesis, women produced children mysteriously, without necessary links to the man or men they had sex with. When men discovered paternity, they acted to claim power to monopolize women and claim children as their own offspring. The move from primitive matriarchy to patriarchy indicated a step forward in human knowledge.
This account was the result of errors in early ethnography, which in turn was the result of unsophisticated methods of fieldwork. When strangers arrive and start asking where babies come from, the urge to respond imaginatively is hard to resist, as Margaret Mead might have discovered in Samoa. While there have been many different explanations of the "mechanics" of pregnancy and the relative contributions of each sex, no human group, however primitive, was actually unaware of the link between intercourse and pregnancy. The understanding that each child has one unique father has come more recently, however; Greek and Roman writers thought that the seed of two men might both contribute to the character of the child. By the time these mistakes were corrected in anthropology, the idea that a matriarchy had once existed had been picked up on in comparative religion and archaeology, and was used as the basis of new hypotheses that were unrelated to the postulated ignorance of primitive people about paternity.
In the late nineteenth century, belief in primitive matriarchies was also allied with Max Müller's hypothesis that an ethnically distinct Aryan race had invaded and displaced or dominated earlier populations in prehistoric Europe. Their conquests, according to Müller, were responsible for the spread of the Indo-European languages; they would have also replaced an earlier language and culture in the invaded areas where Indo-European languages are now spoken. The Aryan invasion theory is no longer universally accepted in India. The corresponding hypothesis for Europe is also controversial; few scholars other than Marija Gimbutas have advocated the strongest form of the hypothesis—that of military conquest and forced cultural displacement—in recent decades.
Certain cultural indicators show that American women enjoy a significant amount of power. The kitchen, traditionally a center of female activity, is the major selling point in most home sales in North America. Since buying a home is the largest financial investment most people make in their lifetimes, this demonstrates the decision-making power of women in the United States. The need to cultivate the votes of "soccer moms" in order to swing presidential elections gave enormous power to women, at least on the level of perception.
More significantly, the publication of such books as Fatherless America, and the development of such organizations as the National Fatherhood Initiative to bolster the domestic position of the American male, show the need to counteract a tendency toward an increasingly matrifocal society. The prevalence of "single parent-headed households" (and single parents are overwhelmingly female) shows that the United States of America might well be turning into a matrifocal society, where kinship structures are built around the mother, not the father.
Single-parent homes—the vast majority of which are headed by mothers—are becoming socially prevalent in the United States. A comparison of U.S. Census Bureau statistics between 1970 and the year 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 2000) shows that in 1970, 81 percent of households were family households— that is, blood relatives living in the same home. 40 percent of these were married couples with their children. In the year 2000, only 69 percent of households were family households and only 24 percent of these were married couples with their own children. This means that in thirty years there was a significant decline in traditional family households. Between 1960 and 1998 divorce rates climbed in the United States, more than doubling (Berger 1998). There has also been a steep rise in children born outside of wedlock. Currently in the United States 33 percent of children are born outside of marriage, and the majority of these children live with their mothers, not their fathers.
Support networks in single parent homes headed by women are built around the mother's relatives, friends, and associates, as the father is absent on a day-to-day basis. This is similar to matrifocality in the Caribbean, which is characterized by the marginalization of males because of their unreliability in the important reciprocal, day-to-day relationships that are necessary to family survival.
Matrifocality may not bode well for a society's future. Research has shown that children living with single parents are at significant risk in many areas of life. They suffer more psychological and emotional problems, they are more likely to get into trouble through delinquency, to drop out of school, and to engage in abuse of sex and drugs (Robert Flewelling et al. 1990). A National Health Interview Survey on Child Health reported lower grades, poorer health, unsatisfying personal relationships, and even increased accident-proneness and speech defects among children of divorce—the vast majority of whom live with their mothers (Dawson 1991).
Without the support and contributions of a husband and partner, many women find themselves and their children in an unsettling financial state. Single mothers often experience a so-called "plunge into poverty" when they no longer share in the income of their husbands after a divorce. Only eight percent of children living with their biological married parents experience poverty in their childhoods; 46 percent of children with single mothers live below the poverty line (Shapiro 1995). A single mother is often forced by economic considerations to move with her children to a poorer neighborhood where there are poorer schools, fewer recreational facilities, and less savory influences on the street and among peers.
Numerous social scientists have come to the conclusion that children are better off financially, emotionally, psychologically, academically, and in numerous other ways when they are in a two-biological-parent family. Civitas, an independent think tank in England, encompassing decades of data, performed the most extensive study ever done. The report concluded, “No amount of spending on extra benefits to single mothers would put their children on an equal footing with those of a married couple” (Civitas 2002).
Social scientists agree that the biological family of father, mother and their children is a child’s best guarantee for success. This is not to say that the traditional patriarchy is the most desirable norm for family life in all ways. It is saying that an active, involved, and present father is a necessary component of familial health. When men become marginalized, social problems increase.
The social decline in the United States associated with the breakdown of the traditional family, and the subsequent marginalizing of men and the rising pre-eminence of women in family life, may well offer an object lesson as to why matriarchal and matrifocal societies have not been historically prevalent. Such societies are not optimal for the successful rearing of the young—the future of any society.
Matrifocal societies in the Caribbean have evolved as a response to male unreliability. Matrifocality in the United States might also have evolved as a response to male absenteeism. A significant number of North American fathers see their biological children less than once a year after a divorce from their biological mother. Matrifocality appears to be a response to a breakdown in the social structure—namely, the marginalization or absenteeism of the father.
One of the most famous woman leaders in history, Boudicca of Britain, rose to a position of power in response to the breakdown of her society through Roman invasion. Her tribal king husband made the Roman emperor co-heir to his kingdom along with his two daughters in an effort to maintain his lineage and kingdom. However Tacitus recorded that after her husband's death Boudicca was flogged and her daughters raped. Boudicca then took up arms in response to the desperate social situation of her people, represented by the trauma in her own family.
Matrilineality in the Jewish culture may also be the result of a breakdown in the social structure. The diasporadic nature of the Jewish people—a people beset by captivities, enslavements, battles, and exile—may have led to identification through the mother. During pregnancy and their children's infancies and early years, even women in desperate circumstances are charged with the nurturing of their children. Defining children in terms of their mothers' lineage may have been the best way to preserve a Jewish identity under unstable circumstances.
There is a paucity of female-dominated societies in history. In many cases, female dominance appears to be a response to trauma or social breakdown rather than a naturally arising, alternative social form to the patriarchal society. Yet male-dominated societies have serious flaws. Modern research shows that men and women working together as lifelong committed partners in a loving family provide the optimal setting for the nurturing of the next generation, thus standing as the foundational unit of a successful society.
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