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Author: Janet Hoskins
Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz
Date: 2005
New Dictionary of the History of Ideas
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1560L

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Page 1384


Matriarchy is usually defined as a political system in which women are the dominant political actors, as opposed to patriarchy, in which men are the exclusive or primary heads of families, social groups, or political states. But matriarchy has always been a controversial term, since whenever it is mentioned, there are debates about whether matriarchies are imagined utopias or real societies, whether they existed at some time in the distant past or could be re-created in a possible future, and how the definitions of gendered power themselves might have shifted in relation to varying social and historical contexts. The idea of matriarchy has served to inspire a whole series of legends and myths, experiments in alternative lifestyles, feminist spirituality, and woman-centered collectives, but it has long been rejected within mainstream anthropology. In the early twenty-first century new field research in Indonesia, Melanesia, and China has raised new questions about the definition of the term itself, and reinvigorated debates about when—if ever—it can be used responsibly.

Nineteenth-Century Evolutionary Theory

J. J. Bachofen began the modern debate about matriarchy with his 1861 book on "mother right," in which he argued that one early social formation was a family which traced descent through the mother, and in which "government of the state was also entrusted to the women" (p. 156). Bachofen developed a three-stage model: In the barbaric or hetaeristic stage (from the Greek hetero, meaning both), neither men nor women had control, and people engaged in indiscriminate sexual activity, worshipping Aphrodite and valuing the erotic above all else. Then women tired of this system and banded together for their own defense, creating a matriarchy in which Artemis and Athena emerged as the main deities. Agriculture was developed during this period, and so were the stories of Amazons and Furies. Bachofen argued that "matriarchal people feel the unity of all life, the harmony of the universe" (p. 79), and embraced a philosophy of "regulated naturalism" in which maternal love was the basis of all social ties. In the final stage of the development of civilization, men seized control from women, and their struggle to assert their domination was reflected in stories of Zeus triumphing over the Titans, Hades raping Persephone, Perseus slaying the Medusa, and Oedipus killing the Sphinx. Bachofen interpreted mythical accounts of sexual conflict as evidence for a historical transition from matriarchy to patriarchy.

Friedrich Engels developed a materialist version of this theme in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), arguing that matriarchy developed from a situation of group marriage, in which paternity was uncertain so only female blood lines could be traced reliably. Early human societies were presumed to have been egalitarian, and various forms of inequality were introduced in conjunction with the emergence of private property. When property rights came to be invested in men, the development of patriarchy was tied to the birth of capitalism, in which laborers were no longer the owners of the products of their labor.

Anthropologists working on comparative evidence from a number of societies tried to develop a more rigorous definition of matriarchy. E. B. Tylor grouped matrilineal descent with postmarital residence in the wife's household and evidence that "the wives are the masters" in the family (p. 89), and described the Minangkabau of Indonesia as one possible matriarchy. He later reconsidered this position and decided that the term maternal family would be preferable to matriarchy, since "it takes too much for granted that the women govern the family" (p. 90). Lewis Henry Morgan's intensive studies of the Iroquois documented political institutions in which women played important roles, and his Ancient Society (1877) formed the basis of Engel's speculations. But as more field studies of matrilineal societies were completed, few of them seemed to have anything approaching female rule over men, and by 1921 Robert Lowie's Primitive Society concluded that there was no evidence that women had ever governed the primitive equivalent of the state.

Twentieth-Century Gender and Kinship Studies

In Matrilineal Kinship (1961), David Schneider reexamined several decades of scholarship on the subject and concluded that "the generalized authority of women over men, imagined by Bachofen, was never observed in known matrilineal societies, but only recorded in legends and myths. Thus the whole notion of matriarchy fell rapidly into disuse in anthropological work" (p. viii).

The possibility of matriarchy was also denied in one of the founding texts of feminist anthropology, Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere's Women, Culture and Society (1974), which started with an infamous (and later retracted) assertion of the universality of male dominance: "It seems fair to say, then, that all contemporary societies are to some extent male-dominated, and although the degree and expression of female subordination vary greatly, sexual asymmetry is presently a universal fact of human and social life" (p. 3).

Twenty years after that statement was published, several contributors to the Rosaldo and Lamphere book specifically recanted this assertion, but none of them went so far as to embrace the idea of matriarchy. Sherry Ortner writes that in the early 1970s, when interest in feminist anthropology began to grow, she and many other anthropologists were asked about matriarchies: "Was it not the case, people wanted to know, that there were societies in which women had the kind of powers and authority men have in our own society? With a reasonable degree of unanimity, anthropologists said no. Well, then, continued the questioners, weren't there matriarchies in the past? Here there was somewhat less unanimity among the anthropologists, Page 1385  |  Top of Article but by and large no professional scholar in the field was willing to make a strong claim for any past matriarchies either" (p. 139). But she noted that the anthropological consensus fell apart completely when the issue of egalitarian societies was raised. Revisiting her own argument that women's closeness to nature was used as a universal structural principle to justify their subjugation, she later explained that gender egalitarian societies may indeed exist, but "the egalitarianism is complex, inconsistent, and—to some extent—fragile" (p. 175).

Ortner's later position is nuanced in relation to late twentieth-century terminology, which distinguishes between cultural ideologies and cultural practices, and looks at "gender hegemonies" rather than gender dominance. A belief that men are superior to women may be posited in mythology or even institutionalized in the formal ranking of social groups, but it is never total. In many cultures, women have a great deal of power that actually counterbalances claims of male prestige, and notions of charisma and social value are always subject to individual adjustments and reevaluations. Women can in fact have significant amounts of power, authority, autonomy, and prestige in systems where men are the formal leaders, and systems that appear "hegemonically egalitarian" may also contain subtle ways to give men the edge over women in a number of informal contexts.

Joan Bamberger's contribution to Women, Culture, and Society argued specifically that myths and legends about female rule were told not because they reflected a previous history of matriarchy (as Bachofen believed) but instead as "social charters" for male dominance. Looking in some detail at a series of myths about the rule of women in Amazonian societies, she found that the myths themselves justify the rule of men "through the evocation of a vision of a catastrophic alternative—a society dominated by women. The myth, in its reiteration that women did not know how to handle power when in possession of it, reaffirms dogmatically the inferiority of their present position" (p. 279). Men stole the sacred objects that gave women supernatural power, and women have since been "forever the subjects of male terrorism," so that these "myths of matriarchy" are in fact arguments for patriarchy.

It is possible that Bamberger's interpretation of myths of matriarchy is a more astute reading of Western mythmakers than of indigenous traditions. The myths and legends that Bachofen surveyed were indeed told in patriarchal Rome and Greece in order to justify the abandonment of matrilineal kinship and certain female-centered cults. But the idea of a simple reversal of gender roles within a similar system of domination and control may obscure other possibilities, which are not so easily reducible to a looking glass inversion of male domination and female subjugation.

Virginia Woolf echoed Bamberger's argument when she wrote in A Room of her Own:

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of men at twice its natural size.… Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insisted so emphatically on the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men." (p. 37)

Early-twenty-first-century research suggests that there is a much wider range of social alternatives than the simple binarism invoked by the terms matriarchy and patriarchy. Looking for a chimeric inversion of Western forms of male domination—which are, as Woolf notes, accentuated in the specific contexts of fascism and imperial conquest—is too limiting, since not all societies treat male/female relations in terms of colonization or domestication. Inequality can be constructed through sexual difference, but when this happens it is useful to recall Marilyn Strathern's argument that gender appears not as an immutable construct, but as a transactable one: "The difference between men and women becomes a vehicle for the creation of value, for evaluating one set of powers by reference to another" (p. 210).

Examined from this perspective, gender as a principle of contrast for social classification does not carry a consistent positive or negative valuation as part of its conceptual baggage. As Third World women and "native anthropologists" become more involved in academic discussions of gender equality, many of them criticize what they call the "false utopias" of the search by European-American feminists for hope and inspiration from exotic others. As Shanshan Du argues: "Ironically, by projecting diverse utopian ideals into cross-cultural studies, the declaration of the non-existence of gender-egalitarian societies became a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, there is always an unbridgeable gap between a utopian fantasy and a real society because the latter never operates on seamlessly coherent principles" (p. 4). She notes the example of the Crow Indians, who have many egalitarian institutions and ideologies, and where women are at least as prominent as men in many significant rituals. However Western anthropologists described the Crow as "male dominant" because of the existence of a menstrual taboo, although later studies have shown that menstrual taboos are complex and can also serve to empower women and grant them access to certain spiritual powers. Du calls this a "Eurocentric bias" which sets its own standards for sexual "political correctness" and is not sensitive to contextual meanings and configurations.

Alternatives to Matriarchy: Matrism, Gender
Egalitarianism, and Diarchy

In order to expand the conceptual tool kit of anthropologists for understanding gender relations in other societies, several writers have proposed alternative terms designed to avoid the simplifications implied by matriarchy. Riane Eisler argues in The Chalice and the Blade (1987) that patriarchy and matriarchy are "two sides of the same coin," because both of them involve "the ranking of one half of humanity over the other" (p. xvii). She prefers a partnership model that is "primarily based on the principle of linkage rather than ranking," so that gender differences between men and women can be spoken of in ways that do not equate them with either inferiority or superiority. Instead of matriarchy and patriarchy, Eisler proposes the term gylany for societies where gender relations follow the partnership model, and androcracy for others characterized by male Page 1386  |  Top of Article dominance and ranking relations. Her title derives from symbols for these two paradigms: the chalice, symbolizing life begetting, community, and sharing; and the blade, symbolizing the power to take rather than give life—the militaristic ideal to establish and enforce domination. She represents the Neolothic as an era of peace when people worshipped the goddess, which was then destroyed by the invasion of Hebrews and "Kurgans." The blade came to displace the chalice, and men came to displace women as the central power in the society.

These terms have not been widely adopted, and they are based on the work of Marija Gimbutas, who has excavated hundreds of female figurines from the period 7000 to 3500 B.C.E., which she interprets as mother goddesses. Several archaeologists, such as Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey, have argued that her interpretations are highly speculative, but they have had tremendous popular appeal, and her ideal of an early cult of a fertility deity represented as a large, possibly pregnant, woman has been widely disseminated. Gimbutas writes critically of the "indolent assumption" that ancient societies must have resembled those of the present, and presents her own theory that these figurines were produced by groups of people whose social forms she describes as "matristic":

Indeed we do not find in Old Europe, nor in all of the old world, a system of autocratic rule by women with an equivalent suppression of men. Rather, we find a structure in which the sexes are more or less on equal footing.… [T]he sexes are "linked" rather than hier archically "ranked." I use the term matristic simply to avoid the term matriarchy, with the understanding that it incorporates matriliny. (p. 324)

Gimbutas's work provides an archaeological argument for ideas about the importance of goddesses in early Europe that have also been developed by Robert Graves (1946), and many contemporary neopagans (Adler; Pike). Graves argued that goddess worship coincided with the time when calendars were primarily determined by the moon, and noted the correspondence of the lunar and menstrual cycles, and that the Earth Mother was associated with the Moon Goddess. He traced the changeover to patriarchy with the changeover to the solar calendar and the worship of a solar deity. His work is more a poetic vision of artistic inspiration than a work of scholarship, and has been widely discredited.

Eisler and Gimbutas consider themselves "revisionist" historians who have brought together neglected evidence of a nurturant, female-centered society, but they (like the nineteenth-century evolutionary theorists) base this universalist theory solely on evidence from Europe and the Middle East. Even within that area, their scholarship has been widely criticized as biased, selective, and unscientific, and most anthropologists consider their work to present a view of the "matrist" past as unlikely as their utopian vision of a partnership future. The phenomenon of these revisionist feminist visions is itself of great interest, however, and has proved important in inspiring the neopagan movement, Wicca, and best sellers such as The DaVinci Code.

Anthropologists have invoked a number of other terms that are close to matriarchy but not exact equivalents: David Hicks describes the patrilineal Tetum of Viqueque, East Timor as having "a maternal religion," in which men dominate the affairs of the upperworld, but women play a central role in rituals of death, birth, and regeneration. Annette Weiner (1976) describes the Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea as giving value and autonomy to women through their matrilineal institutions, while men travel from island to island to seek renown and political positions of power. She has specifically argued that Bronislaw Malinowski failed to pay attention to certain crucial ways in which Trobriand women played important roles in their society because he focused too exclusively on a male-dominated politics:

The discovery that Trobriand women have power and that women enact roles which are symbolically, structurally, and functionally significant to the ordering of Trobriand society, and to the roles that men play, should give us, as anthropologists, cause for concern.… We have allowed 'politics by men' to structure our thinking about other societies; we have let ourselves believe that, if women are not dominant in the political sphere of interaction, their power remains at best peripheral." (227–228)

Others have been more assertive in presenting case studies that directly counter ideas of pervasive inequality. Maria Lepowsky claims to have discovered on Sudest Island "a sexually egalitarian society that challenges the concept of the universality of male dominance and contests the assumption that the subjugation of women is inevitable" (p. vii). The example of the Vanatinai shows, she argues, that gender equality is possible when there is little emphasis on class, rank, age grades, or other forms of social stratification. The decentralization of political power allows for the equal treatment of all categories of individuals, allowing for a much greater sense of personal autonomy for both women and men, and little formal authority of any one person over another. Strength, wisdom, and magical power are valued as characteristics that enhance communal solidarity, and individuals who have these may become "big women" or "big men" without gender bias. Descent is matrilineal, but its influence is buttressed by gender blind institutions like a bilocal pattern of postmarital residence, in which married couples live alternately with their two natal families for many years. So this egalitarianism is defined more by a respect for idiosyncrasy and the absence of formal structure than by a positive value attached to women.

Studies of bilateral societies in Indonesia where gender receives relatively little emphasis, such as the Wana of Sulawesi (Atkinson) or the Meratus of Kalimantan (Tsing), also document a lack of any formal ideology about male supremacy, and ideas of gender crossing (male "pregnancy," female shamans speaking in male voices) that suggest gender is not conceptualized as fixed. Ortner (1996) compares these to the example of the Andaman Islanders, who had a clear but balanced division of labor (men hunted, women gathered), and a spiritual world in which supernatural beings of both sexes played significant, Page 1387  |  Top of Article generally complementary, and sometimes reversible roles, with one deity of variable—but usually female—gender who seemed to represent fertility. All of these societies can be described as gender balanced and flexible, in which men and women were allowed to participate equally in all forms of social relations, but men nevertheless tended to emerge as leaders in some of these domains.

Feminist scholars such as Ortner, Atkinson, and Tsing stress religion and ideology in their portraits, while scholars in the Marxist tradition build on the work of Engels to argue that nonstratified societies in which both sexes have control over the means of production and their own labors are gender egalitarian. Eleanor Leacock (1978) argues that many precapitalist societies were egalitarian, and Karen Sacks (1979) suggests that, when relating to each other as siblings rather than spouses, men and women can be institutionally equal even in patrilineal, patrilocal societies.

Two early-twenty-first-century ethnographies by Chinese scholars bring together Marxist and symbolic approaches to argue that gender equality is possible and often found in the minority groups of the Chinese highlands. Shanshan Du's "Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs" (2001) stresses complementarity among the Lahu people in Yunnan and the importance of the husband-wife dyad in kinship, labor, and social leadership. She argues that mythology and religion reflect a "dyadic world view," based on cooperation between men and women, since "a single chopstick cannot pick up food" (p. 30). Lahu origin myths feature cross-sex twins who combine male and female attributes in an image of overarching power. While her account places heavy value on the marital unit, Cai Hua's A Society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China (2003) looks at another group near the Burmese border where brothers and sisters live their whole lives together, raising the sister's children, and reproduce through short term "visits" which are never socially sanctioned as marriage. This arrangement does give women greater autonomy than the traditional Confucian family, and also challenges the usual anthropological orthodoxy about the universality of male-female pair bonding. Hua argues that in this society "sexuality is not a piece of merchandise but a purely sentimental and amorous matter that implies no mutual constraints" (Hua, p. 181). The Na, like the famous Nayar of India studied by Kathleen Gough (Schneider and Gough), are matrilineal, and have resisted communist efforts to bring then into mainstream values. The sibling relationship defines the household completely, and visiting lovers have no connection with the family, have no responsibilities, and do not acknowledge their fatherhood; the children, in turn, do not know their fathers.

Another alternative to matriarchy that works with dyads and sibling symbolism is diarchy, which some scholars grouped with egalitarian structures as a form of "partnership societies." Diarchic societies are marked by a pervasive system of symbolic gender dualisms, "an ideology of balanced powers" in which the members of the male/female pair are ordered by difference and interdependence, rather than dominance and subjugation (Hoskins, 1988, p. 51). A doctrine of mutuality and shared concerns is expressed in ideas of delegation and oscillating rule.

European travelers to the Amazonian jungle and the New Guinea highlands encountered "myths of matriarchy" that presented an apparent confirmation of their own fantasies of Amazon warrior princesses and Melanesian "free love." But travelers in the Indonesian archipelago who visited the islands of Sumba, Flores, Timor, and Savu found a mixture of matrilineal and patrilineal groups who shared an ideology of dual governance often express as a "male ruler" and "female ruler," or—even more paradoxically—a man specifically referred to as a woman who held a position of sovereignty. This pattern had first been documented in Indian kinship, where Georges Dumezil described the idea that "sovereignty aligns itself in two planes, at once antithetical and complementary," and it is also found in Chinese and Vietnamese popular religion. The division between spiritual authority and temporal power was predicated on the conceptual opposition between female and male, in a pattern also familiar in Polynesia.

The complementarity of diarchic systems operates with the principles of male and female as abstract entities, and associates them with ideas of a proper balance of action and passivity. Women are typically associated with origins, fertility of the earth, and human reproduction, while men are associated with military and executive power, differentiation, and rank. Diarchic divisions assign to the female principle an equal role in the creation of the world, but at times the passivity of their role as Earth Mother may seem to place real women at a disadvantage, bound by the restrictions inherent to their ritual prominence. Among the Kodi of Sumba, for instance, the conceptually female priestess of the Sea Worms is secluded for several months before the rice harvest to protect the crop. In the early-twenty-first-century, a man, who is both empowered and restricted by the central symbolic role he plays, is cast as the priestess.

Gender dualism, which can be defined for comparative purposes by the formal requirement that a female and male component be included in each unifying hierarchical entity, is found throughout Eastern Indonesia. It occurs in patrilineal as well as matrilineal societies, and coexists with polygyny, occasional violence against women, and male leadership, so it is not necessarily a vision of gender equality, but it does highlight interdependence and complementarity. The importance of opposite sex couples, portrayed as parents, siblings, or ancestors, in Eastern Indonesian sexual imagery is an index of the value given to heterosexual relations, and what can only be called a vision of sexual union—the bringing together of male and female in an act of pleasure, release, and potential reproduction.

Are the Minangkabau a Modern Matriarchy?

In 2002 Peggy Sanday revived controversies about the anthropological use of the term matriarchy by titling her study of Minagkabau gender relations Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Well aware that the term had been rejected by serious scholars for about a century, she provocatively decided to challenge this usage with an argument that matriarchy should be redefined to correspond to the usage of a Dutch-Indonesian term (adat matriarchaal) used by roughly 8 million Minangkabau to describe their own customs. The Minangkabau are one of the world's largest matrilineal societies, and Page 1388  |  Top of Article they are also almost all committed Muslims in the nation with the largest Islamic population in the world. While Sanday describes the term as an "indigenous category," its early-twenty-first-century use is obviously the hybrid result of several centuries of dialogue with European traders, scholars, and administrators, who have long been intrigued by the mixture of matriliny and Muslim piety found in the Minang homeland in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Sanday argues that

the definition of matriarchy as the control of political power by women should be abandoned in favor of a definition emphasizing the role of maternal symbols in webs of cultural significance. The focus should be on the structure and content of dominant gender symbols, not just the linked relationship between the sexes as Eisler suggests. The partnership is important, but it alone does not define matriarchy because there are at least three types of symbolic structures representing gender in partnership societies: egalitarian, diarchic and matiarchic. Egalitarian structures are those in which gender differences are not symbolically marked, although sex differences may play a role in the division of labor. Diarchic societies are marked by a pervasive system of symbolic gender dualisms, Matriarchic structures, like those of the Minangkabau, are based on a maternal model. In all three, although the content of the symbols differ, male and female function as two equal halves of the larger whole and neither dominates the other. (p. 236)

The Minangkabau have been the focus of many anthropological and historical studies, but no other contemporary scholar has chosen to describe them as matriarchic. While Sanday's claims are based on long-term ethnographic research, her colleagues have not for the most part been convinced that such a change in terminology is needed or helpful.

Sanday notes that her usage is in some ways a return to the original Greek meaning of the term. The root matri, from the Latin mater, means "mother, nurse, origin, source," while the suffix archy, from the Greek arche, refers to "beginning, foundation, source of action, first principle," and also the idea of "political power, rule, control of the state" (p. 237). Sanday says Mingkabau customs correspond to the first meaning, while they do not fulfill the conditions of the second. She calls for a new cross-cultural definition of matriarchy as "cultural symbols and practices associating the maternal with origin and center of the growth processes necessary for social and individual life" (p. 237). According to this definition, many of the societies studied by gender researchers—the Trobriand Islanders, the Vanatinai of Sudest Island, the Crow Indians, the Lahu and Na of southern China, and the Tetum of Vicenque, Timor—might qualify as matriarchies, since they do emphasize maternal symbols and nurturance, although in many other ways they are quite different from each other.

The use of matriarchy as an umbrella term for societies that value women's reproductive and nurturing powers seems too broad to be of much use for comparative purposes. What Sanday wants to call matriarchic has been described by Annette Weiner as "woman focused" (1976), by Sherry Ortner as an "egalitarian hegemony," by Karen Sacks as a "sister-based society," and by Eleanor Leacock as a "precapitalist form of sexual equality." It is also close to the sacred ideals of the Okinawans of Japan (Sered), the dualistic Kodi of Sumba (Hoskins, 1993, 1998), and the highland Wana and Meratus of the Indonesian islands of Sulawesi and Kalimantan (Atkinson; Tsing). All of these examples provide evidence for diversity of gender relations that cannot be reduced to a simple stereotype of male supremacy, but which are also stubbornly idiosyncratic and unlike each other in important ways. Anthropology has long been a celebration of difference, and while it does need a comparative vocabulary, this vocabulary is only helpful if it is very rigorously defined. Expanding the notion of matriarchy beyond its largely discredited nineteenth-century significance does not seem to advance this process.


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Janet Hoskins

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424300460