What is Matriarchy?

What is matriarchy? This is a complex question which is being hotly debated among the historians, anthropologists, writers, feminists and the intelligentsia. Matriarchy can be described as a kind of social system where the mother figure and women have authority. The word matriarchy is coined as the opposite of patriarchy, from Greek mater "mother" and archein "to rule". Gynecocracy, is sometimes used synonymously to represent matriarchy. Matriarchy can be also defined as a form of social organization where women are the dominant gender, a female is the family head and title is traced through the female line. This system is also called as androcracy. It can be also called a system of government by females and another technical description attributed to matriarchy refers it as a gynocentric form of society. Matriarchal animal societies include bees, elephants and killer whales. The above discussion has helped us to understand the definition of matriarchy while analyzing the question "what is matriarchy"? Now let’s discuss the “order” of matriarchy.

What is Matriarchy: The "order" in Matriarchal societies

Matriarchy is a combination of two separate terms, Matrilineality and Matrilocality. Matrilineality is ascribed to an order where the lineage of the offspring is traced from the mother’s side and matrtrilocality is described as a phenomenon where the offspring of the mother lives in the mother’s house. This would be considered as a clan with the extended family living there as well. Back in time, there was a form of marriage called as visiting marriage, where the husband came from outside and lived with the wife for a short period of time and then they lived apart even though they continued to remain married. The husband only had a visiting status and never lived permanently in the household. The children lived with the mother and the other generations of their families. In this setup the father did not have an active role in raising the children but he still remained married to the wife. We don’t see this form of marriage anymore. These types of marriages were mostly practiced by people of the Ancient Pueblo, the Chaco Canyon, the Mosu of Southwestern China and the people of Minangkabau of the Western Sumatra. These were ancient societies where the "visiting marital alliance" existed and this kind of "visiting marriage" may still exist in some of the more primitive tribes. Societies with such "order" can be considered as Matriarchal. Thus to know the question "what is matriarchy?" we need to understand the "order" of matriarchy as discussed above.

What is Matriarchy: The great goddesses and the reality of Matriarchy

The idea of great ancient goddesses and the matriarchal societies which worshiped the ancient goddesses is being actively researched by many writers, historians, archaeologists and anthropologists. The question "what is matriarchy?" cannot be sufficiently understood unless we unearth the myths and traditions of the ancient goddesses and the ancient matriarchies attached to these ancient goddesses. The subject is developing as the “science of old goddesses” and worship of these goddesses by the ancient matriarchal societies that existed in the prehistoric times. Numerous archaeological expeditions have led to the discovery of various prehistoric finds. Interpretation of these prehistoric artefacts from a new perspective is adding considerable interest to the whole subject of matriarchy.

What is Matriarchy: Existing matriarchal tribes and indigenous societies

There are many societies even today which are matriarchal in nature. These may be small societies surviving on horticulture but they are societies which are functional and which have long history attached to them. Example is the Nagovisi of Bougainvillea in the South Pacific, the Khasi of Meghalaya, India, and the Machinguenga of Peru. These existing tribes and indigenous societies have shown strong matriarchal inclinations in various aspects of their social order. Works by eminent researchers focussing on the Trobriand islanders and Australian aborigines showed that there existed many interactions in these societies involving women in central roles and these interactions were considered no way less or marginal by these populations. Many anthropologists studying the indigenous populations found that women were influential, independent and having a position separate but as valued as men’s among these societies. These ancient and indigenous societies never separated biological women and men in opposing categories and social and kin relationships determined the position of individuals in these societies. Further there are a large number of societies that exist today where women enjoy full sexual and economical control over themselves. To this group of matriarchies, or egalitarian societies, depending on how we define them, several Pacific and Native American cultures can be added, for example Pueblo Indians (the Zuni, Laguna and Hopi), the pre-19th century Iroquois and Innu (Montaignais-Naskapi), the Vanatinai, and Hawaii under Queen Liliuokani.

What is Matriarchy: Discarding the myths and assumptions surrounding the evolution of human societies

As we look at the question of "what is matriarchy" and examples of existing matriarchal societies we need to develop a different perspective towards the development and evolution of the hunter-gatherer societies. Typical assumptions and myths needs to be re-examined. Among them the prominent one being the assumption that ancient societies developed around scarcity and in these societies work and social interactions were segregated along the lines of gender. Further the myths like the nature of human beings portrayed as always selfish and individualistic needs to be discarded. Another big myth that needs to be totally busted revolves around the notion that in social organization there is always an inequality based on class and gender. These assumptions and myths just do not fit well for the many of the existing matriarchal tribes and indigenous societies. Thus we can clearly say that the notion that societies evolved in the midst of scarcity may be a big social construct and not a reality of human existence. Further separation of work and social life may not be a necessary characteristic of economic production. Moreover selfishness and acquisitiveness as human character may not be the dominant characters of human beings and inequality based on class and gender is not necessary characteristic of human society.

What is Matriarchy: False assumption of male dominance

There is large section of intelligentsia which dismisses the whole notion of matriarchy. They claim that matriarchy never existed in history. This kind of sweeping judgement and universal rejection of the real possibility of existence of an ancient matriarchal order shows the typical male bias or Eurocentric bias which exists from thousands of years. This is a typical linear thinking which only accepts a patriarchal form of society. Western thinking is based on dichotomies, dualism and separable categories in the organization of a society. It has certain unpronounced assumptions about the human nature and in particular about the male status and role in society. This view supports the claim that the male is bound to rule in any type of social setup and male dominance is but natural.

What is Matriarchy: The biased agenda against the feminine gender

The whole approach of the patriarchal society has been highly biased against the feminine gender. In most of the so called mainstream patriarchal societies the role and activities of men were always given importance and the role of women and their activities were considered less important. Even the same activities which are performed by men if are taken up by women they are then framed as less important. Moreover to bring out this biased stratification into open in almost all of the mainstream patriarchal societies there are roles and activities which are exclusively attributed to men and are reserved for them. In this way there is a clear demarcation of male supremacy over females.

What is matriarchy: Theories on the evolution of human society are limited in number but human societies are infinite

In understanding the question "what is matriarchy?" we need to understand that all the theories on the evolution of human society are limited in number and western theory does not cover the infinite societies that existed earlier stretching to the prehistoric times and many of them that exist even today. There is enough evidence in terms of archaeological finds which points towards the existence of matriarchal societies in the prehistoric times. Therefore any conclusion which says that there was no matriarchy because of weakness of the proof, is logically wrong. The proof of silence is not a good proof, not even in history. Further whatever interpretations that have taken place of ancient writings related to women may not be accurate in the sense that interpretations that have survived to our time espouse a clear bias against women and they serve only one purpose and that is the promotion of the patriarchal form of society.

What is matriarchy: Beating “proof of impossibility”

To pass on a sweeping conclusion that matriarchy never existed we need the “proof of impossibility” and there are number of examples to refute the “proof of impossibility” in the sense that matriarchal societies existed in the past and exist even today in various forms around the world. It is high time we discard the assumption that there is only limited number of possible ways to organize a society and all of which are based on male dominance. Indeed societies existed with female dominance and there is huge possibility that majority of future societies will be set up with female dominance. This is a trend that is already visible in existing modern societies of the world.

What is Matriarchy: Growing out of the Eurocentric and Western view of societies

Another problem is that the wide range of theories which promote the universality of patriarchy are mostly based on the Eurocentric and Western view of societies. The important point to note is that we cannot bind the history of societies in a predetermined biased logic. The truth is that societies during their development and evolution adopt a wide range of organizations and gender is one variable or factor within the framework of numerous possibilities of development. In this regard a society could have either evolved as a patriarchal or matriarchal form of organization based on the economic and environmental opportunities and constraints. Therefore making a sweeping judgement of the existence of only patriarchy and then formulating a wide range of theories based on this assumption does not hold water.

What is Matriarchy: Matriarchy as the future

The possibility of the emergence of matriarchy in the near future at a global scale is becoming real. Consciously or unconsciously we are creating structures for an emerging matriarchy in all modern societies. Women are rapidly getting educated and trends are showing that the ratio of women to men who shall get a university degree in the near future will be 3:2. Women college graduates are going to outnumber the male college graduates by a ratio of 1.5. In higher education already the female students outnumber their male counterparts. These trends are seen in developed societies like America and Europe. Further this is not a spontaneous phenomenon but it has been the result of continuous women’s activism for equal opportunity in every sphere of life from last one hundred years. This mass movement across the world has attracted many women towards workplace and this in turn has led to more women taking up professional courses. Today women students outnumber men students in many college campuses in modern societies. There are far reaching implications for this trend that we are witnessing today. Superior education obtained by women will make them naturally eligible for high end jobs with tremendous earning potential. Women will be forced to opt for lesser educated and lesser earning male partners as there will be a great scarcity for highly educated males in the future. In this kind of scenario the women in the family will focus more on their jobs because of economic reasons and men in the household will actively share parenting responsibilities along with their female partners. The social impact of this change and revolution would be huge. There will be a cascading series of psychological and emotional adjustments in the society as for the first time after thousands of years there will be a tilt towards matriarchy in a new form. A matriarchal society will work for the good in the long run as it will naturally establish the balance in the society. Under a matriarchal system the daughters and sons will be treated at par and maybe then more sons will go to school and college for education under the watchful eyes of the mothers.

What is Matriarchy: Topics for detailed study

Further to understand the question "what is matriarchy?" in depth we need to study the following topics in detail.

1. Matriarchal social organization in non-human animals
2. History of the concept of Matriarchy in relation to humans-This includes Archaeological hypotheses
3. Matriarchy versus matrifocality-This includes topics like existing matrifocal cultures
4. The meaning of matriarchy in classical works
5. Matriarchies in mythology
6. Matriarchy in feminism
7. Matriarchy in popular culture

What is Matriarchy: Shattering the myth of male dominance

As I said before the history of societies is dominated with a linear thinking of male supremacy in social structure. This attitude to stress male dominance in all possible circumstances seems to be an expression of over-cautiousness and an effort to interpret the data in the least exceptional way. This thinking and approach needs to change as there has to be other possible ways of interpretations and thinking about a given situation. These alternative interpretations, views and theories cannot be suppressed or buried aside as non consequential. We have to accept the fact that universality of patriarchy and the European world view are too narrow in nature and their predominance and existence today is the result of last 500 years of European military expansion and extermination on native cultures around the world. The saddest part is that this European military expansion and extermination was carried out with a view that the native and indigenous societies were uncivilized and they needed to be civilized by any means including force.

I find that the native cultures and civilizations that existed around the world were more civilized and cultured than their barbaric cousins from Europe. In fact these native cultures, of which most were neither sexually dichotomized nor oppressive to either sex. Even in many stratified native societies, the highest positions in any field could be available to either gender-or at least to two genders, in case a third gender was acknowledged. This usually made it possible for a person of either sex to adopt an intermediate gender and thus gain access to otherwise inaccessible roles. Was this kind of freedom possible in the so called civilized societies of the medieval Europe? This is a good question to ponder upon when we study the topic "what is matriarchy?".

Article by Sanjay Nair

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