May 26, 2002
5:42 AM   Subscribe

For the last century, historians, anthropologists and other scholars have searched both human history and the continents to find a matriarchy—a society where the power was in the hands of women, not men. Most have concluded that a genuine matriarchy does not exist, perhaps may never have existed. Untill now.
posted by stbalbach (26 comments total)
Surely the viking females controlled most of the daily life operations (as their husbands travelled around Europe wrecking havoc and getting high on mushrooms)?
posted by dagny at 6:00 AM on May 26, 2002

from the article: "One must nurture growth in humans, animals, and plants so that society will be strong,"

I really like this concept. It seems to be a very peaceful way of life, with everything in harmony. What a pipe dream--this could never happen in the Western World.
posted by ashbury at 6:10 AM on May 26, 2002

Matriarchy and Islam beliefs? Not likely. The good doctor redefines Matriarchy to fit in with her beliefs--note her published research before this "major find." when losing the game change the rules.
posted by Postroad at 6:40 AM on May 26, 2002

Females in charge: I just read that the female emu mates long enough to lay her eggs. Then she leaves. Forever. The male has to sit on the nest, hatch the eggs, and raise the young. Meanwhile, the female is off using her booming voice to scare up other mates.

Anyway, about this story. "Who are the matriarchal Minangkabau and why should we care? Dr. Sanday comes to her research as an expert on gender issues, violence and sexual politics in American society." Like we didn’t know that. And we know that she is going to try to prove something about women and men and violence in society, right? That a matriarchal society is peaceful because women are naturally peaceful, right?

But a primitive matriarchal government has no choice but to promote peace, because such a government cannot, generally, win at war. This doesn’t mean that women are necessarily naturally peaceful; peace is simply a necessary ingredient of their power. Perhaps it’s hard to find a matriarchy because most become violent and are then taken over by the physically strongest members of society; they become patriarchies. Each matriarchy that slips and becomes violent becomes an ex-matriarchy.

I’ll make up some rules really quickly. Do they work?
• A primitive violent society, whether matriarchal or patriarchal, will eventually be dominated by the stronger members.
• A primitive non-violent society, whether matriarchal or patriarchal, will allow weaker members, including women, to move into places of power.
• A primitive non-violent society that becomes violent will displace physically weaker leaders, probably including female leaders, to make room for physically strong leaders.
• A primitive non-violent society run by physically weaker people will be sustainable only if the leaders (including women and weaker men) construct a system that consolidates that power and makes it difficult for a few stronger members to take over.
• Women who align themselves with weaker men will be able to form a group strong enough to take power, which they will then have to share with the non-violent men.
• Women who align themselves with stronger men will be able to take power only if they ultimately submit to the stronger men.
• These rules don’t apply to modern societies in which differences in physical strength mean much less; a woman with a nuclear bomb is as dangerous as a man with a nuclear bomb.
• Schools for girls would be better places to study females and violence. And it would be more fun, too.
posted by pracowity at 6:58 AM on May 26, 2002

The only two mythological matriarchial societies I can think of are from the Amazon and the island of Lemnos...strangely, the only way they could be sustained was by killing off the males.
posted by samsara at 8:28 AM on May 26, 2002

From what I gather reading on the subject, a lot of people seem to be *incapable* of grasping the concept of a non-hierarchical matriachy. Over and over they ask, "Who's in charge?" Eventually, they get around to feeling threatened by the "lack of order" in the concept. "If it is not done in a patriarchal, hierarchical fashion it just can't be done."
On the flip side, DO NOT confuse a matriarchy with some idealized pacifist agrarianism. As typified by several of the (generally recognized as) Mexican-Indian matriarchies, the women are large, dominant, control and own everything, and the men are small, timid and treated like dogs--often not even being allowed to sleep inside the house.
Extrapolated to the United States, a matriarchy would probably not eliminate the hierarchical organization of government--though women might occupy the seats of government. Instead, the government would become less and less important in the daily lives of people compared to "alternative" social fabrics (don't say "organizations", as that implies hierarchy.)
How do matriarchies go about doing this? In several different ways, just as there are several different hierarchical formulas.
For example the Navajo (Dineh) tribe, and their *dual* leadership. They have a masculine, hierarchical tribal council that deals with other patriarchal organizations--insisted on by the outsiders because the outsiders cannot *grasp* leadership that isn't. But the real powers are the extended family (often 300+) matriarchs (pl.) who, in some manner, herd their families along like the sheep they tend.
As far as the US government is concerned, all power is with the council. But the council grovels before the matriachs for permission to do anything.

In the final analysis, matriarchy trumps patriarchy, based on women getting a single idea: "When women stand up, men sit down." Men seem more than willing, even grateful, to reliquish leadership--if women ever offer to do so. What stops so many women from doing so is the belief that the only way it can be done is the way men do it.
posted by kablam at 9:06 AM on May 26, 2002

So actually the world is run by a matriarchal shadow government.
posted by mikhail at 9:13 AM on May 26, 2002

> So actually the world is run by a matriarchal
> shadow government.

A Mexican-Navajo matriarchal shadow government. And your mom.
posted by pracowity at 9:17 AM on May 26, 2002

Hey don't mess with my mom. She's large, dominant, controls and owns everything, and the you're small, timid and will be treated like the dog that you are.
posted by mikhail at 9:28 AM on May 26, 2002

posted by pracowity at 9:30 AM on May 26, 2002

So actually the world is run by a matriarchal shadow government.

mikhail: you may be more correct than you realize. Since the 1980s, a large number of women have entered politics around the world. In many countries and regions, their parliments require a minimum number of seats be held by women.
And while this is still patriarchal, the direction and attitude of these organizations, when influenced by women, is markedly different from purely masculine institutions.
How will this impact on the future, assuming the trend continues?

N.B.: remember how important the "soccer mom" vote was in the US a few years ago?
posted by kablam at 9:39 AM on May 26, 2002

The political spin in this piece is hilarious, or would be, if it weren't so revealingly sad. Note that this is not published research, it is a press release for a book. If you're not so bound and determined to prove that hierarchy, competition, and all of those things are bad, you can see that there clearly are or have been matriarchies and that women's role in even supposedly patriarchal societies can be considerable. I actually find politicized points of view like this one more sexist -- they need to denigrate women's roles that don't fit into their non-hierarchical model in order to make their point that their model is better.
posted by dhartung at 10:02 AM on May 26, 2002

Another example of a matriarchy: the Mosuo of Lake Lugu in Southwest China.
posted by homunculus at 10:03 AM on May 26, 2002

I really like this concept. It seems to be a very peaceful way of life, with everything in harmony. What a pipe dream--this could never happen in the Western World.

Probably can't happen anywhere in the world. For one thing, that woman seems to be seeking some pre-conceived political ideal ... thing is, it's easy to idealize things. I'm not quite ready to simply accept everything she says is true. Are we to understand there is no conflict in that tribe? That everything is always in "harmony"? Hhmmmm. If you buy that, I've got some land in Florida I'd like to talk to you about.

In addition, this glorification of being "in harmony" with nature, or "Mother Earth", and all of her "nurturing", live-affirming characteristics seems to ignore the fact that nature is also often brutal, viscious, "hierarchal", and quite often is definately not "in harmony" ... or at least nature's view of "harmony" is not just that of a nice spring day in a calm meadow - but also includes large predators eating prey raw, continuous climatic change, droughts and floods and quakes ... i.e., nature's view of "harmony" has violence and chaos built into it.

Finally, as Oscar Wilde said, "the only thing wrong with socialism is that it takes up so many free evenings". Consensus is fine among small groups. Attempting to arrive at consensus with (for instance) 300 million Americans is quite a different story.

This article seems less like the discovery of a new and startling tribe that provides some "alternative" to modern culture - and more like the discovery of a new and startling way that the author can improve her career.
posted by MidasMulligan at 10:20 AM on May 26, 2002

they need to denigrate women's roles that don't fit into their non-hierarchical model in order to make their point that their model is better.

Not necessarily. Take for example the stereotype of the "bitch", who must act in an aggressive, competitive manner to "succeed" in business. Though many women are capable of performing this role, it may not be the *best* way to advance their career or achieve success from *their* point of view. They are just more comfortable, efficient and productive in a less macho environment--reaching more cooperation and consensus oriented decisions rather than the strict "my way or the highway" attitude.
And this is not just opinion. You will hear it over and over again in womens business journals and from women executives. And, noteworthily, a lot of males find this type of system more productive, too.
(From personal experience I know how unpleasant it was to interview with a company that was more interested in how I could play team sports than do my job.)
posted by kablam at 10:59 AM on May 26, 2002

Old news. I live in a matriarchy! My wife, two daughters, and two female cats control my every waking moment. And you know what? Life is gooooood. Wouldn't have it any other way!
posted by davidmsc at 11:01 AM on May 26, 2002

and if you say anything different or try to rebel its back to the house of pain...heh
posted by mikhail at 11:12 AM on May 26, 2002

midas, there is a lot in that article that I don't buy, so you can hold on to your land in Florida. For one, how can one small article describe what that woman really saw over there? If anything, I am left with more questions that can be answered only by reading her entire report/thesis/book.

With regards to conflict, I am sure that they have some sort of conflict resolution. I don't believe for one second that this culture doesn't have many similar problems that occur in the West, ie theft, drug/alcohol abuse, murder, etc. What I thought was being described was a reasonable way to approach life, as opposed to the wasteful and arrogant way we tend to treat ourselves and our world.

I am also perfectly aware that Nature does not always do what we want of Her. I don't have this fantasy that all these people are wandering around with a blissed out look on their faces, happily tending to the trees and the grass and the animals. I think that it would be nice if people would treat our world the way it should be, with tenderness and care, instead of the way we do it now.

By your description of Nature, can I infer that you believe that human beings are just another cog in the wheel of Nature? That because we are "natural" or "of nature" we are allowed to act the way we have? That it's okay to rape, pillage and destroy everything that we see? That because Nature is "hierarchical" and that humans are seen to be at the top of the pyramid that it's okay to use what we want and throw away the rest?

Maybe you should look at the definition of harmony: 3a: pleasing or congruent arrangement of parts; 4a: an interweaving of different accounts into a single narrative . I think 4a best describes what I feel harmony between human culture and Nature could be about, with 3a as an attribute of the relationship.

Lastly, I agree that the author may be bucking for a promotion and lots of cash and respect.
posted by ashbury at 11:17 AM on May 26, 2002

That because we are "natural" or "of nature" we are allowed to act the way we have? That it's okay to rape, pillage and destroy everything that we see?

Well, certainly nobody but us cares what we do. We're the only species on the planet that can care. The only creatures who can allow or deny us anything within our capabilities are ourselves.
posted by kindall at 11:54 AM on May 26, 2002

as ever the situation (annoyingly, .doc file) is complex. the term 'matriarchy' is not defined conclusively. there are plenty of examples of societies were family name, property and inheritance are passed via the female side of the family (uxorilocal).
there seem to be two basic schools of though (to simplify):
matriarchal societies degenerated into patriarchal societies as concepts such as ownership emerged.
patriarchal societies have always been the norm; women have always been subjugated (amounting to the longest running abuse scandal in history).
midas - getting concensus is only needed on a local level to a large extent. if concensus is required for decisions which effect the entire country (in your example 300m people) it can be reached in stages. crisis management is only required in, erm, a crisis. otherwise it is not the most appropriate management technique, as you are probably aware.
posted by asok at 1:19 PM on May 26, 2002

The Mississippi Choctaw were a matriarcy in pre-Columbian times:
When a young man married, he had by custom to choose a wife from some iksa (clan) other than his own. And, after marriage, he had to live and work with the clan of his wife. At festivals, dances, ball games or general council meetings, the married man sat, worked or played with his own family and clan. And his wife and children had to live and work with the clan of his wife. Should a family be broken by divorce or death, the woman kept the children and the house. All the man was entitled to retain were his eating dish, his weapons and his clothing

In fact Mississippi was the first state in the US with property rights for women (1839):'s_Property_Acts.html
posted by jonnyp at 1:38 PM on May 26, 2002

Kindall, your point is well made. But the destruction of our planet is felt by all creatures, whether they know what is going on or not. Ultimately, when there is nothing left, we too will perish.

We're the only species on the planet that can care. Hmmmm. . .I guess that's a double edged sword, isn't it?
posted by ashbury at 2:13 PM on May 26, 2002

Having read some of the chapters of this book, I am glad to hear it has finally been published. I look forward to reading it. Sanday's ethnographic work is superior, and while she relishes being the spoiler, I've thought that her ideas can't be easily ignored or dismissed. In fact, her critique of the ancient matriarchy literature is insightful; she has defintely had an impact on my thinking on gender.
posted by rschram at 4:56 PM on May 26, 2002

Just like Margaret Meade. Full of crap.
posted by mikegre at 5:31 PM on May 26, 2002

Meade did make a fool out of herself. But in this case, the error might just be in not seeing the forest for the trees.
The axiom that one must find an isolated and obscure tribe to discover how a matriarchy works is flawed. There are plenty of advanced and highly effective matriarchal-type situations even in the modern US--not everything runs on the patriarchal/hierarchical model.
What an anthropologist needs to do is to discern them--not with an eye to forcing them into a p/h model, but to try to detect the complex patterns and flows that result in dynamic decision making and action.
In other words, don't try to *chart* or *order* a matriarchal process. You are bound to fail, for there *is*
no lasting hierarchy, yet decisions are still made and actions taken.
posted by kablam at 9:48 PM on May 26, 2002

Why the fuck do you keep talking about matriarchies like they're the opposite of hierarchies? They're not.

That's really annoying.
posted by NortonDC at 10:18 PM on May 26, 2002

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