Cohousing as Modern Matriarchy? by Kate Brunner

Kate Brunner profile picI attended the 2016 Matriarchal Studies Day that preceded the biannual Association for the Study of Women and Mythology conference only two weeks before my family and I arrived at our new home in an established cohousing community. It was a bit of a crazy time, traveling cross-country this way and that. Packing, flying, presenting, learning, growing, flying back, unpacking & packing again, driving, moving in, more unpacking, more learning, more growing. The dust is really just beginning to settle. And so I’ve finally had a chance to think; to integrate the experiences and opportunities of the first half of this year.

Reviewing my notes from the conference brought me back around to my experience of Dr. Heide Göttner-Abendroth’s video lecture on Modern Matriarchal Studies. The first challenge one seems to face when opening any discussion of Matriarchal Studies is clearly defining what Dr. Göttner-Abendroth means by matriarchy. The first assumption to deconstruct is the erroneous belief that matriarchy is merely the opposite of patriarchy, and therefore a culture that simply oppresses the men instead of the women.

smash the patriarchyAt one of our new cohousing community’s weekly common meals, I showed up in my “Smash the Patriarchy” t-shirt and was jokingly ribbed by a neighbor who instinctively made this assumption. Ironically, I believe this knee-jerk assumption is actually a direct result of the binary thinking inherent in the patriarchal paradigm- left/right, right/wrong, etc. We’ve got to oppress somebody, the patriarchy tells us. So if it’s not the one group, it must be the other, right? What was even more amusing to me than the trigger of the brief conversation was the fact that it was taking place between neighbors at a cohousing community meal. That’s because I believe cohousing, itself, shares numerous structures with matriarchy.

So, what is matriarchy?

What is cohousing?

And what do they have in common?

The underlying ethos of a matriarchal society is one that prioritizes care-taking and peacemaking within a context that respects and values the innate capabilities and inherent worth of its members and its environment; balancing the realities of different genders and generations as it does so. A matriarch strives to function in this manner at all levels. Those levels highlighted by Dr. Göttner-Abendroth are the social, the economic, the political, and the spiritual.

A matriarchy does not simply swap men for women when it comes to who’s in charge and women for men for who’s supposed to shut up and take it. A matriarchy revisions community structure completely, bringing the focus down to the clan, instead of up to the community leader. Clan structures are woven via shared nurturing or common community parenthood. Everyone is mother/father and sister/brother, whether or not they are direct biological relations. Dr. Göttner-Abendroth defines matriarchal social structure as “non-heirarchical horizontal” based on “matrilineal kinship.”


Multigenerational community in action in the Common House kitchen. Photo by Isa Vasanti

This type of multigenerational co-parenting social structure allows for what she refers to as “balanced economic reciprocity based on the circulation of gifts” and “egalitarian societies of consensus.” Subsistence economies focus on usage rights of community land, but still maintain collective clan ownership of the land as a whole, while gift economies arise to meet expressed needs without an assumed requirement of exchange. Decisions about the allocation of resources, as well as, other political issues are made at the lowest levels possible via consensus. Underpinning these social, economic, and political structures are the spiritual/cultural beliefs that 1) every task of living in community has ritual significance to the community, and 2) seeking balance between genders, generations, and community & land are sacred goals.

Cohousing, an intentional community concept introduced into the US from Denmark in the early 1990s, shares many of the same structures cited as defining features of matriarchy. Cohousing communities consist of private residences built on shared community property with ready access to shared community assets. Each household in a cohousing community is usually a complete home, privately owned by those who live there. But the layout of the community is such that the emphasis is on connection. Homes usually face each other along a wide, pedestrian-only walkway where regular interaction between neighbors occurs throughout any given day. Community assets usually include a large Common House with a community kitchen, dining room, laundry room, meeting & recreational space. Other community buildings or assets may include workshops, parking lots, community garden plots, greenhouses, hiking trails, pasture land, etc. Legally, cohousing communities are often organized as HOAs, Condo Associations, or Housing Cooperatives and are developed as Planned Unit Developments.


Celebrating this year’s high school graduates with a party in the Common House.

Households that choose to live in cohousing communities commit themselves to social, economic, political, & spiritual structures similar to those of a textbook matriarchy; just without the biological link to all of their neighbors. Children raised in cohousing are co-parented by the adults in the community and develop very sibling-like bonds with each other. Adults care for each other and nurture each other throughout life’s cycles. For many cohousers, the multigenerational bonds formed in their communities are highly valued as a huge benefit to cohousing over our increasingly age-stratified mainstream culture. Given the social connections that develop between cohousers, the gift economy thrives in these communities. Needs are expressed and met without expectation of immediate exchange. More rural cohousing communities also often participate in various forms and levels of subsistence economics through pastoral and arable agricultural activities. The vast majority of cohousing communities govern via consensus decision-making models. Every member of the community has a voice and a vote in all decisions requiring consensus. And underpinning the everyday work done to maintain a cohousing community is the understanding that what we are doing by choosing to live in this way, to strive for a better balance, is sacred.

My neighbor who teased me about my t-shirt over dinner may not use Matriarchy Studies vocabulary to define the community we choose to live in together. But whether or not we talk about cohousing as matriarchy, we’re both smashing the patriarchy just by living here.

(Many thanks to my cohousing community for sending me more photos of marvelous matriarchal community in action than I could possibly fit into one blog post! I guess I’ll just have to write more posts for FAR about a pagan feminist’s coho life!)


Front porch view down the community pedway. Photo by Sandy Thomson

A Reading List for the Curious:
— Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves by Kathryn M. McCamant, Charles Durrett, Ellen Hertzman
— Reinventing Community: Stories from the Walkways of Cohousing edited by David Wann
— Sustainable Community: Learning from the Cohousing Model by Graham Meltzer
— The Cohousing Association of the United States
— Societies of Peace: Matriarchies Past, Present, and Future edited by Dr. Heidi Göttner-Abendroth


KateKate M. Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is a brand-new resident of Heartwood Cohousing in Bayfield, Colorado & a homeschooling mother to her three children. She holds a BA from Tulane University, where she studied Economics, International Relations, & Religious Traditions. Kate is a presenter for Red Tents & women’s retreats. She also hosts seasonal women’s gatherings, facilitates labyrinth rituals, and leads workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. During 2016, she will be presenting at the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology Conference in Boston, MA, at the SOA’s first open online conference, AvaCon 2016, & at the inaugural Ninefold Festival in Orange, CT. 


Categories: Community, Family, Friendship, Matriarchy

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20 replies

  1. Very important. We need models for how to create a different world, and this is one.

    Two questions.

    Given that co housing developed within patriarchy, are there structures to insure that men do not speak more in group meetings or get elected more to decision-making bodies or informally set the tone and influence what can be said or not said? In matriarchy there are men’s and women’s councils, all populated by elders, with different responsibilities, and with the women having the right to override the men, because men are viewed as, to put it in de Waal’s terms, more likely to let aggression override empathy.

    Does co housing address the gender roles of society, especially the ways in which culture shapes boys and men to be dominant, aggressive, and violent? In matriarchy there are strong cultural norms that encourage everyone to be caring and generous, while in our wider culture this is far from the case, not even necessarily for girls.


    • My experience in co-housing at Nyland outside of Boulder was that those proactive structures to prevent male dominance were unspoken, but in place. That said, the emphasis was on families with children – just like mainstream society. There was almost no consideration for the lives and interests of single people without children, which was unfortunate.


      • My experience with Nyland is that those structures are not overtly in place (to prevent male dominance in governance positions or positions that would be recognized as power-feeding (such as the BoD). Male voices are often still dominant in meetings (and sometimes mysogynistic.) Patriarchal power plays still exist. The goals and mission are towards equality, caring and generosity. And it is a challenge to put structures into place (more so with some aggressive males) that create and maintain an equality. That said there is also allied support from our male community. Cohousing is a living experiment. Here it is not set up as a Matriarchy. It is an ongoing commitment to equality.

        I also expereince that Nyland is a nuclear, heteronormative family and children emphasis community.


      • Susan, I love that statement– “Cohousing is a living experiment.” So true, in my experience so far.

        Thank you & Diane for sharing your thoughts & experiences with another cohousing community. I am always interested to see & hear about how cohousing is manifesting in other communities.


    • Speaking specifically to my community– In our community meetings, we utilize a system of colored cards that the meeting facilitator uses to help manage the flow of the conversation around whatever issue is at hand. (A common practice in many communities.) One person speaks at a time. Both women & men in the community are trained as meeting facilitators. It’s a bit complicated to write out the whole system, but basically, it ensures the discussion stays on topic and that every community member who has a question, comment, concern, etc. about the issue at hand is heard. We have no elected officials & we are all equal members of the decision-making body.

      Also, while not decision-making bodies, our community does have a Wisdom Circle (attended by many, but not all, of the women in the community) and a Men’s Group (again, attended by many, but not all, of the men in the community) that both meet weekly. Subject matter at those gatherings varies & may or may not have to do with matters of community.

      Our community’s Vision is: “To create and live in a community that fosters harmony with each other, the larger community, and Nature.” To support this, we have a Values statement and Interpersonal Agreements that flesh out and foster community cultural norms that, from my perspective, strongly align with matriarchal values. Anyone interested is welcome to read them here: They are the first two of our Core Agreements. This is what we strive for– we are not embodied perfection of these ideals, but it is what we commit ourselves to working towards individually & as a community.


      • Kate I’m intrigued by the color card system you mention that your community uses at community meetings. Would you be willing to tell me more about it? And to share where your facilitators trained? (Am happy to take that part of the conversation offline.)

        It’s wonderful to hear how Heartwood is structured toward its values. Love the weekly Wisdom Circle and Men’s group.


  2. Interesting comparison. Thanks. Both of the (urban) Co-housing communities I have been involved with (but never lived in) were adults-only, with provision for children and grandchildren when they came to visit.


  3. I also wonder how co-housing communities might deal with seniors who might not be in a financial position for the same kind of “buy-in” into a co-housing community. I know that over the last 10-15 years I have looked at various communities and have never seen one that made room for seniors with extremely limited incomes. Not saying they don’t exist but from what I have seen – there is an affordability factor that limits a true societal blend that may be somewhat “inclusive” or “exclusive” depending on how you look at it. I grant that my perspective comes from the outside looking in at something I could never afford and so is biased. I certainly can also identify with a family who can afford it, who chooses to isolate into a community of shared values.


    • We have a co-housing community here Deanne, and I couldn’t come even close to the cost of living there. Some First Nations communities living a traditional lifestyle also subscribe to the same values of community. We are attempting to establish a community in the subsidized housing where I live, but it is, at this time, the movement of a few. So the ideas come from management with support from those of us who are open to change in this direction.


    • I can’t speak for Kate, but I know I’ve had this conversation with her many times before, and the financial disparity is something her specific cohousing community is concerned about and seeking alternative solutions to. It’s a barrier, in a very real way, and part of the reason it’s not part of my reality either, even though I love the ideals.


    • Financial accessibility & sustainability are absolutely issues the cohousing movement needs to address. There are elements of privilege (in this case, class privilege) at work in the American model currently, for sure. Many populations that could benefit from this sort of model are, indeed, often priced out of accessing current communities. It is a conversation that is ongoing within many communities, I believe.

      One of the ways our community attempts to create more accessibility is in having a variety of home-types. We have single family homes & duplexes. Some occupied by one couple or family, some shared by roommates. And some of those homes & duplexes have built-in apartments, as well. So, we have families, couples, & singles living in a variety of configurations, at a variety of cost-levels.

      There are communities out there that are exploring different ways of subsidizing varying portions of their housing in order to increase accessibility. My community is currently exploring that in the specific context of further stewardship of our agricultural lands & of sustainably supporting local organic farming families. I believe the senior cohousing movement is also actively engaging this issue, as well, from their perspective.


  4. An idea whose time has come…again!


  5. Kate, it sounds like you’re living in an almost paradise. I hope it all works out for you. But I, too, wonder if there’s a community for seniors with limited incomes. I guess paradise is always qualified by……..well, something.


    • Check out Babayaga’s House. It is in Montreuil, on the east side of Paris, but there are others in progress. I know a group of women in Toronto who have been talking about the concept.


  6. I love the idea of co-housing! We have several communities here in Portland, but as others have mentioned, they are expensive and have waiting lists. I think they are the wave of the future, though. People need more cooperation and less competition.


  7. I too love the idea/ideal but as a 71 year old woman with limited resources I do not see a place for me… perhaps in time. And the issue of gender roles with respect to young men worries me. At some point the young leave for a time and then what? Patriarchy strikes again.


    • Sara, this is an interesting question about young people (men & women, for that matter) raised in cohousing. There are some young people in my community (which has been built & occupied for about 16 years now) I’d be interested in hearing from about their experiences of growing up here & then stepping out into the wider world and how that’s affected them. I may approach some of them about exploring this further from their perspectives.


  8. I’ve been traveling, so I am only just now getting a chance to sit down, read through, & reply to comments and questions on this particular post.

    In answering questions about cohousing, I can speak to my research & to my experiences living in my specific cohousing community. As Susan Tornielli eloquently stated above, cohousing is definitely a living experiment. While there are commonalities in the basic model, each community is unique in their make up, landscape, vision & values, and culture.

    The model & its various American manifestations aren’t perfect, by any means. None of them are feminist utopias or perfect matriarchies. But I do believe many are at least an active step- a concerted effort- to carve out a different way of living that begins to dismantle many entrenched patriarchal structures one community at a time.


  9. In doing a quick search for more information on senior/elder cohousing, I came across this NY Times article from a few years ago about several communities specifically designed to address the needs of elders seeking community.

    Also, this essay on the site is an interesting read highlighting the issues surrounding this.

    Earlier this year, there was a national cohousing conference in Utah, “Aging Better Together” that specifically addressed aging in community.

    This is an active conversation in the cohousing experiment.



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