I 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.
At 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.”
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.
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!)
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
Kate 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.