Women and Men in “Egalitarian Matriarchy” by Carol P. Christ


When the word “matriarchy” is spoken, the first question that comes up is: what about men? Most people imagine that matriarchy must oppress men—just as patriarchy oppresses women. Sadly, concern about the oppression of women in patriarchy is less automatic.

In the classical dualisms (stemming from Plato) that structure much of western thought up to the present day, nature is associated with finitude and death, which are viewed as limitations. Men are said to be able to transcend finitude and death through their rational capacities, while women are said to be tied to the body and less capable of transcending it. This becomes a justification for the subordination and domination of women.

While western thought disparages nature, the egalitarian matriarchal Minangkabau people of western Sumatra, base their worldview on the principle of growth in nature. The Minangkabau say that they “take the good in nature” and “throw away the bad.” While they recognize chaos and violence within nature, they choose to focus on the good: the powers of birth and growth.

The Minangkabau believe that women who nurture growth in children and rice exemplify the good within nature. Women are the stable factor in Minangkabau life: descent is through the female line, and both the big house where extended families live and the land that surrounds it are passed down through the female clan.

In contrast, for the Minangkabau:

The youthful male energy of sons is associated with raw physical energy, which is treated as disorderly and immature until shaped by the teachings of the authoritative mother and channeled by the activities of the mature male who follows and administers the dictates of adat [egalitarian matriarchal customs]. …Adat is represented as the ultimate authority, the force that modulates human passions and emotion. (Peggy Reeves Sanday, Women at the Center, 36)

Based on the mother principles of nurture and growth, the adat does not counsel “domination” of males and male energy, but rather “conjugation” (the term is Sanday’s) or coming together. Mothers in egalitarian matriarchies want their sons as well as their daughters to be happy and to feel important and valuable. Thus women make special efforts to insure that rituals celebrate the contributions of males as brothers, husbands, and fathers to the family. Women recognize that it is important for men to have honored and meaningful roles within egalitarian matriarchy. In contemporary Minangkabau culture, women are the stable element in the family and uphold the traditional rituals of the adat, while men articulate the meaning of adat during rituals and adjudicate disputes between adat, Islam, and the government.

Before the coming of Islam and government, male roles may have been different. In traditional egalitarian matriarchies, men are the traders who make contact with other cultures and settle disputes with them. They carry not only goods but information back to their communities. They also negotiate war and peace. As the traditional roles of Minangkabau men disappeared, new roles were created. These new roles built on the skills of articulation, communication, and adjudication of conflict men had developed through their roles as traders. Women were willing to cede important cultural roles to the men, because they understood that men must have an honored and necessary place within egalitarian matriarchy if it is to succeed.

Young men interviewed in a recent film on the egalitarian matriarchal culture of the Mosuo of the Himalayas, stated that they do not work as hard as the women. This is because their traditional roles as traders have been replaced by capitalism, their roles as information gatherers by television and internet, and their roles in negotiating disputes by the government. Mosuo women continue to farm, and they have taken on new roles within the tourist industry, running hotels and restaurants built on their traditional lands. If males do not have roles within egalitarian matriarchy in which they are can contribute and be respected, it is possible that their unstable energy will unleash the forces of chaos. I hope Mosuo women are thinking about how to create new roles be created for men that will channel their energy and give them a places of honor and respect in changing cultural circumstances.

In modern western cultures, the traditional roles of men as providers are being eroded. Insofar as this traditional role is associated with patriarchal authority and domination of women and children, this is a good thing. But what new roles will be created for men? Can we celebrate men as nurturers and protectors of life in new cultural systems in which violence and domination are no longer tolerated, no longer celebrated? I used to think that it was up to men to figure this out for themselves. Women, I said, have enough to do in getting our own acts together. Now I wonder if I was wrong about that. If nurturing life really is the highest value, and if this value is created and is sustained in mothering, then maybe women must take the lead in creating rituals that honor the nurturing principle in boys and men. And maybe we also need to take the lead in imagining and creating roles for men in family and society where they can be productive and honored for nurturing life.

I know, I know, I am suggesting a gender binary. I know, I know, I am asking women to take responsibility for men. But what if the gender binary is overcome when women teach men to respect nurturing of life as the highest value? What if the only way to create families and societies of peace is for women to take the lead in shaping rituals and roles that honor the contributions of men to the nurturing of life? I think this is what our egalitarian matriarchal grandmothers and grandmothers’ grandmothers are seeking to teach us: we have the power and it is up to us to create societies of peace.

 

*You can read more in Societies of Peace by Heide Goettner-Abendroth, in Women at the Center by Peggy Reeves Sanday, and in Daughters of Mother Earth and Iroquoian Women by Barbara Alice Mann. Or watch The Women’s Kingdom or other documentaries on the Mosuo. Also see Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers: Voices of the Voiceless.

 

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer and educator currently living in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on sale $3.71 kindle on Amazon in May 2018. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale $12.39 on Amazon. Carol  has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years. Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger.

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Categories: Egalitarian Matriarchy, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General

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26 replies

  1. Carol, this is a wonderful article…with too many points to respond to!

    First, I have shied away from use of the word matriarchy because for me it did imply another sort of domination… I am now using the word again because you have defined it for me in a different way.

    Secondly, your words: … “nature is associated with finitude and death, which are viewed as limitations. Men are said to be able to transcend finitude and death…” really struck me like lead. I realized suddenly that I have always associated Nature with nurture and growth – just the opposite of what the Platonists believed – death in nature is always tied to and in service to a great round – and as I grow older and closer to dying myself I find comfort in being a part of this greater whole. But with that much said I used to be tied to transcendence as well – so I was split just the same – and it wasn’t until I left the church for the second time at mid -life that I was able to leave transcendence behind… and not without an inner struggle.

    I am also aware on a personal level that living in my body means that I have have to live through my feeling/sensing self and that because of personal suffering I am conditioned (unconsciously) to leave my body involuntarily whether I want to or not. This is not transcendence. Mother’s day, for example is always difficult for me and this year I am still “walking on air” not having been able to stay with the pain of it then or now. Being tied to a body has limitations of all sorts, and as women – even when we are disembodied – our bodies are calling to us.

    And yet, for me at least, joy is tied to living in a body, and it is through my body that I receive information that would otherwise not be available to me either through insight or dreaming. And it is through my feeling sensing body that I reach the third point I want to respond to…Like you, for many years I refused to contemplate the idea that it might be up to us as women to TEACH men how to be compassionate caring human beings. Just the thought of it infuriated me. More WORK for women? NO, I said… but I had this nagging feeling that I might be wrong and it wouldn’t go away … Now, in my seventies I am reluctantly starting to believe that as unfair as it seems, civilizing men may be our only hope. We need men as nurturers and protectors and they sure don’t seem to be able to get this on their own – or most don’t. And with patriarchy in place how can that ever change?

    Many Indigenous cultures are predicated on egalitarian matriarchy…

    And so I close this too long commentary in agreement with you. I think it is up to us as women to create a more life sustaining society.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Thanks for this post Carol, especially regards where you rightly say, “take the good in nature” and also “focus on the good: the powers of birth and growth.”

    Nature is also at the heart of environmentalism, that is, planting more trees, building more parks, not using smoke stacks, etc., not dumping chemicals, and thus protecting our environment for the good of all.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you Carol. Your post led me to re-visit a book (Daughters of Copper Woman by Ann Cameron) containing stories from our local indigenous people. It tells similar stories to the ones you share here, and the changes brought by the Spanish and English invaders.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carol, last night I watched a documentary called “The Gorilla King” that exemplifies domination by male gorillas in nature. The males run around beating their chests, fighting, and acquire many apparently(?) docile females. They are also great protectors of females and their children – These are some of our closest relatives, and for me at least they possess some undesirable traits like the ones I mentioned.The question that I found myself asking was whether or not becoming more “human – like” seems to create some kind of innate structural imbalance that needs taming?

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    • Then too there are the bonobos who make love not war. Primatologist Franz de Waal says we can go either way. And this of course is where culture comes into play, human for sure, and other than human too.

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      • Yes, I did think about the bonobos while watching the documentary… I also thought about Jane Goodall’s spiritual crisis when she was confronted by chimp violence. I think it’s true that humans can potentially choose either way of being in the world and surely the way things are is not life sustaining for any of us…. As long as one side isn’t benefiting too much from the way things are… What will it take for enough of us to WANT to make this radical shift? That’s my question.

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      • I do remember my own spiritual crisis when learning of Goodall’s discovery of chimp violence. I wanted to believe nature is good and we humans are bad. The idea that there is good and bad in nature of the Minangkabau is more realistic. And they say, we can still focus on the good.

        Franz de Waal had one of his aha moments when he saw reconciliation behavior between male chimps after a fight. He sees primate behavior like this as the root of human morality.

        So what do we focus on? The fight or the reconciliation? What do we celebrate in nature?

        Liked by 2 people

      • I focus on reconciliation, as you do. “Both and” characterizes what happens in Nature as well as with humanity, although from years of observations it seems to me that genuine compassion and compassion occur in nature much more routinely than we would like to acknowledge If we did, we would HAVE to change our attitudes towards animals. As Jane Goodall notes observing with an open mind (not one bound by the man against nature paradigm) allows us to see animals in a totally different way. The lenses we use are critical for further understanding and allowing non – human species to become our teachers.

        As an ethologist who studies wild bears in their natural habitat I have been stunned by the care and compassion of individuals not just towards each other but directed towards me… of course bears have matriarchal societies – that may make a difference.

        I don’t have time to watch this video now but I will later today – thanks so much.

        You might enjoy Jane Goodall’s documentary “When Animals Talk”. And Bekoff’s books – “Wild Justice” comes to mind.

        My personal experience has taught me that animals have a very distinct moral code. It certainly did not begin with humans.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I just watched this video and laughed so much, enjoying it so. Thank you! My life long observations of animals choosing cooperation and exhibiting empathy have created a question in me about whether compassion, empathy and cooperation are ancient behaviors that helped animals and plants survive long before humans ever emerged. For me the evidence is sort of overwhelming but I have spent so much time with wild/tame animals learning about how they think, feel, behave that perhaps I have been privileged in a way others have not. Animals need to develop a bond of trust with humans before they allow humans to share their world. Unfortunately, most people FEAR wild animals especially and fear breaks the connection instantly.

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  5. Whoops, I forgot to qualify that acting as protectors is not an undesirable trait…

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  6. Provocative article, Carol. And as Sarah Wright wrote above, too many points to respond to. I think your last point about taking on the responsibility of imagining and creating nurturing roles for men is also many-faceted. The reason for this is that patriarchy not only denigrates women, it also denigrates feminine characteristics such as nurturing and care (Just look at what childcare workers and caregivers’ make for a living). One of the ways in which feminists need to change this second part of the patriarchal paradigm is to NOT emulate men’s ways in the marketplace, i.e. continue to model these positive parts of “femininity.”

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Since I only made a mental not of the commentary at the time, I can’t provide any citations, literary or scientific, BUT for many years I was fascinated by research done on gorillas, chimps, bonobos and baboons that was utilized to provide insight, verification and evolution-theory support for various “traits” of the human species. Then somebody let a female researcher out into the field to observe various troops of baboons. Suddenly, the females and juveniles acquired behaviors also! Some of the female behaviors appeared to be almost or virtually oblivious of the male social structure behaviors, free-standing even! Females seemed to determine when they would utilize the males for the obvious reason(s) and then went back to their own priorities, which had wider scopes than determination of dominance, and more concern with alliances and associations about where food and shelter was. Also females seemed to be the final call on who got admitted into the troop and who got groomed, and who got sent on their way. Following human academic behavior was of course centered on why female researchers were not qualified to…

    you know the drill…

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Your comment about how you hope Mosuo women are thinking about how to create new roles for men that will channel their energy and give them places of honor and respect in their changing culture is true. Now that they are no longer solely agrarian, there needs to be new roles and rituals.

    National Geographic has a short video of a Matriarchal community and culture in China and I was dismayed to see how they publicized it calling it “Free Love”: https://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/china_freelove?source=relatedvideo.

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  9. For many years, I’ve been teaching that the Holy, by whichever name we call it, is a combined masculine and feminine energy as is all of nature. In the early ’70s, when I was involved in forming and leading “consciousness raising” and feminist discussions, my friends who had daughters said, “We have to raise our daughters differently.” I, who am the mother of sons, said, “We have to raise our sons differently.”

    I like the term gender binary. It says the idea without getting people freaked about God Father/Mother although I use that term, too. We inch along on this thing we call human evolution.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Amazing the diversity among those 13 grandmothers in that wonderful photo you shared here, thanks Carol. There’s so much love and vitality amongst them all, regardless of age.

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  11. I agree – at this point we need to just do what it takes to make sure that our planet and the living beings on her survive. If we step away from being ensconced in our own time, place, and culture, and look at the situation as some people have the skills for the kind of cooperative, nurturing, peaceful way of living that is necessary for all of us to make it to the next century and other people do not, it just makes sense for the people with those skills to share them with those who don’t have them, for the benefit of everyone. I am amazed at how different my son’s generation of young men (he is 25) is from the men of my generation when we were that age. Of course, there are plenty of young men now who need educating on how to live in a healthy and sustainable way, but I do see things getting better, and the credit goes, I think, to both mothers and fathers, in whatever combination they might be in individual families.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. ” If males do not have roles within egalitarian matriarchy in which they are can contribute and be respected, it is possible that their unstable energy will unleash the forces of chaos. I hope Mosuo women are thinking about how to create new roles be created for men that will channel their energy and give them a places of honor and respect in changing cultural circumstances.”

    Isn’t this patronizing?

    It hurts me a little, I wont lie. I’m a guy – a guy that has always supported feminist views. I’ve never let any negative comment affect my support for it. However, comments like this really confuse me.

    Isn’t biological essentialism frowned upon in feminism? I feel like these types of statements reinforce gender stereotyping about men being simple-minded/clueless/beasts, while women are the feminine, mature ones.

    I thought social conditioning played a huge role? I’m a guy, and my parents never raised me to really value patriarchal views. And guess what? I don’t have them. It’s not some biological thing. I’ve never looked down on women, even when other kids my age have. I rarely ever made jokes that belittled women.

    So it’s legit concerning when I read stuff like this: as a guy, am I just some sort of simple-minded idiot to you people? And is this how feminism is supposed to be? I’m not even concern trolling at this point, because I genuinely do support feminism but stuff like this confuses me.

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    • The Minangkabau believe social conditioning plays a big role, this is one of the purposes of the women’s elaborate rituals and is also one of the purposes of the men’s discussion of the meaning of the adat.

      Biological determinism is the view that males will always be and do x and females will always be and do y. Biological essentialism is often defined or understood to mean biological determinism. However, a more nuanced view is possible, that males and females have somewhat different behavioral tendencies based on testosterone and estrogen or other factors on the x and y chromosomes, but that culture shapes these tendencies and can override them. Thus, for example Franz de Waal (see above) believes that both male and female primates are hardwired for empathy, but that male primates more easily override empathy with aggression. Female primates can also override their tendency toward empathy, but they may not be as quick to do so. If this is the case, both females and males can be empathetic or aggressive. And if males are quicker to override empathy for aggression, then it is up to families and cultures to curb this tendency. This is the Minangkabau way. Our culture does quite the opposite, categorizing empathetic males as feminine (boys don’t cry) and aggressive males as right on masculine (a boy has to learn to defend himself, being a soldier is honored, etc.).

      The Minangkabau’s goal is for both males and females to value nurturing and protecting the vulnerable above all. As for social conditioning, families play an important role, but of course it is impossible or nearly impossible to stop children from being influenced by the wider culture through religion, education, employment, tv, advertising, social media, peer pressure, etc.

      If you watch the film where the Mosuo men speak about not working very hard, you might also react as I did, these guys seem to be lazy or at least without any meaningful work to do, and one of them brags about deceiving women to get sex.

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      • I understand that men and women have different hormones (testosterone, estrogen), and that these can be overridden with social conditioning.

        But the way it is phrased in the article, and even other articles on this site portray it in a way that makes as if all men are hopeless, that all men are inevitably similar and violent, and immature. They always posit that women are all naturally more mature and smart. I thought the common assumption was that men and women actually aren’t that different from each other, and that socialization plays a large role in these things (boys are encouraged to be aggressive and value physicality at a young age, while girls are encouraged to value passive actions like homemaking and studying), hence why we need to end the patriarchy and provide equal opportunity. We shouldn’t pigeonhole people. We shouldn’t assume that all men or all women will behave the same way. There are plenty of men (not enough since we live in a patriarchy, but still plenty nonetheless) who have the capacity for peace. There are plenty of women who have the capacity for violence. No one is perfect or better.

        Again, I’m a guy, and I grew up with other kids saying hurtful stuff about women, but that never influenced me to mistreat girls. I’ve always been more on the timid side than the aggressive side, and I’ve always been more artistic than anything. So the assertion that’s being made seems to be a huge generalization, a hurtful one at that. It really pigeonholes people.

        Women in a patriarchy always get pigeonholed and stereotyped as being weak and emotional, but we’ve proven the role social conditioning plays in creating both the frequency, and negative portrayal such behavior in women. I support taking away this shackle away from women. So I don’t see why positioning men as being inherently, inevitably prone to violence like as if they are children, and positioning women as automatically being maturer than them is fine. How am I supposed to feel about that when it still leads to pigeonholing/generalizations about who I am?

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      • The more important question is who you can be. This is the question the Minangkabau are addressing when they say that both women and men can and should become loving, nurturing, and generous and that no one should be violent, aggressive, or dominant. And by the way, the Minangkabau do not say males tend toward violence, aggression, and dominance. What they say is that male energy is more chaotic than female energy UNTIL it is educated in adat by mothers and male teachers. You may not like this idea, but this is what they think. This also is more or less what primatologist Franz de Waal is saying, and don’t forget he identifies as a male. If males can override empathy for aggression more quickly than females, isn’t a good idea to recognize that rather than deny it? And if this is the case, shouldn’t culture be designed to encourage males never to override empathy? Nor females either, because females are also capable of overriding empathy, just not as quick to do so, according to de Waal. And to repeat, de Waal is saying all primates–females and males–are hardwired for empathy in the mother-child relationship.

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