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.