Today a couple of friends and I were discussing egalitarian matriarchal values. I stated that in these societies there is no great difference in male and female personalities because both males and females are expected to be as kind and loving and generous as their own mothers. “Oh no I would not want that,” the other woman responded. “I want my man to be masculine–not wishy washy or namby pamby.” This woman soon acknowledged that she did not want her man to be dominant or aggressive. Yet her first reaction was to reject the idea that men might do well to emulate the values of their mothers.
This conversation illustrates the difficulty we have in conceiving alternatives to the way we assign gender roles. Masculine: assertive and aggressive. Feminine: weak and passive.
In fact. being as kind, loving, and generous as mothers in egalitarian matriarchies has nothing to do with these familiar gender binaries. Mothers in egalitarian matriarchies are assertive, but not aggressive, and there is nothing weak or passive about them. Love, kindness, and generosity are not about standing back and letting others walk over you. Instead they are active values that require intelligence, reflection, and strength.
Mothers do sometimes sacrifice their own needs for those of their children. But there is no reason for necessary sacrifice to turn into self-negation or self-abnegation. A mother who does not love and respect herself as much as she loves and respects others is not what is meant by the love of mothers in egalitarian matriarchies.
Women in egalitarian matriarchies are not just wives and mothers. They may not be wives at all. The Mosuo do not marry. For them, love and sex are not bound up with providing for children. The maternal clans take care of that. Nor are mothers ever isolated in the home. Instead they live in matrilineal clan houses, and when one is overwhelmed, the others step into help. Yet the Mosuo enjoy sex and erotic love–but they don’t put either at the center of life.
Mothering children is just one of the many roles women in egalitarian matriarchies fulfill. These include planting and harvesting and preparing and preserving food (economics), supervising and leading rituals to do with planting and harvesting and with birth, puberty, and death (religion), and participating in the process of decision-making for the matri-clan (politics). All of these activities require intelligence and strength—both physical and mental.
In egalitarian matriarchies to be loving, kind, and generous does not make you any less attractive, sexy, or strong if you are a man, because these values have nothing to do with passivity or weakness.
How hard can it be to imagine this? Apparently, for us, it is very difficult.
Being a man does not mean holding back your soft feelings, it means expressing them. A real man can feed or bathe a baby with the same hands he uses to lift heavy loads or to build buildings. To lift a heavy load is not done to show off, but rather to help someone with less physical strength. Buildings are built to shelter women, children, and men too from wind and rain, cold and heat. To use your physical strength need not have anything to do with aggression or domination, but rather can be an expression of the desire to nurture the vulnerable.
Men have important roles in egalitarian matriarchies. They are the ones who leave home to engage in trade and to “see the world.” For this reason, they often become the spokespersons for the clan in relation to other groups. But again, these tasks are not undertaken to dominate or control, but rather, always with the interests of the vulnerable in mind.
And yet. . . we so easily slip back into familiar stereotypes. Masculine: aggressive. Feminine: passive, closing ourselves off from imagining how we might transform our culture—a culture sadly in need of radical transformation.
Another way is possible. Can you imagine it coming into being?
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who lives in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.