Recently feminist scholar Vicki Noble said this is the best definition of patriarchy she has read–but she hadn’t known of it earlier! I am am republishing it now in hopes that all of you will share it on your social media so that it becomes more widely known. Thanks!
Patriarchy is often defined as a system of male dominance. This definition does not illuminate, but rather obscures, the complex set of factors that function together in the patriarchal system. We need more complex definition if we are to understand and challenge the the patriarchal system in all of its aspects.
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. Continue reading “Masculine: Aggressive/Feminine: Passive: Can We Imagine Alternatives? by Carol P. Christ”
On a cold and rainy morning in Lesbos, I ponder the advice of my intuitive friend Cristina to reflect on the spiritual dimensions of my decision to move to Crete. When asked why I am moving from Lesbos to Crete, I tend focus on the negative: I am lonely in my small village; and I am disheartened by my neighbors’ lack of compassion for the refugees who come to our island from Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.
As I begin to think again, I recall the many wonderful things I have experienced in Lesbos. This is the island where Sappho sang, and I too have been inspired by the muses who arise from the land. It is here that I first felt Greece calling me to leave my home. It is here that I learned to speak Greek. It is here that I listened to the stories of the old people who remembered a time when everyone lived closer to each other and the land. It is here that I learned to dance the traditional dances of Greece. It is here that I learned to identify over 300 species of birds that visit the wetlands on spring migration or are year-around or summer and winter residents. It is here that I dedicated a decade of my life to the effort to protect the wetland home of the birds I came to love. It is here that I was asked to run for regional and national office by the Green Party Greece. It is here that I met green friends I will always hold in my heart. It is here that I became an amateur geologist, learning the volcanic history of an island that has been declared a UNESCO Geopark. It is here that I imagined the time before 1922 when Turks, Armenians, and Greeks lived together in my village. It is here that I renovated a small Turkish house in a neighborhood that once had a mosque and later, a Neoclassical “mansion” (not particularly large by American standards) built by a Greek shipowner who transported goods brought by camels along the silk road from China. It is here that I learned to drink retsina and to relish food drenched in olive oil. I will carry all of this with me, for it is in my blood and in my bones.
Matriarchies are not just a reversal of patriarchies, with women ruling over men – as the usual misinterpretation would have it. Matriarchies are mother-centered societies. They are based on maternal values: care-taking, nurturing, mothering. This holds for everybody: for mothers and those who are not mothers, for women and men alike.
Matriarchal societies are consciously built upon maternal values and motherly work, and this is why they are much more realistic than patriarchies. They are, on principle, need-oriented. They aim to meet everyone’s needs with the greatest benefit. So, in matriarchies, mothering – which originates as a biological fact – is transformed into a cultural model. This model is much more appropriate to the human condition than the patriarchal conception of motherhood which is used to make women, and especially mothers, into slaves.
Within matriarchal cultures, equality means more than just a levelling of differences. Natural differences between the genders and the generations are respected and honoured, but they never serve to create hierarchies, as is common in patriarchy. The different genders and generations each have their own dignity, and through complementary areas of activity, they function in concert one other. More precisely, matriarchies are societies with complementary equality, where great care is taken to provide a balance. This applies to the balance between genders, among generations, and between humans and nature. Maternal values as ethical principles pervade all areas of a matriarchal society. This creates an attitude of care-taking, nurturing, and peacemaking. Continue reading “Matriarchies Are Not Just a Reversal of Patriarchies: A Structural Analysis by Heide Goettner-Abendroth”
It is commonly accepted in American culture that children–boys especially–must go through a “phase” where they hate their mothers in order to grow up. We are told that the mother-child bond is so intense as to become suffocating. We are told that unless children – boys especially – reject their mothers, they will not individuate, become individuals. And nobody, we are told, wants a mama’s boy.*
Recently, I read an article written by a mother who, though she had prepared herself for rejection, had not prepared herself for the degree of hatred and contempt her teen-age son would express towards her over a several year period. I do not recall whether or not this particular story had a happy outcome or whether the mother was still living the story of rejection.
Hello, the men. My advice on modern masculinity would be to look at all those traits you believe are feminine and interrogate why you are so obsessed with being the opposite. Because this idea that to be a man you have to be the furthest away from being a woman that you possibly can is really weird.
A butch lesbian, Gadsby is not advocating traditional sex role stereotypes. She is questioning them. She continues:
Women are always being encouraged to stir masculine traits into their feminine recipe. We are told to “be bolder!” “Speak up in meetings.” “Exaggerate your skills.” All that Lean In sort of crap. So perhaps it’s time for you, the men, to be more ladylike.
Even as she recognizes that it is becoming OK for women to express so-called “masculine traits,” she understands that so-called masculinity is often based on a lie. It may be fine to “be bolder” (but not when you have nothing to say at the moment) and to “speak up” (but not to the exclusion of others), yet it should not be necessary to “exaggerate your skills” to make yourself look better than other people—and better than you are! No one should not have to be “the best” in order to be accepted or acceptable.
Gadsby feels for the men who are trying to live up to masculine stereotypes:
I can see how it is a tough spot. It is not your fault. You didn’t build this mess. You were born into it, like the rest of us. What I am saying is, I have empathy for you.
And then the comedian’s zinger:
And empathy, by the way, is one of the traits that women are most famous for. You might know it by its other name: “weakness.” But don’t be fooled—empathy is a superpower, and it’s the only one that any human has to offer.
Empathy is a superpower, and it’s the only one that any human has to offer.
All joking aside, this is a profound statement. Many feminists have been saying for a long time that qualities defined as “female” or “feminine” are in fact human qualities that should be embodied and emulated by all.
Gadsby takes this a step further. When she says that empathy is a super power and the only super power available to humans, she is saying that a quality often identified as “female” or “feminine” is in fact the highest value and the most important one for everyone, whether they identify as male, female, or something else, to express. This is a truly radical point of view and perhaps the only one that can save our species and our planet from destruction. Without empathy we and many other forms of life are doomed. And as long as empathy continues to be defined as the opposite of masculine strength, the men who rule the world will continue to turn against the only superpower that can save us.
In recent years I have been inspired by egalitarian matriarchal societies. What is most amazing to me about these cultures is not that women have power (though this is amazing) nor even that there is no rape (this too is amazing). What is most amazing to me is that these societies place values they associate with mothers and mothering at the center.
For the Minangkabau of Sumatra, nurturing the weak and the vulnerable is the highest value. Nurturing the weak and the vulnerable is what (good) mothers do. In Minankabau culture, not only women and girls, but also men and boys, are expected to nurture the weak and the vulnerable above all else. For men and boys, there is no shame in this. They are not considered weak or effeminate (a word that could not exist in their culture) for doing so. Rather they take pride in being able to express and embody the values that ensure the continuation of life.
In The Kingdom of Women, Choo WaiHong writes about an appointment she made to speak with an elder man about the egalitarian matriarchal Mosuo culture. She arrived on time, but before he could speak with her, he fed, bathed, and put a set of small twins to bed. For him, nurturing the weak and vulnerable came first. Speaking about his culture could wait, and so could his guest. In fact, he could not have chosen a better way to explain Mosuo values to the Han Chinese woman who waited while he, a respected elder man, cared for two little babies. In his culture, caring for the weak and the vulnerable is important. It is what people do. And it comes first!
When will we ever learn? Oh when will we ever learn?
In attempting to reconstruct the role of women in Iroquois society, Mann first had to engage in a painstaking deconstruction of the scholarly consensus that men ruled among the Iroquois. Believing that male dominance is universal, scholars ignored or explained away a great deal of evidence that Iroquoian women were and are at the center of Iroquoian society. Those who believe that academic scholarship is objective or relatively objective may have to revise their opinions after reading the masses of evidence of witting and unwitting distortion of Iroquois society that Mann uncovers. In order to reconstruct the role of women in Iroquoian society, Mann also had to deal with the fact that the American government destroyed much of Iroquoian oral tradition through policies of forced assimilation that removed children to government schools and forbade the speaking of native languages. Continue reading “Iroquoian Women: Power Held and Shared by Carol P. Christ”
As I reflected on the Nine Touchstones again recently, I was pleased to discover that the first and the eighth touchstones are articulations of the central values of egalitarian matriarchal societies. Few of us live today in egalitarian matriarchies, and it would not be possible for all of us to return to cultivating the land. I offer the Nine Touchstones in the hope that they can help us to find a way to express and embody the values of egalitarian matriarchal cultures in the modern world. The touchstones are intended to inform all our relationships, personal, communal, social, and political.
Walk in love and beauty.
Trust the knowledge that comes through the body.
Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering.
Take only what you need.
Think about the consequences of your actions for seven generations.
Approach the taking of life with great restraint.
Practice great generosity.
Repair the web
The ninth touchstone is based on the Jewish “commandment” to repair the world. It is derived from the mystical tradition in which prayers were directed towards reuniting the broken sherds that became the created world with their transcendent source. It was reinterpreted by liberal Jews in America as a commandment to create justice in this world through social and political action. I rephrase it as “Repair the web,” to underscore to the need to repair not only the human community, but also the web of life in which it is situated.
To nurture life is to protect the weak and the vulnerable and to create the conditions in which human beings and all beings can experience the joy of living.
To walk in love and beauty is to love yourself, other human beings, and all beings in the web of life, and to appreciate the beauty that is found in all of our diversity and difference.
To speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering is to recognize that everything is not love and light in the modern world: to speak the truth about that which is broken is the path to healing.
To take only what you need is to recognize the interdependence of life: when we take more than we need, we take from others without reason.
To think about the consequences of your actions for seven generations is to recognize that what we do today will affect the next generations and the planet as a whole, in good ways, and in bad.
To approach the taking of life with great restraint is to think about what we eat, never to kill unnecessarily, and not to react with violence when there are other ways to resolve conflict.
To practice great generosity is to recognize that none of us has the God-given right to own anything, and to learn to give and receive in the grace of life.
To repair the web is to always act to create a better life for ourselves, for the next generations, and for the species with which we share life this earth.
The Nine Touchstones help us to imagine the way to a better world. Can we join together to create it?
Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering.
Take only what you need.
Think about the consequences of your actions for seven generations.
Approach the taking of life with great restraint.
Practice great generosity.
Repair the web
In Rebirth of the Goddess, I offered Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality as an alternative to the Ten Commandments. The touchstones are not commandments delivered from outside the world, nor are they accompanied by the promise of reward in heaven or the threat of punishment in hell. Rather, the Nine Touchstones are based upon observation of the world and rooted in the insight that human and other beings are connected in the web of life. They are intended to inform all our relationships, whether personal, communal, social, or political.
As I review the Nine Touchstones two decades after I first intuited and reflected on them, I marvel at my younger self. When I write, I often enter into a kind of trance in which words emerge from a place in myself that lies deeper than my conscious rational mind. I do not know that I know something until the words take shape on the page, and even then, their meaning unfolds over time. Something like this must have happened with the Nine Touchstones. I was drawn to the Native American teachings expressed in several of the touchstones even though I did not fully understand their context or meaning at the time. I was drawn to maternal values without knowing that they are the basis of ethics in egalitarian matriarchal cultures. Continue reading “Nurture Life: Ethics of Goddess Spirituality by Carol P. Christ”
Following up on my recent blogs on the roles of women in the Neolithic revolution and on “egalitarian matriarchy,” I have been re-reading Peggy Reeves Sanday’s ground-breaking book, Women at the Center, about the survival of the “adat matriarchaat” (the principles of matriarchy) among the more than four million Minangkabau people of Indonesia.
According to Sanday, the customs of the matriarchaat (the Dutch word has been adopted by the Minangkabau people)—including matrilineal descent, matrilocal marriage, and ownership of the land by the mother clan—have survived accommodation with Islam. This is in no small part due to the fact that one of the principle values of the matriachaat is to conjugate (to come together) rather than to dominate. Rather than viewing Islam as an opposing force, the Minangkabau emphasize the aspects of Islam–such as love and compassion for the weak–that are compatible with their traditional worldview. Through this clever maneuver, the Minangkabau manage to practice Islam while maintaining their traditional egalitarian matriarchy. Continue reading “A Question about “Egalitarian Matriarchy” in West Sumatra 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 matriarchalMinangkabau 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.
Currently I am reading Peggy Reeves Sanday’s a-mazing book Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy for the third time. In it Sanday describes the living egalitarian matriarchal culture of four million people of the Minangkabau culture of West Sumatra, Indonesia. Sanday spent parts of two decades living among the Minangkabau before publishing her book. I can understand why it took her so long to come to terms with a culture so different from our own.
The Minangkabau are matrilineal, defining family relationships through the mother line. They are also matrilocal: extended families live in big houses traditionally crowned by symbolic buffalo horns reaching to the sky; husbands, affectionately called “roosters” come to live in the “chicken coop” of their wives. The big houses and surrounding farmlands are held in common by the maternal clan. This much is relatively easy to understand, once we are willing to accept that not all societies are patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal. Continue reading “How “Egalitarian Matriarchy” Works among the Minangkabau of West Sumatra by Carol P. Christ”
In their purest form, “egalitarian matriarchies” place the mother principle at the center of culture and society. Their highest values are the love, care, and generosity they associate with motherhood. These values are not limited to women and girls. Boys and men are also encouraged to honor mothers above all, to practice the traits of love, care, and generosity, and to value them in others.
“Egalitarian matriarchal” societies are matrilineal which means that family membership and descent are passed through the female line. They are also usually matrilocal, which means that women live in their maternal home all of their lives. Family groups are usually extended rather than nuclear. Often there is a “big house” in which groups of sisters, brothers, and cousins live together with mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and great-aunts. In what I imagine to have been the original form of the system (still practiced by the Mosuo of the Himalayas), men also live in their maternal house, visiting their lovers at night, and returning home in the morning.
These societies practice small-scale agriculture. The women are owners and guardians of the land, which is held in common by maternal clans. They are also the guardians of the secrets of agriculture, food storage, and food preparation, which are passed down from mothers to daughters through songs, dances, rituals, and stories that celebrate the Earth as a great and giving Mother. The powers of women as birth-givers and as the guardians of the mysteries of the agricultural cycles are symbolically related to the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in nature and in all creative processes.
These social and cultural systems must have first developed at the beginning of the Neolithic era, when “woman the gatherer” first discovered the secrets of agriculture that allowed people to settle down and farm the land. If women discovered agriculture, then it makes sense that they would have been leaders in the first settled communities and guardians or owners of the land they farmed. They would have been the ones to build the first homes on or near the farmland. Sons as well as daughters would have been born in these early settlements.
The males of the families or clans continued to hunt. Over time they became responsible for building and heavy farm labor and for grazing flocks and seeking raw materials away from the settlement. It makes sense that they would be the ones to venture away from the community to gather information and to trade. In a recent documentary, Mosuo men stated that they don’t work as hard as women. This may not have been the case in the past. Today products and raw materials are brought in through the capitalist economy: traditional roles of traders are obsolete. Information gathering was an important part of trade expeditions: this is how new technologies spread rapidly in the Neolithic era; religious and cultural symbols were also shared by traders. Today there are books, newspapers, television, and the internet. Nor are Mosuo men involved in inter-clan negotiations in the People’s Republic of China.
From the division of labor in these societies, an egalitarian system of governance developed in which the elder women or grandmothers supervised the “internal” life of the house or clan. The “internal” domain included family and farm and all of the rituals surrounding birth, puberty, and death, as well as planting and harvesting. Women played central roles in creating and enacting all of these rituals. Through their expeditions and trade activities, elder men, the brothers of the grandmothers and uncles of the next generations, became responsible for the “external” relations of the clan, meeting people from other cultures when they were away from home, and welcoming visitors who arrived on their home territory.
Because of this division of labor, the elder men would have been the ones to meet and greet colonists and invaders and also to speak with storytellers, historians, and anthropologists, most often also men, who were interested in learning about their culture. If foreign men came from patriarchal cultures, they would have assumed that the men who met them were the leaders of their groups. The party line in the field of anthropology, which is followed by academics in other disciplines, is that “men wield the power” in matrilineal societies. I was disappointed to read this when I first started learning about matrilineal societies as a graduate student and to find it repeated in a recent article arguing that Minoan culture might have been matrilineal and matrilocal.
Those of us who have been socialized in patriarchal societies in which “men wield the power” cannot easily imagine alternative systems. When we begin to think about female power, we immediately conjure up pictures where “women wield the power” by going to war, keeping men as slaves, sexually abusing and raping them, and forcing them into subordinate positions. Such images are so abhorrent that we may conclude that patriarchy is not so bad after all. And this stops us from looking for or wanting to envision alternatives.
In 1981 anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday challenged these conventional views in her ground-breaking Female Power and Male Dominance. Examining all of the pre-urban societies documented in anthropological records, she discovered that societies that celebrated and valued female power were not female dominant but egalitarian. She also found that societies that celebrated and valued male power were almost always male dominant. They tended to develop in times of external threat (when men became warriors) or environmental crisis (when the female power of the earth was viewed as having failed the community). Though Sanday’s arguments are convincing, they failed to change that anthropological consensus that “men wield the power” in all human societies, including those that celebrate female power and are matrilineal and matrilocal.
What the consensus that “men wield the power” in matrilineal, matrilocal, and matrifocal societies does not recognize is the power women hold in the internal relations of the group. For example, in the Iroquois culture, the councils of female elders that managed the day to day life of the clan were just as important as the councils of male elders that through their “chief” met with European settlers and invaders. In fact, the councils of female elders were slightly more powerful than those of the male elders. Iroquois women could remove male leaders they did not approve of and reject decisions of the male council to go to war. This power of the female council did not mean that Iroquois women dominated Iroquois men. Rather it was an important check-and-balance ensuring that men’s councils could not unilaterally take actions that would negatively affect the internal relations of the clan.
What should we call societies such as these? Obviously we should continue using the terms “matrilineal” and “matrilocal” where they apply. But what term should we use to describe these cultures as a whole? Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas called the egalitarian societies of Old Europe “matrifocal” because she recognized that the term “matriarchal” is usually (mis)understood to mean female dominant; this decision did not protect her work from being criticized for its challenges to the patriarchal consensus.
I dared to use the “m” word after reading Peggy Reeves Sanday and Heide Goettner-Abendroth. I define egalitarian matriarchy as a society and culture organized around the mother principle of love, care, and generosity, in which mothers are honored and women play central roles, and in which men also have important roles and every voice is heard. My new suggestion is that the “m”word always be preceded by the “e” word, in other words that we not use “matriarchy” unmodified, but always write and speak of “egalitarian matriarchies” in order to make it clear that we are not talking about female-dominated societies. This will be my practice in the future.
If I had been asked to write the words that introduce visitors to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum of Crete to its earliest inhabitants, I would have said something like this:
While there is evidence that human beings visited Crete as early as 150,000 years ago, the first permanent settlers arrived from Anatolia in the New Stone Age or Neolithic era, about 9000 years ago, bringing with them the secrets of agriculture and soon afterward learning the techniques of pottery and weaving. As the gatherers of fruits, nuts, and vegetables and as preparers of food in earlier Old Stone Age or Paleolithic cultures, women would have noticed that seeds dropped at a campsite might sprout into plants. Women most likely discovered the secrets of agriculture that enabled people to settle down in the first farming communities of the New Stone Age. As pottery is associated with women’s work of food storage and preparation, and as weaving is women’s work in most traditional cultures, women probably invented these new technologies as well. Each of these inventions was understood to be a mystery of transformation: seed to plant to harvested crop; clay to snake coil to fired pot; wool or flax to thread to spun cloth. The mysteries were passed on from mother to daughter through songs, stories, and rituals. Continue reading “The Heraklion Museum: A Critique of the Neolithic Display by Carol P. Christ”
In egalitarian matriarchal cultures gift-giving is not something reserved for birthdays and holidays. It is a way of life rooted in the primary understanding that life is a gift that is meant to be shared.
Our lives are a gift from our mothers. Our individual lives have are not something we create or created for ourselves. We all emerged from the body of a mother. We were all given the gift of care and feeding by a mother or others. Our mothers did not create themselves. They emerged from the bodies of mothers and were cared for and fed by mothers or others. And so on back to the original mother of the human race, known as the African Eve.