The title follows on a question I asked at the last debate in July on ‘Reinstating Matriarchy’ in July 2016; which followed a discussion on gender roles in black relationships/families and expectations. The question, “who pounds the yam in your household?” sought to highlight two perspectives – that gender roles are socially constructed; therefore, what is expected in one culture is not necessarily what is expected in another, adding to the point that black culture is not homogenous. The second perspective is the ‘moving forward’ dialectic – that individuals within a relationship need to communicate expectations clearly and to negotiate roles within each unit, as each unit is unique and roles should serve the common good and unify the household
A New Matriarchy?
At the aforementioned debate, 96% of the audience voted for a ‘reinstatement’ of matriarchy, as a power system in African communities. I argued that it is important to understand that there is no record of truly unambiguous matriarchal societies (See Adovasio, Soffer and Page, 2007), and only exist of how pre-historic societies might have worked in cultures where women owned property and shared equally in political power and work. Cynthia Eller, a popular deconstructivist of the matriarchy myth, insists that it is a romanticist claim by 1970s second-wave feminists led by Marija Gimbutas to legitimise social criticism on women’s rights. (2000, pp. 12-13).
Recently, the term has been applied to societies that have eventually become hugely egalitarian in gender constructions. In many contexts, systems that offer egalitarian structures (in gender nominations) have been (in my opinion) mistakenly called ‘matriarchal’.
In Anthropology and Feminism, the three kinds of structures that are linked to matriarchy are:
- Matrilineal – where descent is through the female line, as in the case of the Mosuo in south-west China (the largest of matrilineal societies) and the Akan people of Ghana, just to mention two.
- Matrilocal – where the family is situated locally to the woman’s home-town. In this case, men are ‘married out’ of their communities, rather than the other way around. Typical examples include the Vanatinai of Papua New Guinea, the Ngazidja people of Comoros and a few Asian communities in Burma, India, Borneo and Indonesia.
- Matrifocal – a structure that is becoming increasingly common, and which literally means women/mother centred. In this structure, the man is somewhat marginal (if not absent) in the family. This is increasingly the case of a lot of Afro-Caribbean and African American families and emerging black families of the diaspora.
These have one very significant difference to patriarchal societies – duties, not roles, are very clearly defined and are consistently negotiated (with the ‘need’ pre-supposing the ‘role’) in such a way that individuals take on duties because there is a need, not because it is their societal prescribed role.
The Musuo people of China are often quoted as a good example of a modern-day matriarchal society, but it is in truth, mostly. Since the tribe is very much isolated from the rest of China, its structure remains unopposed by the intrusiveness of general Chinese politic; and women generally leave political office for men as part of its job-sharing understanding. This is not surprising, as historically the Mosuo were feudal and political power rested (as it still rests) with men (Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association, 2006).
Women in a significant number of black families already ‘rule’ their households alone – making important decisions on the day-to-day management of their homes, owning property and increasingly becoming the sole bread-winners. According to Gingerbread (an organisation that works to support the rights of single parents) April – June 2015 review of the ONS statistics on single parenthood, and 9 out of 10 of the children raised in these homes are raised by the mother. Thus, I disagree with the call to “reinstate” a matriarchal structure (in a manner of speaking), where women ‘take power over men’ in the community. This will put more pressure on a female structure that is already struggling to ‘rule’ alone unless the culture re-defines itself, and it is no longer the question of equality, this can be easily negotiated and achieved today, but the issue of black men in black societies of the diaspora making conscious choices that support black women into power. For as long as women are burdened with the task of raising children (alone in the most part) they will never make it to ruling the nation, which is the matriarchy that is needed among black people in the diaspora – (black) women in powerful positions in the state.
We need to reframe gender positions in the way that our ancestors did – where roles were assigned in line with the needs of a society, which in turn enabled the society to move forward. Crucially, our ancestors seemed to be able to allow woman to take the lead when necessary – it was not an issue, and it shouldn’t be one today
Adler, M. (2006) . Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Adovasio, J. M., Soffer, O., & Page, J. (2007). The invisible sex: Uncovering the true roles of women in prehistory. New York: Smithsonian Books.
Eller, C. (2000). The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Lugu Lake Mosuo Cultural Development Association (2006). The Mosuo: Matriarchal/Matrilineal Culture. Retrieved on 15/11/2016