A Thought Adventure

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

10. Matriarchy

Were men always the first sex?
Is it because we tend to take for granted that patriarchy has always existed that there's so little interest in probing its origin? In her classic work The Second Sex, French author Simone de Beauvoir writes that woman's place in society has invariably been assigned by men, whose biological advantage (larger size and muscular strength) guarantees them sovereign status "from humanity's beginnings.”

This belief, based on the idea that male dominance is ‘natural,’ seems to come either from religion (“God created woman subordinated to man“) or from a deep-seated conviction that brawn is the criterion of superiority. But if we believe society is created by human beings rather than ready-made by God and that it’s our business to examine it, how can we not ask why it looks the way it does?

I believe that in “humanity’s beginnings” sovereign status belongs to the female gender. At a time when survival is precarious, what takes priority is not the masculine physique but woman’s unique ability to bring forth and nurture offspring. To my mind, patriarchy evolved fairly recently in human history in revolt against a preceding matriarchy, which by then had grown out of bounds. It is a reactive social order and its oppression of women a revenge for an earlier devaluation of men.

Now, for me to be able to challenge the common claim that patriarchy is ‘normal,’ in the sense of the social norm, I must show that it hasn’t been around forever; but that, at different times and in different circumstances, also other social systems have existed where men and women behave differently towards each other.

Why do I posit a matriarchy, and what’s that? Matriarchy’ (literally mother rule) has been defined as an ancient system of social organization built around the interests of women, and in which women are the chief authority.

Theories of matriarchy
With his book Mother Right (1861), Swiss scholar J.J. Bachofen presented the first major challenge to the belief that patriarchal society was a natural state of affairs, and that male superiority was self-evident. American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan (author of Ancient Society, 1877) found that practically all Indians of North America were organized in matriarchal clans (singular gens, plural gentes), where only the offspring of the daughters remained in the kinship group. From this he posited that native American tribes represented, “more or less nearly, the history and experience of our own remote ancestors when in corresponding conditions.” To German social scientist and political theorist Friedrich Engels, Morgan’s discovery of the matriarchal gens had the “same significance for prehistory that Darwin’s theory of evolution had for biology.”

Definitions of matriarchy
Do we by matriarchy mean a social system in which descent is matrilineal (traced through the female line) and residence is matrilocal (the husband moves into the woman‘s dwelling place)? If so, we know several examples from eye-witnesses in early historical times (among them Herodotus, Greek historian in the fifth century BCE, renowned as the 'Father of History'). But we also know that staunchly patriarchal societies, such as China, Japan, Egypt, were once matriarchal in these respects.

If by matriarchy we mean a social order that’s also ruled by women, we have less concrete evidence. Yet examples exist, like the ancient Qiang state in the Himalayas, ruled by a queen and a council of female ministers. Described as a Country of Women (Nü Guo), it’s documented in detail by the imperial histories of the Sui (581-618 CE) and Tang (618-907 CE) dynasties in China.

We don‘t know for sure whether matriarchy was once a universal social norm. But—due to the central place in the group that child-bearing assigns woman--many scholars assume that humankind has always lived in some form of matriarchal system; i.e., one where life is centered around the needs of the mother and her progeny, and to which the rest of the group naturally adapts. Like the 106-year-old Chinese dissident Zhou Youguang, who recently declared democracy to be “the natural form of a modern society,“ I declare matriarchy to be the natural form of ancient society.

But for me to postulate as tall an order as a universal matriarchy (that’s also the birthplace of sexism), mustn’t I have other and more tangible proofs? See next post.

For further reading:
Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough
Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, vol I-IV
Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype and The Origins and History of  Consciousness

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