5 minute read


Twentieth-century Gender And Kinship Studies

In Matrilineal Kinship (1961), David Schneider reexamined several decades of scholarship on the subject and concluded that "the generalized authority of women over men, imagined by Bachofen, was never observed in known matrilineal societies, but only recorded in legends and myths. Thus the whole notion of matriarchy fell rapidly into disuse in anthropological work" (p. viii).

The possibility of matriarchy was also denied in one of the founding texts of feminist anthropology, Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere's Women, Culture and Society (1974), which started with an infamous (and later retracted) assertion of the universality of male dominance: "It seems fair to say, then, that all contemporary societies are to some extent male-dominated, and although the degree and expression of female subordination vary greatly, sexual asymmetry is presently a universal fact of human and social life" (p. 3).

Twenty years after that statement was published, several contributors to the Rosaldo and Lamphere book specifically recanted this assertion, but none of them went so far as to embrace the idea of matriarchy. Sherry Ortner writes that in the early 1970s, when interest in feminist anthropology began to grow, she and many other anthropologists were asked about matriarchies: "Was it not the case, people wanted to know, that there were societies in which women had the kind of powers and authority men have in our own society? With a reasonable degree of unanimity, anthropologists said no. Well, then, continued the questioners, weren't there matriarchies in the past? Here there was somewhat less unanimity among the anthropologists, but by and large no professional scholar in the field was willing to make a strong claim for any past matriarchies either" (p. 139). But she noted that the anthropological consensus fell apart completely when the issue of egalitarian societies was raised. Revisiting her own argument that women's closeness to nature was used as a universal structural principle to justify their subjugation, she later explained that gender egalitarian societies may indeed exist, but "the egalitarianism is complex, inconsistent, and—to some extent—fragile" (p. 175).

Ortner's later position is nuanced in relation to late twentieth-century terminology, which distinguishes between cultural ideologies and cultural practices, and looks at "gender hegemonies" rather than gender dominance. A belief that men are superior to women may be posited in mythology or even institutionalized in the formal ranking of social groups, but it is never total. In many cultures, women have a great deal of power that actually counterbalances claims of male prestige, and notions of charisma and social value are always subject to individual adjustments and reevaluations. Women can in fact have significant amounts of power, authority, autonomy, and prestige in systems where men are the formal leaders, and systems that appear "hegemonically egalitarian" may also contain subtle ways to give men the edge over women in a number of informal contexts.

Joan Bamberger's contribution to Women, Culture, and Society argued specifically that myths and legends about female rule were told not because they reflected a previous history of matriarchy (as Bachofen believed) but instead as "social charters" for male dominance. Looking in some detail at a series of myths about the rule of women in Amazonian societies, she found that the myths themselves justify the rule of men "through the evocation of a vision of a catastrophic alternative—a society dominated by women. The myth, in its reiteration that women did not know how to handle power when in possession of it, reaffirms dogmatically the inferiority of their present position" (p. 279). Men stole the sacred objects that gave women supernatural power, and women have since been "forever the subjects of male terrorism," so that these "myths of matriarchy" are in fact arguments for patriarchy.

It is possible that Bamberger's interpretation of myths of matriarchy is a more astute reading of Western mythmakers than of indigenous traditions. The myths and legends that Bachofen surveyed were indeed told in patriarchal Rome and Greece in order to justify the abandonment of matrilineal kinship and certain female-centered cults. But the idea of a simple reversal of gender roles within a similar system of domination and control may obscure other possibilities, which are not so easily reducible to a looking glass inversion of male domination and female subjugation.

Virginia Woolf echoed Bamberger's argument when she wrote in A Room of her Own:

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of men at twice its natural size.… Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insisted so emphatically on the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men." (p. 37)

Early-twenty-first-century research suggests that there is a much wider range of social alternatives than the simple binarism invoked by the terms matriarchy and patriarchy. Looking for a chimeric inversion of Western forms of male domination—which are, as Woolf notes, accentuated in the specific contexts of fascism and imperial conquest—is too limiting, since not all societies treat male/female relations in terms of colonization or domestication. Inequality can be constructed through sexual difference, but when this happens it is useful to recall Marilyn Strathern's argument that gender appears not as an immutable construct, but as a transactable one: "The difference between men and women becomes a vehicle for the creation of value, for evaluating one set of powers by reference to another" (p. 210).

Examined from this perspective, gender as a principle of contrast for social classification does not carry a consistent positive or negative valuation as part of its conceptual baggage. As Third World women and "native anthropologists" become more involved in academic discussions of gender equality, many of them criticize what they call the "false utopias" of the search by European-American feminists for hope and inspiration from exotic others. As Shanshan Du argues: "Ironically, by projecting diverse utopian ideals into cross-cultural studies, the declaration of the non-existence of gender-egalitarian societies became a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, there is always an unbridgeable gap between a utopian fantasy and a real society because the latter never operates on seamlessly coherent principles" (p. 4). She notes the example of the Crow Indians, who have many egalitarian institutions and ideologies, and where women are at least as prominent as men in many significant rituals. However Western anthropologists described the Crow as "male dominant" because of the existence of a menstrual taboo, although later studies have shown that menstrual taboos are complex and can also serve to empower women and grant them access to certain spiritual powers. Du calls this a "Eurocentric bias" which sets its own standards for sexual "political correctness" and is not sensitive to contextual meanings and configurations.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMatriarchy - Nineteenth-century Evolutionary Theory, Twentieth-century Gender And Kinship Studies, Alternatives To Matriarchy: Matrism, Gender Egalitarianism, And Diarchy