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Alternatives To Matriarchy: Matrism, Gender Egalitarianism, And Diarchy

In order to expand the conceptual tool kit of anthropologists for understanding gender relations in other societies, several writers have proposed alternative terms designed to avoid the simplifications implied by matriarchy. Riane Eisler argues in The Chalice and the Blade (1987) that patriarchy and matriarchy are "two sides of the same coin," because both of them involve "the ranking of one half of humanity over the other" (p. xvii). She prefers a partnership model that is "primarily based on the principle of linkage rather than ranking," so that gender differences between men and women can be spoken of in ways that do not equate them with either inferiority or superiority. Instead of matriarchy and patriarchy, Eisler proposes the term gylany for societies where gender relations follow the partnership model, and androcracy for others characterized by male dominance and ranking relations. Her title derives from symbols for these two paradigms: the chalice, symbolizing life begetting, community, and sharing; and the blade, symbolizing the power to take rather than give life—the militaristic ideal to establish and enforce domination. She represents the Neolothic as an era of peace when people worshipped the goddess, which was then destroyed by the invasion of Hebrews and "Kurgans." The blade came to displace the chalice, and men came to displace women as the central power in the society.

These terms have not been widely adopted, and they are based on the work of Marija Gimbutas, who has excavated hundreds of female figurines from the period 7000 to 3500 B.C.E., which she interprets as mother goddesses. Several archaeologists, such as Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey, have argued that her interpretations are highly speculative, but they have had tremendous popular appeal, and her ideal of an early cult of a fertility deity represented as a large, possibly pregnant, woman has been widely disseminated. Gimbutas writes critically of the "indolent assumption" that ancient societies must have resembled those of the present, and presents her own theory that these figurines were produced by groups of people whose social forms she describes as "matristic":

Indeed we do not find in Old Europe, nor in all of the old world, a system of autocratic rule by women with an equivalent suppression of men. Rather, we find a structure in which the sexes are more or less on equal footing.… [T]he sexes are "linked" rather than hier archically "ranked." I use the term matristic simply to avoid the term matriarchy, with the understanding that it incorporates matriliny. (p. 324)

Gimbutas's work provides an archaeological argument for ideas about the importance of goddesses in early Europe that have also been developed by Robert Graves (1946), and many contemporary neopagans (Adler; Pike). Graves argued that goddess worship coincided with the time when calendars were primarily determined by the moon, and noted the correspondence of the lunar and menstrual cycles, and that the Earth Mother was associated with the Moon Goddess. He traced the changeover to patriarchy with the changeover to the solar calendar and the worship of a solar deity. His work is more a poetic vision of artistic inspiration than a work of scholarship, and has been widely discredited.

Eisler and Gimbutas consider themselves "revisionist" historians who have brought together neglected evidence of a nurturant, female-centered society, but they (like the nineteenth-century evolutionary theorists) base this universalist theory solely on evidence from Europe and the Middle East. Even within that area, their scholarship has been widely criticized as biased, selective, and unscientific, and most anthropologists consider their work to present a view of the "matrist" past as unlikely as their utopian vision of a partnership future. The phenomenon of these revisionist feminist visions is itself of great interest, however, and has proved important in inspiring the neopagan movement, Wicca, and best sellers such as The DaVinci Code.

Anthropologists have invoked a number of other terms that are close to matriarchy but not exact equivalents: David Hicks describes the patrilineal Tetum of Viqueque, East Timor as having "a maternal religion," in which men dominate the affairs of the upperworld, but women play a central role in rituals of death, birth, and regeneration. Annette Weiner (1976) describes the Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea as giving value and autonomy to women through their matrilineal institutions, while men travel from island to island to seek renown and political positions of power. She has specifically argued that Bronislaw Malinowski failed to pay attention to certain crucial ways in which Trobriand women played important roles in their society because he focused too exclusively on a male-dominated politics:

The discovery that Trobriand women have power and that women enact roles which are symbolically, structurally, and functionally significant to the ordering of Trobriand society, and to the roles that men play, should give us, as anthropologists, cause for concern.… We have allowed 'politics by men' to structure our thinking about other societies; we have let ourselves believe that, if women are not dominant in the political sphere of interaction, their power remains at best peripheral." (227–228)

Others have been more assertive in presenting case studies that directly counter ideas of pervasive inequality. Maria Lepowsky claims to have discovered on Sudest Island "a sexually egalitarian society that challenges the concept of the universality of male dominance and contests the assumption that the subjugation of women is inevitable" (p. vii). The example of the Vanatinai shows, she argues, that gender equality is possible when there is little emphasis on class, rank, age grades, or other forms of social stratification. The decentralization of political power allows for the equal treatment of all categories of individuals, allowing for a much greater sense of personal autonomy for both women and men, and little formal authority of any one person over another. Strength, wisdom, and magical power are valued as characteristics that enhance communal solidarity, and individuals who have these may become "big women" or "big men" without gender bias. Descent is matrilineal, but its influence is buttressed by gender blind institutions like a bilocal pattern of postmarital residence, in which married couples live alternately with their two natal families for many years. So this egalitarianism is defined more by a respect for idiosyncrasy and the absence of formal structure than by a positive value attached to women.

Studies of bilateral societies in Indonesia where gender receives relatively little emphasis, such as the Wana of Sulawesi (Atkinson) or the Meratus of Kalimantan (Tsing), also document a lack of any formal ideology about male supremacy, and ideas of gender crossing (male "pregnancy," female shamans speaking in male voices) that suggest gender is not conceptualized as fixed. Ortner (1996) compares these to the example of the Andaman Islanders, who had a clear but balanced division of labor (men hunted, women gathered), and a spiritual world in which supernatural beings of both sexes played significant, generally complementary, and sometimes reversible roles, with one deity of variable—but usually female—gender who seemed to represent fertility. All of these societies can be described as gender balanced and flexible, in which men and women were allowed to participate equally in all forms of social relations, but men nevertheless tended to emerge as leaders in some of these domains.

Feminist scholars such as Ortner, Atkinson, and Tsing stress religion and ideology in their portraits, while scholars in the Marxist tradition build on the work of Engels to argue that nonstratified societies in which both sexes have control over the means of production and their own labors are gender egalitarian. Eleanor Leacock (1978) argues that many precapitalist societies were egalitarian, and Karen Sacks (1979) suggests that, when relating to each other as siblings rather than spouses, men and women can be institutionally equal even in patrilineal, patrilocal societies.

Two early-twenty-first-century ethnographies by Chinese scholars bring together Marxist and symbolic approaches to argue that gender equality is possible and often found in the minority groups of the Chinese highlands. Shanshan Du's "Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs" (2001) stresses complementarity among the Lahu people in Yunnan and the importance of the husband-wife dyad in kinship, labor, and social leadership. She argues that mythology and religion reflect a "dyadic world view," based on cooperation between men and women, since "a single chopstick cannot pick up food" (p. 30). Lahu origin myths feature cross-sex twins who combine male and female attributes in an image of overarching power. While her account places heavy value on the marital unit, Cai Hua's A Society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China (2003) looks at another group near the Burmese border where brothers and sisters live their whole lives together, raising the sister's children, and reproduce through short term "visits" which are never socially sanctioned as marriage. This arrangement does give women greater autonomy than the traditional Confucian family, and also challenges the usual anthropological orthodoxy about the universality of male-female pair bonding. Hua argues that in this society "sexuality is not a piece of merchandise but a purely sentimental and amorous matter that implies no mutual constraints" (Hua, p. 181). The Na, like the famous Nayar of India studied by Kathleen Gough (Schneider and Gough), are matrilineal, and have resisted communist efforts to bring then into mainstream values. The sibling relationship defines the household completely, and visiting lovers have no connection with the family, have no responsibilities, and do not acknowledge their fatherhood; the children, in turn, do not know their fathers.

Another alternative to matriarchy that works with dyads and sibling symbolism is diarchy, which some scholars grouped with egalitarian structures as a form of "partnership societies." Diarchic societies are marked by a pervasive system of symbolic gender dualisms, "an ideology of balanced powers" in which the members of the male/female pair are ordered by difference and interdependence, rather than dominance and subjugation (Hoskins, 1988, p. 51). A doctrine of mutuality and shared concerns is expressed in ideas of delegation and oscillating rule.

European travelers to the Amazonian jungle and the New Guinea highlands encountered "myths of matriarchy" that presented an apparent confirmation of their own fantasies of Amazon warrior princesses and Melanesian "free love." But travelers in the Indonesian archipelago who visited the islands of Sumba, Flores, Timor, and Savu found a mixture of matrilineal and patrilineal groups who shared an ideology of dual governance often express as a "male ruler" and "female ruler," or—even more paradoxically—a man specifically referred to as a woman who held a position of sovereignty. This pattern had first been documented in Indian kinship, where Georges Dumezil described the idea that "sovereignty aligns itself in two planes, at once antithetical and complementary," and it is also found in Chinese and Vietnamese popular religion. The division between spiritual authority and temporal power was predicated on the conceptual opposition between female and male, in a pattern also familiar in Polynesia.

The complementarity of diarchic systems operates with the principles of male and female as abstract entities, and associates them with ideas of a proper balance of action and passivity. Women are typically associated with origins, fertility of the earth, and human reproduction, while men are associated with military and executive power, differentiation, and rank. Diarchic divisions assign to the female principle an equal role in the creation of the world, but at times the passivity of their role as Earth Mother may seem to place real women at a disadvantage, bound by the restrictions inherent to their ritual prominence. Among the Kodi of Sumba, for instance, the conceptually female priestess of the Sea Worms is secluded for several months before the rice harvest to protect the crop. In the early-twenty-first-century, a man, who is both empowered and restricted by the central symbolic role he plays, is cast as the priestess.

Gender dualism, which can be defined for comparative purposes by the formal requirement that a female and male component be included in each unifying hierarchical entity, is found throughout Eastern Indonesia. It occurs in patrilineal as well as matrilineal societies, and coexists with polygyny, occasional violence against women, and male leadership, so it is not necessarily a vision of gender equality, but it does highlight interdependence and complementarity. The importance of opposite sex couples, portrayed as parents, siblings, or ancestors, in Eastern Indonesian sexual imagery is an index of the value given to heterosexual relations, and what can only be called a vision of sexual union—the bringing together of male and female in an act of pleasure, release, and potential reproduction.

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