The term matriarchy has a commonsense meaning today. It refers to a situation where a female becomes an important figure in a nuclear or extended household. Thus, for example, Rose Kennedy was a matriarch of the Kennedy clan. That current meaning has deep roots. At one time many thinkers believed that women had always been secondary to men. Early ideas concerning what Carl Linnaeus called “homo sapiens (wise man) were biased in favor of ”men’s history.” It was not clear to social scientists until the early twentieth century that male and female gender roles are social constructs and that biology is not always destiny. Comparative data on anthropologically indigenous, non-industrial societies makes it clear that the division of tasks in the household can be quite varied, with men often doing household tasks. Moreover, many cultures recognize a third gender” in which biological men are treated in every outward respect as women.
Such micro level phenomena in relatively less technological communities are only one part of the picture. Another aspect of matriarchy is the notion that some societies have been politically dominated by women. This is sometimes called Amazonism, based on the mythical Greek ”reverse gender” accounts of Scythian or independent female warriors. Bachhofen, a Swiss amateur classicist and judge, argued on the basis of the iconography of Roman tombs that the earliest stage of human culture was characterized by general promiscuity. He called his hypothetical stage hetaerism. When people became aware of maternity, the core of family life was the link between a mother and her children. Such matriarchy was a progressive evolutionary advance over promiscuity.
The theory of matriarchical civilization, first articulated by Bachhofen in 1861 (1992, 2003), was once very popular and indirectly influenced Morgan, Engels, and others (Bamberger 1974). Most scholars believe that while there is a grain of truth in Bachhofen’s claims, he overgeneralized based on limited data. Some feminist writers took up the theme in the 1970s, which is ironic since Bachhofen also argued that the next evolutionary stage was patriarchy. But a number of semi popular books (e.g., Gimbutas 1991) argue that matriarchy not only preceded patriarchy but was superior to it. With the advent of patriarchy, the role of women, it was argued, was devalued. Many feminists still use the term patriarchy to describe male dominance. But the idea of patriarchy succeeding matriarchy is largely discredited. While the matrilineal clans may have preceded the Roman patrilineal gens and curia, that does not indicate matrilineal curia or a general, societal matriarchical power system in Rome, much less a more universal progression from one to the other.
There are matrilineal societies and there have been influential women rulers (e.g., Tang China), but there is no evidence of any civilization having been ruled exclusively by women. The Canadian novelist De Mille (1991 ) wrote about a matriarchical society in the 1870s; but his fictional account is a Hegelian ”negation” of nineteenth century values. Gilman’s (1979 ) Herland is extremely important as an early feminist statement of utopia. Indeed, the feminist concept of patriarchy hinges on a polarization of male versus female based institutionalized power. It is easier to conceptualize patriarchy if it replaced matriarchy, but it seems likely that that never took place (Sanday 1981). The literature contains studies of conflict between masculine and feminine gender identities in gathering and hunting societies.
Changes in kinship systems evoke rituals difficult to explain without reference to changes from matrilineal to patrilineal descent, as among the Iatmul of New Guinea (Bateson 1958 ). Men from the female lineage (mother’s brothers, wau) dress in women’s clothes to signify their allegiance to older patterns of matrilineal des cent, reinforcing the rights of the sister’s children (laua).
Max Weber (1968 : 231-6) discusses ”primary patriarchalism” as an elementary form of traditional ”domination” or ”legitimate authority” (Herrschaft). ”Gerontocracy and patriarchalism,” he states, ”are frequently found side by side.” Obedience is owed to the individual male leader. The extension and expansion of patriarchal authority, according to Weber, leads to patrimonialism (e.g., sultanism). The only mention of patriarchy in Weber’s study of ancient civilizations is a brief reference to Deuteronomy, and Weber does not cite Bachhofen in his study of ancient Judaism.
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