Re: What Matriarchy? (was Drugs etc.)

sgf (
23 Jul 1996 00:26:42 GMT

In article <>, <> wrote:
>sgf wrote:
>> Dictionaries can be wrong. My dictionary is really wrong in this: it
>> mixes up "matriarchal" and "matrilineal." (and has not a moention of
>> mothers at all.) (matrilineal: descent and inheritance traced through the
>> female line.)
>Your dictionary is not wrong. Dictionaries only identify the general
>usage of a word. Matriarchy (matrilineal) fits this bill. Also, in this
>usage of the word, mothers are implied in the concept of matrilineal
>> The accepted anthropological definition of the term "matriarchy" means a
>> society in which the ultimate (i.e., the ruler's) power is held by women.
>Accepted anthropological definition? As far as I can tell, this word was
>only in use in anthropology in the 19th century, and even here no
>general definition is agreed upon and these same discussions of
>matrilineal vs matriarchate dominate. This usage of the term is common
>in studying social organization in some animals, but as far as I can
>tell it is no longer used in anthropology. I could be wrong, so if you
>have any modern anthropological works on the concept of matriarchial
>societies I'd appreciate a reference or two.

It has been used in the past ten or so years, from the new feminist
reinterpretations of archaeological and anthropological evidence. Just
because there is no currently accepted evidence of female-ruled societies
does not mean that the term "matriarchy" has lost its anthropological
definition. It is used, if only to contrast with "patriarchy."

Peggy Sanday _Female power and male dominance: on the origins of sexual
inequality_: (p. 113)

Because the matriarchy theory has been resurrected as a historical fact
by contemporary feminists [*not* all of them! see lower in post],
anthropologists have searched for societies "in which women have publicly
recongnized power and authpority surpassing that of men." Finding no
society in which women occupy yhe main positions of leadership,
anthropologists argue that male dominance is universal.
There is a certain bias to this point of view, a bias that is
understandable given the Western equation of dominance with public
leadership. By defining dominance differently, one can show that in many
societies male leadership is balanced by female authority.

...and so on. "Matriarchy" as a term is alive and well in the field in
the sense of "society in which women rule."

For well-researched feminist archaeological and anthropological research,
try _Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective_, edited by Caroline Brettell
and Carolyn Sargent. Other editors and anthropologists to check out are
Margaret Conkey, Margaret Ehrenberg, and Joan Gero.

>> It seems to run, in general (there are always exceptions) that
>> in societies where men and women produce equal amounts of subsistence
>> (food, clothing, shelter), then they hold equal power. In societies
>> where one gender (and *so far* it has always been men - might change with
>> more evidence)) brings in subsistence that is more valued than the
>> subsistence the other gender brings in, that gender is given more power.
>I would have to disagree that greater production equals greater power.

I didn't say "greater production," I said "more valued production." See

>Actually, this whole power thing seems off. If a specific gender
>develops solidarity around a productive activity, then they generally
>have control over that activity to some extent. Community leadership
>does not usually fall under the realm of productivity though. But
>rather, falls into the concepts of offense and defense. Solidarity in
>this area has always seemed to be exclusively male.

May I suggest the article "Society and Sex Roles" by Ernestine Friedl?
Community leadership revolves around the control of the most valuable
resource. When this resource is protection from enemies, then power
correlates with offense and defense. When this resource is food, it
correlates with whoever supplies the most valued food. Among
hunter-gatherers in temperate climates who are not in conflict with other
groups, women gather about 60-80% of the food consumed. Men bring in
20-40%. In these societies, power is shared relatively equally. Note
the use of the word "relative". Men *tend* to have a little more power
than women, but not much. They have this little bit of power because
meat, which they bring in, is a scarce resource.

Among the Inuit, on the other hand -- another culture which traditionally
has had little conflict with other groups -- men dominate in all areas.
Why? Because the diet is 95% meat, which is supplied by the male
hunters. Women, instead, process the meat and other products derived
from animals instead of producing it.

Among the Iroquois, women raised food, controlled its distribution and
helped choose male political leaders. Men dealt with politics and
diplomatic matters. Men, technically, were the leaders of the society,
but the women had so much power they were effectively equal. There is a
large difference between societies in which women cannot question orders
given by men and societied in which women are consulted and heeded

And note I said *generally* above. Anthropology is full of waffle-words
because cultures vary so widely that almost no statement can be said with
finality. In *general*, production confers power. It is not the
*amount* of production that determines who, in the end, is most powerful;
it is the *value* of what is brought in. Hunter-gatherer women bring on
over 50% of the total food, yet men have slightly more power because meat
is valued more highly than vegetable matter. In cultures located in
areas where extensive conflict and competition is occurring between groups
for resources, indeed the gender responsible for protection and fighting
will probably be more powerful.


-- <*>
"Assiduous and frequent questioning is indeed the first key to wisdom ...for
by doubting we come to inquiry; through inquiring we perceive the truth..."
--Peter Abelard (..........I claim this .sig for Queen Elizabeth)