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What is a matriarchal family?

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Matriarchy, the hypothetical social system in which the mother or a female elder has absolute authority over the family group; by extension, one or more women (as in a council) exert a similar level of power over the community.  The mother or eldest female is the head of the family with descent typically traced through the female line.

As a recent example, picture it, Sicily 1918, Rosa Ventimiglia was seventeen years old, alone, brave and on a ship to America where she would meet family in Pennsylvania, later to move to Detroit for work and for love.  Raising a family on Detroit’s east side, the strongest of her children was her daughter Grace.  Grace moved to the west side of Detroit and raised four children, the strongest of her children a daughter named Joannina.  Joannina went on to have one child; a daughter, who she raised courageously as a single mom with the help of her grandmother. Each time these four women were at the helm of their individual families, it was a matriarchy in motion.  The fourth of these women still lives today, fiercely yet lovingly, leading her family as it was dictated before her, by a strong familial female lineage.

Matriarchal Societies in History

Six Matriarchal Societies That Have Been Thriving with Women at the Helm for Centuries

  1. Mosuo, China
  2. Bribri, Costa Rica
  3. Umoja, Kenya
  4. Minangkabau, Indonesia
  5. Akan, Ghana
  6. Khasi, India

Early Agrarian society

While men were busy chasing animals and sweating (and often bleeding) in the hunt, women had the time and patience to observe nature carefully and saw new possibilities: Why not domesticate animals? If they had the animals in the fenced area, they didn’t have to venture into the wild, which was a tiring and dangerous endeavor.

Those women were used to taking care of not only their own kids but also other women’s kids in the group. The idea of caring for tame animals was not a big stretch. They probably started with orphaned baby animals. As the animals grew, they saw how husbandry worked. These women assisted in each other’s labors, so assisting in their animals’ labors was easy. Soon they had the second generation of their domesticated animals.

Because women were not great hunters, they accumulated the knowledge and skills of animal husbandry, which proved to be a more reliable way to secure food. This was the beginning of the female superiority. People started to think women as the smarter gender while men were considered the stronger gender.

About the same time (depending on where the group was living), they figured out farming as well. Women were probably responsible for this, too, because they were the main figures who gathered plant-food.

So people didn’t have to migrate much any longer. Many of them still moved around for fresh grass and naturally fertile soil, but the migration was now mostly within a certain area, rather than across the continent. And they had more food more consistently. So the population grew. Which meant they had to have more food. In order to raise more animals and plant more crops, they had to have more land under their control.

Before, land belonged to nobody. Early humans simply traveled across the land. With farming, land became a fundamental asset. This meant people in other groups became competitors. Before, when a group met another group, it was a rare and fun encounter; people talked, exchanged things (and made love), and soon each group moved on their own way. Now, as they settled down, they had to negotiate with other groups.

It soon became clear that women made better negotiator than men. Women could think of multiple issues simultaneously while men could think only one thing at a time. Besides, men had short temper. When the negotiation was difficult, men easily got upset, and worse yet, used violence, which of course provoked more violence.

Serious fights were a relatively new thing at this point in history. In the hunter-gatherer group, there was a certain dynamics that kept peace. Should a person offend another group member, he’d be thrown out of the group, which meant immediate life threat, so that seldom happened. In the hunter-gatherer society, men fought against predator animals, not against other men.

In the new early agrarian society, men had to be excused from the negotiation table in order to have peaceful negotiation and therefore to thrive. This was the critical point in the rise of matriarchy— and also became the cause of its eventual fall. Men were valued for only two things at this point: their role as seed provider and as laborer / group protector. Men worked hard in the field taking care of the animals and crops while women took care of the politics and diplomacy, as well as educating and caring for their family. In the rare event that the negotiation failed and there was a war against other groups, or when someone outside the group attempted to sneak in to steal, men also served as warriors. This reduced the number of adult male, so the surviving healthy men had to serve multiple women to upkeep the population … and to satisfy them.

Men really had a hard life in this matriarchal society. And they were frustrated. They worked to exhaustion, but they were not given vote or allowed to speak up about public affairs. Still, rejecting women — especially the tribal mother’s decisions — was unthinkable.

It is important to understand that, at this point, there was no social hierarchy. Men assumed more physically-demanding works and were denied participation in decision-making, but they were not slaves. There were no royalties, either. The women who represented the group and attended the negotiation with other groups were not from any specific family. Any insightful and experienced women could become the representative.

They were respected as the grandmother or the great mother of the tribe, although she was not necessarily the blood relative of all the tribe members. She would go to the meetings with a few other women who were expected to succeed her position eventually. Some successors were the blood relatives of the “grandmother” and some were not. It was only natural that these women managed negotiations within their tribe as well. They became the rule-makers and judges.

Under the influence of Charles Darwin’s theories of biological evolution, many 19th-century scholars sought to formulate a theory of cultural evolution. The theory known as unilineal cultural evolution, now discredited, suggested that human social organization “evolved” through a series of stages: animalistic sexual promiscuity was followed by matriarchy, which was in turn followed by patriarchy. The American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, the Swiss anthropologist J.J. Bachofen, and the German philosopher Friedrich Engels were particularly important in developing this theory.

What is an example of a matriarchy?

The Mosuo women are China’s last surviving matriarchy. There are about 40,000 of them, according to The Independent, and they practice Tibetan Buddhism. Lineage is traced through the women of the family. This society is also matrilineal, meaning property is handed down the same female line.

The Mosuo of China (living in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains) are one of the best-known examples of a matrilineal society, where inheritance is passed down the female line and women have their choice of partners. In fact, they practice something called a “walking marriage,” which is essentially the practice of women choosing their partner by walking to his home—and many women have multiple partners/marriages. Children take their mother’s name and live with their mothers, while the men may or may not be involved in the raising of the kids. They often live with extended families in large households, with women handling all business decisions. Men often play a role politics, but the most respected person in any household is the grandmother.

Also known as Minang, this group is located in Indonesia, and is matrilineal in that property, land, and inheritance is passed from mother to daughter. Low inheritance—such as income—is passed from father to son. In the past, this kept women in power, but now, “low income” is taking precedent and making a bit of a change in their modernizing society. Lineage is still traced through the mother’s line, though, and the mother is the head of the family. Grooms are traditionally “given away” to the bride by female members of his family, who escort him to the home of the bride. Power and authority are generally shared between men and women, with women ruling the “domestic” sphere and men ruling the political and spiritual roles. Both genders believe this gives each equal footing. While the clan chief is male, women select the chief and have the power to remove him should he fail as a leader.

Although traditionally Sicilian culture is typically a patriarchal family structure, some spirited women are pressed into the role, and it is carried on through the generations, one strong woman born at a time. 

To quote the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” when the mother Maria, the matriarch of the family, says to her daughter, “Let me tell you something Toula, the man is the head but the woman is the neck and she can turn the head any way she wants,”.

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