Patriarchy and Matriarchy

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PATRIARCHY AND MATRIARCHY . Patriarchy may be defined as the "rule of the father" that extends beyond the confines of the family to include the governance of men and the dominance of male values in society as a whole. Patriarchal dominance, whether that of male heads of extended families or the andrarchy of senior men within a given political dispensation, gives men control over the familial and political economy; limits women's freedom of sexual expression and alliance; marginalizes or excludes them from political and religious leadership; and limits their education and sometimes their freedom of movement. Specific phenomena associated with the patriarchal privileging of the masculine include female economic disadvantage, the coerced genital mutilation experienced by an estimated two million girls a year, the sex selection practices and female infanticide in parts of India and China, and the preferential care of boys in developing or underdeveloped countries leading to a higher mortality rate for girls.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, first and then second wave feminisms have sharply challenged patriarchy as a primary injustice to be remedied by women's educational, professional, and political emancipation from the familial sphere. By the end of the 1970s patriarchy had been judged not only the primary and general cause of female suffering, but the appropriation, accumulation, and consumption of all bodily and natural territory and resources (often cast as female) by male elites in the consolidation and expansion of their own power. Second wave radical feminism launched the most uncompromising critique of patriarchy. Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (New York, 1970) argued that patriarchy, with "God on its side," ideologically exaggerates male and female difference in the interests of maintaining roles that produce male dominance and female subordination. Marilyn French, in Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals (New York, 1985), also cast patriarchy as the paradigmatic social oppression that produces all others.

However, a postmodern unease with cumbersome "grand narratives" and absolute moral dualities (even when conceived by feminists) has seen a number of feminist theorists either relinquish the universalizing term patriarchy, or relativize it by using it in the plural to theorize the relation between different social, historical, geographic, economic, and ethnic hierarchies. It is now recognized that patriarchies vary and that they intersect with complex factors of class and race. It is clear that not all women suffer equally (if at all) under patriarchy since it can reward cooperative women closely associated with powerful men through marriage or birth. As black women have pointed out, not all women are powerless: black women have been oppressed not only by men but by white women as well. It is also clear that while political and religious structures traditionally serve male interests, not all men personally oppress women, and some men feel less than comfortable with the heterosexism and machismo pervasive in patriarchal cultures.

For these reasons, recent feminist scholarship has proposed a new terminology by which to account for the normativity and privileging of the masculine. In her book But She Said (1992) Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza coined the term kyriarchy to denote the rule of the emperor, lord, master, and husband over all their subordinates, including women, in order to demonstrate that not all men have the same sort of power over all women, and that elite men exercise power over nonelite men. Other commentators prefer the term masculinist to patriarchal since the former suggests that certain practices, categories, and values defer to the masculine but that men as such are not essentially culpable for all social ills. More typical of French feminist theory is the term phallocentric. Here, feminism rejects the Freudian phallocentrism in which power and agency is signified by the phallus, thereby casting the female as the merely receptive or as that which lacks the active procreative agency of the male. In opposition to the patriarchal preoccupation with mortality, Grace Jantzen borrows the term natalist from Hannah Arendt to describe how feminist values demonstrate an active commitment to the nurturing of life.

Despite the introduction of a more nuanced and contextualized terminology, most religious feminists would still want to claim that patriarchal religious traditions, that is almost the whole of the world's religious traditions, are founded, interpreted, represented, and mediated by men and from the perspective of the male subject. Religious feminist scholars have been unanimous in their view of the world's religions as the engines and regulators of patriarchal societies. It was the radical, post-Christian feminist Mary Daly who, in her early books Beyond God the Father (1985) and Gyn/Ecology (1991), was to insist that the male God's transcendent power was the source of all female disempowerment. The possibility of female authenticity, vitality, or "lust" was to be predicated on women's exodus from patriarchal religious practice and consciousness with its derogation of the natural and emphasis on "female" reproductivity. Christian feminists also argued that the patriarchal model of God as King, Lord, Father, and Husband of the Church and of the people of Israel founds and symbolizes a hierarchical sacred order whose political power sanctions the marginalization or exclusion of women and of the distinctively female experience, however socially and historically diverse that might be.

Patriarchy has been, and remains, a psychological, spiritual, and political impediment to emotional reciprocity and mutuality. Scripture, theology, and religious rituals not only often discriminate against women but can also sanction contempt for and violence against women. Patriarchal religion characteristically valorizes feminine spiritualities of self-sacrifice, submission, and silence; its ascetic dimension typically devalues or repudiates female sexuality as a locus and occasion of cultic and moral impurity or chaos and blames women for their subordination.

Feminist scholars of religion therefore interpret religious phenomena with a critical "hermeneutic of suspicion." This need not amount to a repudiation of religion: religious feminism stands in moral judgment on patriarchy as the definitive or "original" sin while also recognizing that religion can countermand its own patriarchy. By the early 1990s feminist scholarship had conceded that patriarchal religion can both protect and limit women's rights; it is both liberative and oppressive. Feminist literature, historiography, and ethics demonstrate that women may be the victims of patriarchy but can also be the agents of their own spiritual and practical resistance. In short, the term patriarchy remains central to the feminist interpretation and, more, to the feminist-prophetic criticism of religion, even though the latter's generalization of religion is no longer academically or intellectually entirely persuasive.


Contemporary anthropologists agree that there is no known matriarchal society in which women were or are accorded political power or hierarchical dominance over men by virtue of being female. Admittedly, some culturesespecially those of South Americaoffer myths of prehistorical female dominance, and instances may be found of matrilinearity (where name, inheritance, and other statuses pass through the maternal line) and matrilocality (where men reside in their wives' or mothers' homes). This does not, however, amount to conclusive evidence for matriarchy. Belief in the replacement of matriarchy by patriarchy belongs rather to a nineteenth-century progressivist account of cultural evolution in which the instinctive "primitive" veneration of female generative power was gradually succeeded by the rational knowledge of the role of male paternity. Since Johann Jakob Bachofen published his Das Mutterrecht (Mother-right) in 1861, arguing that women enjoyed social power in prehistorical societies because only a woman is demonstrably the parent of her child, anthropologists and feminists have, for different political reasons, sought to demonstrate the possibility of an original or surviving society dominated or governed by women.

While matriarchal theory has since become profoundly unfashionable, some spiritual feminists persist in its promotion. The feminist archaeologist Marija Gimbutas is the best known of those who have presented (hotly contested) archaeological evidence that women enjoyed socioreligious preeminence in peaceable prehistoric Goddess-worshiping cultures prior to their destruction between the fifth and third centuries bce by the military and agricultural technologies and patriarchal religious systems of invading warrior horsemen.

While it is evident that the worship of goddesses in various of the world's religions does not necessarily or usually entail the social ascendancy of feminine values, some contemporary post-Christian feminists, especially Wiccan feminists, associate matriarchy with the worship of the Great Goddess. Inspired by the existence of a very few small, women-led, primal religions (see Sered, 1994), these spiritual feminists have sought to recover the power of a female divine principle in the conviction that it is this which will underpin the possibility of female social power and the decline of patriarchy. Nonetheless, it should be noted that very few religious feminists have used the term matriarchy to denote a simple reversal of power from men to women. Some post-Christian feminists have preferred the less hierarchical term matrifocal to symbolize religious practice inspired by the practical authority of mothers as opposed to fathers, but not as a bid for social dominance.

See Also

Androcentrism; Gender and Religion, overview article and article on History of Study; Gender Roles; Goddess Worship, overview article; Gynocentrism; Women's Studies.


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Melissa Raphael (2005)