The matriarchal core is a concept derived from analysis of women's roles in the maintenance, transmission, and transformation of religious practice. It is a premise of contemporary feminist studies of religion that, where gender defines distinct modes of religious participation, men generally appropriate to themselves positions they consider to be dominant and allow lesser functions for women. The matriarchal core differs from other feminist interpretations of religion by considering gender differentiation to create a space where women enjoy autonomous decision making. While it may be the intention of clergy-controlled denominations such as Catholicism to relegate women to subordinate roles, in practice the matriarchal core often exceeds these secondary functions and instead subverts and transforms religious production.
Contrary to the view that patriarchal religion is necessarily antagonistic to women, the matriarchal core understands power not as an absolute but as the ability to mobilize resources and to gain influence. Power of this sort often avoids overtly stating its boundaries. Some modern feminist scholars have come to recognize in the convents of medieval Christianity and among contemporary religious orders of women, societies where women possessed total power to shape and interpret their own values. The model of feminine religious practice derived from the practices in the secluded cells of the monasteries have been applied to the protected atmosphere of home life. Women's roles, therefore, while not official and clerical, have often become in both Protestantism and Catholicism the most influential and practical.
The contemporary experience among Latinas in the United States creates the social setting for the matriarchal core. Persons of Latin American heritage in the United States today frequently have experienced migration from agricultural societies into urban ones. Latino males in the new social setting generally have lost the ability to dominate socioeconomic relations, while the traditional roles of women in caring for home, religion, and the education of the children are offered higher status in the United States than in the sending countries. Paradoxically, holding to traditional tasks provides for an increase in social status for Latinas, while the opposite is the result for men. In these circumstances women assumed community leadership, which created a process that extended the responsibilities as communicators of religious values within the home to modes of influence within the wider community. The frequency of minority feminine leadership within social movements is linked by this trend in religion.
The matriarchal core consists of all those practices and rituals that have survived the test of time mainly because of women's role in them. It also applies to the values undergirding these practices and rituals as well as to the specific mode and character imparted to them by women's active and creative participation. To avoid the negative connotations of popular religion as folklore or unsophisticated practice, the product of the matriarchal core is defined as "communitarian spirituality." The emphasis is on the value of social expectations and religious traditions to provide a set of common inspirational symbols for group cohesiveness. This phenomenon is not limited to Latinas and other Christians, since American Jewish women, for example, are described in similar terms.
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Ana María Díaz-Stevens