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The Dilemma of the Feminist Vision of Power
By Daniele LeCroy-Wilson
Nineteenth century social theories outlined a general theory of cultural evolution in which women played a central role. In this regard, they were challenging the long-standing assumption that women had always been subordinate to men, and that the patriarchal family was universal. The problem with nineteenth century social theories is that patriarchal society is seen as reflecting a higher stage of culture (civilization), while matriarchal society is seen as belonging to a lower stage of culture (barbarism and savagery). Particularly erroneous is the notion that patriarchal society is the final stage of evolution.
Twentieth century anthropologists revolted against the nineteenth century social theories whose greatest flaw was the notion that matriarchy was the earliest form of society. The problem with twentieth century anthropology is that it views social development unilaterally, that is based on male biology and male culture. The androcentrist perspective has not provided ‘modern’ anthropology with a firm foundation. Today, anthropologists still ponder “whether the earliest forms of human social organizations were patriarchal or matriarchal in character (or whether it is necessarily impossible to say)” (Barrett, 1986:15). Despite academic uncertainty about social evolution, the notion of universal female subordination is broadly accepted. It is worth noting that the worldwide distribution of matrilineal societies has kept modern anthropologists from outlining a general theory of cultural evolution.
The main argument against the matriarchy theory is that female authority over men has never been observed in contemporary matrilineal society. This contention is fostered by academic intimidation and grounded in ethnohistoric amnesia. Granted, the methodology of modern ethnography primarily (but not exclusively) permits for the study of contemporary matrilineal societies in their present context. But does this justify the exclusion of early ethnologies testifying to high female status in aboriginal time, such as Lafitau’s (1724) detailed description of the Huron-Algonkian-Iroquois gynocracy? The so-called “empirical” approach does not take into account the effects of Western colonization and acculturation on traditional female power and authority. One such factor is the introduction of a cash economy that disrupts the traditional cooperative kinship-unit of production.
Matrilineal chiefship is often interpreted as proof that men assume authoritative roles in every type of society. This view is problematic for the following reasons: authority is based on seniority not sex; authority is divided along sexual lines; (the matriarch not only presides over the household and the female council, she also exercises veto power over the male council); and traditional chiefs are not rulers in the modern sense: they lack the power to compel obedience of either men or women. It should be noted that credible sources mentioning female chieftainship have been overlooked. A recent example of female chieftanship is the election of Wilma Mankiller to head the Cherokee nation of 200,000, the largest tribe after the Navajos.
On the ground that they could not find a single undisputed case of matriarchy that mirrors patriarchy, feminist anthropologists rejected the matriarchal theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their views appeared in the anthologies: Women, Culture and Society (1974), and Anthropology Toward Women (1975). The latest anthology: Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era (1991), does not include a debate on matriarchy since such society never existed, and feminist anthropologists have debunked the matriarchal theories by “non anthropological feminist writers.”
The Marxist revisionist school of feminist anthropology takes it for granted that female subordination is universal. Even though women have a “better” status in pre-class society, they are not equal to men; female status deteriorates with the rise of class society; matrilineal societies are the mirror image of patrilineal societies (authority is in male hands), and matriarchy as “the class power of women” never existed. Even Engels’ notion of primitive egalitarism is in question. According to Karen Sacks, there is “too much data showing women are not the complete equals of men in most non-class societies lacking private property” (1974:212). Many scholars regard hunting as establishing the original sexual division of labor, and the beginning of male dominance. It is generally assumed that the bearing of children keeps females from hunting. This is misleading because not all women bear children at the same time, and not all men are fit to hunt. Many are too young, too old, or too sick. Women’s mode of food production varies according to ecology, and whether the group is settled or mobile. It includes gathering, hunting, fishing, herding, and horticulture.
Paula Webster and Esther Newton tackled the matriarchy problem in a joint paper titled: Matriarchy: Puzzle and Paradigm (1971) The collective debate prompted two more revisions: Matriarchy: As Women See It (1973), and Matriarchy: A Vision of Power (1975). On the ground that the revisionist school of feminism has failed to provide a blueprint “for action or vision of the future in which women’s liberation is posited as a given,’’ Webster turns to the visionarist school of feminism. This feminist school of thought acknowledges a definite matriarchal past and a progressive patriarchal take over. Here, the dilemma is the reconciliation between utopian-egalitarism and female dominance.
Webster cites The First Sex (1972) by Elizabeth Gould David as a dynamic vision of feminine power. “Her reconstruction of history is unique, fantastic, and provocative” (p.151). At last, the matriarchy is not a mirror image of patriarchy that followed, but a harmonious and spiritual society. Not surprisingly, Davis’ work was deemed heretical, and she was ostracized, prompting her unfortunate suicide. Another controversial work cited by Webster is Mothers and Amazons (1973) by Helen Diner. Webster does not think that the classical tradition of women warriors should be ruled out “as pure fantasy until more archeological and ethnographic work is done in the regions where they are supposed to have existed” (ibid, p.154). Despite ethnographic, archeological and historical data available for inquiry, the tradition of women warriors continues to be ignored by feminist anthropologists. Worth noting is the groundbreaking work of feminist archeologist, Jeannine Davis-Kimball, who sets out to discover the origins of the Amazons in Warrior Women (2002).
Female status in matrilineal society is often defined in negative terms. Once such example is noted by British sociologist, Michele Barrett, who states that two British feminist anthropologists, Kate Young and Olivia Harris, define matrilineal systems as ones in which inheritance goes from a man to his sister’s son (a very different matter from going from mother to daughter” (1986:14). This suggests that Young and Harris lack a coherent worldview of matriliny. British anthropologist, Radcliffe-Brown, makes it clear that the matrilineal complex of which mother right is a form appears when the transmission of property becomes important for social continuity. Therefore, the jural elements in social relationships reflect mother right in the legal sense, otherwise matriliny could not be binding. The assertion that the transmission of property from a man to his sister’s son negates the female line of succession from mother to daughter misses the point. Matrilineal inheritance is precisely the direct transmission of property from mother to child.
In Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality (1981), Peggy Reeves Sanday, addresses the concerns of popular feminist culture, and elaborates on the theoretical/empirical questions raised by Webster. Her research shows that there are specific conditions associated with the rise of sexual dominance. Whereas male dominance rises in response to cultural disruption, migration, famine, ecological stress, and subjugation, female dominance flourishes in stable environment, such as in societies described either as “aboriginal” to the area or has having “migrated long ago” (p. 232). Likewise, there are specific conditions associated with feminine and masculine forms of social organization. Cross-cultural studies indicate that “patrilineality is more likely to associated with sexual inequality and matrilineality with sexual equality.” This generalization derives from the observation that “matrilineal structures are accommodating and integrative,” and patrilineal ones are “acquisitive and internally divisive” (ibid, p. 177). Since male dominance is associated with social division, and female dominance with social harmony, the breakthrough in evolution is matriarchy.
Where to locate women’s power (with, over, or outside men) remains a contentious issue in feminist theory. To have any impact, the feminist vision of power must conceptualize the basis of female power: sisterhood and sexual autonomy, and how women as a society can harness womanpower and manpower for the common good. The matriarchal vision of power will remain incomplete unless women reclaim the Amazonian Archetype of the female personality, the eradication of which perpetrates the minority status of women. When culture is in harmony with nature, feminine virility reconciles with maidenhood and motherhood. Social harmony is a balancing act of power that may very well depend on the female leadership to keep the male leadership in check. Anthropological literature provides many examples, such as the Iroquois Matron whose prerogatives includes the right to veto the decisions of the Sachem Chief, and the Ashanti Queen Mother who not only selects the Paramount Chief but can also veto his ascension to power. In the mystical realm of India, feminine virility is symbolized by the Goddess Kali who annihilates demonic male power with her mighty sword, while the God Shiva, looking quite feminine in his beauty, emanates the power of ecstatic love.
Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge: Feminist Anthropology in the Postmodern Era (1991) outlines the new directions of feminist thinking. Apparently, the switch from the anthropology of women to that of gender reflects the switch from structuralism to poststructuralism, the latter being an interchangeable term for postmodernism. The interdisciplinary postsructuralist approach makes it possible to cross the boundaries of the discipline to study gender within the context of archeology, history and other related disciplines. Poststructuralist feminist anthropology is explicitly historical, culturally specific, and anti-essentialist in its elaboration of new theories from which to analyze genders across time and space. The focus of feminist research is no longer centered on universal sexual asymmetry or models of egalitarian gender relations. The emphasis is on the construction of gender from a non-Western (white and middle class) perspective. While the broadening of focus suggests a more inclusive method of inquiry, no re-interpretation of the female-centered social order has surfaced in this postmodern feminist anthology. To be interested in a new theory of matriarchy would mean a return to “evolutionary reasoning.” In “Rethinking the Sexual Division of Labor, Nadine R. Peacock merely confirms the hypothesis proposed by Judith K. Brown in 1970, namely “that the sexual division of labor is based on a set of logistic constraints having to do with child care, rather than any physical or biological constraints” (p.344).
How does feminist anthropology remain committed to the social forces that inspired academic interest in women’s status? This is a relevant concern since women have not yet achieved full social status, and the search for a blueprint of female empowerment is still on. Micaela di Leonardo, editor of Gender at the Crossroads of Knowledge, points to the corpus of work developed by feminist anthropologists as it has much to offer in terms of understanding our world and ourselves. But to envision feminist anthropological work properly, one must abandon the notion of matriarchy. Is this not a feminist standpoint grounded in academic domination? If feminist anthropology is producing new knowledge as Leonardo contends, it may usher in a revolution in thought. But given the current crisis in anthropology, such as the problem of representation whereby feminist scholarship is marginalized within the academy, it may be that the construction of new theories that lead to new paradigms will come from feminists outside the academy.
One feminist anthropologist who does not subscribe to the notion that the matriarchy theory has been irrevocably debunked is Peggy Reed Sanday. In Women at the Center, Life in a modern Matriarchy (2002), Sanday proposes a new theory of matriarchy inspired by her field study of the Minangkabau in West Sumatra. The matriarchy presented here is not the reverse image of patriarchy, but rather a dual-sex society that puts women in the center of the cosmological order.
Feminist anthropology’s commitment to the women’s movement should be to broaden our interdisciplinary knowledge rather than silencing other female voices, such as feminist visionaries. Unless matriarchy becomes public knowledge, it will remain heretical knowledge. The feminist dilemma of power can be resolved if the feminist understanding of matriarchy is revised, and the relationship between the liberation of women and mother right is taken into consideration.