Do We Really Want a Matriarchy?

While many discussions of the F word–feminismhave taken place in the feminist blogosphere and in magazines such as Bitch and Ms., it’s nice to encounter smart responses in a surprising venue: GRANTA, a journal dedicated to new literary writing.

The summer issue of GRANTA, titled The F Word, showcases well-known authors such as A.S. Byatt, Louise Erdrich, Edwidge Danticat and Jeanette Winterson. In contrast to the analytical, sociohistorical focus of many F-word discussions, GRANTA‘s fictional pieces grapple with the F word symbolically and metaphorically. In addition, the journal’s website offers a series of animated shorts responding to the literary works.

As one example, Helen Simpson’s short story “Night Thoughts” engages with the F word by imagining a science-fictional alternate world, in keeping with earlier feminist classics such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.

In the story, a man stays awake at night fretting about his unequal relationship with his wife Ella. As evoked by the “night” in the title, the world in which the male narrator lives is as different as night and day to that of our own. It’s a world that, as the story describes, is “women-shaped”: Women have all the power.

The narrator, tyrannized on his way to work by “giant posters of ripped abs, honed six-packs, buff biceps,” and consumed with worries about his son’s seeming anorexia and his daughters’ obsession with brainless, violent computer games, muses during his insomnia about the unfairness of the woman-ruled world. He complains that Ella “couldn’t tolerate condoms” and watches porn, wondering “how she could be happy to exploit him in such a blatantly unequal set-up.” Ella tells him not to be “such a MaculiNazi,” taking on the role of accusatory oppressor.

The story achieves a brilliant turnaround, suggesting that the unequal power structure of society so intimately tied to sex and gender is perhaps a matter of chance–that the tables could just as easily been turned in women’s favor. Then males would be the ones fretting in the middle of the night about their daily oppression and dehumanization. At the same time, the story puts our own social system into stark relief, suggesting we are still stuck in the dark in regards to gender equality.

The animated response to the story captures this beautifully:

Greek-Italian filmmaker Marie-Margaux Tsakiri-Scanatovits puts us inside the mind of the male narrator, showing how he feels his wife Ella crushes his heart in her hand while stabbing him in the back. Yet he still longs for connection with her, imagining her naked body one minute and being reminded of her constant badgering of him the next. These “night thoughts,” both in the story and in the animated short, offer an illuminating reversal of life as we know it, suggesting that “matriarchy” would be no better than “patriarchy”–that a binary reversal is not what we should be seeking, but rather an explosion of the night/day, male/female system altogether.

If these twin works are any indication, GRANTA’s special issue deserves close attention for its nuanced, thought-provoking work.


  1. NWOslave says:

    I’m afraid you’re under a false illusion if you believe there is no present day matriarchy model to look at. Right now all across this country there are places where women are the primary breadwinners either through welfare, state employment or low level clerks. Children born out of wedlock is over 80% and are raised almost exclusively by their mothers. Education is graded on behavior, attendance and conformity.

    • Matriarchy means that womyn are in power over men. We live in a patriarchy because men rule the world. I just graduated from college, and I was reminded of this fact constantly. Sure, womyn are the “breadwinners” when it comes to waitressing and welfare, but… that’s not exactly a powerful position to be in.

      Also, education seems to be graded on behavior, attendance and conformity for the most part. Obviously, there are exceptions here and there, but that still doesn’t make a matriarchy because a matriarchy, like a patriarchy, isn’t fair.

      Furthermore, matriarchy is NOT the answer, and NOT what most feminist want. We want gender equality. Matriarchy would be as big of a problem as patriarchy, just at the other end of the spectrum. Men and womyn should balance each other out, not suffocate one another.

      • Amber,

        I have to take exception to your comment. You said “a matriarchy, like a patriarchy, isn’t fair” and I disagree. I have been advocating for a matriarchal society for some twenty years on the grounds that male human beings are “programmed” to take care of themselves first and female human beings are “programmed” to put the family first.

        In a dig of a 15,000 year old village suspected of being matriarchal they found bones that indicated everyone had been fed equally. They, (thinking like you,) said it couldn’t be matriarchal because the females would have been better fed than the males.

        The female will always see to it that everyone is taken care of. If we can achieve a reversion to matriarchy our problems will go away.

        • john, has it occurred to you that the conclusions you have drawn may in fact reflect the fact that today’s value systems are increasingly female or feminist defined, in other words you are in fact a victim of a (proto?)-matriarchal value system embedded in an ideology of feminine / feminist common-sense as clear to us now as the superiority of the masculine was 50 or 60 years ago. Why is parenting increasingly defined only as ‘caring’, why has everything become about ‘relationships’ and why do we increasingly think of sexuality in terms of consent and male-driven ‘conquest’ as abuse. None of those things are bad necessarily (yes, they seem to be nicer values than what went before) but the reason both you and I think they are very nice, sensible, democratic values to have is that we have both been taught to think in woman-friendly ways. Those values may be important (critically so in some cases e.g. consent) but they aren’t the only ones that matter, nor are they necessarily superior. They are just today’s ideology – and if you are as enthusiastic as you seem to be about equal-distribution of goods and are perhaps a good socialist you may recognise that ideologies tend to come down to us from the top. My argument would be that in no small part that top – is peopled by women – feminists and socialists in ivory towers, and perhaps those – like you – who think they are right. Trust me women in charge will be as evil as men in charge. That’s why you should perhaps think a little less about equality of distribution and a little more about equality.

        • Adam Edward says:

          Men are not programmed to look after themselves nor is that what they have historically tried to do. Most are programmed to care for, provide for and look after their families. Always get a few bad eggs.

        • Amber:
          One thing you are missing which is very important is that there seems to be a considerable amount of evidence that the earliest human societies were Matrices but apparently they did not take care of their males as well as you acert because they were replaced with patriarchates. If males were so pleased as you fantasize than why were they over throw the matriarchies?

          I suggest that what is needed is not to replace patriarchy with matriarchy because the world has already tried both and they both have been found wanting. Perhaps we should try developing a hybrid society where we strive for parity between the two so neither a matriarchy nor patriarchy be. when parity is a achieved we will have diversity which is more desirable. Nature made men strong where women are weak and women are strong were men are weak so that we would need each other.

      • Deep Think says:

        Men are strong where women are weak and women are strong where men are weak. We have been created that way so that we would need each other. There is some evidence that the earliest societies were matriarchies. However they couldn’t have been too good for males else why were they over thrown and patriarchies put in their place? However we now have ample evidence that patriarchies have not worked out too well either. therefor let us form a government where the goal is neither a matriarchy or patriarchy be. Lets form a hybrid of equality and parity between the genders than hopefully we will have the best of both worlds. The world has had both.Now lets try what hasn’t been done.

      • You seem to be misunderstanding matriarchy. The fundamental difference between matriarchy and patriarchy is not that women are in power in one and men in the other — the fundamental difference is that matriarchy is non-hierarchical and patriarchy is hierarchical. If the structure is a hierarchy, it’s a patriarchy even if women are in power. There are existing matriarchies. Check them out — they’re very good for men too.
        The matriarchies were overthrown around the world because patriarchies are hierarchical, aggressive, and violent, and wipe out everything in their path. Matriarchies are peace loving, and uninterested in having power over others

    • Obviously all of those single mothers are SO powerful and wealthy that they are changing public policy and running the country, right?

      It’s more like patriarchal structures let men abdicate responsibility while women are forced to pick up for them.

    • Insurgence says:

      The fact that it is more socially acceptable for a man to leave his children than a woman is evidence of the patriarchy.

      • michelle says:

        honestly the men do not want to leave their children, most are forced by the court to stay away through restraining orders and forced to pay child support for the babies that they wont even get to see at all

  2. I hope the “F” word will become Fairness.

  3. Reminds me a bit of that old sitcom by Norman Lear called “All That Glitters” from back when he was able to create all those thought provoking comedies.

    Theme song lyrics:

    “One morning the Lord, she woke up to say,

    ‘I feel like I wanna be creative today,

    so by virtue of the power I vested in me,

    I make the Heaven, Earth and the deep blue sea.

    Things that swim, fly, walk by, creep and crawl,

    now I better make someone to name them all…’

    Yes, a human was needed in the neighborhood,

    so the Lord made woman-

    and it was good!

    She said, ‘The Garden of Eden’s no place to be alone’,

    So from of the rib of the madam came Adam, full grown.

    As time went by, this groom and bride,

    followed the instructions and multiplied.

    She’d hunt, he stayed,

    She worked, he played,

    While she administered the government, he crocheted.

    She wore the mail, he wore the veil.

    Her head was crowned, his feet were bound.

    He concubined and walked behind.

    She was {you’ll pardon the expression} the master mind.

    So is it any wonder why the men complain,

    when from the dawn of time, it’s been a woman’s domain!”

  4. Honestly I find it difficult to believe that the matriachy would be worse or close to the oppression of the patriachy. That being said we need to demolish all societal heirachy systems if we want to move forward as a species.

  5. Thank you for drawing attention to this piece. While I think we can all agree that equality between genders is ideal, it is definitely not a reality. By flipping the existing gender roles and stereotypes, this piece forces us to examine what is in fact real. It takes extreme views and imaginations like this in order for society to find, if we indeed can, a happy medium.

  6. Michael says:

    Matriarchy is better than patriarchy. I don’t like violence in patriarchy.Women better understand the relationships and I think that would have made a better system. System without violence.

    • In the white man’s (of European descent) ‘patriarchy’ a child born out of wedlock is the property of the woman. A child born in wedlock is the property of the father. Wives were provided for the alphas and average men as to avoid conflict and fuel productivity. When you have matriarchy only the top men breed (Physically/financially fit). Everything else is for fun. This propels competition but a lack of societal cohesion. Black America has trended towards Matriarchies. In this situation you have young boys increasingly frustrated. Testosterone is not attractive when it is frustrated and neglected. The young men lack strong masculine guidance. (Hence: gangs) Any form of woman over men serves political interests as women tend to be more naturally collective and fear straying the herd.

  7. I don’t think a matriarchy would be like the current patriarchy but with women dictating and oppressing men. I haven’t read much about matriarchy, but what what I have gathered it is much more egalitarian, where patriarchy thrives on authoritarian power and control. Personally, I would prefer matriarchy to patriarchy, but in an ideal would there would be no neither.

    • I’m sorry but that’s the worst kind of double think, how can rule by any group over another group be egalitarian. If by egalitarian you mean there isn’t going to be a autocratic queen or empress ruling over the entire country that really isn’t to claim very much is it given that the forward (and no doubt phallic) thrust to democracy and equal rights has been driven by male egalitarians (unavoidably since you were all chained to radiators or locked inside the kitchen through no fault of your own). Equality is either equality or it has no meaning at all. The fact is that increasingly reproduction, family and education is controlled by women (for whatever reason) while political debate about equality focuses squarely on the number of men in the boardroom or in parliament. So if men control parliament and women control sex, reproduction, family and education does that balance out? Well it can’t because the whole point of gender driven feminism is that there cannot be differential roles for men and women. So we have a problem here, partly the problem traditionally outlined by feminists (too many men in power, not enough women in power) and partly the problem that women through controlling or manipulating consent control sex, reproduction, family (and the family home) and critically education. Last time I checked women dominated primary schools, secondary schools, and academia had mainstreamed feminism in a big way. In fact the last five psychology courses I’ve done have focussed in a huge way on motherhood. Yes, motherhood, for which read matriarchy. Guess what matriarchy is as exclusionary and alienating as what it has in no small part succeeded in replacing. You ladies asked for equality. If you’re prepared to fight for equality, in part that may involve fighting against your immediate selfish interests just as men like John Stuart Mill did in seeking a better world for the supposedly fairer sex (or perhaps that relates to your complexion I dunno)

  8. There is no need to define a matriarchy as rule by women. Historically, matriarchies have been different than patriarchies in that they have been politically egalitarian. Look up Genevieve Vaughan and Eleanor Burke Leacock for more information.

    If you think a matriarchy requires female domination, you may be entranced by and limiting your vision based on the patriarchal model.

  9. The ancient Mi’kmaq people (band of eastern Native Canadians), lived in a matriarchal society. They were a strong, spiritually, mentally and physically healthly people. The women made all the political descisions and were leaders of the tribe, for instance the women would determine if the cost of participing in a war was worth the loss of life, for they were the ones who gave life and their society held this as extremely sacred. Mi’kmaq had vast knowledge of herbs and botany, healing, astronomy and the cycles of nature and life. The Europeans would not have survived without their knowledge of the land. Given what we know they lived a very fulfilling life until they faced genocide and assimilation by European settlers. They even had the knowledge to preform abortions if deemed nessasary.

    What I’m trying to point out is that matriarchal societies in the past have been equal, enduring knowledgable humane and nothing like this fanasty at all!

  10. Most of the things people cry against the “patriarchy” are stuff inherent to human beings, so…do we need a matriarchy? meh, is not going to change anything because humans are bastards regardless of gender, the problem lies deeper.

    Not that hings would go horribly wrong if woman are in charge, but they will not go better either, people will still be prejuiced, xenophobic, self-interested and egoistic, be it the men who has to provide for the families (pure patriarchy), the woman who has to provide for the families (pure matriarchy) or both (egalitarian society), we are still competing with each other anyway, drawing different lines of “us” and “them” in different degrees that allow us to battle one group or the other, and that is because we are wired that way, we are predators, we are where we are because we have been agressive animals that banded together socially to kill other animals and use the resources at hand.

    And that is not going to change with giving one gender the overwhelming majority of power again. Women have been less agressive thorough history due to them having less responsabilities along with less rights thorough it, I know it is something many people will rant against but look at now a days where women have mostly the same priorities that man.

    If you met your grandma in the field, both same age, and had to compete with her I will tell that no matter how much you love her, you will end up gutting her with your own hands, because you are now up to take challenges she would not be able to.

    That makes us stronger as a species and it is the way it should, incorporating women to the workforce make companies more productive, making countries more wealthy and overall moving step forward.

    Going back to patriarchies or matriarchies will just cripple us, but hey so did Eugenics in its time and people used to think that forbidding intermingling between races was a very good idea…

  11. michelle says:

    in most cases we are blinded by hate for the opposite sex we fail to see reaity. matriachy is thesame as patriachy just different people in power. we will oppress men in matriachy just that we won’t care cause it wont be us recieving the shock

  12. Honestly, I don’t much like using words like “matriarchy” or “patriarchy”, because it implies that one philosophy is inherent in each gender. If women were to rule in the US as it is now, it would be a female “patriarchy” so-to-speak.

    It’s also important to remember that it’s not “men in power” in which we live, it’s “those in power being men.” Don’t make that mistake: The top 400 is mostly male, yes. But 90+ percent of the homeless are ALSO male. Remember not to look at only one side of that argument.

    The nature of it being male-dominated is not necessarily the root of the problem. (However, we DO need more representation by women). The problem is that most of the men in that time were raised on heavily Darwinian principles: The idea that no one is going to take help you even at your worst, so the only person available to take care of you is you. It’s a common mantra given to men.

    And it’s been very strongly shown that treating people this way can make them violent, power-hungry, and emotionally disconnected.

    So the idea is that we shouldn’t treat each other as though it’s one or the other. That one’s oppressed and the other privileged. You have to look at the privileges and oppressions of BOTH before you can understand how to eliminate oppression for EITHER.

  13. There was never a patriarchy. Women were always protected by society because they have intrinsic value (aka they can give birth to the next generation) and men do not. Men were therefore put out to work because only their role as breadwinners made them valuable. Women were protected in no being obligated to work and offered less strenuous work that could impede their (and society’s) ability to reproduce. Is is safer to be a maid or a gardener?

    • It doesn’t matter if women were treated like the most precious thing and put on a pedestal if that’s not where they wanted to be. They didn’t want to be valued only for their reproductive ability and cherished and treasured as if they were mere children. They wanted the OPPORTUNITY to be more, to do more. But they were denied that opportunity. That is what made it a Patriarchy; one gender deciding that the other gender must solely fit into one role. That is domination and that is wrong whether a society be ruled by men or women. You know what I would love? If people would just shut up and go outside. Stupid social studies project; middle school teachers are mean. I’m going to go outside and live my life right now, actually. I suggest anyone who reads this stop worrying/complaining and do the same.

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