Monday, March 19, 2012

Matricentrism and Patriarchy

Found via and the source I believe is "Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality" by Rosemary Ruether, based on research by Peggy Reeves Sanday. Here is the article this is stolen based on.

The basic question she addresses is why men feel the need to be dominant and even aggressive toward women. What are the roots of patriarchy? An interesting sentence that sets the stage for her hypothesis is “…we need to learn the lessons of the weaknesses of the matricentric core of human society that made it vulnerable to patriarchy.” (171)

Her suggestion is that the “core” of human society is matricentric (not matriarchal) because women have always tended to be the primary care givers of children—both male and female. That’s what makes the core of society, even under patriarchy, matricentric. The problem is, she says, that “The matricentric core of human society remains, even under male hierarchies, and continually reproduces the insecure, resentful male, who emancipates himself from his mother by negation of women.” (169) Sanday’s research revealed the prevalence of male resentment of women in societies that have not successfully balanced matricentricity with adult male cultural roles. (169)

According to Ruether, based on Sanday’s worldwide research into diverse cultures, there is a psychosocial weakness inherent in matricentricity. Here is its pathos: “its difficulty in drawing in the contributions of the grown male without either conceding to this male a dominating role over women, or else producing a demoralized male deeply resentful of women. The root of the problem lies in the extension of the female childbearing and suckling functions into making the mother the dominant parent. … While the female role is built into the process of life-reproduction…the male role has to be constructed socially. Societies that fail to develop an adequately affirmative role for men, one that gives men prestige parallel to that of women but prevents their assuming aggressive dominance over women, risk developing the resentful male, who defines his masculinity in hostile negation of women.” (167)

Sanday’s research showed that “societies that have achieved gender parity…were societies that either had elaborately structured mutual acknowledgment of male and female prestige and power, where women conceded power roles to men…or else societies of considerable gender-role fluidity.” (167) Both Sanday and Ruether make clear that by “conceded power roles to men” they do not mean allowed men to dominate women. I take it that this means acknowledging men as equal with women in terms of value to the family unit and therefore to society. According to Ruether, based on Sanday’s research, male domination of women, patriarchy, occurs because men feel insecure about their worth and need to secure their worth by domination.

[...]In gatherer and early gardening societies, built on the matricentric core of the human family, women often had real power and prestige, when food-gathering and agriculture also meant female control of resources. Such societies achieved real gender parity of power when they constructed ways of drawing in the adult male contribution to work and parenting, conceding to him real and symbolic spheres of prestige and power, while limiting male aggression. But the conditions of such societies began to break down as the agricultural revolution moved toward more crowded urban societies about five thousand years ago, and only remnants still exist today. (170)

In a somewhat surprising, maybe even shocking, admission, Ruether, a leading feminist, says that “this matricentric pattern [of primitive societies and of families in general] is itself the breeding ground of male resentment and violence, rooted in male strategies of exploitative subversion of women’s power….” (171)

Now, it would be totally wrong to interpret Ruether as suggesting that the blame for patriarchy lies with women. Nothing could be further from the truth. She is arguing, however, that matricentricity is the “original position” of human society because only women can give birth and suckle and, generally speaking, in most societies, women have been the primary nurturers of children. And there’s nothing wrong with that UNLESS some mechanism isn’t found to balance matricentricity with male prestige and power. When men become resentful, which happens when they feel hopeless about prestige and power, patriarchy is the result. (Remember, “matricentricity” is not “matriarchy”—the opposite of patriarchy. Both would be hierarchical patterns of relationships. Ruether is against all hierarchy as dominating power over. Matricentricity is in itself a good thing. But it contains a hidden weakness that leads to patriarchy unless that weakness is acknowledged and corrected. The way to do that is for matricentricity to yield to young men prestige and power, not dominating power over. I think of “prestige and power” as social acknowledgement of worth and value.)

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