I was recently asked the following question: “Why is it important for feminists to study and comprehend women-centered cultures?” While I thought it a good question, I also think it can and should be fruitfully expanded, in that I do not think only feminists should study these fascinating matriarchies. Learning is good, and as the old saying goes, knowledge is power.
Matriarchies, both ancient and modern (such as those discussed in this fascinating book: Societies Of Peace: Matriarchies Past, Present, & Future) are emphatically not simply a gender-swapped form of patriarchy. Further, they seem to lead to a very different view on both the world and the communities in which they thrive. I personally believe if we can learn about more options on how to live better lives, without damaging either the world around us or ourselves, then as responsible and rational humans it is our duty to do so.
So, to answer the question: to me, one of the most important things I do as a scholar of women’s spirituality is open minds: my own, and that of others around me. There are a small handful of books I’ve read in my life that changed my world — that contained an idea so new, so radical and wonderful to me, that I literally had to pause a moment while my mental image of the world actually reshaped itself slightly to accommodate this amazing new concept.
Off the top of my head I can think of three such books: Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World by Yang Erche Namu and Christine Mathieu, James P. Hogan’s Voyage From Yesteryear, and Will Roscoe’s Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America.
Namu & Mathieu opened my mind to the personally astonishing thought that sexual love and raising family did not have to be irrevocably — and often damagingly — linked, as it is in my native society. Hogan’s book is essentially a fun science fiction libertarian manifesto, but it first presented me with the (at that time) mind-boggling concept of a completely gift-giving economy — such that when I found Genevieve Vaughan’s works concerning the gift economy, I was already able to wrap my head around this marvelous concept. Roscoe’s book demonstrated clearly for me that my previous assumptions regarding the straightforward physical division of humans into either male or female was as false a binary as the assumption that there are only two genders.
It is because of Roscoe’s work, in fact, that I’m so enjoying Shanshan Du’s “Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs”. Once again I’ve found a limitation in my thinking which has been fascinatingly removed by Du’s research: a matriarchy where women are honored, but not due to any importance being attached to their particular social gender roles. Instead egalitarianism is achieved by considering the male and female to be complementary parts of a single working social unit. What the specific individuals in that social unit do is not as important as that the unit performs these actions — so with equal social approval men can be nurturing and women can be hunters, or vice versa. This is what I love so much about our species: we are so endlessly, wonderfully creative and flexible when it comes to culture!
This is why I believe it is incredibly important for us to study women-centered cultures around the world and through time: it gives us real ‘ammunition,’ so to speak, when we are faced with the old chestnut of “but this is how it’s always been!” or “if matriarchies are so wonderful, then why are they all gone now?” Both of these are statements I have been hit with, and I confess to great delight at being able to courteously and accurately refute them both. Even better, to me, was seeing the surprise and interest on the face of my listeners — I felt I’d possibly reached them somehow, and their mental worlds were now a little larger and more flexible.