Re-matriarchalization

Heide Goettner-Abendroth uses the term ‘patriarchalization’ to refer to the process by which a society becomes patriarchal. If we accept that all of us can trace our roots back to some ancestral society that was matriarchal – which does seem to be the origin of humanity and human culture, and which some indigenous societies retain to this day – and that matriarchal societies promote well-being and peace, let us think about how we can re-matriarchalize and what this means.

What are the values and practices of matriarchy that we want to draw on? Which matriarchal threads do we retain in our modern cultures, persisting underneath patriarchy and in long-term, traditional resistance to it? How have lesbian feminists, anarchists, poor people’s movements, anti-colonial movements (and others) built matriarchal cultures of resistance, or cultures of resistance with matriarchal elements?

Heide Goettner-Abendroth’s book Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe, which is an English translation and distillation of a four-volume study in German, is an eye-opening resource to consider the features of diverse modern-day and documented recent-historical matriarchies from all parts of the world with the exception of Europe. The variety of matriarchal forms and the method of inquiry that draws out features cumulatively makes a powerful case for the feasibility or actuality (if we needed it) and the specificity of matriarchal societies. From this reading, I would describe matriarchies as societies in which women hold central authority in spiritual, economic and political affairs through kinship-based social structures determined through matrilineages.

One sister in my lesbian consciousness-raising group emphasized in a discussion about matriarchy, that women are in control of their own sexuality and that their brothers, rather than male sexual partners, play a role in raising children (and in the affairs of the clan generally).

Women’s economic control of land, resources, distribution of goods is emphasized by Barbara Mann in Iroquois Women: The Gantowisas.

For me, what stood out in reading Matriarchal Societies, not so much as definitive or important, but as a way forward that I want to pursue, is matriarchy as mother-law, with women, especially elder women and ancestral women, but also all women in their sphere of authority (as clan mother, head of household etc), as law-makers. The creativity of law-making as an exercise of wisdom with precise communication, taking into account the views and interests of all members of society, is a deep structure of law that I connect with in my work and want to promote. I am not sure what it means to do this in the context of a patriarchal society, state and legal system (and global society of such states) but want to explore the connection with mother-source and origin, in the sense of both structure (where law in this sense originates ancestrally, so that it is our birthright as humans and women) and content, in terms of serving interests of a social structure that centers women in our creative intelligence linked to the unique capacity for motherhood.

The other feature that emerged for me as resonant was sacred sexuality. In thinking about possible connections between that and mother-law, I remembered that Inanna is goddess of sacred sexuality and is also a law-giver. Judy Grahn in Eruptions of Inanna tells a story of Inanna taking the form of a raven to go and look out over the land and see what is wrong so it can be remedied. This image is similar to one that I had for myself at an earlier stage of my justice and healing work, of using ‘crows’ eyes’ to seek out what was dead and had to be cleaned away. (This had been inspired by hearing Luisah Teish say that the vulture was an aspect of Oshun that cleared away what was no longer needed.)

When women know our own sexuality and exercise it without constraint to put it at anyone else’s service – whether a man’s, or men’s in general, or another woman’s – we can exercise our own authority knowing that it is right and good. Sexuality and knowledge of our reproductive capacities, also to exercise in our own wisdom and not in service of anyone else, is central to what it means to create social arrangements that do not entail disadvantage for or subjugation of women. Our bodies can gestate new life, men’s cannot – as other writers have said, only women can know what it is to be two-in-one, to be carrying a new life that is and is not ourselves. Law needs to start from that premise of what a human being is, what it is to be human, and not from the other premise that makes a male body, incapable of creating new life in itself, the paradigm.

Mothering is the beginning because it is, and not because we want to artificially valorize or venerate it – this is not ‘motherhood and apple pie,’ rather the opposite.

It makes sense to start with women and our self-knowledge, our authority over bringing new life into the world, caring for that new life and then by extension all the descendants. It is our creative intelligence, our self-authorship (in Gerda Lerner’s words) that is primary rather than our bodies’ maternal capacity. It is our sacred sexuality, the sacralization of our self-knowledge and sexuality unto-itself, that pre-exists any decision about whether or not to bear children. Without bearing children we keep our sacred self-authorship and our creative intelligence, we may become social mothers or contribute our creative intelligence and law-giving in other ways (as mothers also do). The only thing we cannot do is found a new matrilineage – and one thing we may be particularly suited to do is to heal and repair the matrilineage we are born into.

Another sister in the CR group was struck by a mention of restorative justice in a question posed, and said she wanted restorative justice for women.

I love this idea, because restorative justice, similar to reparation, allows us to take a look at what needs to be changed – what needs to be restored as balance or wholeness or serenity, a sense that something is settled and we can move on. What are the wrongs patriarchal society has committed against women, where are the hurts located and what are their roots? – look with the eyes of a raven as Inanna to see what is wrong and need to be repaired in our world. This led me to think about ‘re-matriarchalization’ to think about how our societies need to be changed.

We cannot start from scratch, it is never possible. Yes, there might be a sudden apocalypse of the planet through the accumulation of catastrophic climatic events or patriarchal war, such that the ways many of us live dependent on technology that harms and depletes our sources of life – earth, water, air – entirely break down and all we have is what we can do locally with subsistence knowledge. Subsistence knowledge is needed and has to be cultivated and preserved. But to rely on that scenario is to both put off needed work that can still dismantle parts of the oppressive and damaging systems we are enmeshed in, and avoid owning the places we ourselves start from.

We do not have to love the patriarchal cultures we are born into, or capitalism, or nation-states, or our existing local, state, federal governments. But we have to engage with those cultures in the practical everyday and in the bigger questions of policy as they play out in our lives. For example, take issues like land ownership, marriage and family. Some women decide to make a land trust because they don’t want to individually own property, but this is a decision to be weighed by any woman with pros and cons, leaving her vulnerable to the nation-state’s property laws and her personal situation under capitalism if she doesn’t get along with her land-mates. Women owning land individually under capitalism and property laws can still be treated as stewardship; neither collective ownership by women who come together based on mutual affinity as a land trust nor individual ownership by a woman reproduces a functioning matriarchy, though both potentially support re-matriarchalization by placing control of land in the hands of women. Both use the legal formalities of property ownership in the existing patriarchal capitalistic nation-state; the only difference is that a land trust creates the added layer of legal formality among the women who decide to own land together. The creation of that legal formality using tools of the nation-state may or may not be conducive to re-matriarchalization.

Women’s use of law or involvement in law-making is not itself mother-law, which requires in my view deep and thorough reconsideration of the structural elements of a legal rule and how it may operate, taking into account the needs, well being and freedoms of all members of the relevant community. If anything undesirable is accepted as the price of doing business with the legal system, it needs to be a clear decision weighing pros and cons, acknowledging the price and mitigating harm. (Of course we can and do all make decisions like this by our own instincts and inclinations and work it out as we go along. We use the forms that make sense to us at any time, and can reconsider and revisit them though there is a price for doing so – e.g. divorce or disengaging from one’s home in a land trust is not easy; neither is selling a home one owns outright.)

A woman who doesn’t have the money to own land or a home, especially if she and her family have been city-dwellers for generations, who depends on jobs in the urban economy and doesn’t have skills of rural living, won’t have these kinds of choices or will have to pay other kinds of prices for them. She may come into a land trust feeling like a beggar who doesn’t belong and has nothing to contribute, or what she can contribute from her work in urban economy may be hateful to her. It’s simply over-idealistic to imagine that all women can or should find their place in a rural sisterhood land trust under such circumstances – and the problems are magnified where cultural differences, added vulnerabilities of racism and anti-semitism (not only in a land group but in many rural surroundings that are mostly white and reactionary) and ableism are taken into account.

We think to think bigger about re-matriarchalization, whether we choose to live on lesbian land (lesbians living on land we can count on as our home by legal right – it’s unavoidable that we need the legal right because a woman saying ‘treat this as your home’ might break her word at any time or impose unacceptable conditions) or in cities. Wherever we are we are not isolated. Patriarchy and capitalism can still come and get us. We have to interact with our neighbors, to do otherwise creates its own vulnerability. The planetary environment affects us all and what those politicians do and don’t do matters. Racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic and misogynistic violence, political violence of any kind, can come after us – including the tools of patriarchy and the nation-state that enact repression and control. We can face down the fear of violent repression and speak out, stand up, sit in our power, locking arms not only for ourselves but for our sisters and brothers, our children (everyone’s children) and the planet.

It does make sense to start with where we are, what each of us is doing in our lives to re-matriarchalize – to act with responsibility to and for all beings, to accept and affirm and value our self-authority and self-love as sacred. Some of us are lesbian clowns, others are healers, matriarchs caring for our multigenerational lineage, teachers and engineers and scientists. Some of us are gardeners, farmers and foragers, land-mates in lesbian collectives, organizers of female-only networks and forums. All these activities can be done with a matriarchal consciousness, looking beyond the everyday to where we are going. Among other things, we need to ensure that girls and young women, and older women who are new to a particular community, can be welcomed not only as recipients of our wisdom but as participants holding inherently their own self-authority and self-love.

A matriarchalizing political agenda in the US would include zero tolerance for white supremacist militias; comprehensive voting rights for the widest and easiest participation; free child care, full reproductive freedom and maternal health equity; feminist women’s health agenda for the practice of medicine as an art that cares for each person’s best health and not population-wide outcomes and that respects women’s intelligence and dignity as adults in charge of our own bodies – not just our sexual and reproductive choices but our total body-knowledge and health decisions. It would include the strengthening of national workers rights with with guaranteed livable wages and right to collective bargaining and unionization in every occupation and industry including part-time work; occupational safety and health regulations and environmental regulations with teeth; managed and funded committed goals to end dependence on fossil fuels and other extractive industries. It would include de-escalation and diminishment of military capabilities and other violence-practicing institutions including police and prisons – wisely, thoughtfully, justly and with an end to the mentality of siege which is racist, imperialist, colonialist, based on fear and on the valorizing of male violence which always is based on their subjugation of women and reinforces that subjugation. It would include dismantling of forced psychiatry and guardianship without making mothers, sisters and wives responsible for taking up extra care they don’t have available to give or for absorbing the violence of anyone – usually male – who takes out their rage at powerlessness by unleashing it against those closest to them. This means communities looking out for each other beyond our current bubbles if we are in them, whether families or land trusts or walls we build that separate ourselves from what we fear.

The same sister in CR who wants restorative justice for women, talked about energy work as how we create protection for ourselves against male violence. This is not new age fantasy but how we stand in our authority and meet an aggressor with a rock-bottom recognition of their humanity, that we are firm in deterring them from harming us but they don’t have to fear our vengeance either. In thinking about what this would mean, I can see it requires seeing them, opening myself to who this person is, in a way that I am not inclined to do but I can see making a difference. (Sarah Knutson described this also in her blog post on a publicized instance of such engagement by a Black woman in a workplace incident all too common now – ‘Tuff’ Love – a Public Safety Alternative.) It is also reminiscent of Aikido, which teaches us to open ourselves fully to the energy directed against us by an opponent, to appreciate the totality of this energy (which means becoming aware of all its facets, e.g. if there is a hidden punch coming – or a sexual as well as ordinary aggression), step into it and redirect it harmlessly.

Thinking about spaces where men abstract themselves and their violence into machines – drone warfare as the ultimate example, and forced psychiatry as a routinized, ritualized functioning of violence that screens perpetrators from their victims and allows them to disregard their victims’ screams as incompetent ingratitude – what can we do to resist and not only to stoically withstand the machine’s violence? We can’t love the machine, but we can reach beyond the machine when that is possible to the men or women operating it. They are still human. I can imagine this kind of resistance being meaningful as it is one form of resistance practiced against large-scale violence throughout history (war itself is such a machine that demands obedience and self-sacrifice in a collective bond against others defined as an enemy – especially in aggressive war and genocide where victims are systematically degraded). Our individual resistance is not enough, it is not foolproof – the machines are collective forms of organizations that have to be met with our collective organization to resist, dismantle, defund, however we can.

Restorative justice ‘for’ women also requires restorative justice ‘by’ women as we step into our agency to set things right. It is not only what others – men and women in political leadership for instance – need to do in response. We cannot be only victims, and we never have been, the moment we identify victimization we begin to name and to own our anger and learn how to work with it. We begin to own our self-love and become aware of who we are in our authority as well as our woundedness. That authority of repair, what steps out of the first outrage and need for comfort, what steps beyond fear to renewal and responsibility, is self-authorship that lives in the same place as our sacred sexual self-knowledge, as who we are and our connection to earth and cosmic energy, to our ancestors and the ancestral being within ourselves, the ‘ancestor-in-training‘ that we are.

Re-matriarchalization finds self-authority and the values we live by, that support us, in the everyday and the world around us, both what we create and nurture lovingly and what others create that we find joyfully resonating. It pieces together what is now fragmented, working where we create beauty and justice to set one more thing right, to join our energy with others moving in the same direction.

Women’s stepping outside of patriarchal authority, spaces, organizations and collectives to create our own female-only spaces as women together is essential. That is the great gift of second-wave lesbian feminism and lesbian separatism including the land collectives. I participate in this reclamation which is a necessary grounding and creative source in my life, to which I come as a woman who has faces challenges of outsidership in some of these spaces that I continue to work at breaking down and setting right as my own exploratory reparation. It depends on the receptivity of other women in particular spaces, which we cannot take for granted but work at building the sometimes-fragile care and mutual respect and collective strength that keeps us coming back to continue when it gets hard.

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