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Modern Matriarchy Abstract Matriarchal societies have been a cultural curiosity, contested by some and romanticized by others. There are several modern cultures that have been termed matriarchal, such as the Muoso of China, or the Minangkabuau of Sumatra, Indonesia. Through various means, primarily using the documentary ³Blossoms of Fire,´ and by establishing a working definition of matriarchy based on the works of such anthropologists as Briffault and Bachofen, the Zapotec Indians of Oaxaca are explored. Included in this examination will be ways in which the Zapotec culture


defines roles and religion as unique and separate from American culture. Peggy Sanday believes that ³the definition of matriarchy as the control of political power by women should be abandoned in favor of a definition emphasizing the role of maternal symbols in webs of cultural significance´ (Sanday, 2002). While many (including the Zapotec) may not consider this culture to be matriarchal in nature because the women do not µrule¶ over the men, the similarities to an anthropologically matriarchal society are significant even if they are not complete.

Modern Matriarchy MATRIARCHY IN MODERN CULTURE: Investigating the Isthmus Zapotec of Oaxaca, Mexico ³I brought you into this world« I¶ll take you out!´ I remember laughing as Bill Cosby quoted his mother in his live comedy act, but the sentiment stuck with me long after the laughter stopped and the rest of the show was forgotten. What would a world be like where women truly held the power of life and death? Where only


someone who had their lives invested in you could determine a just punishment when you broke the law? Where the Mother heart influenced the way society was run? Would men always try to assert control? At that time, I was unaware that a matriarchal society was even a possibility on the planet, much less that some societies valued their women enough to give them equal power. There are several documented societies in many areas of the world in which women are held in such esteem. In Oaxaca, Mexico, such a society exists, where women and men co-exist and typical male/female gender types are undone when compared to those in a patriarchal society. The next pages will attempt to define some anthropological basics of matriarchy, examine characteristics of this uniquely feminine society, and determine how closely this society matches the anthropological definitions of matriarchy. On Defining Matriarchy In order to have a discussion on any subject, one must first define some parameters so that everyone involved in the discussion is aware of the meaning of potentially ambiguous terms. For our purposes, matriarchy is that term. Much confusion surrounds this term, both connotative and literal in nature. First, its counterpart term, patriarchy, is translated ³rule of the father´ so matriarchy literally means ³rule of the mother´. The rule of a man is authoritarian in nature, so

Modern Matriarchy


the expectation is that a matriarchy will also be authoritarian in nature, with women at the wheel of power. In reality, the rule of women is more communal. Gordon Taylor, in his examination of the two cultures, said, ³The characteristic of a father-identifier is to be interested in authority and to attempt to acquire it. The characteristic of a mother-identifier is to be uninterested in power and not to be bothered about it«´ (Taylor, 1954). So, while the tendency for the layman on hearing the term µmatriarchy¶ is to flip the roles of women and men, we would do well to remember that, ³matriarchal theory« is a theory of social origins. It is not, as is often imagined in popular references to that theory, an hypothesis concerning a form of society in which women, instead of men, ruled´ (Briffault, 1931, p. 100). Perhaps this µcommunal¶ rule stems from a woman¶s more social nature, and her instinctive tendency to nurture. According to Bachofen, societies progressed, in some form or another, through three stages: Tellurian, Lunar and Solar. The tellurian state is one of promiscuity, where women are held in common by men, and parentage is not defined, while the Solar state is patriarchal, and is marked by ³conjugal father-right, a division of labor, and individual ownership´ (Boas, 1967, p. xix). The lunar stage is identified with matriarchy. As defined by Bachofen, there are several characteristics the matriarchal culture will express: 1. The societies in which matriarchy prevails are agricultural in nature. 2. Matrilineal inheritance means that mothers (not fathers) own the land and daughters (not sons) are the inheritors. 3. Conjugal motherhood exists, marking the first stage of legitimate birth. 4. The society is matrilocal, which means that the man goes to live with the woman¶s family as a helper to them. 5. The role of the father is not significant in childrearing or heritage.

Modern Matriarchy Bachofen likens the role of the father in the lunar period as ³of no more importance than


the plow, than the sower who passes over the tilled field , casting the grain in the opened furrow, and then disappear[ing] into oblivion´ (Bachofen, 1967, p. 132). To support this argument, he points to the Roman law which stated, ³All produce is gathered not according to the right of the seed, but the right of the soil´ (ibid), and notes that the word µmatrimony¶, which is still used widely today, literally means mother-marriage, and ³is based on the fundamental idea of mother right´ (Bachofen, 1967, p. 133). The Isthmus Zapotec, Oaxaca, Mexico Do a web search on Oaxaca, Mexico and travel sites will describe the beautiful country and cuisine (Zwollo, 1995). Activist websites will lament the ³extreme poverty´ of this part of Mexico (CAMPO, 2009; David R. Mason, 2008). But oddly, there is no mention of the unique social structure found in this region of the world. In ³Blossoms of Fire´, a documentary on the Zapotec people of Oaxaca, this modern matriarchal society is documented. When the ³Juchitán de Zaragoza´ (Isthmus Zapotec) are asked if they are a matriarchy, they answer is no, women don¶t rule the men. ³The matriarchy doesn¶t exist« The men work more than the women and we respect the men. That¶s why the matriarchy doesn¶t exist. The women administrates. We know how to manage money, not the men´ (Gosling, 2006). Their perception is that men and women are ³like the yoke of the oxen. If the team isn¶t even, it won¶t pull´ (ibid), which supports Taylor¶s idea that a society where women have influence will demonstrate communal rule. However, the differences go beyond defining who is µin charge¶. From their ideas of beauty to machismo, every aspect of this society has been influenced, and more often than not, these differences stand in stark contrast to Western culture.

Modern Matriarchy Basic Needs


While Oaxaca may seem a poor nation to those who grew up with µthe American Dream¶ hardwired into their expectations, the Juchitán have a different view. Money, as such, is not chased after by the Juchitán. Women monitor how money is spent and saved. When asked what basic needs of any person are, the typical Juchitán will respond, ³Food, clothing and fiestas´ (Gosling, 2006). They take pride in being able to µthrow a fiesta¶, even though the activity takes all the townspeople and is considered a community event. They are a largely agricultural society, and make money in local markets, with the women selling their produce and the fish and meat the men contribute. Women own the land and their husbands help to till the land. Daughters, not sons, inherit the land and work it, or they may start their own businesses. (Gosling, 2006). There is also some evidence that many children leave Oaxaca, as more than one person spoke about their children emigrating, either with their families or alone. In fact, some of the statistics regarding Oaxaca are rather grim, but they do not delineate which parts of Oaxaca make up the various numbers: however, there are likely more than a half million Oaxacans living in California today, and at one point, a quarter million Oaxacans were emigrating to America a year (COMI, 2008). It is hard to dispute that poverty is not a push factor here when it is estimated that overall, 60% of the demand for employment in Oaxaca has remained unsatisfied´ (ibid). That said, this community is still a unique one that would seem to give us a perspective that statistics alone cannot paint. Identity How people in a society define and view themselves influences that society. When asked by the filmmaker Maureen Gosling, ³In Juchitán, you never feel alone. You¶re always surrounded by others and life isn¶t taken for granted. I love that especially. Life is a constant

Modern Matriarchy giving and receiving and feeling identified with the Mother, with the Earth, with what you have grown´ (Gosling, 2006). So, the Juchitán once again define themselves by being a community.


This stands in stark contrast to the individualistic, consumer-driven American society. Certainly, we have community events and associations, but these are driven by individual personalities, and only the strong survive. For example, church splits occur when two strong personalities gather people behind them and each one takes his µfollowers¶ off in a decidedly non-communal manner to start another church. This pattern is the reason we have so many denominations and independent congregations in America. Beauty An Isthmus woman works hard to eat well. A lazy woman has no such right, and the women of Oaxaca routinely are up well before dawn to take their wares to market. If a woman loses weight, those around her think that she is sick, or that life is treating her badly. While the Western world would call the Isthmus woman fat, for the Zapotec, this represents the ideal of beauty. Beauty and gender are also affected in this society, in some remarkable ways. This stands in stark contrast to the Western ideal of beauty, which demands that women be thin, have beautiful skin and hair, and dress fashionably. Depending on subculture, these things will vary slightly, but if a woman of Oaxaca was to wear her favorite dress down Main Street America, she would get very strange looks indeed. ³La Gracia´ ³La Gracia´ is a wide-reaching concept among the Zapotec that literally means, µthe Gift.¶ The Juchitán foster the idea that each person is unique and valuable for who they are. Each person has gifts and those gifts should be fostered and appreciated and given a place to flourish. What is interesting is that this concept goes beyond talent to include matters of sexual identity.

Modern Matriarchy Homosexuality Sexuality is considered part of a person and is not discriminated against. Whether a person is homosexual, bisexual, trisexual or transvestite is not a reason for social segregation (Gosling, 2006). They work, own shops, marry and participate in all the community activities with no thought that they should be anything but what they are. In fact, mothers may even pray for a homosexual child so she will have someone to live with her until she dies. It would appear that Catholicism, a religious influence that came with the Spanish, has not affected the


acceptance of those whose sexual identity is other than heterosexual. It seems unlikely that a hate crime would occur in this environment, as sexual identity is considered just another part of the person. In America in 2008, the FBI reports there were 9,160 single-bias hate crime offenses reported in the United States. Of that number, 17.7% were related to sexual orientation (USDOJ, 2008). Sexual µFreedom¶ Sexual freedom is not synonymous with the Western idea of multiple partners. It centers around the woman¶s knowledge that she is valuable and can use her value to choose her husband (Gosling, 2006). She is in control of who she partners with, and cannot be taken or given against her will. There are traditions that still idealize virginity (as seen below), but generally, the woman is her own master when it comes to choosing her partner, who will not only father her children, but till her fields and fish for their family. Virginity Virginity is celebrated among the Zapotec. There is a fading tradition of ³kidnapping´ the woman (which only happens when a couple is to marry). The man kidnaps the bride-to-be from

Modern Matriarchy


her home in the night and takes her home with him, where his family awaits. He brings out proof of her virginity and the man¶s family returns to the bride¶s family with compliments. They may say, ³Your daughter is like a newborn. She arrived at my house just as she was when she was born´ (Gosling, 2006). The virgin is laid on a bed of roses for a day, and a religious ceremony is arranged. If a woman is not a virgin, the marriage can still happen, arrangements can be made and it is often a matter love²if the man loves her, they get married anyway. In America, virginity is a fast-fading virtue amongst our adolescent population. According to the CDC, who last conducted a comprehensive survey on family growth, women¶s health, fertility and family planning in 1995, 22.1% of teenagers had lost their virginity by the time they were 15. That number jumped to a staggering 75.5% by the time they were 19 (CDC, 1997). ³Machismo´ When asked about µmachismo¶, the talk turned to men beating women. Interestingly, while the English word ³machismo´ comes from the same Spanish and Portuguese word, it has come to mean something quite different than its original definition, in which ³machismo refers exclusively to the belief in the superiority of males over females, that is it means µsexism¶ or µmale chauvinism¶´ (, 2009). The Zapotec equate machismo with domestic violence, something anyone would step in and stop if they knew. The women did say the only way a man could beat a woman was if the woman was isolated, but all she¶d have to do is tell her family and the whole community would be there to support her if she left the man. Again, the µmacho man¶ in America looks more like John Wayne or John McClain (Bruce Willis in the Die Hard series) than a wife-beater. He is a little gruff but good-hearted, and

Modern Matriarchy approaches the superhuman in the lengths he will go to protect his own. An interesting dichotomy. Religion Pre-Hispanic Zapotecs were pantheistic and considered anything that moved (such as clouds, earthquakes, lightning, fire²or the foam on a cup of hot chocolate) alive to one degree


or another (Callahan, 1997). The Zapotec believed in gods associated with such natural elements and viewed time as cyclic, not linear. Although they did have many little gods, ³they did recognize a supreme being who was without beginning or end, µwho created everything but was not himself created,¶ but he was so infinite and incorporeal that no images were ever made of him´ (Marcus, as quoted by Callahan, 1997). When the Spanish arrived and brought with them Catholicism, the two religions were merged, and to this day, the Oaxaca have both priests and hechiceros, ritual leaders that participate in major life-cycle events, including All Saint¶s Day. Values Western ideas are crashing onto the culture of the Zapotec, but the feeling is they will adapt, adopt, and survive, maybe not the same, but just as individual as they were before. Natural resources are not to be exploited but treated with respect as part of the culture and spirituality of the people. The Zapotec ³have a pride for what we produce here. That¶s why we don¶t get totally carried away by the great global market´ (Gosling, 2006). So, do they want to remain as they are, or are they open to change? ³Of course, we want development in the isthmus region, but it should be really useful to the citizens of Isthmus´ (ibid). Instead of the µevery man for himself¶ characteristic we¶ve come to expect in our Western society that tends to lead to greed and abuse, the communal, relational aspect of this society fosters balance between man and nature: ³We don¶t oppose development. What we object to is that those activities don¶t consider human

Modern Matriarchy


aspects, the cultural aspect, the environmental aspect´ (ibid). When asked if they are afraid that the unique and remarkable culture that has lasted through Aztec and Spanish conquerors (Schmal, 2006) will be overwhelmed by the Western world, they quote their great poet, Gabriel Lopez Chinas: ³The Zapotec will only die the day the sun dies.´ Discerning the Matriarchy How closely do the Zapotec Indians reflect the anthropological definition of a Matriarchy? The Juchitán are an agricultural society: a condition set by both Bachofen and Briffault. The condition of matrilineage is met as evidenced by the fact that women own land and daughters inherit. However, it is not as clear if men leave their homes to join an extended matrilinear family. It seems in this the Zapotec are unique: they follow a more nuclear family structure. This also seems to contradict the anthropological idea that fathers have little, if anything to do with childrearing. Fathers share a single-dwelling with their wives, and as such could not help but be involved in childrearing. There was one story of a woman who got divorced, and it was her father who gave her money to buy a place to start a business (Gosling, 2006). While this may cause us to wonder if the Juchitán are not succumbing to a patriarchal influence, the fact that the society remains largely communal in nature seems evidence enough that the influence of the Mothers remains strong, and has in fact, adapted to incorporate the men on a more equal footing. Perhaps this is the influence of Catholicism, or perhaps it is owed to another force entirely. Conclusion The Zapotec people of Oaxaca often stand in contrast to Western society, from their core values to their religious ideas, differences abound. Maybe the Zapotec have remained matriarchal, not progressing to Bachofen¶s next inevitable stage of development, because they

Modern Matriarchy


have continued as an agricultural society. That they have not remained µprimitive¶ is evidenced by the presence of nuclear families, so perhaps societies do not always progress from the Tellurian and Lunar to the Solar stages as reliably as a person passes through childhood and adolescence to adulthood. Perhaps this society, because of its unique matriarchal heritage, has the chance to develop something unique from either patriarchy or matriarchy. Characteristics of this may already be in evidence, seen not only in the way men and women cohabit in nuclear families, but in the communal division of power and labor. Regardless, this is a unique and beautiful society that values life in all its forms and strives for balance between man and nature. One can only hope that these ancient people will be able to maintain the core of their cultural uniqueness in the onslaught of Westernization as it washes over the world.

References (2009). Machismo. Retrieved December 5, 2009, from Reference: Bachofen, J. J. (1967). Mother Right (originally published 1954 ed.). (R. marx, Trans.) Kingsport, Tennessee: Kingsport Press, Inc. Boas, G. (1967). Preface. In J. J. Bachofen, Mother Right. Tennessee: Kingsport Press, Inc. Briffault, R. (1931). The Mothers: The Matriarchal Theory of Social Origins. New York: The Macmillan Company. Callahan, K. L. (1997). Zapotec Religions. Retrieved December 5, 2009, from Mesoamerican Religions: CAMPO. (2009). CAMPO Case Study, Oaxaca Mexico. Retrieved December 5, 2009, from Coffee Kids: Grounds for Hope: CDC. (1997, May). Fertility, Family Planning, and Women¶s Health. Retrieved December 8, 2009, from COMI. (2008). Migration from Oaxaca. Retrieved December 8, 2009, from COMI: Centro de Orientación del Migrante de Oaxaca, A.C.: David R. Mason, V. A. (2008). Journal of Planning Education and Research, Vol. 27, No. 3, 245-260. Retrieved December 5, 2009, from Sage Journals Online: Gosling, M. (Director). (2006). Blossoms of Fire [Motion Picture]. Sanday, P. R. (2002). Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University. Schmal, J. P. (2006). The Mizteks and Zapotecs: Two Enduring Cultures of Oaxaca. Retrieved December 5, 2009, from Houston Institute for Culture, History of Mexico: Taylor, G. R. (1954). Appendix Two. In G. R. Taylor, Sex in History. USDOJ. (2008). Hate Crime Statistics, 2008, Incidents and Offences. Retrieved December 8, 2009, from Zwollo, J. A. (1995, - 2009). Oaxaca's Tourist Guide. Retrieved December 5, 2009, from