Societies in Balance:
Gender Equality in Matrilineal, Matrifocal, Matriarchal Societies

Vicky Noble

Meret Oppenheim


Imagine that for three days you are in company with people who believe in the possibility of gender equality and societies that are organized around the central role of the mother, and who discuss this together seriously in a large round conference room with microphones and simultaneous translation. And then imagine that there are among this group of five hundred or so people several representatives who have either visited and studied, or who are themselves birth members of living ethnic groups whose present-day reality is still, against all odds, organized around a female-centered kinship system and governed by natural law. In such societies sexuality and creativity are freely expressed by both women and men without the confines of mandatory monogamy, and the institution of "fatherhood" does not exist.Does this sound like a "feminist fantasy" or some idyllic golden age of distant past millennia? If I hadn't been there to see for myself, I might wonder. The conference was organized by Dr. Heide Göttner-Abendroth and the International Academy HAGIA in Germany as an opportunity for "multi-cultural scientific exchange, networking, and collaboration" among scholars engaged in "matriarchal research." USA speakers included our own Joan Marler, editor of the works of the late Marija Gimbutas, who keeps that work alive through the Archaeo-Mythology Institute; and Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, presenting her important work on the African origins of human evolution and the "Dark Mother." Joan's talk emphasized the "cohesive and persistent ideological system" found in Old Europe and Marija Gimbutas' work, while Lucia's presentation brought alive the "Dark Woman Divinity" that has persisted throughout millennia, especially for women.Other Americans included Peggy Reeves Sanday (anthropologist) whose interesting work among the West Sumatran Minangkabau people was recently published as Women at the Centre: Life in a Modern Matriarchy and James DeMeo, an environmental geographer whose research on the climactic roots of patriarchy is presented in his book, Saharasia. DeMeo's presentation on Sunday morning elicited a highly charged attack from researchers in the audience, including especially Sanday who called it "reductionist and dangerous," providing the only argument in the three days of talks. In my own reading of DeMeo's book several years ago, although I found it to be a bit spotty in terms of the data, still I found his ideas (particularly his equation of male circumcision with the origins of patriarchal sadism) to be groundbreaking. The other U.S. researcher was Aileen Walsh (anthropologist) who has lived with and studied the Mosuo people in southern China for many years.Most of the two dozen speakers were from Europe and China, and many were quite interesting. Most interesting to me was the material that came together around the Mosuo people of southern China, whose culture appears to be a remnant of the ancient female-centered groups I have researched all across the Afro-Eurasian continents. I had recently read a book called A Society Without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China, so I knew about the Mosuo but not by that name. And the book I happened to read on the airplane going over was Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World, which also turned out to be about the Mosuo people. But it was only after arriving at the conference that I began to understand the significance of this exemplary people whose ancient matriarchal structure links them "through blood rather than coupling," as Dr. Ruxian Yan put it. Aileen Walsh focused on their gender equality and consensus decision making system, while suggesting that the strong Chinese focus or hype (in recent years) on the so-called "walking marriage" of the Mosuo has had a damaging effect on their culture. (By the age of thirteen the Mosuo can choose their lovers, and they generally delay childbirth until their mid-twenties. By virtue of the matrilineal kinship system, the defacto heads of households are always women.)The highlight of this focus on a living matriarchal people came for me with the late arrival of a member of the Mosuo himself, Lama Gatusa, who pointed out that the lack of "paternal relations" avoids a lot of conflict seen in other societies with the in-laws. Lovers, he said, are connected by affections only, "connected only in the night," creating a foundation established on love and not on who has money or power. (This got strong waves of applause as the translations were received and people understood what he was saying in our various languages.) Property belongs to the family and the mother is in control; children belong to the maternal family and never have to leave home. The mother's brother helps to raise her children, as do all members of each extended family. Pregnancy belongs to women -- it is "forbidden" for men to get involved from pregnancy to the birth of a child. Professor Du raised provocative questions, such as, "Why do you have to love only one person in your life?" and, "Why do you have to get married and turn a pair of lovers into enemies?" both excellent questions for those of us living in the U.S. (50% divorce rate) and especially in California (75% divorce rate).The other speaker who was similarly animated, provocative, well-received by the audience and very inspiring to me was Dr. Malika Grasshoff, herself of Kabyle (Berber) lineage from Algeria. She spoke about her upbringing among this matriarchal people living in the midst of more patriarchal systems all around them where the woman is "the central post of the house and everyone knows it." She pointed out that the word for woman in the Kabyle language is the same as the word for language, and that "the spoken word is the carrier of culture." Calling what women do "ritualized work," she described the social organization around cycles of the moon and the female blood mysteries (menarche, birth). Like the Mosuo people, men are forbidden to be at the birth ritual, which is geared to help a woman "discover that she is a creator," a "religious experience!" She mentioned that Kabyle women coming to the U.S. and seeing our birthing practices are completely shocked and furious, and also that there is no such thing as a "single mother" for Kabyle people because "the child is part of the village." (This provoked powerful applause from the audience.) It is only by breastfeeding that the "child is brought into the family." In this remarkable society, she said children are "not defined by blood but by milk."Also wonderful were Michael Dames (England) and Kurt Derungs (Switzerland) who both focused their excellent talks on embodied landscape mythologies of the Goddess and matriarchal philosophies. We also got to view several films over the course of the weekend demonstrating the reality of matriarchy in real life.These brief thumbnail sketches don't do justice to the overall importance of the conference and its subject, but I wanted to get something out to my list before it slips away from me. I will be working on an article or two in the coming months that integrates the material from the conference, especially about the Mosuo and Kabyle societies. It is liberating to have living proof of a way of life that does not allow for male-dominance or female oppression!