The globe may well be in the grip of what philosopher and economist Genevieve Vaughan denounces as “unworkable, uncompassionate hypermasculine values gone mad” (Vaughan 2005). To anyone who has not been completely programmed, numbed, or lulled to sleep by the self-preserving machinations of patriarchy, it should be clear that “rule by the fathers” is not working. The values and behaviors that have been intrinsic to what Riane Eisler (1987, xvii) calls the “dominator” model of society have gotten the entire planet into hot water, quite literally: The rising of global temperatures, the melting of the ice caps, the gradual creeping up of sea levels, and fiercer-than-ever tropical storms are just a few of the dire consequences of political, economic, and religious decisions made by men who have become detached from Mother, be she human, planetary, or divine.
Indeed, dominator governing systems, which inherently and sometimes violently exclude the participation of women and eschew a female-oriented “ethics of care” (Gilligan 1982), have created a world in which unbridled capitalism, terrorism, warfare, environmental destruction, the decimation of indigenous cultures, threats to creaturehood (including human) posed by genetic engineering, and the specter of an all-out nuclear armageddon have already caused massive suffering and are now bringing humanity to the brink of catastrophe.
In the midst of these severe challenges, a vision of an alternative social form is emerging on the part of a growing group of scholars, artists, activists, and indigenous peoples who have persisted in living their own way of life despite the pressures of colonization, missionization, and globalization. These individuals are bringing forth the idea that matriarchy –- an age-old structure for organizing human society based on non-violence, consensus-based decision making, gender balance, and respect for nature -- may be much better for the human organism than “father rule.” As sources of wisdom and models for human communities, matriarchal societies may provide new pathways and solutions to the current world crisis.
The theoretical and action-oriented movement propelling these ideas is emerging as a new social science called Matriarchal Studies. For the past 30 years, German philosopher and social scientist Heide Göettner-Abendroth has been developing this field, naming it, formulating the theory behind it, and gathering together the thinkers and activists who have been working on it in isolated pockets around the world. Her organizing of two international conferences in this area in recent years has now given the field a sense of identity, coherence, and momentum.
The latest of these conferences took place in San Marcos, Texas, in September 2005, and marked a deepening and expansion of the dialogue begun at the first World Congress on Matriarchal Studies in Luxembourg in September 2003. The recent conference, subtitled “Societies of Peace,” was a meeting of indigenous people (mostly women) from many of the world’s still existing matriarchal societies, and researchers from dominant societies of the West, making it a truly impressive international, intercultural event. The audience was similarly diverse; some 350 people attended from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Haiti, Costa Rica, Brazil, Bolivia, Nepal, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Israel, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and other countries.
The Second World Congress on Matriarchal Studies, held at Texas State University’s performing Arts Center September 29-October 2, was itself an example of one of the principles of matriarchy – the belief in the importance of spreading social wealth through large-scale gift giving. Co-organizer Genevieve Vaughan, director of the Center for the Study of the Gift Economy and a long-time philanthropist, financially sponsored the bulk of the conference, making it possible for participants to attend gratis and for presenters to have their transportation and lodging paid for. This allowed women from all over the world to share their wisdom, regardless of their economic status. Co-sponsors included Dr. Sandra Mayo of the Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies at Texas State, the Indigenous Women’s Network, the Institute of Archaeomythology, the Reformed Congregation of the Goddess International, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Women’s Spirituality Program of the California Institute of Integral Studies, all centered in the United States.
This article is based on my notes from a select group of presentations, namely, those made by two of the native elders in attendance from North and South America, as well as those made by several of the women and men from various regions of Africa. Due to space considerations, I have regrettably had to leave out coverage of many of the 36 presentations delivered at the conference, all of them excellent, including those from Asia, Europe, and the United States. Among the matriarchies represented that I will not cover here were the Juchitán of Mexico, the Kuna of Panama, the Shipibo of Peru, the Samoans of New Zealand, the Koisan of South Africa, the Kabyles of Algeria, the Mosuo of China, the Khasi of Northeast India, the Nayars of Kerala/Southwest India, and the Minangkabou of West Sumatra. I will conclude this article with a brief discussion of the political declaration that speakers and participants created at the end of the congress to generate concrete alternatives and practical solutions to the exploitative system of patriarchy.
Matriarchy -- A Definition Revisited
It will first be helpful to review the definition of matriarchy that Göettner-Abendroth presented at the First World Congress on Matriarchal Studies, which she has developed based on her thirty years of historical and ethnographic analyses of matriarchal cultures. Göettner-Abendroth, the founder of HAGIA International Academy for Modern Matriarchal Studies in Germany, stresses that matriarchies are not “a mere reversal of patriarchy, where women somehow rule over men -- as it is commonly misinterpreted.” Rather, she says, they are
without exception. . . egalitarian societies. . . . societies that are free of domination, but they still have their guidelines and codes. And this is what makes them so attractive to those looking for a new philosophy to support the creation of a just society. (Göettner-Abendroth, para. 2)