#guestpost written by Haley M. Walters
Around the world we can find prehistoric examples of women holding or sharing power equally with men, but what happened during history to shift the power exclusively to men and ‘kill’ the Mother Goddess? Societies where women hold some form of power are referred to as matriarchies. A matriarchy is defined as a social unit that is governed by a woman or group of women.
Common characteristics of matriarchal societies are:
- Gift-giving economies
- Negotiation-driven diplomacy
Historians can’t seem to agree on exactly how much power women had throughout history, and whether or not true matriarchies ever existed. It also doesn’t help that these societies existed tens of thousands of years ago, and prehistoric cultures aren’t really known for their organized record keeping.
Some modern historians have speculated that women were initially viewed as leaders because paternity was not understood, i.e. The first birds and the bees talk had not yet taken place, according to “The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory” by Cynthia Eller.
As far as those early societies knew, women were magically able to give birth to new humans – something that was pretty vital for growing a population – and men were not able to bring new life into the world. Somewhere along the way, the mystery was ruined, and men discovered how they played a role in advancing civilization and the idea of a man’s ownership over his children took hold and patriarchies became the norm.
Whether or not that’s how it happened, historians have also noted that early humans were mostly focused on basic survival. Average human lifespans were no longer than 30 years and infant mortality was somewhere around 70%, so women were most likely spending much of their time caring for children while men were free to leave the home, according to Professor Dr. Gerda Lerner.
Many scholars have been quick to point out that our knowledge of early societies is rather limited and likely flawed. After all, much of our history was written down by rich men from patriarchal societies, so there’s a good chance there was some author bias happening along the way.
There are some recorded instances of societies that existed under a matriarchy:
In ancient Egypt, women would regularly rise to positions of ultimate power, but those positions were often only held until a male could come to power, according to National Geographic.
Early Celtic societies also had female leaders, but those roles were mostly reserved for women of higher social status and living conditions for average women were not ideal.
Why would society shift from matriarchy to patriarchy?
It’s hard to say what exactly led societies to lean more toward patriarchies, but there has been quite a bit of recent research into how early societies and power structures developed.
A 1991 theory presented by Marija Gimbutas attributed the rise of patriarchies to a warlike invasion of Indo-Europeans into Europe, which scholars later said was probably more like a gradual migration of herding tribes into the continent. The Indo-European newcomers were mostly male-dominated herding tribes that had more advanced weapons than the sedentary, agricultural societies where women had a better chance of holding or sharing power.
As nomadic tribes transitioned to more agricultural-focused societies, gender inequality became even more apparent. It became common practice for a new wife to join her husband’s tribe and leave her home to live with her husband’s community. This was thought to make it easy for patriarchies to sustain themselves because land, wealth, and power would be passed down from a man to his sons. Women who left their homes would often give up a great deal of social support and possibly family wealth, making it appear that women had less of a right to those things than men.
Patriarchal ideas were then spread to other more remote societies through Christian rulers and conquerors throughout history. Today, a few matriarchal societies do exist, but much of the developed world is currently in the process of grappling with the results of years of patriarchal rule.
Why have women been able to take back power in modern society?
Many feminists have spoken out against the patriarchy and advocated for more equal rights and opportunities for females. Today’s feminist movement has perhaps been one of the most vocal and consistent challenges to the patriarchy we have yet to experience.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen the #MeToo movement highlight experiences of female oppression and mistreatment as a more universal phenomenon. Thanks to social media and better access to education, women have been able to come together and share their own experiences of living in a patriarchal society and advocate for changes they want.
Women in the past had a much harder time speaking out against their circumstances. They often lacked access to education and ways to communicate with people outside of their immediate circle. As we saw in the #MeToo movement, almost any woman with access to a social media account had the ability to speak out about what happened to her. In the past, only rich, educated women would even have the means to do so.
Women still face many of the same challenges they’ve faced for centuries such as attaining wealth, protecting their physical safety, overcoming societal expectations, and equal division of childcare responsibilities.
Though those challenges do still exist, the movement has helped to larger changes such as a $250—$300 monthly child allowance for U.S. families and eliminating the statute of limitations criminal cases that involve sexual assault.
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