Patriarchy and Matriarchy in Literature

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Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

“Patriarch” means “father.” In a patriarchy, belonging to the society, or legitimacy, comes from fathers through ritual and law. Patriarchy provides ruling power to men. “Matriarch” means “mother.” In a matriarchy, belonging to society, or legitimacy, comes from mothers through childbirth. Matriarchy distributes power throughout a community. Matriarchal systems are more likely to have female and male deities and priests. Monotheism is usually considered patriarchal, although worship of the Goddess, or God the Mother, is found in monotheistic models of matriarchy. Patriarchal gods include Zeus, Apollo, and Jehovah; matriarchal goddesses include Demeter, Aphrodite, Artemis, Isis, Afrekete, and Ishtar.

In the nineteenth century, Swiss scholar Johann Jakob Bachofen theorized that prehistoric societies were matriarchies. He attributes to matriarchy the origins of family, the creation of civilization, the beginnings of social structures, and the start of agriculture. Agriculture, however, led to patriarchy. American ethnologist Lewis H. Morgan described matriarchy within North American indigenous tribes, such as the Iroquois. Morgan influenced the German socialist Friedrich Engels, who theorized that private property, competition, and individualism sprang from patriarchy in Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums und des Staats (1884, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1902). In A Room of One’s Own (1929), British author Virginia Woolf brought discussions of patriarchy into literary criticism. Robert Briffault writes extensively about matriarchy in The Mothers: The Matriarchal Theory of Social Origins (1931) and in his novels. In his work, Briffault uses a Darwinian model to describe the evolution of all societies from matriarchy to patriarchy and suggests that the next stage is a more evolved matriarchy.

Swiss psychologist Carl Jung proposed that all humans collectively share a cultural unconscious of archetypes. Among the archetypes are symbols for mothers and fathers. Matriarchy and patriarchy derive from the universal human experience of having parents. Joseph Campbell discusses matriarchy and patriarchy from a Jungian perspective in his study of mythology, The Masks of God (1959-1967, 1991). His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) gives perspectives on patriarchy in folklore.

Nearly all of these theories associate patriarchy with the spread of the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The first patriarch for these religions is Abraham, who married Sarah, the first matriarch in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which traces its ancestry through her son, Isaac. The Islamic tradition traces its ancestry through Ishmael, another son of Abraham by a different mother. Scholars point out that both patriarchs and matriarchs are in the Bible, although feminist critics note that in Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions systems of authority favor patriarchy. Marija Gimbutas’ The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974, 1982) provides a feminist perspective on religion and spiritual matriarchy.

Some myths and folklore portray matriarchy as having failed, providing a need for patriarchy. Some scholars relegate matriarchy to a preliterate time, one before “high” cultures of art, music, and letters. Many twentieth century feminist scholars take exception to these views, often assigning social problems—such as war, rape, and poverty—to patriarchy. Other feminists seek to turn the failure myth around, arguing that the “failure” attributed to matriarchy is a false pretense patriarchy uses to usurp women’s power of childbirth.

Most discussions of matriarchy are theoretical, as matriarchies do not seem to exist in the twentieth century. Twentieth century anthropologists do not widely accept the notion that matriarchy predated patriarchy. Author Steven Goldberg, in his book The Inevitability of Patriarchy (1974), uses anthropological, biological, and sociological research to argue...

(The entire section is 2,198 words.)