Matrilineal Horticultural Societies
Some of the most widely studied cases of societies in which females enjoy relatively high prestige and power are matrilineal-matrilocal horticultural societies. These societies count descent mainly through the mothers line, and husbands live on lands owned by the matrilineage. Matriliny does not eliminate male authority, because the mothers brother is likely to exercise some authority over his sisters son, but matriliny does tend to weaken the husband's authority over wife and children. When descent is matrilineal and the residence of the married couple is matrilocal, there is at least the potential both for breaking up the solidarity of brothers and for weakening the authority of husbands, since brothers leave their own territory when they marry to become husbands of wives who
own the land. Among the Iroquois, unrelated men lived in a long-house with wives who were each others sisters. Thus, as brothers men have less chance to exercise authority over their sisters' sons, and as husbands they also have less authority over their own wives and children.
Indeed, one of Lévi-Strauss's arguments for his view that marriage constitutes "an exchange of women by men" is the relative rarity of matrilineal-matrilocal arrangements. The reason for this is that matriliny coupled with matrilocality weakens the position of men as husbands and threatens "sexual asymmetry," that is, "male dominance." Lévi-Strauss notes that such societies generally have some compensating features that counteract the disadvantages to husbands that the matrilineal, matrilocal situation entails. These compensatory mechanisms suggest that husband's authority over wife may be, from the male's standpoint, something very important to preserve in all kinship arrangements.
Evidence for the importance of matrilineal kinship in enhancing women's status comes from a study designed to test a hypothesis proposed by the sociologist Randall Collins about causes of variation among societies in male sexual dominance. Collins suggested that the degree of male "sexual" dominance ("sexual" in the narrow sense, resting ultimately, he claims, on males' physical desire and greater strength) would vary more in relation to economic and political factors than in terms of kinship variables. A study designed to test Collins's hypothesis on a cross-cultural sample found to the contrary that marital residence and descent rules of the society (i.e., kinship variables) were the better predictors of degree of sexual inequality. Specifically, the researchers found that male sexual dominance and control over sexuality was less developed in matrilineal descent groups and that whatever the residence rules, matriliny weakened the concentration of male power.
More recent support comes from the family sociologist Ira Reiss, who, using the Standard Cross-Cultural sample, finds, not surprisingly, greater male sexual rights in patrilineal than in matrilineal societies. Moreover, Reiss finds that in those patrilineal societies where males also lived together in the same community, there was a "greater likelihood of a low evaluation of the female gender."
Significantly enough, matrilineal-matrilocal societies often seem to be characterized by what can be described only as a "maternal"
ideology. For example, the Navaho culture has been described as making all one's kin "into differentiated kinds of mothers." The major deity in Navaho religion is Changing Woman and she is referred to as "Mother." She is associated not with heterosexual relationships but with fertility, creativity, growth, renewal, and change. Changing Woman was created by the sexual union of First Man and First Woman. She is then a mother who is the product of the coming together of both maleness and femaleness. Femaleness is not seen as deviance from maleness as it is in Western culture, but rather Changing Woman encompasses both maleness and femaleness as a mother, and males and females in turn are expected to relate to each other as her equal children.
The Hopis are similar in belief to the Navaho; indeed the Navaho beliefs were likely derived from the Hopi. Navahos conceive of female roles and male roles as different but equal and complementary. It is true that women are associated with the domestic sphere and men with the wider community, but in another sense the wider community itself is conceptualized metaphorically as a house—the center of domesticity. It is the household and the clan, which is centered in the female-governed household, that shelters the individuals who compose the community. In a sense the private is the public, and the domestic is the community. Among the Hopi there are both male and female ceremonies; the women's ceremonies express and celebrate the interdependence of male and female. Nevertheless, as with the matrilineal, matrilocal Iroquois and Navaho, men hold the formal positions of authority in the community, even though that authority may be of little "real" significance.
In matrilineal societies in the Pacific, men bring personal renown to themselves in their own ceremonies, but this is counter-balanced by women symbolizing both women and men and thus the community as a whole in theirs. In the Trobriands, another matrilineal society, women have value not so much because they reproduce biologically but because they are seen as social and cultural reproducers. Women are charged with regenerating the dala (the unnamed ancestral beings through which Trobrianders trace their descent). It is through them that the entire community, both women and men, gain their being.
Thus in matrilineal societies, women are more likely to connect both women and men as equals, a connection related ultimately to the early dependency of both female and male infants on women.
This is very different from the modern Western emphasis on women as the "wives" of men and as the mothers of their husbands children.
Scott Coltrane, also using the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample of preindustrial societies, finds that societies having a patrilineal kinship system and a male-dominant residence pattern were negatively correlated with public status of women. Coltrane also finds that one can predict women's public status even more accurately if one adds paternal participation in early child care to the regression equation. (Adding other variables, however, such as women's contribution to subsistence, does not help explain the variance in women's public status.) Thus, while arrangements other than patrilineal and male-centered residence patterns may or may not enhance the likelihood of women's public status, patrilineal and male-centered residence patterns are associated with lesser public status for women.
Although the mechanisms that produce these correlations are not clear, it may be significant that the highest correlation Coltrane obtained between paternal nurturance and various facets of female public status was with "female origin symbolism." This correlation was higher than the correlations between paternal nurturance and female access to positions of authority or between paternal nurturance and female public participation. The strong connection between paternal nurturance and female origin symbolism suggests that societies governed by a maternal paradigm would tend to justify and encourage males to participate in maternal activities.
I am not suggesting that women's cause in modern society would be served by reestablishing the rigid gender division of labor characterizing many matrilineal horticultural societies or by duplicating any other nonpatrilineal form found in preindustrial societies. It is nevertheless instructive to examine the world views of such societies to see how they contrast with the more typically male constructions of our own society. I would especially stress the sense in which the maternal represents the common humanity of both males and females and that often this is associated with males' participating along with females in early child care.