Matrifocal Enclaves in Class Societies
Modern class societies are far removed from horticultural societies and thus it is perhaps even more relevant to examine the matrifocal
(as opposed to matrilineal-matrilocal) systems that are found under various circumstances within class societies. Such matrifocal societies also tend to have greater gender equality because of the power of a maternal paradigm. In these societies, regardless of the particular type of kinship system, women play roles of cultural and social significance and define themselves less as wives than as mothers. Raymond Smith, who coined the term matrifocality and who studied matrifocality in the Caribbean, describes it as involving "priority of emphasis (being) placed upon the mother-child and sibling relationship, while the conjugal relationship is expected to be less solidary and less affectively intense." According to Smith, the weak intensity of the conjugal relationship "is crucial in producing matrifocal family structure."
Matrifocality, however, does not refer to domestic maternal dominance so much as it does to the relative cultural prestige of the image of mother, a role that is culturally elaborated and valued. Mothers are also structurally central in that mother as a status "has some degree of control over the kin unit's economic resources and is critically involved in kin-related decision making processes" (p. 131). It is not the absence of males (males may be quite present) but the centrality of women as mothers and sisters that makes a society matrifocal, and this matrifocal emphasis is accompanied by a minimum of differentiation between women and men.
Nancy Tanner uses three Indonesian societies, the Igbo of West Africa, and black Americans as examples of societies in which the culturally defined role of mother is made central. This is not always the genealogical mother, but sometimes the senior woman in a kinship unit. In all of these societies, relationships between women and men are relatively egalitarian and there is a minimum of differentiation between genders. Tanner notes that in Java there is "little difference between women and men with regard to initiative, assertiveness, autonomy, decisiveness" (p. 155). Overall, women in matrifocal societies find their identity not as appendages to husbands or brothers but rather as relatively independent and active women and mothers.
Tanner notes that the image of the strong, active mother, with which black women are more identified than middle-class white women are, has made middle-class black women less ambivalent than their white counterparts about combining careers with marriage. The image of black mothering is the most accessible image
middle-class white women have that can counter the tendency to assimilate "mother" to "wife," that is, counter the tendency to attribute to mothering the dependency and side-kick status that attaches to "wife."
Black women often have little respect for white women because of the degree to which their identity derives from being a dependent, infantilized wife. Toni Morrison explains: "Black women have no abiding admiration of white women as competent complete people; whether vying with them for the few professional slots available to women in general, or moving their dirt from one place to another, they regarded them as willful children, pretty children, mean children, but never as real adults capable of handling the real problems of the world."
Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple is perhaps the most widely read example of what could properly be called a matrifocal spirit although it takes place in an early twentieth-century black patriarchal setting. Walker chronicles the resilience, power, and strength of women and the closeness of sisters, and in the end the patriarchs in her vision are transformed into friends, lovers, and brothers. Sexuality is not always seen as heterosexual, nor are heterosexual relations ideally envisioned as female "surrender" and male domination.
Walker does not depict men as personages so powerful that "separatism" can be the only "solution" for women. I suspect that separatist views are more typical of a middle-class white women's response to perceptions of sexism than of black women's. From black women's standpoint, separatism would mean abandoning their loyalty to the men of their community as their mothers and sisters. In this connection I was struck by the comment made to me by a young black lesbian, in an informal discussion of lesbian separatism, that she would never want to join any woman's organization that would exclude her brother. Her vision of equality involved women and men as sisters and brothers. This is both African and also very much a part of Protestant imagery, adopted in this country more fully by blacks than by whites, that expresses equality and solidarity through the terms "sister" and "brother."
Diane K. Lewis offers further evidence of more egalitarian relations between black husbands and wives, which she too attributes to an African cultural heritage. She notes that in black families both husband and wife have power and make tacit agreements based on
individual preferences about areas in which each will be dominant. In addition, black women are more likely than white women to be sexually assertive: "While in Euro-American culture the male is the aggressor and the female the passive receptor, in Afro-American culture, the woman is expected to take an active role in the male's attempt to establish a sexual encounter." Lewis also points out that males as well as females take a "mothering" attitude toward infants and young children.
Clearly there are some complex problems in analyzing the situation of blacks in the United States, and it would be racist to deny that economic problems among non-middle-class blacks are increasing. Female-headed households are also increasing rapidly today, and this is probably less a manifestation of matrifocality as an ideal than of joblessness among lower-class black males. In spite of the complexities involved, I believe that matrifocality should be examined more seriously by middle-class white feminists for clues as to how greater gender equality might look. That matrifocality is often found in situations in which some type of internal or external colonial exploitation is occurring should not in itself discredit matrifocality. It simply reflects the links between capitalist exploitation and male dominance.
Both matrilineal-matrilocal societies and matrifocal societies provide examples of structural arrangements that de-emphasize a definition of women as wives and thereby tend to enhance the status of women in the public sphere. We have also seen that these societies are characterized—in different ways—by what might be called a maternal paradigm that includes both men and women as equals. Before examining what I will call middle-class white matrifocality and its role in the emergence of modern feminism, we need first to examine patriarchy itself. Patriarchal societies involve a very different kind of organization with very different implications for the status of women. Patriarchy is important to look at because the historical roots of modern industrial societies are patriarchal.