matrifocal family life

Matrifocality and Women’s Power: The Peril of Fixed Opinions

“Obviously, you would give your life for your children, or give them the last biscuit on the plate. But to me, the trick in life is to take that sense of generosity between kin, make it apply to the extended family and to your neighbor, your village, and beyond.”

–Tom Stoppard

Meaning of Matrifocal Family Life

“Matrifocal” is a term first coined in 1956. In matrifocal family life, the woman and children are the primary focus, with the father playing a secondary role. The woman controls the family’s finances as well as the domestic and cultural education of the children. According to the society and the length of time, this may or may not earn her greater status within the society as a whole. Whether temporarily or long-term, the father’s role is intermittent.

Matrifocal family life was defined by anthropologist Paul J. Smith as

“the creation of short-term family structures dominated by women”.

However, many feminists in the field of anthropology believe that many more permanently matrifocal societies existed before the introduction and widespread adoption of patriarchy.

One example of this temporary type of matrifocal society is that of the Miskitu people of Kuri. In her article Matrifocality and Women’s Power on the Miskito Coast, anthropologist and professor at the University of Kansas Laura Hobson Herlihy describes a matrifocal society on the coast of Honduras. She later wrote a book “The Mermaid and the Lobster Diver” on the subject.

Matrifocal family life began in this village as a response to the frequent long-term absences of men participating in the global economy as lobster divers. The women live in matrifocal groups in which many of the social activities are female-centered. As a result, their society has also become more matrilineal, in which inheritance of property is determine by the mother’s lineage, rather than the father’s. It is the women who preserve the linguistic and cultural identity of their society.

According to respected French anthropologist Maurice Godelier, matrifocal family life arose in some cultures as the result of slavery. Female slaves in some cultures were forbidden to marry and their children were often the property as well as progeny of their owners. While the lives of children born in a racist society may have improved as a result of lighter skin, the authoritative role of black fathers in children’s lives was usurped by slavemasters. This usurpation, combined with the practice of selling individual family members, resulted in a more matrifocal slave society.

Other forms of matrifocal family life, such as those in Western Europe, were dependent upon a combination of women being allowed to enter the work force and government assistance. For research on his book, “The Metamorphosis of Kinship“, Golelier analyzed 160 societies and offered his observations of 30 of them.
In his view, instances of matrifocal family life are increasing, and will continue to increase in the future. While relatively little has been written about it historically, current global conditions suggest that matrifocal family life is becoming the norm.

Godelier believes that three major social transformations are responsible for this major cultural shift towards matrifocal family life.

  1. The first transformation was that of society recognizing the concept of childhood in the 18th century which ultimately led to the Declaration of the Rights of Children in 1959.
  2. The second transformation was the result of scientific studies that revealed that homosexuality was a normal behavior, rather than a mental illness.
  3. The third transformation was political, in which political societies began to grant the demands of homosexuals for equal rights, including the right to marry and form families that are not based on biological kinship.

In an interview, he attributes the changing composition of the family in part to capitalism, saying that

“Our economic system relies on a de facto inequality in access to capital, and engenders differences in the accumulation of wealth and means of subsistence that the state attempts to reduce. It also affects kinship links, in that it promotes each person’s self-centred individualism and marginalises practices of solidarity.”

Whatever the reasons for the societal shift to increasingly more permanent forms of matrifocal family life, Godelier’s extensive anthropological research during his long and distinguished career has convinced him that a single man and woman alone are not sufficient to raise a child. New organizations of lines of descent and family traditions will likely create new expansive forms of social kinship that will provide children with a greater number of adults to care for them than the nuclear family can provide.

The world’s power structures will surely benefit from the multiple skills that women have acquired in single-handedly managing family affairs. As their numbers continue to multiply, matrifocal groups will begin to wield greater political influence. There is no power quite as respected as that of a mother advocating for her children.

matrifocal family life

June 15,2016  |

parenting styles and advice

Miriam Stoppard–There’s No Stopping A Force of Nature

“Love is an amazing thing. It makes you feel you can climb mountains and swim oceans for the loved one…and that great drive and desire comes flooding back with grandchildren.”

–Miriam Stoppard

Miriam Stoppard, now in her 70’s, has experienced life as a doctor, journalist, writer, broadcaster, and businesswoman. Perhaps more importantly, she has experienced it all as a mother of two sons, four stepchildren, and eleven grandchildren. One of her sons is actor Ed Stoppard, from her marriage to playwright Tom Stoppard from 1972 to 1992 .

She attended Universities at Newcastle, Bristol and London and earned numerous degrees, including her M.D. She became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1998. In 2007, she was voted the United Kingdom’s number one parenting guru by the Bounty Mums. She received the Stonewall Journalist of the Year Award in 2008.

Sharing a Lifetime of Experience

Despite her advanced age, she continues to be active as an expert on parenting styles and advice via a regular column in the Daily Mirror. Some controversy arose when in one of those articles, she accused mothers who continued breastfeeding through toddlerhood of being

“mothers who desire to keep their child dependent on them.”

Among her most recent opinions regarding parenting styles and advice is the suggestion that the ideal length of time for breastfeeding is until the appearance of teeth.

While today there are a number of accepted child-rearing philosophies, in the past women were expected to follow the advice of experts, often without question. In the fifties, women began to express that motherhood wasn’t always the ideal experience portrayed in literature. In addition to bliss, they often felt anger and hopelessness in trying to live up to experts’ recommended parenting styles and advice. That anger was often followed by guilt.

The Rise of Feminism

In many ways, it was the feminist movement that helped women communicate their actual experiences of motherhood rather than feeling that something was wrong with them. Parenting styles and advice often didn’t reflect many of the social and economic realities associated with motherhood in the industrial age. For the first time, women didn’t feel alone in questioning socially accepted parenting styles and advice. As a result, books by capable feminist authors such as Miriam Stoppard sold in great numbers.

Many male experts responded by becoming more authoritative, and their recommended parenting styles and advice contained long lists of things to do and not to do in any conceivable situation. It was almost as if they considered women children as well, with faulty instincts, and incapable of determining the right course of action.

By the seventies, society was beginning to show signs of the influence of these feminist writers. One of those changes was that rather than focusing on “motherhood”, more books that recommended parenting styles and advice focused on “parenthood”. Although in the majority of cases, the primary caretaker was still the mother, this linguistic change proved to be a powerful one. Miriam Stoppard’s 1984 book “The Baby Care Book” referred extensively to the joint responsibility of parenthood.

The child care system did not sufficiently serve the needs of working mothers, who already suffered a great deal of guilt for leaving their children. Parenting styles and advice provided by experts was often contradictory, contributing to a lessening of self-confidence in parenting, especially for inexperienced new mothers. A common complaint among women regarding such advice was that much of it seemed to go directly against their instincts and what felt right for them.

Reconciling Conflicting Advice from Experts

One of the contradictions was that many experts were of the opinion that mothers would know instinctively how to mother, which completely ignored the necessity for parenting education and the value of shared experience. Other experts seemed to assume that mothers knew nothing about parenting and needed to be instructed as if they had no prior life experience. Increasingly, as women became more educated, they began to replace male experts in matters of parenting styles and advice. Many male experts responded by becoming more respectful towards women’s capabilities in their writing.

Miriam Stoppard’s professional capabilities helped transform male attitudes towards women and mothers. She has more than eighty published books that have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide to her credit. Although she wrote primarily about pregnancy, child development and women’s health, she was also politically astute and active. During her journalistic career, she conducted interviews with some very important people, including Margaret Thatcher. She also appeared regularly on medical and scientific television programs such as “Where There’s Life” and Don’t Ask Me.

Now 77 years old, after a life of so many accomplishments, in a recent interview with the Daily Mail, when asked what she’d most like to be remembered for, replied

“For introducing the concept that women should choose how they give birth.”

I think all mothers would agree that choice is a fine legacy.

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December 16,2015  |