Meanings of Words, Psychology

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

matrifocal family life

“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

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