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    Writing a matriarchal society

    I think this is a problem for most writers in general given that there are no living truly matriarchal cultures if ever there were any.Though some evidence seems to suggest the Amazons were real. However, even in this case, their true nature has been obscured by centuries of myth and speculation and slander by their enemies. The only true matriarchies that exist only appear in the animal world at present, but these are not human societies so only a limited amount of information might be gleaned from them about how a matriarchal human/humanoid society might function.

    Perhaps the best known and fully described matriarchy in fiction is that of the Drow in the Forgotten Realms and closely tied role playing game Dungeons and dragons. While it gives us an idea of how one might work, there is a substantial problem. It is largely portrayed as nigh irredeemably evil. Now while I feel that any gender based social control system is inherently evil, things are seldom so cut and dry. For example, in viking society, much inheritance, political power, and military might was controlled by men. However it was considered a grave offense to strike a woman (at least a viking woman) even in jest, women could own property, they could divorce their husbands if necessary, and on occasion joined up with the men in war. Women were also believed to be privy to certain magical powers that men did not have and the only other deity allowed to sit in their chief God's throne according to myth was his wife Frigga. I will not call Viking society a perfect or egalitarian one. I would be a moron selectively ignoring facts if I did. However this illustrates my point when I say such things are not always cut and dry.

    Still there are societies I would call violently misogynistic which could be compared to the Drow based on the level of brutality and cruelty leveled against their fellow human beings in general, though much of their worst tendencies are directed upon women. The catalog of these offenses is so terrible and vast that I feel a certain rage rising up within me just thinking about it. I may be a man, but rage against injustice is something that crosses over gender lines and transcends them all together. The scale of the oppression of women that remains despite over a century of women's rights movements the world over is appalling. Any at all is truly appalling, but when one thinks about how much still remains, it is especially so.

    Men can indeed be cruel, but so can women. From what I have observed, the capability for cruelty in either sex is equal, however the way this cruelty manifests is dependent on a number of cultural factors, what opportunities exist which are effected by cultural factors, and the person in question. Certainly we can say that Caligula was cruel, but we can also say Elizabeth Bathory was cruel. It seems to me that cruelty is dependent on social status and is almost seen as a sort of privilege for those of "higher" status (both Caligula and Bathory were high born people of privilege)! Which it should not be seen as no matter who holds the reigns of power if anyone at all.

    All talk of the world's evils and the horrors of misogyny aside, the patriarchal system seems to stand on a particular institution of patrilineality. To clarify, patrilineality is the social institution by which people trace their lineage down their father's lines which for much of history not only included surnames, but material inheritance, titles, and status. From this we can infer that matrilineality would be a catalyst for a matriarchal society. Though neither always leads to one gender power structure all the time, it is likely that a matriarchal society would also be matrilineal.

    What we also need to remember as I have been saying, is that these things are not cut and dry and exist on a spectrum. This is true of many things in human society from economics,religion, and government. For example, let's say we have a scale of monarchy which ranges from the least strict end with a constitutional government to the strictest form in which the monarch has nigh absolute power. We could also say this for monotheism. Let's say you have Christianity which believes in the strictest sense of the term that there is a singular deity of one gender (though some monotheists only use pronouns as a matter of linguistic convenience) while Hindus believe in a singular Godhead with many forms male and female. This can also be said of gender roles and gender based hierarchies in our world.

    Personally when I write, one thing I hold to strictly is that in any culture there are noble people male and female. People who hold strictly to these structures and those who actively work to undermine them. That humans in general are capable of terrible things not matter what ethnic group, gender identity group, or religion they belong to. Therefore while we she should not be to willing to hold a matriarchal societies in fiction up on pedestals, we should also be careful not to demonize them in their entirety or make them seem inhumanly evil. There is a reason cultural relativism is a driving force in the study of society regardless of how we as individuals may feel about them.

    So my only question is whether there is any additional advice one could use, or anything I forgot to mention as a result of this deities awful headache I've been having for the past few days.

  2. #2
    Life is fantastic, yes? CMTheAuthor's Avatar
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    Well, one key issue would be dealing with pregnancy and childbirth. For example, a large part of effective leadership is the public display of strength, which (no offense intended) is rather hard to do when you're eight months pregnant, (possibly) have a tough time walking around, and may have morning sickness on top of all that. (And that's assuming a relatively healthy pregnancy.)

    Of course, that does open new story options, since taking advantage of that weakness may or may not be common. On the dark side of that spectrum, there would have to be an element of paranoia present in the leadership of matriarchal societies that wouldn't in more patriarchal ones. (Maybe that's how the Forgotten Realms dark elves got so evil, in a vicious cycle of paranoia and scheming.) Or on the lighter side, there could be veneration of pregnant women, to the point where harming one in any way would be a severe (maybe blasphemous) crime. If those values are instilled enough, that could work too.

    And then you have to address issues of who does what kind of work in your society, and so on, but you get the point. Yes, it's a challenge building a society with a different set of rules, but you do have a lot of flexibility too.

  3. #3
    Ataraxic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Well, the problem is that there's a lot of debate about what a "true" matriarchy consists of and whether our own social biases have gotten in the way of understanding past cultures. The Iroquois, for instance, are basically a matriarchal culture. But the insistence in later years in the anthropological field -- fiercely debated -- that a matriarchy must be the exact flip side of a patriarchy -- with women dominating, ruling all major political and social positions, being the soldiers, holding all the property, etc. -- lets you rule pretty much everybody out, since women led societies tend to be more egalitarian in concept in history and not obsessed in defining everything in terms of femaleness. Matrilinear societies, where lineage is traced through the mothers -- which is much easier to do -- are more common in our history, and matrifocal societies where the women run households and the social community and the men are more peripheral are frequent in lots of tribal and island cultures, as well as in early European and Asian cultures. Women fighters, judges, queens and other leaders, traders, scientists, artists, etc. have all existed in most cultures and played influential roles, but that participation tends to get minimized in a lot of historical coverage, except perhaps for some of the queens.

    So there really isn't an impediment to using matriarchal or matrifocal cultures and they often pop up in fantasy stories, although they may not be the central focus. Some of them are Amazonian myth cultures, always a favorite because of the battle-oriented nature of many fantasy and SF stories, but others are not. Sometimes the matriarchal societies are very oppressive in nature with men put in the female role -- flip books where the characters are symbolic representations of socially insisted gender roles, and so the women may not be well rounded because the purpose is not to explore their humanity but to hold up a mirror to darker aspects of males in our current society. Sometimes that may work and sometimes maybe not. The SF writers of the 1960's and 70's obviously liked to play with gender role issues and it is part of a general body of literature that contains books like The Gate to Women's Country by Sherri Tepper, A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Aranson, Suzy McKee Charnas' Holdfast Chronicles series, Angela Carter's Heroes and Villains, and more recent entries like Elizabeth Bear's Carnival, Sharon Shinn's Heart of Gold and Wen Spencer's A Brother's Price. These tend to be books where role reversals and cultures heavily dependent on static gender roles are the central focus.

    In general fantasy fiction, though, matriarchal societies are often used in a more matrifocal way and for political contrast. Marion Zimmer Bradley used matriarchy frequently in many of her works, like Darkover. Mercedes Lackey used it in her Herald Mage series. L.E. Modesitt Jr used it in the Corean Chronicles series. Guy Gavriel Kay brought it up in A Song for Arbonne. Melanie Rawn builds a magical matriarchal society in her Exiles series, starting with Ruins of Ambrai. Anne Bishop developed matriarchies in her Tir Alain trilogy and Black Jewels series. Trudi Canavan developed a religious based one in her Priestess of the White series. Matrilinear monarchies are extremely popular in fantasy, even if it's not a fully matriarchal society by a strict patriarchy standard (although it's worth noting that finding a strict patriarchy is not that easy either.) In Lynn Flewelling's The Bone Doll's Twin (The Tamir Triad,) for instance, there is a nation ruled by warrior queens who then have had the throne usurped by a man. N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has a very complex and not unoppressive matriarchal, matrilinear society in it. In Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan has, among others in that series, Elayne's kingdom be matrilinear queens, etc. -- but there are both male and female nobles. So again, we come back to notions of matriarchy.

    It is also worth noting that the gaming world -- and the Forgotten Realms novels are the long time tie-in books to help market the games -- is on a different orientation separate from written fiction. Games are visual and the Amazon sex kitten motif allows for having content of characters of both sexes wearing little clothing and a S&M edge that can get as racy as the game's target audience allows for. So the femme fatale idea is very much part of gaming and you are likely to have whole societies of evil, depraved, scantily dressed females in some games. That's a visual tradition in gaming, along with boob armor, etc., and I don't actually mind it, as long as women are progressing in power roles in general in games. Gaming is only a forty year old industry that has undergone rapid change and increasing complexity and nearly half the gaming audience is now women. So the existence of the Drow, started forty years ago, doesn't really worry me. At this point, the D&D universe is pretty wide and has been largely eclipsed by other games.

    Given that the size of the fantasy author pool now numbers in the thousands and thousands (not even counting self-pubs,) and that a huge chunk of those authors are women, as well as male authors raised in a very different generation West and East than those who started D&D, and we're likely to see a lot more matriarchies in the future of all types, from deeply oppressive with male slaves to ancient senatorial with females instead of males. But we're also likely to have a lot more democracies which are neither matriarchal or patriarchal in terms of power holding and indeed, we are seeing that. Even in contemporary fantasy, where the society is usually our current Earth, we're seeing magical creatures who have interesting social organizations. I prefer the democracies to the matriarchies, although all of them can be interesting to play with.

  4. #4
    Pro Bono Graphic Designer virangelus's Avatar
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    If I recall, at some point the cultures of the Mediterranean were hypothesized to be Matriarchal. Minoan culture comes to mind (which should not be confused with King Minos), and they existed in a time when the reproductive system of woman was very misunderstood, and thus held sacred. This is also part of the reason why we have so little info on such cultures, they were far off before record keeping.

    Then, the patriarchal Mycenae came and took over the area by force (which was also assisted by the fact that they place was thought to be under geological uproar at the time).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minoan_...ation#Overview

    Try Googling "the Great Goddess" and see what you come up with. When I get home, I'll try to remember to bust open my mythology textbook, as it has an entire section that speaks to historical gender roles.

  5. #5
    Ah the Minoans... If only we could more readily translate their writing. I desire to know so much more of them, but alas, the secrets to translating their language seem to have been lost to history. Known now only to the divine. They were always a favorite of mine, perhaps in part because they were one of the only truly matriarchal societies we know to have existed. The mystery that surrounds them has never ceased to fascinate me.

    I also heard of a period where Japan was ruled by queens who occupied their time with various forms of divination, sorcery, and political affairs. This was supposedly a result of a bloody civil war between a king's sons, so they sought to avoid this in future by putting women in the ruling position. This as history usually goes, did not last. I am not too much of a Japanese history buff so I'm afraid I cannot say much more on the matter.

    Also, I know you said that you don't necessarily mind the whole sexy amazon thing, and I don't think you were saying this, but I don't think that will ever disappear. As long as there are horny men and dominatrices, it will probably always exist. Sex is also something affected and influenced by culture and I think that we do a disservice to fiction or fictional cultures when we do not discuss it, no matter what form it might take, and the sort of "fetish fuel" society though not the most likely scenario is not impossible.

    Also Kat, in terms of all those series/novels you had mentioned, which ones would you recommend to someone who favors the sort of attention to culture shown in ASOIAF, the Work of Scott Bakker, The Dune Series, and Scott Bakker's work?

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    Ataraxic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    I'm all for warrior women, and in written fiction, they aren't necessarily fetish. But the games have traditionally had that, it's part of the culture and I don't think necessarily a bad part. But when your main example is a gaming example, not a written fiction one, what I'm saying is that there is a wider spread of matriarchal culture going on. The Drow are, near as I can tell, a sort of homage to the old Amazonian cultures in early science fiction like Buck Rogers and John Carter. (Possibly crossed with the Macbeth witches. )

    I haven't read all the series I've mentioned, so I can't tell you who has the most detailed cultures. Darkover and the Herald Mage series are of course major series in the field from prolific authors who developed a lot of cultures of those universes over the course of doing the books. The Rawn and Modesitt series are supposed to have interesting matriarchal cultures. Trudi Canavan is a pretty good writer, but I haven't read that particular one of hers. Bishop's series I don't think are super matriarchal, more queen prophecy, but they're dark fantasy and so might have a fair amount of atmospheric culture. Of others, Jemisin has very detailed culture, but the main culture of Kingdoms is an equal men and women one, the matriarchal one is smaller. Guy Gavriel Kay is a clear influence on Bakker, so that one might be interesting. There are a lot of fantasy novels that have used matriarchies and goddess cultures of various stripes, these are just some I'm aware of.

  7. #7
    Registered User Zo0tie's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Riothamus View Post
    Perhaps the best known and fully described matriarchy in fiction is that of the Drow in the Forgotten Realms and closely tied role playing game Dungeons and dragons. While it gives us an idea of how one might work, there is a substantial problem. It is largely portrayed as nigh irredeemably evil.
    So my only question is whether there is any additional advice one could use, or anything I forgot to mention...
    I realize this post is rather late in this thread but matriarchal fictional societies have always fascinated me so I wish to submit my 2 cents. It seems that fictional matriarchies suffer from people trying to cram their own hopes and fears into them to the point that they become unrecognizable as matriarchy. From the frequent violent discussions that erupt when matriarchy is discussed it is obvious that it pushes a lot of buttons in people. Something is happening to these people on a primal level that is both depressing and intriguing. If that primal power can be harnessed and directed it can serve as the basis for a powerful story. However you have to think out of the box to get there. 'Matriarchy is EVIL' is an amazingly common trope. Just do a google search and you'll see web pages of men screaming in horror at the horrible matriarchies that are coming to take their manhood, freedom, guns, children, jobs away! And once you get past that you see the other trope declaring that matriarchy is really about human dignity and equality and peace and freedom for everybody. So which one is true? Both? Neither? I choose to go back to the original definition of the word Matriarchy before the feminists, the male supremacists, the misogynists and the misandrists chopped and crushed it to fit their own Procrustian ideological beds. Matriarchy, simply stated is Rule by Mothers. Not women. Not lesbians. Not dominatrixes. Not sadistic Tyrant Warrior Queens. Just mothers. Once we wrap our minds around this concept we can go to step 2 which is to find the necessary conflict to make a story within a Matriarchal setting interesting. That's the real challenge you see for as we all know mothers dislike conflict and want us to play nice with each other.
    Last edited by Zo0tie; November 29th, 2012 at 02:19 AM.

  8. #8
    Ataraxic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Zo0tie View Post
    I realize this post is rather late in this thread but matriarchal fictional societies have always fascinated me so I wish to submit my 2 cents. It seems that fictional matriarchies suffer from people trying to cram their own hopes and fears into them to the point that they become unrecognizable as matriarchy. From the frequent violent discussions that erupt when matriarchy is discussed it is obvious that it pushes a lot of buttons in people. Something is happening to these people on a primal level that is both depressing and intriguing. If that primal power can be harnessed and directed it can serve as the basis for a powerful story. However you have to think out of the box to get there. 'Matriarchy is EVIL' is an amazingly common trope. Just do a google search and you'll see web pages of men screaming in horror at the horrible matriarchies that are coming to take their manhood, freedom, guns, children, jobs away! And once you get past that you see the other trope declaring that matriarchy is really about human dignity and equality and peace and freedom for everybody. So which one is true? Both? Neither? I choose to go back to the original definition of the word Matriarchy before the feminists, the male supremacists, the misogynists and the misandrists chopped and crushed it to fit their own Procrustian ideological beds. Matriarchy, simply stated is Rule by Mothers. Not women. Not lesbians. Not dominatrixes. Not sadistic Tyrant Warrior Queens. Just mothers. Once we wrap our minds around this concept we can go to step 2 which is to find the necessary conflict to make a story within a Matriarchal setting interesting. That's the real challenge you see for as we all know mothers dislike conflict and want us to play nice with each other.
    Well that's a nice thought, but the meaning of the word really isn't rule by mothers. The word matriarchy came from the word matriarch, which developed in the 1600's to mean a venerated older woman in a society or the female head of a family line. The latter technically are mothers, but the former just have to be female and respected in the community. In the 1800's, the word matriarchy developed, primarily in relation to the word patriarchy. It was used in the burgeoning new science of anthropology to refer to tribal social systems where the line of descent was traced through the mother, not the father. Obviously, this system of descent has social and some political impacts. However, it did not convey political, ruling power on a gender or the mother role. For instance, Judaism traces descent through the mother, and a venerable older Jewish woman in a community may get called a matriarch, but that doesn't mean at all that the women ruled over the men politically or even necessarily culturally in earlier Jewish societies.

    Also in the 1800's, matriarchy again in relation to the term patriarchy developed an additional meaning. It could mean a society/social system that was run politically by women, with women dominant in power and central in the focus of the society. It was considered in the 1800's to be an early form of human development in the far past. Because of this, anthropology has in later years tended to use matriarchal, matrifocal and other words to refer to social systems such as tracing descent through the mother, reserving matriarchy primarily but not exclusively as a political system in which women, inherently by their gender, rule and are central in the society. These women do not have to be mothers in a matriarchy. Religious orders of women who may be celibate, for instance, may be referred to as matriarchies.

    In the case of the OP, the word was very specifically being used to mean a society in which women, inherently by their gender, rule politically, and are favored in power while men are barred and discriminated from top power positions. Such a society is not necessarily violently tyrannical, but it isn't necessarily pleasant either. Any society in which one group inherently by their nature is given power and those outside the group are discriminated against in civil rights and barred from power is going to be an uneven society which does not utilize all its resources in order to maintain an inherited elite. That the elite being maintained are female (who again don't necessarily have to be mothers,) does not automatically convey superiority or effectiveness. As a mother, I can say that mothers have no particular wisdom. A set of skills maybe in child-rearing which may or may not give insight. And not all mothers have the desire to have their children or those in their charge be nice to each other. The social system in cultures varies widely. A social system in which women rule and male children are expected to kill an enemy at 13 to achieve manhood and make Mom proud is entirely possible and may have existed.

    The issue really comes down to two types of political systems -- one in which there is an inherent elite who rules, which can be based on anything from gender to land ownership to ritual apprenticeship; and one in which no one has an inherent right to rule, all adults are considered to hold equal stakes in the society and governing is done by a body of representatives appointed by those adult citizens. The second is a very recent concept, but has come up partially in various forms over the centuries in mishmashes and may have been more common in early societies. The first one has been the more common one. Mishmashes of the two are mainly what we have now in what we call democratic societies, with the needle inching toward the latter.

    A matriarchy might be a mishmash society with some democratic elements of equality, but the maintenance of an inherited elite based on gender and possibly some other factors such as religious faith, wealth and family descent, etc. But that basic inequality must stay in place for the elite to rule, which means that the society will institutionalize various forms of repression, discrimination, punishment, wealth hording, etc. to maintain that inequality. So a matriarchal society cannot be, by its very definition, a society about playing nice with each other as the female elite already don't play nice to maintain their inherently defined power.

    A matrifocal society, in which women and values associated with women are central to the society and how it operates but power is evenly split between both genders without inheritance rights, sounds more like what you are talking about. But the OP was specifically looking at the idea of a matriarchy, in which women are given an inherent and maintained right to rule and control the society simply for being women, a society in which there are rulers.

  9. #9
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by KatG View Post
    Well that's a nice thought, but the meaning of the word really isn't rule by mothers. The word matriarchy came from the word matriarch, which developed in the 1600's to mean a venerated older woman in a society or the female head of a family line. The latter technically are mothers, but the former just have to be female and respected in the community. In the 1800's, the word matriarchy developed, primarily in relation to the word patriarchy. It was used in the burgeoning new science of anthropology to refer to tribal social systems where the line of descent was traced through the mother, not the father.
    Err... Maternal and Paternal are the root words. Both imply parenthood. And optional childlessness, as a feature of society that involves a choice, is basically brand spanking new. From 1960 to 1972, the availability of contraceptive birth control changed the entire way we could imagine society -- the sexual revolution was about more than doin' it.

    "Matriarchy" meaning "female and respected in the community" is a modern redefinition. Every person, male or female, if childless was simply a potential parent waiting to happen. Even the division of sex relative to gender is brand new, and maternity (the root word even of mom) is a decidedly female gender role defined by sex.

    We have to be careful with anachronistic definitions. Matriarch/matriarchy and patriarch/patriarchy, when first established as a functional descriptive sociological terms, and how they are still normally used today, included reproduction and their corresponding familial roles.

    I agree that the way we are able to use the term today opens up possibilities, and certainly in fiction if not reality, but by and large we mean Rule by Mothers or Rule by Fathers. Rule by People Without Children Irrespective of Sex or Gender -- aka Rule by Singles -- is a fairly fascinating idea. The so-called "Singles Rights" movement that is starting to emerge in Western societies is absolutely fracked up, IMO, and says a lot about how screwy our values have become.

  10. #10
    Ataraxic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Well again, let's not get into a who's values are better discussion, please, to the extent that we can manage it. The key word in there is "rule," and what the OP was looking at was constructing societies where there is an elite that holds power based on inherent status, in this particular case, being identified female, motherhood and marriage contracts not necessarily required. And that the society is then built on that notion of inherent status based on those identified as female.

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    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    I didn't say the values were better -- I just said that they've changed.

    ...which may be additive to the question of how to "do" matriarchy -- pre-birth-control and post-birth-control matriarchies would be decidedly different things. Matriarchy itself might even exist as a method of creating birth control in a society without it. Who knows?

  12. #12
    lorcutus.tolere Gumboot's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fung Koo View Post
    Err... Maternal and Paternal are the root words. Both imply parenthood.

    This is wrong. The root word of "paternal" is "pater" while the root word of "patriarch" is "patria". They have totally different meanings. Specifically, "pater" means father while "patria" means family, clan or home.

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    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gumboot View Post
    This is wrong. The root word of "paternal" is "pater" while the root word of "patriarch" is "patria". They have totally different meanings. Specifically, "pater" means father while "patria" means family, clan or home.
    Patria:

    Etymology
    From patrius (“of or pertaining to a father”), from pater (“father”)



    So.... not sure what that's about.

  14. #14
    www.voxnewman.com kongming's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Riothamus View Post
    I think this is a problem for most writers in general given that there are no living truly matriarchal cultures if ever there were any.
    There's at least one first nations tribe in Canada whose form of government derives from the eldest women. The advice of these elders is seemingly taken and implemented. I can't remember where I first heard about them, but I think it was a Toronto Star article about the Caledonia dispute and they were doing a story of cultural practices throughout various tribes.

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