Written by Tom DeMott
Juchitán, City of Women was an odd-looking book. The
brick-colored jacket featured a photo of a cocky Isthmeña in huipil and
enagua, her legs spread open and her hands dangling between them in a way
that called attention to her womanhood. As soon as I returned to my room and
climbed back in bed, I did what I always do on discovering a book about the
Isthmus. I checked for the author’s stance on matriarchy. Twenty-six pages into
the book, I found this:
"In the course of the investigation we realized that in
Juchitán, the attention focused on women in reality revolves around the figure
of the mother. For this reason, Beverly Chiñas, the only person who until the
present has published an investigation on the women of this region speaks about
‘matrifocality' in a broad and characteristic sense: ‘the culture is centered
around the mother.' We will also use these concepts. The comparison of our
results with those of the investigation of different matriarchies, however,
makes us think that it is precise and legitimate, in the case of Juchitán, to
speak of a contemporary matriarchy."
This was a
milestone, or so it seemed at first. A book with anthropology written all over
it-on the cover and the inside flap and the copyright page-made the assertion
that Isthmus society was indeed matriarchal. This assertion refuted Chiñas'
claim that anthropologists had never encountered any truly matriarchal cultures.
Published in Mexico by Consejo Editorial in 1994, Juchitán, City of Women
forms part of the Oaxacan Institute of Culture's anthropology collection.
The authors, who lived over a year in Juchitán, could hardly be called
superficial observers or any of the other terms concocted by the supposed
insiders. On closer examination, however, the authors weren't exactly
anthropologists. Hidden on the inside flap at the back of the book was a single
paragraph describing the authors as a team of "German investigators".
Coordinator Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen led the team, consisting of Cornelia
Giebeler y Brigitte Holzer, also investigators, and Mexican sociologist Marina
Meneses. None were anthropologists.
I experienced a minor epiphany on reading Bennholdt-Thomsen that night. She
addressed a fundamental problem with the conception of matriarchal systems that
has clouded the thinking of anthropologists and non-anthropologists alike. In
contrast with other Isthmus observers, Bennholdt-Thomsen defined matriarchy
before she used the term. This might seem like splitting hairs, when in
fact it is crucial.
Without knowing beforehand the specific criteria that define
a social system such as matriarchy or patriarchy, identifying the Isthmus as one
or the other is meaningless. And though you might think that everyone has an
intuitive idea about the meaning of matriarchy, the variety of definitions found
in common desk dictionaries suggests otherwise. The Oxford dictionary, for
example, defines matriarchy as: "A social organization in which the mother is
head of the family and descent is through the female line." Webster defines
matriarchy as "a system of social organization in which descent and inheritance
are traced through the female line." The Oxford American's definition is brief
but muddy: "A society in which women have most of the power." If popular
dictionaries such as these disagree about the definition of matriarchy, blaming
outsiders when they use the term loosely makes no sense.
The only exception
to anthropologists' failure to define terms might be Chiñas, whose definition is
circular at best: "[Matriarchies] are cultures in which women's roles are the
mirror image of men's roles in patriarchal cultures." As is obvious, this
definition begs the question: What is patriarchy? In addition to calling into
question anthropologist's failure to define matriarchy, Bennholdt-Thomsen's
definition made it clear that I had made the same error as the anthropologists
when I asked Istmeños their stance on matriarchy. How could Istmeños say ‘yes'
or ‘no' when neither they nor I had a clear conception of what matriarchy meant?
Quizzing Istmeños about matriarchy was analogous to asking subsistence farmers
in Africa or Kamchatka if their form of government was a republic or a
democracy. The question would only make sense if both parties agree on the
meaning of these terms.
Bennholdt-Thomsen prefaces her definition of
matriarchy by explaining that during the last twenty years, feminist research
has broadened our knowledge of non-patriarchal societies. "For example," writes
Bennholdt-Thomsen, "Heide Göttner-Abendroth has reviewed the historic literature
and existing ethnographic material for East Asia, Indonesia and Oceania. With
this comparison as a basis, Göttner-Abendroth brought out and put into relief
the common structural characteristics of the societies centered around women and
motherhood that distinguish them from patriarchal societies." Bennholdt-Thomsen
then points out that some of the traits that make Juchitán stand out so sharply
from other cultures can be found in the Göttner-Abendroth's list of the
characteristics of matriarchal societies.
characteristic of a matriarchal society, Bennholdt-Thomsen tells us, is its
agrarian nature. The majority of inhabitants in a matriarchal society live from
subsistence farming and participate in cyclical celebrations of festivals
depending on the seasons of the year. Some, like Chiñas, would agree: "Zapotecs
practice mixed-cash subsistence farming, raising some crops totally for sale and
others mostly for home consumption." The cyclical celebrations criteria is also
clearly met. May and December, planting and harvesting, are linked in every
characteristic of a matriarchal society, according to Bennholdt-Thomsen, is
generosity and reciprocal giving such as what can be seen in the organization
and staging of Isthmus velas. "Every household must meet ritual expenses
some time," writes Chiñas, "often unexpectedly when resources are low." A steady
income is something most Istmeños dream of, and as a consequence, most respond
to this insecurity with their own mutual-aid mechanism. "One household's ritual
contribution to another's will be reciprocated on a similar occasion later."
Those who reciprocate in this way are considered Buena gente or good
people, a trait that is at the heart of being an Istmeño. It would be difficult
to find anyone, insider or outsider, who would disagree that this criteria is
characteristic in Bennholdt-Thomsen's definition is a parallelism with respect
to the cult of ancestors and the reinterpretation of the dominant religion,
integrating elements of animistic and natural religions. Poniatowska writes at
length about the continued presence of pagan attitudes toward totems. "[In
Juchitán] the only ones who count are animals. They are the kings, the totems,
the signs of identity. Nothing that I do, I do for myself but for the animal I
carry inside." John Tutino also addresses this issue directly in a chapter he
wrote for Zapotec Struggles. Sometime after the arrival of Spanish
missionaries, Isthmus Zapotecs began converting to Christianity, even though
they continued to negotiate with "the Forces of Nature that ruled their
agriculture, their fertility and their health."
In the process, they
reinterpreted Christianity, creating what Tutino describes as a kind of "Zapotec
Christianity". The processions I witnessed in the Isthmus often featured a totem
of one type or another bringing up the rear, most often a swordfish, but
sometimes an alligator. Most velas honor Christian saints, but Vela
del Lagarto or Vigil of the Lizard is the oldest of all and has a
drawing power that rivals the largest Isthmus festivals.
fourth characteristic is that the line of descent is traced through the mother.
Here, Bennholdt-Thomsen flounders, and Covarrubias comes closest to the truth:
"[Although women might have] their own lands, houses, jewelry and so forth...Many
lands are owned communally by an entire family, in which case the property is
equally divided among the sons and daughters, but most often it passes from
father to elder sons." In the fifty years following the publishing of Mexico
South, no anthropologist has ever suggested anything to the contrary.
last characteristic of a matriarchal society is that women are in charge of
commerce. This characteristic is open to dispute. Some observers-such as
Covarrubias and Poniatowska-would agree, others-including Campbell and
Even if one were to
assume that all of Bennholdt-Thomsen's criteria for a matriarchy were met, there
are other, more fundamental problems with her definition. What first strikes
those who read how Bennholdt-Thomsen defined matriarchy is this: It makes no
reference to a hierarchical structure in which women occupy positions in the
upper echelons. In the pages that follow, Bennholdt-Thomsen's definition
addresses this apparent contradiction by explaining that a modern day
matriarchal society-by its nature-would never permit such hierarchies.
Bennholdt-Thomsen tells us, would only invert the worst element of the warlike
and destructive male patriarchy. "Lastly, it is worthwhile mentioning what the
experts on matriarchy or non-patriarchal relations accentuate: The search [for a
matriarchy] does not imply inverting the common reality, changing it for the
domination of the other sex, in this case domination by women. The matriarchal
structure, by definition, excludes this type of power relations."
Bennholdt-Thomsen is implying is this: According to her definition of
matriarchy, men and women share equal amounts of power. And though
Bennholdt-Thomsen does not provide any further detail about men's role in a
matriarchal society, Göttner-Abendroth, does: A woman's relationship with her
husband is economically based, while her relationship with her lover is founded
on emotion. "After marriage," Göttner-Abendroth writes, "the young man
temporarily leaves the house of his mother, but does not have to go very far. In
the evening, he goes to the neighboring house where his wife lives, and he
returns at dawn. This form of marriage is called visiting marriage, and is
restricted to the night. The matriarchal man has no right to live in the house
of his wife."
What can be made of
Bennholdt-Thomsen's definition? In one way, I found it self-serving. For more
than forty years, feminists have attempted to locate a matriarchal society in
which women truly held power over men. None succeeded, and most feminists
admitted defeat. Others, such as Bennholdt-Thomsen and Göttner-Abendroth,
redefined matriarchy in such a way that the key element-power-is shared equally
between men and women.
By this definition, there are hundreds of matriarchal
societies, one of which happens to be the Isthmus. For the time being, I
suspended my judgment on this redefinition until I could research it and others
like it more fully in San Francisco.
All the same, Göttner-Abendroth's
redefinition reminded me of a story I once heard about a woman who travels the
world in search of affordable diamonds. Although she never finds such diamonds,
she does find a handful of cut glass that looked very much like diamonds-at
least to the uneducated eye. Soon, she gives up and returns home with the cut
glass. How does she deal with her failure? She changes the definition of
diamonds to include cut glass. Now, at last, she has her affordable diamonds.
Tom DeMott is a travel writer whose pieces
on Isthmus women have appeared in Ancient American, Western Edition,
San Francisco Observer, International
Railway Traveler, Shaman’s Drum, Clubmex, Transitions Abroad, Iagora.com and
others. He has lived in Mexico, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and finally
Switzerland where he taught for two years at Webster University, Geneva.
He is currently at work on a book about the mail-order bride industry in
Visit Tom DeMott's Website and don't miss his interview with Zapotec shaman Marcelina Marciel.
Book by Tom DeMott:
"Today's Matriarchies From the Newest View"
one Email per week
Other expressions use by scholars (mainly 19th century) for matriarchal societies are:
Terms introduced in the second half of the 20th century
- traditional societies
- primitives, primitive peoples
- tribal peoples, tribes