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The Investigator
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.

Credentials aside, 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.

The first 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 Istmeños mind.

The second 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 also met.

The third 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.  

Bennholdt-Thomsen's 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.

Bennholdt-Thomsen's 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 Saynes-Vázquez-would not.

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.

This, 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."

What 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.
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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 Russia.

Visit Tom DeMott's Website and don't miss his interview with Zapotec shaman Marcelina Marciel.


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"Today's Matriarchies From the Newest View"

7 parts
one Email per week
Users asked:
Is there another term for matriarchy?

Other expressions use by scholars (mainly 19th century) for matriarchal societies are:

  • traditional societies
  • primitives, primitive peoples
  • tribal peoples, tribes
  • aboriginals
  • savages
Terms introduced in the second half of the 20th century
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