Matriarchal power is ephemeral: no woman is jealously guarding the kitchen sink

What is this unspoken authority and how is it exercised?

Let’s talk about the matriarchy – go on, let’s! No one ever talks about that. It’s always “patriarchy this, patriarchy that”, but what about female power? The power women harness because they are, quite literally, the world’s mothers? The hand that rocks the cradle etc. etc..

The word “matriarchy” makes me think of three things (in no particular order):

  1. Elephant herds
  2. Ancient communities in which fertility goddesses were worshipped and lots of basket weaving was done
  3. Peggy Mitchell off Eastenders

Mixed in with that, it also makes me think of my grandma, ninety four, elder stateswoman presiding over four generations of our family (although to be clear, my nan resembles neither an elephant nor Peggy Mitchell).

So anyhow, there you have it – pachyderms, prehistoric basket weavers, Barbara Windsor and my grandma. A relatively inoffensive, if slightly alienating mix (not you, Nan). Yet according to Jack O’Sullivan writing in the Guardian, matriarchy is more than this. It’s a genuine counterpart to patriarchy (insofar as the latter can be defined). Men may have the world but women have the hearth. It seems a suspiciously tidy power share to me.

O’Sullivan claims that “feminism has reinforced rather than challenged – or even acknowledged – matriarchy”:

Women's centrality in the private arena is a complex expression of both male power and male impotence, of patriarchy and infantilisation. But a consequence of boys and men living in private matriarchies is that even the most senior male chief executive often lacks confidence in areas that might be defined as personal, private or family.

As the lone woman in a house of men and boys, I find this all rather odd. What is a private matriarchy? What is this unspoken authority and how is it exercised? I picture myself as a red-faced harridan in a Daily Mail cartoon, wielding a rolling pin as my poor, henpecked husband rolls in drunk, having sought one evening away from my ceaseless nagging. Or as the cruel mother figure looming over family lawyer advertisements, denying some loving, flawless father access to his kids. Or as a smothering, identity-destroying Freudian nightmare (or, as one Guardian correspondent politely puts it, “Many men are still caught by the tensions inherent in mother-son relationships: part of them yearning for relationship, another striving to define their gendered identity as separate from her”. Well, so-rry). But beyond this – beyond the misogynist stereotypes – where is this dominance actually located?

It’s interesting, this idea of matriarchy, especially the way in which it creates an illusion of power in places where we usually see weakness and irrelevance. Old women fading into obscurity, porridge-brained mummies sealed off from the adult world – suddenly they are all-powerful creatures, controlling the future of the human race. Of course, that’s not what it feels like on the front line. It’s less a shaping of humanity and more a muddling through, hoping that whatever imprint you leave on the people you are raising won’t be too harmful. Families are not businesses, children are not assets. To be considered the person most suitable for childcare can be a joy and a curse. Our idealisation/demonisation of the bond between mother and child can crush individuals. And yet if you’re on the outside – resenting the closed doors that you’ve never really tried to open – the apparent logic of the family appears to privilege the mother above all others.

Ironically, feminism – especially second-wave feminism - has done an enormous amount to break down this pitiful illusion of domestic authority. What’s more, it’s not an easy thing to do. You risk being accused of not loving your children enough, or of devaluing the importance of mothers the world over. Or you’re failing to see where your own opportunities for a power-grab might lie (“Be CEO of the family! Manager, nurse, teacher, therapist, cook – or you can just call me mum!”). The passive-aggressive myth of matriarchal power has been  hard to take apart. It’s been a painful deconstruction, piece by piece, and it’s not yet completed, not least because the world of Marilyn French and Betty Friedan wasn’t ever the world of most mothers, for whom external opportunities and meaningful alternatives remain elusive.

In real terms, matriarchal power is ephemeral. It’s the smile of a child rather than food on the table. It’s flexibility, devotion, self-sacrifice rather than genuine freedom. We can big up these alternative resources to which mothers – or, by lazy extension, all women – have access, but it’s not good enough. In stark, practical terms, no woman is jealously guarding the kitchen sink, the low-paid job, the shit-smeared training pants. We’ve not handed over this “control” because no one has really asked for it. The whole matriarchy debate starts to remind me of my five-year-old insisting I finish building his Lego Star Wars ships, then throwing a tantrum because “Mummy, you never let me do anything!” 

No woman's life is really like this. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.