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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Female genital mutilation is not just a women’s issue, it’s a human issue

A new play explores how two women react when their daughters' friend is subjected to FGM.

Alice Denny was born into a body that didn’t feel like hers. There is no one ‘right’ way to live and no one should have to hide who they really are.  For years, she accepted the guise before eventually making the transition she deserved.

“A life and body to finally match my mind,” she says softly, quoting one of her own poems to me. “I know, it’s silly,” she adds in a fluster, but Alice needn’t be so modest. In fact, she should be very proud.

We’re at The Joker, an offbeat bar in Brighton, and Alice explains how the realisation of her womanhood inspired her to take up a leading role in CUT, a community play highlighting the horrors of female genital mutilation (FGM), which premieres in Brighton next week.

“For anything to stop women from being women, I find so upsetting,” Alice tells me with a communicable heartbreak in her voice.

FGM involves the removal of a woman’s clitoris, inner-and-outer lips of the vagina, and the sewing or stapling together of the two sides of the vulva leaving only a small hole to pass urine and menstruate – depending on the variation. Typically, FGM is carried out with a razor blade on girls between the ages of four and 15, often without any anaesthetic.

This misguided practice, fed by some faux-rationale about raising girls properly, is most common among cultural and religious groups in Africa and the Middle East with the World Health Organisation estimating around 125 million cases across the globe. Many of these communities believe FGM will serve to limit a woman’s libido, discourage sexual promiscuity and strengthen the institute of marriage.

“It’s brutal and makes me almost ashamed to be a human being,” Alice states emphatically.

Of course, to take solace in the fact FGM is not as common in Britain, where it is illegal, is to cataclysmically miss the point. It shouldn’t happen anywhere or to anyone. As it is, an approximate 137,000 women in Britain are affected by FGM, but even that number could be more given the ‘hidden’ nature of the crime.

Daughters of some first-generation immigrants and asylum seekers can be at a particular risk, with these girls taken to their countries of origin against their will during the school holidays for the procedure, allowing them time to ‘heal’ before their return. In reality, the lasting effects both physical and psychological never cease completely.

It is a terrifying thought and one that the incisive CUT, written by Suchitra Chatterjee and Susi Mawell-Stewart, explores. The play chronicles the lives of two women, Brona and Kiva, neighbours forced to face up to the problem of FGM on their doorstep when a shared African friend of their daughters is about to be sent away to be mutilated. Parent of two Alice stars as Brona, while Norma Dixit portrays Kiva. 

So what does CUT hope to achieve?  “It’s about trying to break the conspiracy of silence surrounding this issue,” an impassioned Alice reveals.

The former psychiatric nurse continues: “FGM isn’t something that’s isolated to one place or one group of people. It’s a wider feminist issue, a human issue, which needs to be addressed collectively. The play is about raising awareness, a vehicle to say to women to make the world a better place for each other.

“Women matter, never mind culture, never mind traditions of people being subjugated. We matter and we can make our lives what we want them to be. I’ve made my life what I want it to be and I feel so happy about that.

“People who say ‘it’s nothing to do with us,’ of course it is. It’s brutalizing women. I would love people to say, ‘actually I do know something that’s going on and I will go to the police and they will listen to me.’ I want people to be energized and make it their business.”

Admittedly, CUT, directed by Rikki Tarascas, is not for the faint hearted and will no doubt leave the audience shocked in their seats. Then again, that’s the idea.

CUT will premiere at the BrightHelm Community Centre in Brighton on May 10 and features a pre-show event with speeches from, among others, Khadijah Kamara, an FGM survivor and Heather Knott, a former Soroptomist International UK committee member.