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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.