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

What is this unspoken authority and how is it exercised?

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

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!”