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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear