Skip to content

Digging Matriarchy

A case for female supremacy

They’re not going to get away with it, you know. One day patriarchy will fall flat on its face and that’ll be the end of it. Even the Pope’s against patriarchy: he admits that it undermines democracy, peace, security, and the environment.[1] And he’s the head of a patriarchal religion! (Not totally patriarchal though: madonna cults show Catholicism never quite expunged its matriarchal influences.) Matriarchy’s cool, matriarchy’s groovy,[2] matriarchy’s economically, politically, judicially, environmentally, socially, sexually, medically, and mentally necessary. It’s even sustainable: peace-loving matriarchal societies, working cooperatively with nature, sustained themselves for tens of thousands of years, until a lot of miffed men got on their high horses and destroyed them nomad by nomad, settlement by settlement, witch by witch. Machismo, freaked out by peace and sincerity, replaced them with a worldwide potty-mouthed Pottersville of guns, gambling, land-grabbing, pussy-grabbing, and pitilessly numerous tales of derring-do.

Human history is now just about patriarchy, with all of matriarchy relegated to prehistory. How we cling to this itty-bitty stretch of boy time, the last five thousand doom-laden years, punctuated by the much-heralded shift from BC to ADHD. For women, wallowing in this bullshit take on history is like clasping an alligator in a flood. What good is it to us? The Greeks and Romans, no slouches when it came to misogyny, at least retained a few goddesses to keep things lively.[3] After that, women are hardly mentioned again until Jane Eyre, as if all the Rochesters in the world reproduced themselves by parthenogenesis. Don’t give us any ideas, bud.

Matriarchy is currently under attack from a whole new kind of custodian of patriarchal history: the archeologist. Archeologists have long been bunglers. They would stomp around on precious sites, let oxygen eat up papyrus scrolls, disperse sacred bones, ship stolen loot off to the British Museum, and shine objects up beyond recognition. Bulls in a china shop. But at least they allowed themselves to muse. Contemporary archeologists are much too scientific (or too pompous) to indulge in that sort of thing. They revile conjectures about the ideology of the cultures they exhume, and stick to facts, facts, facts, like Gradgrind in Hard Times. In this obstinacy of theirs they ape behavioral scientists, those guys who told us, for as long as we’d listen, that animals have no emotions. Animals have nothing but emotions! It’s behavioral scientists who don’t.

Female supremacy is the political, social, and ecological necessity of our times. The world needs patriarchy like a hole in the head (or the ozone).

The pretense of archeological objectivity must put a lot of imaginative types off archeology. It also contributes to the myth that patriarchy always was, and ever will be. This is a classic ploy of machismo’s palace guard. As those groovy gals Barbara Love and Elizabeth Shanklin put it forty years ago, “Conditioning us negatively to matriarchy is . . . in the interests of patriarchs. We are made to feel that patriarchy is natural; we are less likely to question it, and less likely to direct our energies to ending it.”[4] Unfortunately for patriarchy, though, its official view of human history just doesn’t chime with the survival, long after Neolithic times, of peripheral pockets of matriarchy in places like Crete, Malta, Sardinia, Iceland, Ireland, and elsewhere, saved (temporarily) by sheer geographical good luck.[5] Mother Goddess-worshipping communities covered much of Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. Crete was matriarchal well into the Bronze Age; Sardinia perhaps still is. There were (and are) matrilineal systems in China too. Amazonians were notoriously gynocentric. Pre-Incan Peru was matriarchal, and the Incas held on to many goddesses, including Mamaquilla (moon), Mamacocha (sea), Pachamama (earth), and her daughter Axomama (potato). Who can resist a good goddess?

Many Native American tribes have been matrilineal, and some matriarchal, for a very long time. The Iroquois Confederacy has been a “gyneocracy” since 1000 AD:

In our society, women are the center of all things. . . . We traced our clans through women. . . . As leaders, the women closely monitor the actions of the men and retain the right to veto any law they deem inappropriate. . . . They also have the right to determine all issues involving the taking of human life. Declarations of war had to be approved by the women, while treaties of peace were subject to their deliberations.[6]

If only this were the case in America today. Native American men of all tribes were so respectful of women’s points of view that they were mocked by their European usurpers for being pussy-whipped. They also showed no interest in rape: debasing women just wasn’t part of their culture. Try explaining that to a European.

The cultural historian Marija Gimbutas spent her life studying European prehistoric artifacts and developed a theory that connects almost every decorative mark on sculpture recovered from Neolithic sites—circles, chevrons, the grooves in grooved ware, triangles, lozenges, and spirals, plenty of spirals—to the many-faceted female principle worshipped by Neolithic cultures. Those fat “Venus” figurines in Malta speak of a happier time, before hippiness was outlawed. No anorexia for them! To the Neolithic Maltese, the heavy female form represented the bounty of the earth, fertility, and power. In such societies nature itself was characterized as female; water, the weather, snakes, frogs, owls, pigs, hedgehogs, butterflies, and even bulls (the shape of bull horns linked them to fallopian tubes) were all part of the vast iconography of womanhood that Gimbutas unraveled. And it’s inconceivable that such a belief-system was not accompanied by a social system that reflected it: matriarchy. The Flintstones it wasn’t. Wilma, not Fred, was at the helm in prehistory. Women probably did the cave paintings too, when they weren’t dancing in spirals through their stone circles. The joint was jumping!

Archeologists like to sneer at Gimbutas, accusing her of subjectivity, wishful thinking, or even lack of evidence (though her research is exhaustive), but the joke’s on them. Some day, bored to death with their fence-sitting colleagues, feminist archeologists will return to musing, return to sifting through the dirt for glimmers of matriarchy, return to Gimbutas. She’s a joy—why resist?

Westray Wifey

Identified by Gimbutas, in passing, as another outpost of matriarchy, the Orkney Islands are a bunch of green, gently sloping oases of civilization off the northern tip of Scotland. There are about a dozen larger islands, adjoined by many little holms, or “calves.” My husband Todd and I escaped from England in 2010 to spend a year in Stromness on the Mainland of Orkney (for us, a vast improvement on Canterbury, Kent). While we were there, a highly stylized Venus sculpture arrived at Tankerness House Museum in Kirkwall, twenty miles away. She had recently been discovered on the nearby island of Westray and was companionably called the Westray Wifey. Easily carried in the palm of the hand, maybe she once resided on a stone shelf in a cozy Neolithic dwelling, like those so well-preserved at Skara Brae.[7] She may have been worshipped daily there, or played with by a child. The 2010 response was to make plastic ornaments, fridge magnets, and shortbread in her image. The shortbread was pretty good. She also inspired a story by Todd, about a threesome between the Westray Wifey, a “slater” (Orcadian for wood louse), and a clothespin—items you find when you open any drawer in Orkney.

We went back to Orkney last summer.[8] The weather was great: 30 percent sunshine, and winds of only forty or fifty miles an hour. That’s pretty good for Orkney! It’s so windy there that hardly a tree can survive, but sheep, cattle, seals, and people do well. Also selkies (half-seal, half-human). I was back to see friends (found some, not all), sing to the seals (found one), watch starling murmurations (none), reread Thomas Hardy, and refresh my matriarchal zeal (accomplished). Temptingly, a couple of holms right across the harbor from Stromness were up for sale. They’re covered with sheep and accessible only on foot at low tide, or else by boat. I was quite keen to have a look, and even made an appointment, but it was too windy for the boat to get us there that day. It’s okay though—I wasn’t sure I could manage the windmill. Or the sheep.

If matriarchy wants to creep in by the back door while patriarchy chills out with a beer, watching itself on TV, who does it hurt?

The first thing you have to do in Orkney is decide which kind of oatcake you prefer. There are so many varieties, they should all have different names by now, like snow. Oil and salt quotients vary greatly. Oatcakes can be thin, thick, rough, fine, flaky, round, triangular, organic, inorganic. They are made from either pinhead oatmeal or flakes, or both, along with flour, milk powder, sucrose, and other unexpected additives. Some have been adulterated with sun-dried tomatoes or chipotle. Oddly, some have traces of gluten, though there’s no gluten in oats, and the seaweed versions have traces of shellfish (what—they got stuck in the seaweed?). And then there’s the palm oil, which makes many a humble oatcake politically unsound, palm oil not being a big local product. The traditional Scottish diet[9] used to be a healthy one of oats, potatoes, fish, berries, milk, and a little meat—it was almost paleo, apart from the oats and the milk (and the whiskey)—but now they’re uprooting rain forests, starving orangutans, and allowing flying kangaroos to crash to the ground, just to get enough palm oil to make an oatcake that goes with Orkney cheese. Not one of the nobler cheeses of the world, Orkney cheddar comes in two forms: yellow or orange. Rumor has it the orange color is achieved by adding food coloring, while the flavor of the cheese, according to its detractors, depends on which perfume, hairspray, or hand cream was worn by the women making it.

Next, choose your archeological site. The place is dotted all over with Neolithic stone circles, mounds, and tombs, most of them built by a thriving female-oriented population a thousand years before Stonehenge. There are also astounding brochs and forts from a later date. One of the most important archeological digs in the world right now is at the Ness of Brodgar, which lies on a thin land bridge bordered by freshwater lochs, halfway between the magnificent standing stones at Brodgar and Maes Howe, a mounded tomb. In 2002, a farm laborer at the Ness plowed too deep and hit immoveable stone. He had revealed the top of a grand Neolithic civic establishment. These aren’t burial chambers; they’re temples or governmental buildings, or maybe bathhouses, or oatcake factories. One was the largest structure in Northern Britain for quite a while.

So, archeologists have their uses. They have been excitedly excavating this site (when weather and funding permit) ever since, and have uncovered artifacts, middens, large oval structures, and delicately curving dry-stone walls (an art form that still hasn’t died out in Orkney). They even allow themselves to speculate occasionally on what went on there. They just found two paths elaborately formed out of the tibias of six hundred cows, diagonally stacked. The presence of such a large number of unweathered bones signifies, they say, a single event: perhaps a ritual sacrifice, a departure ceremony . . . or else the worst potluck supper in world history. “Hey, you guys brought tibia too?!” Now, due to the catastrophic loss of European support grants (thanks to Brexit), they need money. Give them enough, and maybe one day they’ll dare to admit that the substantial, unified community that erected these ambitious structures was not only skillful, spiritual, and high on protein, but run by women.

Supty Yoo

In modern dwellings in Orkney, the main issue is heat. The traditional solution was to make the walls four feet thick, and sit in Orkney chairs pulled right up to the fire. (An Orkney chair is equipped with a not very attractive straw hood, to keep out the drafts and any stray remarks on the aesthetic deficiencies of the chair.) Now you triple-glaze and put in radiators and underfloor heating, or draw heat from deep underground, using a lot of hi-tech pipes and pumps. But once you’re snug, you make art. Matriarchies were always artistic, according to Gimbutas, and Orkney maintains this trait. Amongst the many artists working in Orkney today, Carol Dunbar weaves tapestries incorporating whaling, antiquated handwriting, and gardening tools, and Duncan McLean, a playwright and wine dealer, provides local neo-druids with their mead. The novelist John Aberdein is translating Moby-Dick into Doric. Alison Flett’s poems in Scots are sharp as a knife. Here is her “Freedom of Choice”:

supty yoo
yoor dissishun
whichur yi wontin
this ur that
naw yi canny huv enny thame
ah telt yi
wunny theez too
or nuthin
whidjy meen that?
yir no wontin that
well supty yoo
bit ahd go fur this
yir better oaff wi this
tellin yi
moan noo
ahm waytin
hurry up
make up yir mine[10]

It sounds a lot like last year’s U.S. election.

How we cling to this itty-bitty stretch of boy time, the last five thousand doom-laden years, punctuated by the much-heralded shift from BC to ADHD.

The poet Edwin Muir grew up on Wyre. The writer Ian Hamilton Finlay lived on Rousay for a while. In Stromness, George Mackay Brown wrote lauded stories about old Orkney ways. The composer Peter Maxwell Davies lived on Sanday until his death last year.[11] The abstractionist Wilhelmina Barns-Graham painted the landscape. And the universally lamented Gunnie Moberg, a Swedish painter, photographer, and matriarch, recorded grooves in rocks, the wind-lashed faces of writers, and sheep folds (low-walled containment areas), X-shaped sheep buchts (wind-breaks), and sheep forts (rescue islands for shoreline sheep during high tides). Maxwell Davies wrote an elegy for her when she died. Stromness also has one of the finest and smallest bookshops in the world, a literary menagerie with magic properties, created by Gunnie’s husband, Tam MacPhail.

The Neolithic concept of matriarchy either spread from Orkney, or was brought back from somewhere else—Orcadians are big travelers. Most people leave; some return. It’s not just wanderlust; it’s an employment issue. John Gow, having become a pirate, made the mistake of returning to Orkney and got hanged. Jack Renton left the Orkney Islands to go spend eight years on the Solomon Islands, where he was given a necklace of human teeth (on his next trip there he was beheaded).[12] The pregnant Eliza Fraser was shipwrecked off the Great Barrier Reef. Her baby died, and Eliza made such a stink about it later, wrongly blaming the aborigines who’d saved her, that they were all killed. A thank-you card would have sufficed.

The arctic explorer John Rae discovered a bit of the Northwest Passage (Rae Strait). This made him an Orcadian hero, and at the Stromness Museum you can see a risible mannequin of Rae in a tiny inflatable boat, battling the waves. Did he really get there in that? They have his wooden fiddle, and a tin one too, handy on long sea journeys. Opened in 1837, this museum’s one of the quirkiest, filled to the gunwales with sea glass and scrimshaw, braided straw for bonnets, beaded moccasins, wooden snow goggles, model schooners in glass cases, Toby jugs, bottles from Stromness’s once gushing lemonade industry, and the tooth necklace. Upstairs is every taxidermied water bird you ever heard of, including a honey buzzard and a fine cattle egret—blown off-course somehow. Downstairs are drawers of birds’ eggs, grouped in twos and threes and cupped in white felt, as if still in the nest.

What can one say about the tiny eggs of wrens?

They’ve got historic documents too, such as this notice banning “furious driving”:

That any person DRIVING FURIOUSLY,
any HORSE, or CART,
or CARRIAGE, through
the Streets or Roads in the Burgh,
shall be liable to a penalty of
40 Shillings for each offence.
Driving at a speed of over Four
Miles an hour within the
limits of the narrow streets will be
considered furious driving.[13]

These precautions didn’t work: a lovely Stromness cat I knew was killed by a “furious driver” (in a car) while we lived there. I blame patriarchy. (And driving over four miles an hour.)

Now the Stromness museum boasts a new Neolithic sculpture called Buddo. I couldn’t find him when I was there. They couldn’t find him either for about eighty years (they’d left him in a shoebox). He was originally discovered at Skara Brae. Made of whalebone, Buddo has two small eyes, a wide smirking mouth, the hint of a neck, and a prominent central orifice in the lower belly area. He’s about twice the size of the Westray Wifey but much less finely formed, with two ungainly holes gouged through the side of his head and torso, perhaps so that he could be suspended on strings. A friend of mine says he looks to her more like a prehistoric fishing weight than a precious religious relic, and neither of us is happy with the name, suggesting the figurine’s male. Did they think the Wifey needed a Hubby? She needs this guy like a hole in the head. Gimbutas insisted that almost all Neolithic depictions of people are female (phallic symbols only got big during patriarchy). So Buddo’s either a goddess or a piece of marine toggle.

Long Johns

At some point Orcadian women formulated a strict code of ethics revolving around the correct pegging out of the wash. The wind in Orkney is so strong it can blow your laundry dry in a few hours, or fling it to Shetland. Unless it rains. Then you rush out and retrieve it. Back and forth you go all day, tending your washing line like a sacred temple. Over centuries this intense commitment to laundry has led to some unspoken rules. I never mastered them all, but I do know that if you don’t pair the socks, and display them together, evenly spaced and color-coordinated, you’re a slut.

Maybe the most significant hint of lingering matriarchy, though, is female safety. There is little crime in Orkney, not much theft or violence.[14] It probably helps that it’s almost impossible to leave the islands swiftly enough to get away with any crime you might want to commit, unless you have a handy boat, submarine, or helicopter. Still, they’d probably clock your escape. So nobody locks their doors. They greet you on the street. And it’s safe for women to go out at any time of day and walk for miles all alone. This is a freedom most women in the world have never experienced and can’t even imagine. No, for women to go about freely outdoors, you need matriarchy.

How are we going to solve poverty, climate change, fascism, and oligarchy just by love-bombing a few women into Xerox and General Motors, where they can make the big bucks?

Patriarchy and capitalism have invaded, of course, red in tooth and claw: Orkney is part of the United Kingdom so it has its fair share of political, mercenary, and dog-eat-dog squabbles.[15] For male fun there’s the Ba’, a rambunctious pagan ball game that takes place on Christmas and New Year’s Day in Kirkwall. Four new ba’s (attractive leather balls in black, yellow, and brown that look a bit like basketballs) are painstakingly made each year, with ba’s from the past kept on display in Tankerness House. Only men or boys get to play in the Ba’.[16] They separate into Uppies and Doonies (meaning, people who live up the hill, or down in the town), with no limit on the number of participants (often there are over a hundred) or on the time it takes to get the ba’ either up the hill or down to the harbor. If it lands in the water, they swim for it. Sometimes they abscond with it in a car. Passions run high.

Women are full participants in the crowd that follows the players. All day. All over Kirkwall. In the cold and rain. Or snow. It’s a good cure for cabin fever.

Another destination offering midwinter marvels, if you can stand the cold, is Maes Howe, on the road between Stromness and Kirkwall. This is a cone-shaped, turf-covered Neolithic structure made out of thick stone slabs, the whole thing held together by its own weight. Those matriarchs really knew how to build! Maes Howe withstood the Orkney wind for five thousand years, remaining watertight and undisturbed until Vikings came around 1200 AD to raid it for treasure and write idiotic runic graffiti on the walls. Later on, Victorians installed a new roof that leaked. (They’ve got it all watertight again now.)

This is a womb-tomb, in Gimbutas’s terms, its shape and funereal purpose representing the possibility of rebirth after death. The entrance tunnel is pure birth canal, from the outer vulval opening between tufts of sheep-mown grass, through the tight, low, pelvic-bone-like entryway of several feet, and then the next twenty feet of crouching and trying not to scrape your head on the stone ceiling. Any sign of a doorway (or cervix) at the end of this passage is long gone, so you exit the tunnel directly into the main room (or womb) at the center of the mound. Off this tall square chamber stem three low-ceilinged Fallopian nooks that, according to Viking accounts, once stored hundreds of pecked-clean skeletons. The Vikings kicked them out and turned the place into a MAN CAVE.

Like Brodgar, the wide ring of monolithic standing stones just visible in the distance, Maes Howe has astronomical as well as anatomical meaning: it’s attuned to the Winter Solstice.[17] So on the shortest day of 2010, at about 2:30, when the sun was already sinking between the tall hills of Hoy (a neighboring island), we joined a mismatched brigade of tourists, locals, reporters, pagans, druids, and rune-readers tramping out to the mound through deep snow, in the face of a mere twenty-mile-an-hour wind. It was almost unbearable. We clambered into the tomb with relief, though it turned out the cold can really creep up your legs inside a Neolithic tomb. But we hit the jackpot that day: a beam of fading orange sunlight gradually moved up the tunnel, hit the wall at the back, and lit up the whole interior. It was a Stone Age light show, sexily enacting the moment of conception, the sun triggering the tomb-womb into reincarnation action. Some people gasped. If this hadn’t been Britain they might even have patted each other on the back. The Neolithic crowd might have had an orgy, or shared a BBQ tibia or two.

Breaking the spell, an ecstatic American woman piped up: “Let’s pray for an end to pollution!” I think we can aim higher than that. An end to patriarchy.

Matriarchy from Behind

Women do cry more easily, [but this doesn’t] cause poverty, drain public coffers, ruin reputations, impose forced intimacies, slay children, torture helpless people, or reduce cities to rubble. These disasters are literally man-made. They result from men’s emotions, which are a constant distraction to them. . . . When men get together in groups that exclude women, their . . . emotions produce a toxic dynamic that has poisoned the stream of history.[18]

Isn’t it great when men help push? The anthropologist Melvin Konner, perhaps best known for his advocacy of a paleo diet and the consumption of vast quantities of meat,[19] asserts in his latest book Women After All that patriarchy is “a vast military, economic, and political conspiracy,” and that women are “superior” to men. Specifically, women are less emotional than men, and therefore should be put in charge. What a guy. He gets a little bit bogged down, I admit, in germs: patriarchy is all germs’ fault, in Konner’s view, since sexual reproduction, the involvement of a second gender (male), developed in order to fight the quick mutation-work of germs. Before that, everything was female. Also, for a book about women, he perhaps dwells overmuch on the gender intricacies of animal behavior (noble bonobos vs. macho chimps). But Konner’s right on the money about the human need for female supremacy. For him, men are a malformed, trip-wired type of being who simply cannot be trusted: “Show me a male brain and I will show you a bulging amygdala—the brain’s centre of fear and violence—densely dotted with testosterone receptors.”[20] Yecch! Sounds bad.

Men are as volatile as women emotionally, he says, they’re just not cyclical about it: men are volatile all month long. (He doesn’t mention that all the guff about PMS is far from proven anyway: we can’t know the real physical and psychological effects of menstruation when they’re so loaded with negative propaganda.[21]) Konner explains women’s biological superiority in terms of bigger brains and greater longevity. But female superiority is not really the point. Female supremacy is the political, social, and ecological necessity of our times, because the world needs patriarchy like a hole in the head (or the ozone),[22] not because women have longer-lasting nerve circuits. Though of course that’s a help.

Given his philogyny, it’s a pity that Konner assumes there’s never been a matriarchal society. He claims that in “all early civilizations, women were subjugated, and their status declined over time.” Konner, Konner, Konner, eat some more meat! (Or maybe it’s time for carbs?) This dreary conclusion may be the one drawn by most historians and archeologists, but it’s not what Elizabeth Gould Davis thought,[23] or Chris Knight,[24] or Love and Shanklin, or Gimbutas. The evidence of matriarchy is there, to be ignored or interpreted, supty yoo.

Hanna Rosin is a self-styled expert on modern matriarchy; she too believes it never existed before. But she says it’s on its way (a view that rings a little hollow with an old-school misogynist in the White House). Konner sees matriarchy as desirable but not here yet; Rosin just sees it as inevitable, and is exasperatingly neutral about its urgency and value. And in her tongue-in-cheek book The End of Men,[25] she warns men to get their act together. Hey, wait a minute there. If matriarchy wants to creep in by the back door while patriarchy chills out with a beer, watching itself on TV, who does it hurt? For chrissake don’t tell ’em!

Men, says Rosin, have industrialized and capitalized and technologized and NAFTAed themselves out of a job, leaving the field wide open for women and robots—a positive thing, apparently, for women and robots (an interchangeable commodity I guess), but not for men. The result is what Rosin deems “matriarchy,” but her understanding of the concept bears little resemblance to what left-wing female supremacists want to see happen. She doesn’t include much freedom in her notion of matriarchy, nor justice, art, socialism, or democracy. Women are being raped, degraded by porn, doomed to poverty, forced to complete unwanted pregnancies, and sent to jail more than ever before. But this is not anathema to matriarchy, in Rosin’s estimation. She seems to think women’s lives are improving overall because a few businesswomen are steadily moving up the corporate ladder and providing lowly employment for maids and babysitters in their wake. Like the failed candidacy of Hillary Clinton (an “ossified political fixture with enough toxic baggage to crush 17 glass ceilings”[26]), Rosin’s so-called matriarchy consists of deplorable women entering patriarchal structures and blithely carrying on preexisting corporatist strategies. This sucks, and it ain’t matriarchy. What Rosin’s describing is a horrific female patriarchy. How are we going to solve poverty, climate change, fascism, and oligarchy just by love-bombing a few women into Xerox and General Motors, where they can make the big bucks? Get real.

A world away from such inhumane nonsense, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a survivor of both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, famously said: “The only people who should be allowed to govern countries with nuclear weapons are mothers, those who are still breastfeeding their babies.”[27] That’s matriarchy—except that nuclear weaponry is something only patriarchy could produce. It takes that oversized amygdala to think up something so shameful, so ruinous to hope, happiness, and civilization, and use it. How could Truman do it? Out of pique, revenge for Pearl Harbor, a lesson to the world on U.S. might? Patriarchy and its repugnant scientists and politicians can never be forgiven for this. NEVER.

Womb for Maneuver

Forget for a moment (if you can) that the 2016 U.S. presidential election was a uniquely sloppy, gloppy, mouth-flapping fiasco, and consider that, for many voters, it may well have turned on the same old issue: abortion. Patriarchs hate the thought of losing control of women’s bodies—they would miss all the beauty contests, gang bangs, abortion contortions, and family annihilations. The possession of women and children within patriarchy is secured by a crazy amount of force—physical, social, financial, judicial, and marital (a “friendship recognized by the police”[28]), and men don’t relinquish such control easily. They know, or can guess, that within matriarchy cranky old Dad’s out on his ass if he can’t behave. China’s Mosuo women[29] run the whole show, domestically at least. They have “walking marriages”: their lovers come and go, free of rights and responsibilities. Boyfriend acting up? Take your big amygdala and . . .

Patriarchs hate the thought of losing control of women’s bodies—they would miss all the beauty contests, gang bangs, abortion contortions, and family annihilations.

But in the West, for old times’ sake, we smother ourselves in patriarchy and all the trimmings, such as patrilineal matrimony. The father’s oversized importance in the arrangement is still emphasized by the disparagement, in law and lingo, of “illegitimate” children, which is a not very indirect disparagement of mothers. Modern weddings are almost po-mo in their vulgarity, expense, and self-mockery, in idiotic defiance of feminism and divorce statistics.[30] Many a twenty-first-century bride opts for the whole putrid white meringue virginity charade as well as the mind-boggling expense of rings and churches and limousines, quiche for a thousand, and the requisite Aruba honeymoon. Where’s their pride? Where is the impulse for revolt? Or a sense of their rights as human beings? Long gone, thanks to all the misogyny that relentlessly emanates from the TV, the internet, the smart phone, and the president they spawned. Look at that Melania’s face, dutifully smiling whenever our lord and master looks her way. Even Laura Ingalls had the guts not to “obey” Almanzo Wilder when they wed in 1885, and she wore black for the occasion.[31]

Don’t wedding planners get it? Thomas Hardy made it perfectly clear a hundred years ago that marriage is disastrous, for everybody but especially for women. As I found last summer, sitting in my Orkney chair, Hardy refreshingly belittles the belief “that a bad marriage with its aversions is better than free womanhood with its interests, dignity, and leisure.”[32] In Life’s Little Ironies, stories really about life’s enormities, he describes a young woman on a merry-go-round spinning toward a dubious marital fate:

Each time that she approached the half of her orbit that lay nearest him they gazed at each other with smiles, and with that unmistakable expression which means so little at the moment, yet so often leads up to passion, heart-ache, union, disunion, devotion, overpopulation, drudgery, content, resignation, despair.[33]

Most of Hardy’s protagonists get hitched to the wrong person on the strength of just such a passing frisson of lust—what Jude would call an “erotolepsy.”[34] And once hitched, they are truly in chains. Tess is tormented by the requirements of marriage.[35] That dangerously muddle-headed goofball of a husband, Angel Clare, expects her to forgive his pre-marital sexual laxities but can’t abide hers. In the end, she claims the right to be a person, and dies for it. What Tess needs is matriarchy, and Hardy knows it. More pagan than Christian, more Persephone than Cinderella, Tess first appears at a matriarchal fertility ceremony, a May-Day dance for village girls. Later, forced to play priestess, she baptizes her own baby.[36] Once she’s reunited with Angel, who has relented (big of him), they’re hounded by patriarchal forces (in the form of society and the law) and end up hiding in the spooky ruins of Stonehenge, as if all of history is now a witness to Tess’s woe. Gazing at the ancient stones she tells Angel, “You used to say . . . I was a heathen. So now I am at home.” Did Hardy think of Stonehenge as matriarchal? He does hint in this scene that prehistory offers a refuge to the modern woman, failed by the stifling requirements of Victorian marriage.

Bathsheba Everdeen, in Far from the Madding Crowd, wants to be no one’s wife.[37] And in Jude the Obscure, Sue Bridehead (what a name) strongly objects to wedding customs: “According to the ceremony . . . my bridegroom chooses me of his own will and pleasure; but I don’t choose him. Somebody gives me to him, like a she-ass or she-goat.” She considers marriage “a sordid contract, based on material convenience in householding, rating, and taxing, and the inheritance of land and money by children, making it necessary that the male parent should be known.” Sue becomes more and more matrilineally inclined: “in a proper state of society, the father of a woman’s child will be as much a private matter of hers as the cut of her under-linen.”[38]

She’s shown matrilineal tendencies from the start, when she sneaks unholy figurines of Diana and Apollo up to her rented room. And on one occasion she fords a river, coming to Jude “clammy as a marine deity.” She blasphemously announces she’d rather sit in a train station than a cathedral, causing Jude to accuse her of being modern. “I am not modern . . . I am more ancient than mediaevalism,” she mysteriously replies. Stirrings of prehistory here, no? Hardy’s ethereal side, founded on the study of pre-Christian ideas, is far from the Brontës’ dabblings in ghosts and sprites. Jane Eyre attests her equality to Rochester—brava!—but equality’s nothing compared to what Hardy’s got in mind for his heroines: matriarchy. If only he could have read Gimbutas.

Sue bolts from her husband and holds steady for a while to the anti-patriarchal principle of free love. Even the lugubrious Phillotson, the schoolmaster husband she abandons, yearns to allow Sue to leave the marriage without public castigation. Though obedient in general to the status quo, he sees releasing her as the natural and just thing to do, given that she’s repulsed by him and in love with Jude. His more conventional pal Gillingham tries to slap him back into paternalistic shape:

Gillingham: But if people did as you want to do there’d be a general domestic disintegration. The family would no longer be the social unit.

Phillotson: I don’t see why the woman and the children should not be the unit without the man.

Gillingham: By the Lord Harry!—Matriarchy!

At last somebody said it.

Jude is a tsunami of a novel, Hardy’s angriest, saddest, and most revolutionary. Things end badly for Sue and Jude, very badly, but that doesn’t dispel the nudge toward matriarchy. Far from it—like American progressives now, Jude and Sue are doomed not because they’re wrong but because they live in a backward society. Ass-backward! Patriarchy has enfeebled them (as it has America). Jude’s marriage to Arabella poisons his liaison with Sue.[39] After Sue goes nuts and resorts to Christian guilt and masochism, Jude is left to the unfeeling care of Arabella, and dies. This is patriarchy. (Though, in Arabella’s defense, she’s good at incubating eggs in her bodice, and that’s matriarchy!)

Anyone with a lingering fondness for male rule needs to read Hardy pronto. He may not have openly endorsed female rule, but he set out a moral case for it. He gave you the facts, man.[40] And after all: “Every movement for liberation is . . . an unconscious movement toward matriarchy.”[41]

So get matriarchal. Let’s get groovy.


[1] The Pope now recognizes that capitalism is sinful; in 2016 he called it “terrorism, against all humanity” (Francis X. Rocca, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 1, 2016). On May 24, 2015, he issued his Laudato si’ on the rights of nature. Yes, nature. And in September 2016, he said that Catholics have an obligation to care for the planet (Julie Zauzmer, Washington Post, Sept. 1, 2016). On the question of nature’s rights, see also Astra Taylor’s “Who Speaks for the Trees?” in The Baffler, No. 32.

[2] In SCUM Manifesto, Valerie Solanas gave the word “groovy” a new lease of life (Olympia Press, 1968).

[3] In The White Goddess, Robert Graves pinpoints many vestiges of matriarchy in Greek mythology (Faber and Faber, 1948).

[4] Barbara Love and Elizabeth Shanklin, “The Answer is Matriarchy,” reprinted in Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, edited by Joyce Trebilcot (Rowman & Allenheld, 1983). They were right.

[5] Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (Harper & Row, 1989).

[6] Doug George-Kanentiio, Iroquois Culture & Commentary (Clear Light, 2000), gleaned, I regret to say, from the entry on “Matriarchy” in Wikipedia. These ideas are echoed by Gloria Steinem, who admits she was astonished by the way Native American activists (still) debate: “It took me a while to realize, These men talk only when they have something to say. I almost fell off my chair.” My Life on the Road (Random House, 2015).

[7] Skara Brae, a small Neolithic village beside a beautiful bay on the northwest of the Orkney Mainland, consists of about eight one-room dwellings, featuring stone furniture such as hearths, box beds, dressers, and shelving. There are also pantries or (possibly) toilet niches. These homes were turf-roofed, and still look sort of welcoming. The whole settlement was preserved by chance under a ton of sand for a few thousand years, until unearthed by a severe gale in 1850.

[8] Orkney is for artists, so it was appropriate that we were accompanied on this trip by my cousin Barbara Ellmann, a painter, and her husband, the novelist Joseph McElroy.

[9] Maisie Steven, The Good Scots Diet (Argyll Publishing, 2003).

[10] Alison Flett, Whit Lassyz Ur Inty (Thirsty Books, 2004). With kind permission from the author and the publisher. Literal translation by LE: “it’s up to you / your decision / which are you wanting / this or that / no you can’t have any of them / I told you / one of these two / or nothing / what do you mean that? / you’re not wanting that / surely? / well it’s up to you / but I’d go for this / you’re better off with this / telling you / come on now / I’m waiting / hurry up / make up your mind.”

[11] His lovely “Farewell to Stromness” was somewhat paradoxically written in protest against a proposed uranium mine in Orkney. It worked.

[12] The Scotsman, March 2, 2003.

[13] From a postcard published by Alistair Peebles, Brae Editions, Stromness, Orkney.

[14] I’m sorry to say there was one murder, which went unsolved for years; and recently some jerk(s) stole the wooden panels from the Italian Chapel, a touching corrugated iron quonset hut lovingly decorated by Italian POWs during WWII.

[15] In a daring move for Orcadians, the Orkney Four took the self-confessed liar, Liberal MP Alistair Carmichael, to court in 2015 over “Frenchgate.”

[16] Though in the absence of enough men, women played the Ba’ for two years just after WWII.

[17] Check out the Maes Howe solstice cam, available online.

[18] Melvin Konner, Women After All (W. W. Norton & Co, 2015).

[19] Konner vindicated a whole new brand of carnivore (The New England Journal of Medicine, Jan. 31, 1985). The paleo diet, interestingly, resembles the traditional Scottish diet. (See Maisie Steven, ibid.)

[20] Konner, in an interview with Barbara McMahon for the Australian, April 18, 2015.

[21] See The Wise Wound by Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove (Marion Boyars, 2005), for a more positive take on the “curse.”

[22] Women shoot people less. Retired Florida police chief Jane Castor said, “I can remember countless incidents where everything would be under control and a male police officer would show up and, all of a sudden, that tension and that testosterone—not saying the male officers did anything inappropriate—but it’s all it takes.” Quoted in “Rarity of Tulsa Shooting: Female Officers Are Almost Never Involved,” by Timothy Williams and Caitlin Dickerson, New York Times, Sept. 24, 2016.

[23] Elizabeth Gould Davis, The First Sex (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971).

[24] Chris Knight, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (Yale University Press, 1991).

[25] Hanna Rosin, The End of Men (Viking, 2012).

[26] Heather Wilhelm settled the blame game with “Hillary Clinton Lost Because She’s Hillary Clinton,” in National Review, Nov. 11, 2016.

[27] Quoted in Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (Allen Lane, 2011).

[28] Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque (1881).

[29] “Is China’s Mosuo tribe the world’s last matriarchy?” by Shahesta Shaitly, The Observer, Dec. 18, 2010.

[30] I would highly recommend second marriages myself; first marriages are for the birds.

[31] Laura Ingalls Wilder, These Happy Golden Years (1943).

[32] Thomas Hardy, “On the Western Circuit,” from Life’s Little Ironies, 1894/1927, a collection that stung England to its marrow—always worth doing.

[33] Ibid, “On the Western Circuit.”

[34] Naturally uxorious, Jude is thrown far off course by his first encounter with sex: “It was better to love a woman than to be a graduate, or a parson; ay, or a pope!” Men are naturally drawn to women’s grooviness.

[35] Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).

[36] If it were up to Hardy, there would be more abortion clinics than churches.

[37] Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874).

[38] Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (1895).

[39] Jude and Sue never marry.

[40] A line stolen from the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah: after a talk on some of Joseph Conrad’s failures on race, delivered to a crowd of skeptical Conrad devotees in Canterbury, UK, Gurnah declared, “I just gave you the facts, man!” (But they didn’t listen.)

[41] Ibid, Barbara Love and Elizabeth Shanklin.