Thursday, June 1, 2017

Fictional Matriarchies

In the course of reading and choosing what books to read, sometimes one book leads to another. Sometimes I read a series of books on the same topic. This often happens with non – fiction, but it can happen with fiction. A recent reread of Pamela Sargent’s The Shore of Women led to several people recommending Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women's Country as a similarly themed story. As I found Sargent’s speculations on gender to be particularly interesting, I read Tepper’s work a few weeks later. Having found the theme of both books interesting, I was reminded of having heard about an earlier work called Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This book seemed like an important precursor to later books depicting fictional matriarchies. Thus, I also read Gillman’s novel.

I think it is relevant to note a few of my observations about supposed read life matriarchies. A Google search indicates that there are several definitions of the term matriarchy. For the purpose of this post I will define the concept as a society where women have significantly more political, social, and economic power then do men.

From time to time there appear claims that some real life matriarchy exists or existed in an obscure area of the world. There are also claims that all of human society was once matriarchal. Though a detailed discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this post, everything that I have ever read from credible sources indicates that no true matriarchy exists, or has ever existed. I should note that there are indeed matrilineal societies. A matrilineal society is a system where ancestral descent, names, inheritances, linages, etc., are traced through mothers instead of fathers. Often folks identify these societies as matriarchies. Based upon the definition that I am using here, they are not matriarchies. A good piece by social anthropologist Liza Debevec explaining the difference is here.

As for the fictional matriarchies, I think that an exercise comparing and contrasting the three works mentioned above will be fruitful. All three authors described societies that easily fit within the definition of matriarchal. It also seems that these books share a common influence. The newer novels seem to have been influenced by Herland. As I observed in my commentary on The Gate to Women's Country, it seems possible that Tepper read and was influenced by Sargent’s book.

One commonality between these books is that all three authors see the differences in men and women to be a combination of biology and culture. This is in contrast to the many folks today who insist that gender differences are entirely cultural. If one were to accept that gender is entirely a cultural construct, a matriarchy in some instances would be a mirror image of a patriarchy. Stories depicting simple role reversals between genders exist, but they seem dull and in my opinion are not an accurate refection of reality.

All three authors suppose that one of the biggest differences between large groups of men and women is the level of violence between the groups. I think that all three authors are correct here. Large groups of men are on average, more violent then large groups of women. I think that there is clear evidence that there are biological differences that account for this. It seems that these authors agree. With that, history and current events show that culture also has a great effect on how violent people will be. This also seems to be factored into all these works.

One cannot draw conclusions or make assumptions about individuals based on these averages. I think that Sargeant gets it right for women, despite the differences inherent in large groups, some of the women in her world are violent. This is reflective of reality. Tepper depicts a world where some men are violent some are not. Again this is true of real life. Gilman on the other hand depicts an all - women society that is one hundred percent non - violent. I think that this is unrealistic.

There are also important differences in the way that the authors foresaw their respective societies. Tepper’s society is the most interesting and I would argue the most realistic. In her world, some men live with the women of the cities. That is in itself is more plausible then total gender segregation.

Both Sargeant and Gillman depicted societies where the genders are completely segregated. Gillman and Tepper created societies that were better off due to a preponderance of power vested in women. In fact, Gillman’s Herland was a utopia. Gillman clearly laid - out and believed that a better and egalitarian society would come about but only if men learned from women. Sargeant’s society was depicted as being harmful to both women and men due to gender segregation and the power imbalance.

Tepper seemed to be saying that a better society based on egalitarianism was impossible due to a percentage of men who were genetically disposed to be violent. Her solution was selective breeding that would lead to a world where men were less violent. Sargeant’s message was that an egalitarian society based on gender equality would be the most beneficial.

I would be remiss if I did not mention another fictional matriarchal organization, perhaps better described as a society.  This fictional creation was Frank Herbert’s  Bene Gesserit sisterhood found in his Dune books. The Bene Gesserit are an ancient society of women who have mastered great intellectual, psychic and physical powers. Herbert’s fictional group differs from the above depictions in that the Bene Gesserit could never include all women. It was a group of elites. Early in the Dune books the sisterhood was depicted as mix of good and bad, but as more unsympathetic then sympathetic. However, as the series progressed, it seemed that Herbert’s affection for his own creation grew. Several books late in the series centered on the Bene Gesserit and the stories were populated with sympathetic women who were its leaders and members. It is significant that unlike most other groups in Herbert’s Universe, the Bene Gesserit were attempting, at least on some level, to safeguard humanity’s future. Most of the other groups that Herbert created, were interested only in their own power. With that, Herbert’s sisterhood practiced violence. However, they did so more judiciously then other groups in his Universe.

It is unsurprising that there were similarities and differences between all of the above visions. I think that it would be difficult to find one hundred percent agreement between any two people on these issues. With that, I think that the similarities between these authors’ creations are reflective of reality that gender differences are a combination of nature verses nurture and that the propensity for violence is one of the biggest differences between large groups of men and women.

Exploring gender issues is common in fiction. Many non - science  - fiction writers, from Jane Austen to Chinua Achebe as well as many others have done so.  However, through the medium of science fiction and fantasy, authors can explore territory that more conventional writers cannot. I found that reading all of the above books to be interesting, insightful and entertaining.  

My commentary on The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent is here.

My commentary on The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper is here.

My commentary on Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is here.


Tracy Terry said...

What an interesting post. Whilst I agree that it is generally large groups of men who are more violent then large groups of women, I think it is the psychological warfare that women (especially those in their teenage years) are capable of, either individually or in groups, that truly scares me.

Tim Davis said...

I wonder if writers in a matriarchal society would speculate about the empowerment of men. In other words, those who feel marginalized have interesting ways of seeking power through words rather than action. Just a superficial observation in response to a superb posting.

Fred said...


An interesting topic and developed evenhandedly. The nature-nurture argument goes on and on. But, as you and Tracy both point out, males as a group tend to react more violently, which does not mean that all males are violent and females non-violent.

I think it's the nurture aspect that affects when people become violent, both males and females.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tim.

In The Shore of Women the characters do a lot of speculation on a Society where men are empowered. It stands to reason that there would be such speculations.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Fred.

Environment usually does have a great impact. I highly recommend Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate for a scientific look at nature verses nuture. Though I am oversimplifing a bit, Pinker makes a convincing case that for most aspects of Human nature, nature and environment are about equal.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy.

Your comment made me laugh. Some women and girls do indeed manifest horrendous behavior. With that, I think that violence, in the end, leads to the most human made misery.

Stefanie said...

What an interesting compare and contrast between all these books and you even brought in Dune too! Kudos! As for nature/nurture and violence, I'm not sure we can ever have a conclusive answer until or unless we have a truly egalitarian society without gender bias. Until that day, should it ever come, anything we speculate regarding gender will always have bias attached to it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Stephanie.

For an interesting and scientific take on the nature vs. nuture debate I highly recommend Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate.

Gently Mad said...

HI Brian! Great post as always.

Reading your review of the book as well as the others you mentioned got me thinking about today's current trend of "gender fluidity". If gender is fluid and what only matters is what gender one identifies as, how can any definition of a matriarchal (or patriarchal) society exist?

I'm being sardonic as you may have guessed.

Kate Scott said...

Great analysis! I've enjoyed reading your reviews/thoughts on the books you mentioned discussed here. I only wish we could test some of the theories about gender, violence, and egalitarianism in a controlled way–like E2 in T.C. Boyle's The Terranauts, but with gender studies instead of outer space. A fun idea, but not realistic!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. You made me laugh :)

You raise a good point. Though I think that for a small percentage of the population , gender may be fluid, probably due to genes and biochemistry, those who argue that all gender is fluid are ignoring the science and the reality of the world.

Have a great weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kate.

I really need to read The Terranauts. I have read the plot synopsis however. If such social experiments were possible, it would indeed be fascinating.

Suko said...

Fascinating post! Thank you for adding to my future reading list.
Enjoy your weekend, Brian Joseph.

Mudpuddle said...

i wrote a long commentary which the ipad i was using erased when i had two words to go... grrr...
the gist was, though, recommending "The White Goddess" by Robert Graves, the great classical scholar, on the matriarchal societies preceding the Cretan occupation of Greece.... i've read him a lot and very much enjoy his work, although he may be somewhat of an acquired taste... especially his more factual material....

Fred said...


That's on my Search list for some time. Perhaps I should move it up.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

Have great weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle - Writing long blog comments and then losing them is something that has happened to me, and something that I have screamed over :)

Thanks for the recommendation. It sounds like a fascinating book.

James said...

Fascinating discussion of matriarchies. Surely there is enough violence in the world to be shared by both men and women. Even so, this is an area where men have the edge at least in the physical sense.

The Bookworm said...

Interesting post and yes, many times one book leads to another. Glad you enjoyed these books. Herland especially sounds good. I like the sound of the Dune books too, fantasy writers definitely have more leeway with story-lines than conventional fiction writers do.
Enjoy your weekend!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James. Women can Indeed be violent and do other terrible things not directly linked to violence.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida. Out of the threes matriarchy books, I liked Herland the best

The Dune books, especially the easy ones were fantastic. There is a lot more to recamend them then The Bene Gesserit.

HKatz said...

I really enjoy the format of the post comparing these texts. It's doubtful I'll read all of them so I especially appreciate the analysis.

When you say "propensity for violence" I wonder what kind of violence. Men and women are socialized to express aggression differently, but the underlying aggression is still there and in a female-dominated society could come out more in physical ways too against other women.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila - In the great debate between nature and nuture I am a believer that there is a evolution biological reason why more men are violent then women. I would point as good sources for laypeople such as myself Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate and Richard Dawkins's The Selfsh Gene.

Evelina said...

I have actually seen this book on NetGalley recently (did not request it though) about a small society in China (quite out of the way) which IS matriarchal. And not just names, but I mean the power, owning land and all that. It was quite interesting, and the only reason I didn't request it was because I was swamped with books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Evelina - The book sounds interesting. I may have heard of the society referred to. I should have included in my original post that some of The matrilineal societies do give more power to women then more traditional societies. When folks look closely however, most power is still in the hands of men.

thecuecard said...

Nice commentary & comparison. I think it would be interesting if a matriarchal society existed even if long ago in the jungles of some continent. I'm sure some of those counter-culture 60s groups tried to go off and form one on their own -- in a camp or what not. Heck, I'm still hoping just to get a few more female world leaders ... which was so close in the U.S. ... the populace just Blew It on election day. How disappointing. Female leaders would be helpful to world order and society as a whole I think. PS. I like this topic! Great.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan.

Speculations about gender and its permutations are so interesting. A more egalitarianism society call for more women leaders.

As for real life attempts, these folks are trying to set up a Commune based on Herland.

In my opinion The United missed it and dove over a cliff.

Maria Behar said...

Another fascinating post, Brian!

I must admit that I have not read any of these novels.... I really MUST! And I might very well start with Tepper's novel. From what you've described, it seems that hers is the most balanced and realistic of the three.

In regards to violence, examples from real life definitely prove that men tend to be much more violent than women. Every time we hear, in the news, about either a mass shooting or terrorist attack, it's men who are the perpetrators. And I've seen comments on the Internet to the effect that humanity has never seen a female Hitler. Indeed not!

I think that, if men as a group could come together and decide to eliminate violence, we would live in a much better world. Unfortunately, that's not likely to happen. As you have pointed out, men seem to have a biological predisposition toward violence. There's just SO much competition going on among men. They're always striving to prove who's the top dog. In fact, this is the basis of the patriarchal system.

In the case of women, they're in competition, too. From what I've seen, this competition is unfortunately based on who can get the most male attention. Men's competition is based on who has the best abilities, power, and prestige. Who has the most attractive woman also factors in, but I think it does so to a lesser extent than happens with women who want to make sure they get the best catch, whether it's a boyfriend or a husband.

In other words, women are competitive in regards to physical attractiveness, whereas men are competitive in regards to physical strength and intellectual abilities.

Women's aggression is much more subtle than men's, and is verbal instead of physical. I have sadly seen and experienced it myself -- the catty remarks, the looks of contempt, the subtle manipulations. Women can, unfortunately, be very underhanded. It's sad that such tactics should be employed against other women, but again, this is what I've seen and experienced in my life. I have never been part of any type of 'sisterhood'. In fact, I have felt like an outsider, where women are concerned, sad to say.

It's been said before, but it bears repeating: the elimination of competition would make this a much better world. I wonder whether competitiveness, whether among men or women, is biologically determined. If so, then we can never have a world free of violence, because someone will always be trying to come out on top.

I wonder if there's no other way for human beings to be motivated into bettering themselves. Why can't people just focus on themselves, instead of comparing themselves with others, and striving to be better, faster, more beautiful, or more intellectually accomplished than the next person? If competitiveness is a built-in human trait, though, this is most likely an impossibility.

Perhaps it would be possible for a matriarchal society to eliminate violence to some degree, but not entirely. Of course, the ideal is an egalitarian society. But for that to happen, human beings would have to be willing to stop trying to prove that they're "better than". Competition would have to be eliminated entirely. There should be no "winners" or "losers", so that no one feels "less than". There should be no exultation in beating a rival in some contest. But again, perhaps human competitiveness can never be eliminated entirely.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!! Hope you're having a great day!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

The Gate to Women’s Country is really good. I would love to know what you thought if you read it.

Though I agree that a lot of competition, especially if it violent or malicious is bad, I think in certain contexts completion can be beneficial. For instance, I believe that often capitalism, when well regulated, is better then government control of production.

I think that violence is slowly being diminished in the world. There are unfortunately nasty setbacks. Part of that less violent society is slow movement toward egalitarianism.

baili said...

Fantastic review and comparison of books.
I think the differences between men an women regarding violence was physical some years back but now it has become psychological.
I have read ,heard, observed and vitnesd men that were more violent than women but I also saw women who were more violent then men and they were those who were physiologically stronger than average women, it made me think that how much we become violent decides our physical power also.
Now in New world we find women almost equally violent as men and it reflects the realization of her rights and value which provokes her to be more aggressive towards her surroundings.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili - It is important to remember that we are only talking about averages. There are indeed violent women. However, when one looks across cultures and times, in every category of violence, men's tendency to be violent is always much greater then is women's.