The Fascinating Agricultural Origins of Patriarchal Society
Western culture associates men with authority. We can debate the legitimacy of that association until the cows come home, but you can’t deny the general perception. Most cultures have inherited a patriarchal tradition.
If every culture was patriarchal, there wouldn’t be much left to talk about. Men are just made to be in charge. Easy enough, right? If only it were so simple.
Matriarchal societies do exist.
They are a minority, but their very existence begs the question… Why? Why would anyone ever listen to a woman’s opinion?
Just kidding. The real question is, “Why did these societies develop so differently from the majority?” By looking at these matriarchal cultures, can we identify what makes them different? Can we find the source of our deep-seated patriarchal tradition?
It must be said that I’m using patriarchy and matriarchy in a very free-wheeling sense. In reality I don’t think any culture can or should be reduced to one gender being “in-charge.” Nothing works that way.
Since total gender-based domination is pretty rare, we have to use other cultural signals to classify a society.
One of the cultural expressions of gender expectations is the way that inheritance and lineage are organized, and we’re using that as our measuring stick. For the purposes of this article, Matrilineal equals matriarchal (ish.)
Matriarchal societies familiar to the American reader include the Hopi, Navajo, and Iroquois people. Outside of America other examples are the Minangkabau in Indonesia, the Khasi in India, or the Musuo in China.
What do all of these cultures have in common? Horticulture.
Each of these societies relies mostly on hand-tended garden plots for their subsistence. Horticulture comes from the word horus In Latin, which means garden. This contrasts with agriculture, which technically refers to the cultivation of fields.
Agriculture involves heavy plows, sacks of grain, and working with dangerous draft animals. Small children are a liability working in the fields. On the other hand, horticulture demands patience, attention to detail, and is totally compatible with childcare. Kids are happy to play in the dirt while their mother works in the garden.
It turns out that nearly every culture’s conception of “women’s work” is strongly dependent on an a given activity’s compatibility with childcare (Barber, 1995). Women tend to take charge of food production when it takes place in and around the home.
Working in their family’s garden and managing the resources they produce there influences the gender consciousness of their entire culture. The Iroquois, Hopi, and Navajo all relied primarily on women to exercise political power and to govern the home. All of the groups I listed earlier trace lineage through the female line, and expect men to become members of their wife’s family household. This helps to balance authority by subjecting men to their difficult in-laws (citation needed.)
When food production moves out into the fields and becomes more dangerous, men are expected to take the lead on food production. Apparently, this contributes to a shift in authority across many domains.
Today we are so far removed from subsistence living that the differences between agriculture and horticulture are academic for most people. Modern people primarily rely on grocery-store-culture. No word from anthropologists yet on how Walmart changes gender dynamics.
So how can we apply this anthropological lesson to our modern lives?
All of this traces back to women hand-tending to plots of food around their family homes.
Small actions can have huge consequences. Food might be analogous to authority. And if you’re a woman craving a bit of power, you should probably start a garden.
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Aberle, D. F. (1961). Matrilineal Descent in Cross-cultural Perspective. In D. M. Schneider & K. Gough (Eds.), Matrilineal Kinship (pp. 655–727). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Barber, E. W. (1995). Women’s work: The first 20,000 Years: Women, cloth, and society in early times. Norton.