I keep thinking about Vivian Dames (a Filipina scholar) referring to Chamorro culture as “matriarchal” in her great essay on the abortion ban in Guam in the early 90s.  I thought it must have been an error at first.  Everything I read or was told indicated that Chamorro culture doesn’t seem technically to have been matriarchal.  Matrilineal, yes; but matrilineal avuncular.  There was an important, non-negligible role for men within the family, and it wasn’t as husband or father.

I remember an older woman, a Chamorro scholar, telling me when I first came to Guam that her culture was more egalitarian and that she wasn’t intimidated when white men yelled at her because she hadn’t been raised to be afraid of men or subordinate to men.  Chamorro culture appears to have balanced power in many ways between male and female leaders (the brother-sister team).  We hear of the guma’ulitao; the guma’lao was also recorded.  A house for young women.

I always hear people assume that feminism means female dominance over men, or matriarchy.  That’s a pervasive but incorrect idea.  Feminism is about egalitarianism.

I’ve been in the field of women and gender studies for some time now.  I don’t know of any historical or present-day matriarchy.  I would love to know of one.  We recently studied the Mosuo people in western China, who are often referred to as a matriarchy, China’s Last Matriarchy.  Their culture is fascinating.  Women are very empowered socially, the families are matrilocal and matrilineal, but it is not a matriarchy.

I also sometimes hear younger women, or less thoughtful women, speaking of claiming power in ways that exclude or demean men.  “Men are pigs.”  “That’s just the way men are.”  “Aren’t you tired of listening to men talk.”  Don’t get me wrong: I have definitely experienced my share of rude and hurtful men.  But I’ve also experienced my share of very rude and hurtful women.  Hurtful and disrespectful to me . . . a fellow woman.

We have to be more careful.  More respectful of others, especially when we don’t really know their stories.  Feminism is not about harming others in retaliation for wrongs.  And those less thoughtful women tend to be the types of women who stab other women in the back as well.  Vicious and base behavior is practiced by the weak — not the strong.  I dislike our too-easy association of power and strength with brutality and dominance.  I dislike our too-easy binary oppositions.  Gender is a spectrum, and gender is more fluid than we often realize.  There are possibilities our present-day culture too easily cuts off or ignores.

I look at female superheroes in pop culture and they’re often so brutal.  So typically masculine.  To me, that is not feminism either.  Feminism doesn’t mean women are the domestic bosses and men are their loyal servants.  That’s chivalry.  Medieval European froth.

I always liked Neil Gaiman’s Black Orchid graphic novel: a nonviolent female superhero.  Imagining a new way forward.

A woman can be anything.  Any of us can be anything.  I just want us to be free from these superficial obligations that have nothing to do with true morality.


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