Is the Matriarchal Woman a Regressive or Progressive Figure for Feminism? A Comparison Between the UK and Jamaica

30/04/2012 14:41 | Updated 29 June 2012

On a recent trip to Jamaica I was struck by the strong presence of the women there. Mothers and grandmothers in particular appear to be the backbone of society and are held up with great respect. This got me thinking about matriarchy, and the role it has to play within feminism and gender equality.

The matriarch is the female head of the family unit. Typically the most senior female member of the family, it is usually the mother or the grandmother who would take on this role. On top of this, referring to a woman as matriarchal conjures a much fuller picture of an individual who is fiercely dominant in all domestic and family affairs, controlling what is seen as traditional female turf in the 'private sphere'. Matriarchs are a dying breed, yet should we champion these women as a force for good? Or do matriarchs now hold back the fight for gender equality?

Matriarchs were frequent in the UK before women were granted much access to or equality in the public sphere. When women had little influence in the 'public' domain' it is no wonder they would assert more influence domestically. In addition, before contraception was widely available families were larger and more often poorer, necessitating a permanent figure to run the house. Thus many talented women would have found themselves excluded from the workforce and bound to the home. But it is a particular approach to running the home that makes someone a matriarch. It is a particularly fierce way of controlling every aspect in the home and leaving little decision making to the partner or father. Obviously there are cultural and religious aspects of matriarchy and I'm aware that this is a general overview. It is becoming clear why matriarchs have a decreasing presence in modern society in the UK. Should we welcome this decline?

First let us look at the immediate qualms feminists might have with matriarchy. Surely if you support gender equality it has to work in both directions; we should strive for equal status not one sex dominating the other. Matriarchy also entrenches the separation of private and public spheres; understandable given women's exclusion from public life, but blurring the public/private line was an important step in feminist discussion. Furthermore when women take such a dominant role in the home it can damage men's perception of what they would be like in the public sphere - men are clinging on to the little control they have left and often try to hide away. The flip side of this is of course how men are perceived -they become more incompetent and incapable with domestic affairs as they are treated such. This does us no favours when trying to divide labour more equally in the home or question parenting roles. Matriarchy is surely then becoming a redundant position as we gain head way in gender equality.

Yet let us not forget the admirable work that the matriarchal women have achieved. Raising children and running a household are no easy tasks that should not be overlooked. Being in total control as a strong leader means you always know what's going on; it is a level of consistency and stability which often allows families to prosper in tough conditions. This strong matriarchal and family support can have further benefits such as grandparents providing childcare, allowing more parents (particularly mothers) to work.

The matriarchs of Jamaica are still going strong, much unlike in the UK. There are clearly a variety of factors to explain this. Firstly there are a lot of single parent families in Jamaica. This means often mothers are raising children alone, or with the support of the grandmother as there are also high rates of teenage pregnancy. Related to this, are the worryingly high crime rates amongst young men. There is a heavy Christian influence, praising the strong family unit. All of this is coupled of course with high poverty rates. I think the trend in Jamaica will share similarities with other developing nations, although this is just an example and I'm not really going to delve into this here.

Speaking to a remarkable woman who conducts outreach work in a men's prison in Spanish town Kingston, she told me one of the most effective ways of getting the young men to listen (most of whom were in for murder or violent offences) was to ask what their Grandma would say to them. The shame and humility they expressed showed how much they respect and look up to these strong Jamaican women.

And in Jamaica these strong matriarchal figures haven't gone unnoticed. There are now more female university graduates than male, with consequently many women being hired in middle management positions. Although there still appears to be a glass ceiling at the top, there is much head way being made, with current female Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller (commonly referred to as Sister Portia). This strong sisterhood and respect for women is a most certainly a positive outcome of strong matriarchal figures in the home.

Overall the matriarchal figure in the home is not progressive for gender equality in the UK. That is not to neglect the important role matriarchs played in the past however. In countries such as Jamaica conversely, when there are pressing concerns over poverty and family stability, the matriarchs are most admirable, and are proving women's capability and resilience in society, not hindering it.