My sons call me the mothership. “The Mothership is on her way”, is the phone call alert I’ve caught them out sending each other warning of my imminent arrival. Sometimes I get to them before it does. That is how I know.
It is, of course, a parody of my matriarchal qualities and a family joke. However, many a true word is spoken in jest, as Chaucer rightly wrote. My sons know I am exacting and that I have no hesitation despite their ages (29 and 27) before telling them what’s what about their lives or commenting on behaviour I might be concerned by.
Nor, they know, do their friends outside my ambit escape my attention – much to their mortification, but I remain convinced for the common good!
Now I see that Alan Bennett has been lamenting the demise of the matriarch in the modern world. I had not realised that I was one of the last maternal dinosaurs to survive.
He wished, it was reported, that women still ruled the roost domestically. Well all I can comfort Alan with is that I and other ‘Conservative Women’ are doing our best to keep our presence felt in this sphere and keeping it as our preserve.
But he did seem to be in a bit of a muddle about the whole thing. He also said that society would be better off with more women in charge. But I thought that was the problem. They have taken over the workplace.
And isn’t that just the very root of the problem? The more women have pursued and claimed power in the public sphere, the more they have relinquished it in the domestic domain. It stands to reason.
Women, he might have pointed out, with a little more thought on the matter, have brought their loss of family and community power (which I think is what he really meant by society) upon themselves. Nor, from the incessant moaning, does it seem that the power and positions accrued have brought women much satisfaction.
It’s one thing to be bossy at home or in the community (think of the village fetes and bring and buys where female battleaxes used to reign unchallenged) but it’s quite another thing exercising that power and authority at work. Bossiness doesn’t work at work; it is deemed unacceptable. This leaves many career women ill at ease with taking responsibility and exercising leadership, to say nothing of being resentful of the few that do manage this effectively. That’s why in the world of work and politics those once domestic matriarchs have so often turned themselves into assiduous and boring tick-box bureaucratic jobsworths; constantly covering for themselves, reluctant to take responsibility but never happier than when ‘assessing’ something or someone.
The truth is that matriarchal public and political systems do not (and never have) existed. Like patriarchy, the concept of matriarchy is little more than a myth. As the pioneering anthropologist, Radcliffe Brown, said in 1924, both have logical and empirical failings and are too vague to be scientifically useful.
Nor should matriarchy be confused with matrilineality. The latter is indeed a form of social and political organisation in which descent and relationship are reckoned through the female line. It is where property is inherited, not from woman to daughter, but from uncle to his sister’s son.
Though this can give women greater control over property it does not imply ‘rule’ by women – something I found out for myself when as a social anthropology undergraduate I lived for two months amongst the Ashanti, a matrilineal tribe in Ghana. My arrival in Agogo – a village of matrilineally organised compounds – was greeted by a full delegation of the village tribal elders. They were all men.
Behavioural “matriarchy”, controlling your family in their best interests, does not translate easily into the work or political spheres, and it is vilified when it does – no more so than by feminists.
The one woman who succeeded in doing this, one Margaret Thatcher, was viciously lampooned and reviled for her pains. The result is that among today’s youthful female Cabinet members there is not one middle-aged battleaxe. All are, to a woman, boring ‘yes women’ adroitly managed by Cameron and Osborne.
I sympathise with Alan Bennett in wishing there were more mature ladies making their presence felt like his auntie who commanded a shoe shop in Leeds – and that their values had not been so relentlessly purged. But has the matriarch’s day finally really come and gone as Lucy Mangan would have us believe?
I would not be so sure. I ain’t dead yet and I know several mature married mums not dissimilar to me who quietly reign over their families. What’s more my younger social conservative sisters (like Laura Perrins, my co-editor) who have thrown off the shackles of feminism are coming along very nicely thank you.
The past battleaxes of Coronation Street, the Nora Battys, the Hattie Jacques-style matrons of Carry On fame, to say nothing Lady Bracknell of The Importance of Being Earnest are far too powerful cultural icons of womanhood to die out. They will live to fight another day.