26 Jun 2007

Matriarchy and women rulers

I was idly thinking about matriarchy the other day while walking in a park. I do stuff like that regularly to unwind from stress. It's all part of my bohemian daily regimen, really. Then my mind wandered to how Marija Gimbutas and others have earned a bad rap for their insistence on skewing historical perspective with their matriarchal/matrifocal ideals of an 'Old Europe', i.e. Europe and its inhabitants before the domination of Indo-European languages. (Some interesting insight into the politics behind this ideology can be gained from False Goddess by Lawrence Osborne at Salon.)

After that, I started to think that despite the silliness of feminism[1] and its equal opposite, chauvinism, and despite the fact that matriarchy in its true definition either doesn't exist in any culture or is astonishingly rare, there are still some notable women of history that rose to full power regardless of cultural limitations.

In Egypt, there was Hatshepsut (aka Maat-Ka-Re), the fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who lived between 1473 and 1458 BCE. She was the daughter of Thuthmose I and Ahmes. Her father died and so Hatshepsut's younger half-brother, Thuthmose II, ascended the throne. However, Thuthmose II died soon after, and so she was made regent for the young Thuthmose III. Rather than relinquish her title to him when Thuthmose reached maturity as expected, Hatshepsut proclaimed herself Pharaoh. While women enjoyed a number of rights, from owning land and property to having rights in the court of law, a female Pharaoh was a bit outside the norm. Nonetheless, she was approved by the temples as the 'daughter of Amon' and she maintained rule for about twenty years.[2]

It seems however, thanks to a tip from a good friend of mine who knows her Chinese history, there was another similar character called Wu Zetian (武则天, pronounced [u tsɤ tʰiɛn]). Born in 625 CE into a merchant-class family in Shanxi, she started out with the role of fifth-grade concubine, a cairen (才人, pronounced [tsʰai ɻən]), to Emperor Taizong. When the emperor passed away, it was customary for all concubines of the deceased emperor to be taken to the nunnery to live out the rest of their lives. However, the next emperor named Emperor Gaozong evidently showed special favour towards her when he had her reinstated into his own harem. Her status was raised to a zhaoyi concubine (昭儀, pronounced [ʈʂau i]). Wu Zetian gave birth to a daughter which then died mysteriously. Empress Wang was quickly accused of having killed the baby out of jealousy and was disgraced. In the process, Wu Zetian rose to become the new empress. The Emperor's health was poor, deteriorating gradually, and Wu Zetian's responsibilities increased little by little until by 650, he suffered a stroke. At this point, he was Emperor in name only as Wu Zetian was practically ruling the country already. In fact, in 690 she finally proclaimed herself Emperor and promoted Buddhism as the state religion. All of these facts were a shock to Confucianists who could not accept a woman in power because to them it violated their perceptions about the natural order of things. Wu Zetian even had a male harem and was especially fond of a set of identical twins. She was both reknowned for her ruthlessness in stamping out opposition as she was for promoting arts, fighting against nepotism and elevating the status of women that was kept down by Confucius philosophy in previous eras. She ruled until she was 81. In 705, when a coup slaughtered her harem, her rule ended and she died nine months later.

Now, isn't historical accuracy far more fascinating than inventing sterilized feminist myths about imaginary peace-loving matriarchies or talking ad nauseum about the same ol' dry, men-only history that we still see in school textbooks? In my mind, there is no such thing as an "egalitarian society" or a "patriarchal society" in the end. These are imaginary oppositions invented in the modern day. In reality, human society is far more complex. A culture, regardless of how you look at it, is always a special blend of both egalitarianism and patriarchy. Sometimes a culture is more open to women having power, sometimes not. Time changes a culture too. The battle between balance and extremism is a neverending one.

[1] (June 26/07) Egad! In hindsight, I had better elaborate on what I mean in this context by the word "feminism" to avoid unnecessary ire from those who should mistake my words for what they are not. Here, by opposing this word with "chauvinism", I am of course talking about "radical feminism". Naturally, the goal of "feminism" itself (if used only to refer to promoting equality regardless of gender) is a logical and constructive goal. I think readers should be able to understand my intent by the nature of the topic anyways, but it's better to communicate clearly than not at all.
[2] (June 26/07) More interesting perspectives on Hatshepsut are available online from Hatshepsut: Wicked Stepmother or Joan of Arc? by Peter F. Dorman, an associate professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of the University of Chicago.


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