The Matriarchy Trap

The Matriarchy Trap November 1, 2011

Kate Bolick’s cover story for The Atlantic on living with the poor marriage prospects for women (“All the Single Ladies“) prompted a lot of comment, but I thought Lea Halim had the most thought-provoking response in National Review (“Why Not Matriarchy?“).   I’m going to summarize and quote to be able to comment, but do yourself a favor and read her piece in full.  Now, here’s the pull-quote:

In a caricature patriarchal society, men have all the earning power, determine the structure of both the household and other institutions, and treat women as little more than domestic and sexual servants, often engaging the “services” of more than one (the “temporary marriages” practiced in some Muslim countries come to mind). In a caricature matriarchal society, men are little more than studs. In both cases, one distinctive need of the weaker gender is met effectively — the patriarchs address women’s need for stability and physical protection, while the matriarchs satisfy male desire for commitment-free sex with multiple partners. But this comes at the expense of every other, loftier, need and desire, and distorts the humanity of both the stronger and the weaker sex.

The only alternative to the objectification of one sex is marriage, premised on monogamy and love. When men bind together and hold power, women do not participate in decision-making as equal partners. When women rely on their own support networks instead of men, men are shut out of the family. Only in monogamous marriage, in which the heterosexual couple, rather than either gender, wields power and constitutes the basic unit of society, can equality and true companionship between the sexes be achieved.

When women set up men-independent communities and traditions, according to Halim, they’re writing guys out of culture. Family structures and traditions would evolve to do without what is scarce, and it would be harder for men to find a role in the new schema. Although she doesn’t cite them, Halim’s got a solid historical precedent in the evolution from extended family to nuclear family or the development of the two-income trap.

So if her forecast is plausible enough to merit caution, what are we supposed to do? Asking women to resist matriarchal structures and remember the dignity of men sounds a lot like asking them to martyr themselves and their children for the sake of the delinquent menfolk. You can’t bring back a leg by taking away a crutch.

This is the problem I have with a lot of conservative (trad or libertarian) critiques of modernity. Getting rid of the governmental or societal constraints that you think are warping society doesn’t mean we snap back to the old model. (Think back to Reagan’s push to get the mentally ill out of institutions and into communities. A support structure didn’t materialize, and most of them ended up on the street.).

If we’re going to try to change culture, I wouldn’t begin by asking women to give up the relationships they’ve formed to protect themselves. One good starting point is supporting the ACLU’s fight against the School to Prison Pipeline. Take a look at what other factors, besides promiscuity, are uprooting men from their communities and try and neutralize them.

I’ve got my fingers crossed that plenty of men really do want more than sex and that they’ll find a way to integrate themselves into whatever new form the family has taken. Maybe they can start as uncle-analogues and work their way up.

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  • Leah, perhaps it is tasteless of me to jump in with a response, but I will anyway. 🙂 My point was not that women should turn down or disrupt arrangements that are helping them survive, but that instead of withdrawing into those arrangements and deciding that they don’t need men, they hold higher expectations for men and seek out those who can meet them. That will require women to change their own behavior. Sleeping with losers (because hey, if you get pregnant, your “matriarchal network” of mother, grandmother, and the government will help take care of the baby) won’t help you either find the winners or raise your sons to be winners for the next generation.

  • I think gender roles leave a lot to be desired. Drop the roles. Establish a precedent where new relationships are expected to negotiate everything. Prioritize discussing finances, security, child rearing, the division of household maintenance, and how fidelity works per person sexually and in the realm of who does partner A trust to tell partner B’s secrets.

    Women shouldn’t be raised to be a specific answer to those questions and neither should men. They should be challenged with ethical delimas in school and figure out who they as individuals are. Everybody should be taught how to fold clothes, cook, change a diaper and balance a checkbook. And everybody should know the same things about reproduction. After that, enjoy the murky world since that’s what we do today anyway. What’s the point of women as a role or men for that matter? It seems naive.

  • Lukas Halim

    Some of the stuff I’ve been reading does analysis in terms of sexual economy – men and women both have certain things they are looking for, and depending on the supply of eligible mates, they will have an easier or more difficult time finding what they want. For example, on a majority female college campus, women will tend to need to ‘give up’ more of what they want in order to secure the affection of eligible males. Something similar will happen if a large fraction of the eligible males are in jail or were killed in war or sent to Siberia.
    (subscription required)

  • leahlibresco

    Brian got caught in the spam trap, so I’m posting the comment he sent me

    Leah, I think your post is fine, but you’re missing the gist of what Lea is saying.

    “The only alternative to the objectification of one of the sexes is marriage, premised on monogamy and love.”

    Don’t you (Lea) think that relies on a lot of background assumptions?

    I mean, are you really saying that the only alternative to monogamous [heterosexual] marriages is a patriarchy or matriarchy in which one sex has no power and is entirely taken advantage of?

    And, as a separate point, we live in an era of safe sex and contraception. Your definition of “losers” in the above post is what, exactly? Men who won’t settle down or support a child? You seem to have somewhat adopted a background assumption along the lines of “let’s look at relationships through the lens of child-rearing,” which is OK as long as it’s clear that that’s what you’re doing. (And that you don’t try to extend any conclusions you draw to ALL sexual relationships.)

  • For me as a 30-something guy who has no designs of getting married any time soon, that has a stable job (over 70,000 a year) who plays PS3 and Xbox and… well, etcetera, I think that the current marriage climate is a horrible decision for guys.

    As marriage is designed nowadays, it is primarily a business contract solely for the benefit of the physically weaker sex. Once that contract has been dissolved, men get screwed over pretty hard. It’s probably this reason why, even though close to 50% of 1st marriages end in divorce, 2/3rds of those divorces are initiated by women. This is because women have their “matriarch network” that even includes the government. Men have no safety net that equals that one in power and scope; 50% divorce rate and 2/3rds of those divorces filed by women aren’t odds that I like or want to put up with just for being a guy.

    The role of security that the male historically provided in a marriage is now in the hands of the state, and this gives us guys no reason for jumping into marriage all that soon. In the old paradigm, marriage “worked” because it was the men who provided the security that women wanted in exchange for women giving men the sex they wanted. I’m not advocating that we go back to an idealized pre-feminism state of affairs, but guys are going to need more incentive to get married than they are currently given. And you can’t give guys “incentive” by simply telling them (us) to “grow up”; from my point of view, it’s the prospect of getting married that is the irresponsible decision, not staying single.

    Basically, marriage was never about equality. There was always a power differential. It’s just nowadays that power differential has shifted to women.

    It seems odd to me that the author would quote the Old Testament which is probably the most overtly patriarchal text still read in the modern world. The OT promoted monogamous marriage because of property rights, not because of love. And the only women that had value as good property upon marriage were virgins (Deut 22.13-21, 22.28-29). You still see this mentality in the conservative Christian community, where little girls are told that they would become like used toothbrushes if they had sex before marriage. Who wants to use someone else’s toothbrush? they’re asked. Again, this overvaluing of virginity was due to property rights. It’s not like they had paternity tests back then. The only way you could know that your real sons were getting your inheritance was by marrying a virgin. This is why there’s such an emphasis on first born sons, the idea of property rights ported over into the NT with all of its emphasis on Jesus being the first born of Yahweh.

    None of these concepts that created the foundation of marriage exist in the modern world, so basing marriage on OT culture is an improper anachronism.

    • @J. Quinton – You had me, and then you lost me. We seem to be in agreement that women are making it pretty unattractive for guys to get married, and thus reducing their own pool of potential marriage partners. The women are doing this by relying on each other and on the government; refusing to respect men or give them meaningful roles in the relationship; and enabling male promiscuity. My solution is for women to re-learn to respect men and to practice chastity, which will help men be more interested in marriage. What is the solution you are proposing?

      You make a good argument for why virginity is valued in ancient times. But, while monogamy and virginity (on the part of women) were probably important in part because of the practical reasons you mention, that doesn’t explain why marriage is considered so valuable and beautiful that it is used as a metaphor for describing the most important relationship in the Bible – that between God and His people. Sure, today we practice marriage differently than it was done in the Old Testament, and (as a married woman) I’m pretty happy about that. But I don’t think we’ve come up with any ideas better than marriage – an idea lauded by the Old Testament – for how the sexes can collaborate rather than wage war against each other.

      • maria lucia

        “My solution is for women to re-learn to respect men and to practice chastity, which will help men be more interested in marriage.”

        I though your ideas were pro-women but this…honestly,who do you think need more respect nowadyas? Have you tried to read why prostitution has always existed? Men have always seen us as commodities,the explanation that guy gave about virgity speaks for itself.The same can be given to prostitution.Men have never been asked for being virgins,they always have the right to marry a virgin and abuse prostituted women..and in te end,it´s us who should respect them more? How about the victims of women trafficking?how about the rapeed children in brothels? The God i belive in treats everybody with equal respect,i don´t know this one you are mentioning.I don´t consider myself a commodity and if we want to get men interested on us,we must respect ourself above anything else,and reducing ourselves to commodities certaily is not a smart idea.

        Speak for your conservative sexist culture,not for all the women in the planet.

        • Like it or not, women now are treated as commodities. And it’s odd to read a woman calling another women sexist for requiring more of women to take the initiative.

    • Emily

      You’ve made an argument for why divorce is a bad deal for men, not marriage. You write that, “As marriage is designed nowadays, it is primarily a business contract solely for the benefit of the physically weaker sex,” but don’t consider the reasons men would enter into such a contract, and how they benefit. Well, given that traditional view, even today in marriages where men earn more, women are more likely to stay home and take responsibility for keeping the household running, which frees men to advance more at work. It allows men to plan for children, which is really not just a female desire, I know lots of single men who want to be fathers. Also, it does create an emotional support system, too – married men tend to live longer, be healthier, and rate themselves happier than unmarried men, which is less true for women. So if men are making off as well or better than women during marriage, it’s not as bad a deal as you say, even if divorce laws “favor” women (which also has to do with our society still not really “favoring” women, but that’s another discussion).

      Note – I’m on a work break and don’t really have time to scour for citations for these claims but if that’s a problem I’ll reply later, sorry.

    • I agree that marriage is a broken gig. I tend to think marriage wasn’t about child rearing. I think marriage is a convoluted way to get people out of the dating pool so that less “marriage compatible” people can find some partnership. Let’s assume marriage compatible people include fun traits like loyalty, financial wisdom, empathy, and good humor. Well, those people might be able to attract partners at a 5:1 ratio and dry up the dating pool for everybody else. So if you mix the envy of dating competitors with the jealousy or concern of a partner that feels like he or she is one of five (my magic number), then you get pressures to be monogamous from the outside. The charming, smart advantaged partner now realizes that multiple wives or husbands is unsustainable and relents to picking his favorite and the world moves forward.

      Marriage is broken based on that view to me. Just like I shouldn’t be limited to one friend, why should I be limited to one partner on any subject just because? I’m not advocating dropping loyal partners but I think picking your relationships in so much as maybe one partner is good for planning and one partner is better for bolstering your confidence, you should be afforded the chance to keep both because every person is a subjectively optimizing machine or at least they should be.

  • Maybe the problem is that both critiques worship power, separating Men and Women into classes of oppressor and oppressed in the classic Marxist hermeneutic. Authority is not power; it is right; the crown of fatherhood rightly considered must be a crown of thorns. It is to be an umpire to settle disputes such that there shall be no cyclic unending feedback, giving finality to a certain course. Any similarities to the role of the Pope within the Church are not unintentional.

    I’ll agree with you this far: the first part of the solution is to live the cure. However, though legislation comes later, it still comes.

    Leah: I enjoy your blog, but lately have felt that you are no longer seeking truth, rather enjoying your existing place and treading water. That I had a similar problem is one reason why I took a hiatus of my own lately, though I am not nearly as well established. Maybe I was able to take a hiatus because I was not nearly as well established.

    It is possible, but by no means certain, that writing this blog keeps you from doing any one thing in the pursuit of truth, or encourages you to critique from where you’ve always been, or encourages you to make merely a statement of principles and a definition of terms and not go any further in the dogged pursuit of truth; if you do any of these things at any point, stop writing and concentrate on an intellectual mortification. I write this as a fan who often enjoys your observations, notably and most recently on the scapular.

    I understand the limitations of the medium, and I know that I very well might be reading too much into your topics of choice, but rather defoil Shea and Barnes when they write in a more “popular” way, grapple with Newman and Chesterton some more. You know the intellectual core of English-language Christendom of the last century, and that must be your focus. Even read then-Cardinal Ratzinger in Salt of the Earth, or Introduction to Christianity. I get the feeling that at this point you’ve become a lot more than the kneejerk YouTube atheist you seem to have started out as. I willingly and fully retract my comments insofar as they are inaccurate. My principle, I submit, must be yours also: Any in love with truth must capitulate when truth demands it.

    Full disclosure: I take it as a matter of faith that God is Truth and know that at some point, Leah, with the twin wings of faith and reason and powered by grace, she will find truth is not abstract but a person, alive all this time. That said, because my first love is Truth as it should be, I must continually temper and test my faith with the following test. I submit it to you for your honesty.

    * When was the last time you capitulated? Are you so smart that you are rarely wrong? Are you sure it isn’t because you’re better catechized and cleverer than who you talk to? Are you still seeking out yet those who can answer your questions? Commentary: It is one thing to disagree; it is another to not understand. If it is the latter, be not satisfied and dig deeper. Surely you’ve now realized that similar questions have been asked before and disregarded by men trained in logic and who daily professed their love of truth.

    * When was the last time you didn’t know an answer? Did you admit it?

    * When asked a question, is your reaction to list the responses you’ve heard rather than to say what your intellect and conscience tell you is true? When you hear a badly phrased argument, do you parry the blow or feel it as it was intended? Only the latter can be in the pursuit of truth; the former is in pursuit of winning, anathema sit.

  • Hibernia86

    The matriarchy that Lea is describing is what much of the animal kingdom does already. Males (like big horned sheep or deer) compete with each other, the females watch, and whoever wins gets to have the most sex and thus the most kids. The reason why humans evolved differently is that human children take so much more resources to raise. But in the modern world it could be possible that women find a way to raise kids successfully without men thus changing the human species to a reproductive structure much like the other animals.

    However, I think there is a good reason why that won’t happen. And that is that humans have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years with the current system and won’t so easily switch over just like that. The fact is that most women like to have the emotional attachment to someone they are romantically attracted to and for most women that is a man. Men too, despite what is shown on TV sometimes, fall in love as well and have crushes just like women can, and can become attached to a woman. As Leah suggested, if you work to help boys struggling in school, there will be more men “fit” for marriage and the problem will go away.

    Also keep in mind that even if this so called Matriarchy happened men would still have parental rights if the laws stayed the same. If an unmarried man believes that a pregnant women is carrying his child, he can register with the government to make sure he has parental rights over the child if it is proven to be his. He also will almost always be granted visitation rights if it is proven to be his kid. (the only place where equality hasn’t yet been met is in custody of the child after it is born. We should make sure that if a child is born out of wedlock that both the men and women have equal chance of getting custody of the child). It should also be remembered that men make up almost half of all voters and could make up a majority of people who come to the voting booth if prompted (and women often have the reputation of being kind so it is likely that the men would have some female allies if the men were objectively discriminated against) so I think that men will be able to defend themselves in the voting booth.

    @Lukas: it should be noted though that it works the other way too. Colleges where men are the majority have less sexual activity within couples (I’m sure the male readers are making careful note of which colleges to go to 😉 )

  • Joe

    I have always wondered what motivates secular thinking men to get married. Just working an easy job with my buddies all week and trying to get laid on the weekend seems ideal if I believe there is nothing after death. After reading some of the comments left by secular or atheist men here it’s easy to see why Leah has found herself a nice Catholic man.

    • Emily

      I don’t know, I’m marrying a nice secular thinking man and he seems to like having me around at present, and want kids in the future. What would secular and atheist men have against companionship and family?

  • Hibernia86

    Benjamin, don’t look at Leah to be your personal conversion project. She can accept your questions, but ultimately she will make her own decision. Don’t assume that it will automatically be for your side. And if you ask her to seriously consider these issues, you need to do so yourself. Not just verbally but actually do it.

    Joe, I’m an Atheist man and I’d like to marry a woman. Yes I like sex, but I what I want more is to have a real loving relationship with my spouse. I love the idea that no matter what we’d be there for one another. While some may scoff, I personally know many people with marriages like this, including my parents. I think there are plenty of secular men who want this love (and the sex too 😉 but seriously there are many, probably most, who want love first of all)

    • I regard her as a personal conversion project? Surely I would comment more. Thank you for the reminder.

      Oy …

  • Joe

    Good to hear!! Sometimes on the Internet you can get a bad impression about unbelievers.
    I have to disagree. I think Leah is pretty darn good at seeking truth. After her Turing test she is probably is giving her brain a rest and besides you can’t expect a person to be constantly debating there was to be some room for fun and other interests.

  • Ditto, Hibernia. My husband and I are both “secular types” and we are married because we love each other and wanted to be each other’s family. Simple. I’m not sure why anyone would think belief in a deity was required for that.

  • Charles

    I think the argument that the 30-something who likes video games made about not having enough incentive to marry is tangentially related to this problem. How completely selfish it is for the man-child to complain that society isn’t catering to his world view so he is going to take his ball home and refuse to grow up.

    One cannot enjoy the benefits of a society built by those that did put away childish things and take on adult responsibility, and then bemoan that the same society isn’t caterer to their whims. Maybe that “growing up” involved a misogynistic / paternalistic / religious / evil / whatever society, but it was still one built by mature people that didn’t complain that if they participated they’d have no time to play children’s games. The over availability of ridiculous non-productive recreation is a poison on the mind they way an addiction to drugs can be.

    • Disagree strongly. I think what you’re saying is we benefited from people who got married and procreated. I guess I can agree with that.

      But you’re also saying that if we don’t like the deal of procreation, we should suck it up and procreate anyway or we won’t have a species. I disagree with this a lot. First of all, I don’t want people who don’t want to procreate procreating. They might know why they aren’t fit. Secondly, we don’t owe the future a population growth percentage. We owe them progressive values that continue to dial in the best education practices and the best legal protections and the best social etiquette among other things.

      Boycotting stuff you don’t approve of is a correct move. The correct response is to persuade the at home gamer what they are missing. They might not be missing anything and despite the fact that you might not like their choices, you’d have to back off right about there.

      • Charles

        That is not what I said at all. I agree with your statement.

  • Joe


    I agree with most of what you said but one of the most interesting things about the debate is that most people that write articles about the poor quality of men out there never breath a word about the crummy women that are available. The man-child at least keeps to his games and himself. The crummy women out there produce cultural crap like “Sex in the City”. The ironic thing is most of the loud mouth women that complain about man-children are the same women that idolize that show. What man in his right mind wants to marry the cynical, smart-assed, fashion obsessed, materialistic women our culture is producing?

  • Charles

    Couldn’t agree more.

    The perfect modern couple is a cynical, shallow, materially-obsessed woman at a bar with her friends complaining about her shallow, materially-obsessed, man-child husband at home playing Xbox, complaining about her to his friends.

  • Emily

    Why all the hate on Xbox? You can have a job, relationships, and overall maturity, and still like to relax by playing video games sometimes instead of, say, watching TV, reading a book, or blogging. Geez, people!

    • Seconded.

    • Hibernia86


    • Charles

      I concur. It is not the action, it is the mentality that I draw issue with.