New Research

A Matriarchal Moment in American Politics?

By Dr. Keira Williams

After the historic midterm election of 2019, there is now a record number of women in the U.S. Congress, and it has become popular to muse about the effects the newcomers might have on national politics. Indeed, according to some scholars, the women ‘might just get a broken system working again.’ These suppositions that women, if given the chance, will rule differently from men have a long and varied history in the United States. Speculations about matriarchalism become newsworthy every time there are large-scale or highly publicized changes in the political behavior of American women. The tone of this speculation varies widely according to the patriarchal proclivities of its proponents, but for the most part, when the term ‘matriarchy’ enters the political conversation in the United States, it is usually with the explicit goal of stoking sexist fears.  Beyond the sheer increase in numbers of women in Congress, this is why the current celebration of the matriarchal moment is different: their presence is seen by many as a corrective, a potential remedy to current political gridlock and extremism, rather than a problem in and of itself.

Antimatriarchalism has been part and parcel of the backlashes against organized feminist movements in US history. The suffrage movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century engendered its own special form of opposition. Physician James B. Weir warned in a series of journal articles of the ‘degenerate beliefs’ accompanying suffrage, concluding that it would be ‘the first step toward that abyss of immoral horrors repugnant to our cultivated ethical tastes—the matriarchate.’ Antisuffrage postcards featuring large women, browbeaten men, and weeping children circulated widely. Of course, none of this came to pass. It turns out that, following the ratification of the 19th Amendment, women did not vote all that differently from the men in their lives, notwithstanding the creator of Wonder Woman’s 1937 predictions of the coming American matriarchy, for which the Amazing Amazon was propaganda.

The reconstitution of organized feminism in the 1960s again provoked public antimatriarchalism. When she ran for president in 1972, ‘unbossed’ Shirley Chisholm was labeled with the racist stereotype of the black matriarch, while opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment trafficked heavily in fears of female power. As with the fears of antisuffragists decades before, the much-feared matriarchy never happened, cut down by the rise of neoconservatism and the concerted backlash against feminism in the Reagan-Bush era. Yet antimatriarchal fears returned again a decade later, in the form of opposition to ‘Billary’, or Hillary Clinton’s alleged behind-the-scenes power while her husband was in the White House.

Over the past two decades, women have increased their access to certain measures of power in American society, primarily in educational attainment and the labor force, although the accounts of the ‘end of men’, usually accompanied by images of huge women crushing tiny men, have been greatly exaggerated. But according to the dark heart of antimatriarchalism, now featured in the cesspool of the extreme right-wing on the internet, the signs of the impending matriarchal takeover are all there. Citing such blatant grabs for female supremacy over men as Title IX, the Violence Against Women Act, and paternal child support mandates, the Men’s Rights Movement warns of the current ‘malicious matriarchy’ and exhorts its audience to ‘vote male’. To the surprise of absolutely no one, these fears burst from the fringes to the mainstream with the 2016 presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, as Men’s Rights sites warned of Clinton’s plans for a ‘techno-matriarchy’ and ‘gynocentric socialism’. On social media, #repealthe19th briefly trended, bringing this antimatriarchal trend full circle just shy of a century after the extension of the franchise.

It’s no spoiler to say that the Clinton Matriarchy, like its fearsome foremothers the Suffrage Matriarchy and the Women’s Liberation Matriarchy, did not come to pass, either. But lo, what lurked on the horizon as we all wondered what happened? A backlash of an entirely different sort! The 2017 Women’s March on Washington, held the day after Trump’s inauguration, was possibly the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history, and it was foreshadowing for the historic midterm elections of 2019. The Democratic base is diverse, as are the successful female candidates, whose support is broad, reaching far beyond their home districts and states. Perhaps more importantly, there has been a clear cultural turn, and feminism is popular again, as seen in celebrity endorsements and consumer branding. Indeed, Wal-Mart, the quintessentially American corporation (which, not incidentally, has a long history of gender discrimination and is, as of February 2019, being sued again by a class of female employees), has hopped onto the matriarchal brandwagon with their line of ‘The Future is Female’ products, including a hot pink journal in the shape of that famed symbol of the inaugural Women’s March, the pussy hat.

Is this, then, a different matriarchal moment, one that will transform the dynamics of gender and power? With the 2019 Congress settling in—complete with obsessive, right-wing tracking of the new female members and their ‘stern matriarch’, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—and six women already in the running for the 2020 presidential campaign, the extreme right is warning of the rising ‘anti-patriarchy movement’. Indeed, Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor, reportedly believes the 2020 election will be a referendum on ‘the Patriarchy versus the Matriarchy’. He most likely does not realise that with this statement, he is essentially plagiarizing a Wonder Woman comic from 1943, which pitted the matriarchal platform of the superheroine against Professor Manly of the supersexist Man’s Party. Wonder Woman, of course, won that election… but in 2020, will an Amazing Amazon save the day? Stay tuned for the next installment of American gender politics.

Keira V. Williams is the author of Amazons in America: Matriarchs, Utopians, and Wonder Women in U.S. History.

Image Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters