This past weekend was undeniably historic as millions of people from around the world marched in support of women's rights. The peaceful protests were astonishing, to say the least, and have served as a catalyst for the conversation surrounding feminism and it's place in our modern times.
Feminism has been around for centuries. One of the earliest records of feminist literature, The Book of the City of Ladies, was published in 1405 by French author, Christine de Pizan. In the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, many philosophers defended the rights of women. With authors like Jane Austen, as well as playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, the 19th century continued to produce work highlighting the struggles of women.
Even medical professionals were starting to speak up. Does the name Florence Nightingale sound familiar to you? Not only is she considered the founder of modern nursing, when she was alive, she was very outspoken about feminism. She argued that women were just as capable as men.
At the turn of the 19th century, feminism really hit its stride. From 1881 to 1913, five countries (Isle of Man, New Zealand, Australia, Finland, and Norway) passed laws giving women the right to vote. Surprised the US wasn’t one of the first? They weren’t even close. It wasn’t until 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18th, that women in the United Stated were finally allowed to vote. That was less than 100 years ago.
But what exactly is feminism? Merriam-Webster lists it as a noun and defines it as both ‘organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests’ and ‘the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.’
The existence of feminism in the US suggests that we live in a patriarchal society. In other words, a world ruled by men. Maybe you’ve thought about a world where men and women are truly equal…but how many of us, have thought about what the world would look like if women were in charge?
For most of us (myself included), the idea of a matriarchy (a society ruled by women) seems impossible…But what if I told you that it isn’t impossible? What if I told you there are at least six matriarchal societies in existence right now?
Stop pinching yourself. You aren’t dreaming. What you’ve just read is true.
There are currently six separate matriarchal societies located around the world. Probably the most famous, the Mosuo (people) reside in the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. The Minangkabau community is the biggest with an estimated population of 4.5 million. They live in West Sumatra, Indonesia. The other four are smaller and not as well known: the Akan in Ghana, the Bribri in Costa Rica, the Nagovisi in South Bougainville (an island west of New Guinea), and the Garo, who make their homes in both India and Bangladesh. In each of these societies, males play important roles, but the primary decision making (for the most part) is managed by the females. (They even get first dibs when it comes to inheriting property.)
Matriarchal societies have been around for ages…but where did the idea originally come from? Like all great things in life, these societies probably learned from good ole Mother Earth. They may even have taken their cues from her most magnificent creature, the elephant.
Did you know that elephants have complex social structures? They live in ‘fission-fusion societies,’ meaning that as they reproduce and migrate, the size and overall makeup of their communities change over time. Their herds are organized into clans, bond groups, and families and like humans, their brains are capable of intricate identification processes and communication systems. They can recognize and chat with distant family members and friends they haven’t seen in a while. It’s one of the reasons why they’re so smart.
And, wouldn’t you know, these intricate, complex elephant societies are run by females. Yep. In each family (the smallest and most intimate of the elephant herd groups), there is one dominant female, the matriarch, who makes all the herd’s decisions. Surrounded by generations and generations of her offspring, she’s typically the oldest and the wisest of the group.
Males are only included in the herd when they’re young. Once a male calf (baby elephant) matures, he leaves the herd to wander the African plain (or Asian jungle) and fend for himself. After that, adult male elephants are only seen around the herd during mating season. Their sole purpose in life is to make more elephant babies.
But the females, especially the matriarch, are responsible for everything else. They rear the children. They feed and protect the herd. They even maintain relationships with extended family members. They do it all…and have been for quite some time now. Fossils tell us that, for the past 55 million years, more than 300 different species of elephants have roamed the earth. These big fellas are survivors. They must be doing something right.
Maybe that something is matriarchy? Maybe the species has persevered because the females have been in charge? We’ll probably never know the answers to those questions, but what we do know is that across the animal kingdom, matriarchies are possible.
From Amy Schumer to Taylor Swift, Bernie Sanders to Oprah, people, influential people, are spreading the word about women’s rights. Social media is helping quite a bit too. For the first time in history, feminists have access to the world through the push of a button.
All they need now is a champion...and who better than the female elephant? She is the personification of female empowerment. She is the original feminist.