Gender Equality Based on the Female Model

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  • Article for volume on 2005 Conference Societies of Peace (published in 2009 Inanna Press)

Genevieve Vaughan

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Matriarchy demonstrates gender equality on the basis of the female model. In the last decades feminists have insisted on equality with men according to a male model (or standard) and within a culture, which consists mainly of institutions based on (dominant) male models, imaginaries, and representations. In fact, a society based on patriarchal capitalism creates the illusion that this is a reality to which there is no alternative and from which there is no way out. The best that can be done by women seems to be an improvement of their own status within existing institutions. This illusion is toxic and must be dispelled if we are ever going to be able to create a peaceful world.

Much energy is employed in achieving equal pay for women in male institutions, equal rights before male law and equal opportunity in patriarchal schools, religions, businesses, and corporations.While these attempts have empowered some women and liberated them from ignorance and domestic slavery, the patriarchal institutions of our society have a life of their own so that they are indifferent to the participation of individuals and continue as self-perpetuating social forms without being fundamentally changed by the equal participation of women. Moreover, the improvements in gender relations at the individual level in countries like the U.S. have taken place with a parallel displacement of male dominant behaviour onto class and national levels so that hyper-masculinity is considered normal when it is practiced by capitalists, corporations, and countries. In fact, their hyper-masculine behaviour is not even recognized as having anything to do with gender. It is just considered standard policy.

What we need to do in this situation is to radically shift from the norm of the male gender construction to the norm of the mother. A recent theory in cognitive psychology proposes that we have prototypes of categories. For example, for middle-class usa, a robin would be the prototype or exemplar, the best example of the category “bird” (Rosch 1999 [1978]; Lakoff 1987). I believe we do this also with our category of “human,” and the male has been the prototype of the category “human” for patriarchy. In order to radically change patriarchal institutions and perhaps reestablish matriarchies we would need to make the mother the prototype of the category “human.” That would mean that the nurturing characteristics of the mother would be considered human, not just female characteristics. Since the male exemplar or norm has permeated society everywhere, we need to be able to recognize it and find or imagine the alternative in all the many places it exists.

Energy needs to be employed in radically changing the institutions and the premises on which they are constructed so that both male and female human beings can find a context where they can practice their maternal humanity.

At present, the contexts of patriarchal capitalism discredit caring and make other-orientation almost impossible, or they find a way of using it to make money or at least to establish control - witness the New Orleans disaster (Jurgens, 2008).They over-value the logic of exchange and success in the market while making gift-giving appear to be just an individual quirk, a self-indulgence, or a kind of ego tripping attempt at saintliness.

Even equality itself as a criterion is based on male models and the market where what is equal to what and how much, are the main issues (identity logic). The drive to become the one at the top (the prototype) and exercise power-over is a value for patriarchy but not for matriarchy. This allows for egalitarianism in matriarchy that is based on the appreciation of diversity. In fact, the process of the socialization of children requires that the other, the different, who is a small baby, be respected for her or his diversity and brought “up” to the same level as the mother. The domination of children, like the domination of adults, is part of the patriarchal (masculated) mode. This does not mean that women cannot dominate but that when they are doing it they are enacting a logic of behaviour that is patriarchal, not matriarchal.

Patriarchies have overtaken matriarchies because some of the patriarchal values are self-confirming, like violence and power over. This has created hybrid societies that do not recognize themselves as such. We can also look at these two kinds of societies as based on two ways of behaving economically, two economic logics. One is gift-giving, the direct satisfaction of needs. The other is exchange, giving in order to receive an equivalent. These two ways of meeting needs constitute two modes of distribution. Gift-giving, which is evident in mothering, has a logic of its own, which is unrecognized by patriarchy. It is transitive and creates positive relationships, subjectivities, and communities. Gift-giving takes place not only in mothering but it permeates society, and exchange, which seems to stand alone, could not take place without it. We can look at gift-giving as the basis of an alternative economic way, which, at present, has been overtaken by an economy based on the logic of exchange and the market.

Exchange, giving in order to receive an equivalent, is different from gift-giving. Where gift-giving creates solidarity and trust, exchange creates adversarial stances of each against all, as each person tries to get more than the others from the transactions. Gift- giving creates bonds while exchange breaks them. Exchange requires measurement and quantification while gift-giving is mainly qualitative. Exchange is ego-oriented while gift-giving is other-oriented. Exchange is intransitive while gift-giving is transitive. In fact, exchange, which is only a double gift, a gift turned back on itself, actually cancels the gift by the equal return.

This cancellation of the gift makes the market an appropriate environment for patriarchy. In fact, the motivations of patriarchy—competition, hierarchy, domination, accumulation for power over—have been incarnated in the market to such an extent that we can call our system patriarchal capitalism or capitalist patriarchy.

Gift-givers give to the exchange economy as their other, and the exchange economy, motivated by patriarchy, takes from the gift economy.

Patriarchies are based on male identities constructed in opposition to mothering, and they are locked into a parasitic relation with gift economies internally. They also seek to recreate these relations externally, forcing other patriarchal groups to give to them. Thus, hyper-masculine behaviour is justified by the market and the market resonates with the male gender identity.

However patriarchies began originally, they are recreated in every male child that is born because of our practice of educating boys into a gender category opposite to that of their mothers, even at a time when mothers are intensely practicing gift-giving towards their children. Then, mothers, as well as their girl children, adapt to care especially for the boys who are learning to be non-giving human beings. But actually gift-giving is the basis of our humanity—men’s as well—so this gender distinction sets up some basic, important, and pervasive paradoxes that influence our lives at all levels, and which are at the root of patriarchy and capitalism.

Matriarchies have communicative economies. That is, economies based on giving and receiving material goods that reinforce the material and spiritual subjectivity of the receiver and the positive other-oriented agency of the giver. These effects allow the development of relations among givers and receivers as well as among all of the members of communities in which gifts freely circulate. This kind of society requires a certain egalitarianism because the development of hierarchy forces more gifts to be given to those at the top (capturing them and holding them there, or wasting them).

Patriarchies can function with important gift aspects, but they usually constrain the gifts to flow from the many to the few, through taxes, tributes, and even slavery backed up by police and military hierarchies. Power-over can be defined as this control of the flow of gifts. Because gift economies would be more life-affirming and positive for everyone, since no one would have to submit to force to get their own and others’ needs met, the market and patriarchy, which value competition, compete with gift economies and win. In fact, patriarchal capitalism is deeply threatened by the gift economy.

Colonialism can be seen in this light as the take over of other economies, many of which were gift economies, in order to establish and control a flow of gifts from them towards the colonizing countries. The invasion of the Americas can be seen as the take over of Indigenous American territories and the seizure of their gifts, made more ferocious by the fact that many of them had gift economies. Indigenous cultures had to be assimilated and eliminated in order to avoid proposing the gift economy model instead of the Patriarchal Capitalist model.

Markets impose distribution without gift-giving, because the goods and services are given in order to receive an equal exchange. The exchange cancels the gift and changes other-orientation to ego-orientation. Markets are intransitive, non-communicative economies and the relations they create are adversarial, ego-oriented, and atomistic. What the members of the community have in common is their non-community, their intransitive material non-communication of private property. They give something in order not to give it, to keep its value, so as to be able give it again in the form of money, and satisfy their own needs. Instead of giving value to the other they give value to the self, using the need of the other as means rather than as an end in itself. While markets may appear better than forced labour and slavery they are not the neutral and neuter, ungendered, just and autonomous constructions they are purported to be.

Actually, they float on a sea of gifts. Housework, which would add 40 percent more to the Gross National Product in the U.S. (more in some other countries) if it were monetized, is a gift women are giving to the market economy. If profit is seen as coming from surplus value, the value of the worker’s labour beyond what is covered in the salary, it can also be considered as made up of free gifts from the worker to the capitalist (even if from the workers’ point of view the gifts are forced.) Anytime one person pays more for something than it is worth, s/he is giving a free gift to the seller. So profit is actually made up of gifts. Remittances from immigrants in the North to people in their home countries are gifts now amounting to billions of dollars. But actually all the free acts of kindness and community that we practice on a daily basis can be considered gifts and part of an economy of kindness that softens the market and makes it liveable. Gifts at all levels have been misdefined or ignored by Patriarchy, but we can make them visible as part of a thread which connects them in a positive way.

Capitalist markets are markets infused with the competitive values of patriarchy, which drive the exchangers to accumulate more gifts in order to leverage power over others. The ego-orientation of exchange fits with the ego-orientation of patriarchal men as each person competes with others and strives towards domination. While the market may appear to be better than patriarchy as such, it is a process that hides the giving of gifts by the many to the few and displaces what was previously read as a biological or hereditary advantage of males in patriarchy onto more primitive and seemingly ungendered factors such as risk, luck, and virtue.

I say these factors are more primitive just for the reason that they are part of what we might call a folk theory that justifies categorization as male. Males are born male by luck, or perhaps deserve to be male by (some kind of prenatal superiority) or the superiority of their spirits. We can even say that by being born they risked becoming females but by their good fortune they were placed in the superior category. Later they have to “deserve” their manly privilege by hard work and by the same kind of individuation and atomization the market process provides. Masculinity is not a biologically based gender identity, but an identity formed by an ideological process that can be embraced by women as well as men, and by people from all cultures. I believe it is this ideological (gender) process that is incarnated in the market, and allows everyone to strive to be put in privileged categories by having instead of lacking.

Taking this false male gender construction as the standard broadens the false judgment that males are not like their gift-giving mothers, so that it extends to everyone. Thus we say that humans are basically not-giving, but that some humans are forced by others to give, and that they are thus victims, while those who have the power (to make others give to them) are admired as successful predators.

The victims are supposedly unlucky, incompetent, afraid to risk, and lacking in manly abilities (like being aggressive and staying the course). Those who are biologically female (“have-nots”) are more likely to be victims. They are born to be failed predators. They are the prey in what I call “raptor capitalism.” Similarly, race and class categories privilege those in power and condemn everyone else to the giving victim role. By incarnating this gender construction in the market, the values of the European male gender construction have been given an independent existence outside of the normal flow of time and history. Moreover, this incarnation has permitted everyone to embrace these values or forced them to embrace them because there is the penalty of poverty and death by hunger and disease for failure or non-compliance. Thus, women and people of non-privileged cultures can presumably compete to be in the superior European (male “have”) category. However, they seldom, if ever, succeed.

This “raptor capitalist” vision of society and gender is not only false but it does not allow a starting place for change.

Economics textbooks begin with the idea that the market is the way scarce goods are distributed. They do not mention that the market itself is often the cause of the scarcity of the goods. The commodification of goods and services transforms them from abundant gifts to scarce commodities, and allows the accumulation of wealth by the few at the expense of the many. This is particularly evident now in globalization with the seizure of water and seeds and even life forms by corporations, so that things that were once a means of giving, abundantly available for the taking, have been absorbed into the market, and can only be had at a price.

The explanation of the market and capitalism, starting with the gift economy and the female standard, which includes rather than rejects mothering, lets us look at predatory behaviour as an aberration and at gift-givers as positive agents who are temporarily trapped and exploited by a system based on an illusory gender construction.

This problematic European male gender construction does not have to do primarily with sex but with the foundations of economics. That is, how people get their material needs met. How are needs met in society? Patriarchy says that one gender, the male, will not meet needs as mothers do. In the socialization of children this implies that in order to take up a male social and sexual role as an adult, the child has to give up the maternal economic identity from his earliest days, and, the corresponding cultural or super-structural identity. For young children, this economic identity has to do with very detailed gift-giving and receiving on a daily basis. It is the stuff of life itself and the primary relation creating interaction. Making an adult sex role contingent on the child’s adopting a certain economic behaviour, places him in a situation of exchange already, because sex becomes the reward or payoff for not-giving behaviour. That is, he gives up gift-giving and will eventually be allowed to be a male sex agent if he can act according to the manhood agenda and become a subject of the market, as a breadwinner. Thus, boys are already in an if/then, do ut des mode as they grow up.

Since gift-giving and receiving are the way we construct human relationships, boys are placed in a problematic situation when they are turned away from the gift economy as children. A substitute for giving is made available to them, which is hitting. In fact, hitting, like giving, reaches out and touches the other person, and establishes a relationship – though one of harm rather than of nurture. Furthermore, it establishes a relationship of hierarchy rather than mutuality. Gratuitous hitting calls for pay back, and so fights begin, on the basis of exchange, revenge and “honour.” Backyard brawls prepare boys not only for participation in the market but for wars fought on the market principles of escalating exchanges of blows, attacks, and reprisals, in the struggle to establish national male dominance.The loser nation is forced to give up and give to the winner, and, in the process take on a female position.

Markets and exchange have early capillary roots in manipulation, bribery, and education through punishment and reward. These are interactions, which validate exchange, and impose it on children, socializing them away from gift-giving. There are many other cultural influences that validate the market.

Even religions that otherwise might propose the gift model are Patriarchal and unquestioningly promote exchange. For example, look at the Judeo-Christian idea of payment for original sin. There are many areas in which gifts are given within an in-group, creating community within an otherwise Patriarchal institution. For example, in the military there is much solidarity and reciprocal help that is given among soldiers on and off the battlefield. Community is created which actually strengthens the kind of military exchanges (attacks and reprisals) it is possible to undertake.

The hybrid societies of matriarchy-patriarchy are awkward constructions in which the givers give to the not-givers, and the not-givers use force to keep the givers in their female or nurturing position. Many paradoxes and double binds occur in these hybrid societies, which are schizophrenogenic, causing disassociation and denial as well as vulnerability to lies and manipulation. In fact, lies function according to the logic of exchange, as they are told to satisfy the need of the giver, not the communicative need of the receiver.

Matriarchies do not divide males from females economically in childhood as Patriarchies do. Adult males are still expected to behave economically like their mothers. They can do this while maintaining a sexual behaviour that is like their father’s or mother’s brother’s or other male model’s. They do not have to reject mothering economics in order to become sexually adequate males.

Heterosexuality, therefore, does not in itself depend on males rejecting mothering economics or values, which derive from and are functional to gift-giving.

It is not surprising that many people are attempting to challenge gender categories, but they seem to do it more regarding sex than economics. Changing gender roles appears to regard only homosexuality and transgender while the economic aspects of gender are ignored or only understood in terms of equal opportunity within the patriarchal capitalist institutions. This renders the gender challenge of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transexual (LGBT) movements much weaker and less political than it could otherwise be. I believe that a movement that embraces adult gift-based economic behaviour can challenge patriarchal capitalism. Breaking the connection between masculine sexuality and the rejection of gift-giving would eliminate much of the motivation towards capitalist accumulation. It is (male) gender as an economic identity that is the problem. Sexuality outside of patriarchy is only another way of giving and receiving.

In matriarchies the continuity between mothering and adult economic behaviour is not broken. The connetion also remains intact between mothering and symbolic behavior like language, and between mothering and epistemology.

The maternal character of the environment is recognized by Matriarchies and gift economies. Mothered children who recognize the fact that they have been mothered, and have participated in and not rejected a gift economy, can use this gift interaction when interpreting other phenomena. An epistemology, which interprets perception as the reception of gifts from our surroundings, allows a respect for and appreciation of nature and gratitude for nature’s gifts—in which we can include our own capacity to receive—whether nature is personalized or not. Technology is the extension of the instrumentalization of humans in exchange to the instrumentalization of nature. Rather than dominating or instrumentalizing nature as masculated men do, gift economies and Matriarchies cooperate with nature The market has a neutral or a neuter objective face, which is projected into a concept of nature as an object. In so doing, human nature, including the body, which is produced by the mother and nurtured by mothering economics, is treated as an object. The gift aspects of humanity and of nature are thus denied and the processes of competition, hierarchy (the great chain of being), and sexual dominance are attributed to objectified nature itself.

In order to choose a differently gendered economy, and thereby change the approach to nature as well, it seems that people have to create social experiments or be dropouts from the system, which penalizes them because, due to the scarcity artificially created by the market, they do not usually have access to the means of giving. Instead we need to collectively challenge the gendered character of the market: dismantle patriarchal capitalism, and replace it with generalized mothering economic behaviour. At the same time we need to challenge the way we construct masculinity in opposition to mothering.

I do not think it is likely that we can reinstate matriarchies quickly, but I think we do have to do something quickly. What we can do is to analyze and challenge the male gender construction so as to make it clear that it is artificial and unnecessary, and that the combination of patriarchy and capitalism is what is bringing our planet to immanent disaster. I believe we need to reveal that the values expressed in the ideology of patriarchal capitalism are false, pernicious and harmful to everyone, to the very men who try to put them into effect as well as to society as a whole. They are a translation of gift-giving into a neuter or aggressive “male” mode.

I suggest putting the pieces of the puzzle in different, unfamiliar places. First, change the standard from male to female and hold in abeyance the idea of standard itself and of equality itself—both based on the logic of identity which I see as a distressed constituent part of the male gender construction. Consequently, we should change what the movement is focused on—not on the assimilation of women but on a radical change in the institutions towards a maternal model. Challenge and change the gender construction of men by separating sexuality from economics. Value gift-giving and liberate it from its relation of host to the not-giving parasitic system. As institutions change towards maternal values and maternal economics, hyper-masculine behaviour will no longer be adaptive or admirable. These are just a few pieces of the puzzle. The first step in rearranging them is defining gift-giving as economic.


Genevieve Vaughan is an independent researcher. In 1963, she moved to Italy from her native Texas. Her two early essays “Communication and Exchange” (Semiotica 1980) and “Saussure and Vigotsky via Marx” (Ars semiotica 1981) deal with language and economics. In 1978, she became a feminist, participating since then in the Italian, U.S., and international feminist movements. In 1983, she returned to Austin, Texas, where she created the Foundation for a Compassionate Society (1987-2005), an all-woman activist foundation, which initiated many innovative projects based on the politicization of “women’s values.” In 1997, she published her book, For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange, and in 2004, she edited Athanor, The Gift: A Feminist Analysis. In 2008, Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different Worldview is Possible, was published by Inanna Publications. This book is a collection of essays from the 2004 conference on the gift economy, which she organized in Las Vegas. She also co organized the 2005 conference on Matriarchal Studies in San Marcos Texas under the direction of Heide Goettner-Abendroth, from which a number of essays in the present volume derive. She is active in the feminist, anti-globalization, and peace movements. She coordinates the International Feminists for a Gift Economy network, a group of activists and academics devoted to promoting the gift paradigm. A film on her life, Giving for Giving, was produced in 2007 and aired on Free Speeech tv.The film and many of her books and essays are available free on her website www.gift-economy.com.

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