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A matrifocal family structure is one where mothers head families and fathers play a less important role in the home and in bringing up children.
"A family or domestic group is matrifocal when it is centred on a woman and her children. In this case the father(s) of these children are intermittently present in the life of the group and occupy a secondary place. The children's mother is not necessarily the wife of one of the children's fathers." In general, according to Laura Hobson Herlihy citing P. Mohammed, women have "high status" if they are "the main wage earners", they "control ... the household economy", and males tend to be absent. The term was coined in 1956. Men's absences are often of long durations.
Alternative terms for 'matrifocal' or 'matrifocality' include matricentric, matripotestal, and women-centered kinship networks.
Characteristics and distribution
According to anthropologist Maurice Godelier, matrifocality is "typical of Afro-Caribbean groups" and some African-American communities. These include families in which a father has a wife and one or more mistresses; in a few cases, a mother may have more than one lover. Matrifocality was also found, according to Rasmussen per Herlihy, among the Tuareg people in northern Africa; by Raymond T. Smith (according to Herlihy), in some Black Caribbean families in British Guyana; according to Herlihy citing other authors, in some Mediterranean communities; and, according to Herlihy quoting Scott, in urban Brazil.
Herlihy found matrifocality among the Miskitu people, in the village of Kuri, on the Caribbean coast of northeastern Honduras in the late 1990s. According to Herlihy, the "main power" of Kuri women lies "in their ability to craft everyday social identities and kinship relations .... Their power lies beyond the scope of the Honduran state, which recognizes male surnames and males as legitimate heads of households." Herlihy found in Kuri a trend toward matriliny and a correlation with matrilineality, while some patriarchal norms also existed. Herlihy found that the "women knew more than most men about village histories, genealogies, and local folklore" and that "men typically did not know local kinship relations, the proper terms of reference, or reciprocity obligations in their wife's family" and concluded that Miskitu women "increasingly assume responsibility for the social reproduction of identities and ultimately for preserving worldwide cultural and linguistic diversity". The Nair community in Kerala and the Bunt community in Tulunadu in South India are prime examples of matrifocality. This can be attributed to the fact that if males were largely warriors by profession, a community was bound to lose male members at youth, leading to a situation where the females assumed the role of running the family.
In the 14th century, in Jiangnan, South China, under Mongol rule by the Yuan dynasty, Kong Qi kept a diary of his view of some families as practicing gynarchy, not defined as it is in major dictionaries but defined by Paul J. Smith as "the creation of short-term family structures dominated by women" and not as matrilineal or matriarchal. The gynarchy possibly could be passed down through generations. According to Paul J. Smith, it was to this kind of gynarchy that "Kong ascribed...the general collapse of society" and Kong believed that men in Jiangnan tended to "forfeit...authority to women".
Matrifocality arose, Godelier said, in some Afro-Caribbean and African American cultures as a consequence of enslavement of thousands. Slaves were forbidden to marry and their children belonged to the slavemasters. Women in slave families "often" sought impregnation by White masters so the children would have lighter skin color and be more successful in life, lessening the role of Black husbands. Some societies, particularly Western European, allow women to enter the paid labor force or receive government aid and thus be able to afford to raise children alone while some other societies "oppose ... [women] living on their own."
In feminist belief (more common in the 1970s than in the 1990s–2000s and criticized within feminism and within archaeology, anthropology, and theology as lacking a scholarly basis), there was a "matrifocal (if not matriarchal) Golden Age" before patriarchy.
- Smith, Raymond T., The Matrifocal Family: Power, Pluralism and Politics (New York: Routledge, 1996 (ISBN 0-415-91215-6))
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- Godelier, Maurice, trans. Nora Scott, The Metamorphoses of Kinship (London: Verso, 2011 (ISBN 978-1-84467-746-7)), p. 568 (Glossary, entry matrifocal) (trans. from Métamorphoses de la parenté (Librarie Arthème Fayard (apparently), 2004)) (author prof. anthropology, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris).
- Three quotations: Herlihy, Laura Hobson, Matrifocality and Women's Power on the Miskito Coast, in Ethnology, vol. 46, no. 2, Spring, 2007, p. 134 n. 3 (author of Univ. of Kansas), citing Mohammed, P., The Caribbean Family Revisited, in Mohammed, P., & C. Shepherd, eds., Gender in Caribbean Development (Univ. of the W. Indies, 1986).
- Herlihy, Laura Hobson, Matrifocality and Women's Power on the Miskito Coast, op. cit., p. 134.
- Herlihy, Laura Hobson, Matrifocality and Women's Power on the Miskito Coast, op. cit., p. 137.
- Herlihy, Laura Hobson, Matrifocality and Women's Power on the Miskito Coast, op. cit., p. 134 n. 3.
- Godelier, Maurice, trans. Nora Scott, The Metamorphoses of Kinship, op. cit., p. 457 n. 31.
- Herlihy, Laura Hobson, Matrifocality and Women's Power on the Miskito Coast, op. cit., p. 137, citing Rasmussen, S., Tent as Cultural Symbol and Field Site: Social and Symbolic Space, "Topos", and Authority in a Tuareg Community, in Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 14–26 (1996).
- Herlihy, Laura Hobson, Matrifocality and Women's Power on the Miskito Coast, op. cit., p. 134, citing Smith, R. T., The Negro Family in British Guiana: Family Structure and Social Status in the Villages (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956).
- Herlihy, Laura Hobson, Matrifocality and Women's Power on the Miskito Coast, op. cit., p. 141, citing Scott, P., Matrifocal Males: Gender, Perception, and Experience of the Domestic Domain in Brazil, in Maynes, M., et al., eds., Gender, Kinship, Power: A Comparative and Interdisciplinary History (Routledge, 1995), p. 287 (contribution cited as at pp. 149–74) (possible pagination error).
- Herlihy, Laura Hobson, Matrifocality and Women's Power on the Miskito Coast, op. cit., pp. 133–134 & passim.
- Herlihy, Laura Hobson, Matrifocality and Women's Power on the Miskito Coast, op. cit., p. 141.
- Herlihy, Laura Hobson, Matrifocality and Women's Power on the Miskito Coast, op. cit., p. 145.
- Herlihy, Laura Hobson, Matrifocality and Women's Power on the Miskito Coast, op. cit., p. 146.
- The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, [4th] ed. 1993 (ISBN 0-19-861271-0)).
- Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (G. & C. Merriam (Merriam-Webster), 1966).
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 3d ed. 1992 (ISBN 0-395-44895-6)).
- Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary (New York: Random House, 2d ed. 2001 (ISBN 0-375-42566-7)).
- Smith, Paul J., Fear of Gynarchy in an Age of Chaos: Kong Qi's Reflections on Life in South China under Mongol Rule, in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, vol. 41, no. 1 (1998), p. 45 & n. 134 and see pp. 1 (abstract), 2–3, 46, 63, 65, 69–70, 72–73, & 81 (author was of Haverford Coll.)).
- Smith, Paul J., Fear of Gynarchy in an Age of Chaos, op. cit., pp. 76–77.
- Smith, Paul J., Fear of Gynarchy in an Age of Chaos, op. cit., p. 78.
- Rountree, Kathryn, The Past is a Foreigners’ Country: Goddess Feminists, Archaeologists, and the Appropriation of Prehistory, in Journal of Contemporary Religion, vol. 16, no. 1 (January, 2001), pp. –9 & passim & quotation at p. 6 (DOI 10.1080/1353790002001184 6) (author lecturer, social anthropology dep't, Massey University, Albany, Auckland, New Zealand).
- Naidoo, K., untitled, in South African Journal of Sociology, vol. 27, issue 4, November 1996 (book review)