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A (M)otherworld is Possible: Two Feminist Visions - Matriarchal Studies - The Gift Economy

October 23-25, 2009, York University, Toronto, Canada

Presented by
Association for Research on Mothering (ARM)
The International Academy Hagia
The Gift Economy Network
International Feminists for a Gift Economy
This conference is embedded in ARM's 13th Annual Conference Mothering and the Environment: The Natural, the Social, the Built Oct 22-25.

Watch videos of the conference.
Conference filmstrip

Short paper on Gift Economy

Short paper on Matriarchy


In this time of world economic crisis it is more important than ever to find deep alternatives to a system that is proving itself to be dysfunctional. It is not surprising that such alternatives would have to do with women, and especially with mothers, whose roles of directly providing for the needs of their children form patterns of care that can be generalized.

Mothering can be seen as a mode of distribution, a vestigial or nascent gift economy, which co exists with the market but could be taken as the model for a way of organizing society as a whole. The fact that the values of care, necessary for mothering, are in opposition to the values of greed and domination, which have motivated the present economic crash, demonstrates that an economic system based on mothering could be a radical and positive alternative. The fact that mothers are now uniting in movements of consciousness and solidarity can allow us to expect that they will support a change of the economy towards care and away from exploitation.

There are a number of initiatives at present having to do with gift economies. The internet and the knowledge economy provide the abundance necessary for gift giving to function without being self sacrificial. Not only free software and the free copyright movement but Wikipedia, Freecycling, Facebook, You Tube, Skype etc. provide information and goods free. There are numerous attempts at gift giving on the material plane such as volunteerism, solidarity networks, alternative communities, free stores, yellow bikes, time banks and cooperative gifting circles. Other examples are the remittances made by immigrants to their home countries and philanthropy.This movement can be framed as a mothering movement, even when it is often implemented by men. Unfortunately it has not been clear that the unilateral gift giving, which is necessary for mothering even in a society based on market values, is the foundational logic of all these attempts. Rather studies of 'symbolic gift exchange' have suggested that the logic of debt and obbligation and the reward of reputation are what moves the participants. Even in societies which have 'gift exchange' however, mothers continue to give directly to their children and families. Symbolic exchange and market exchange can both be seen as elaborations of direct provisioning and its logic.

Matriarchal societies had and have distribution of goods to needs, as well as celebrations and festivals where different groups take turns in distributing their goods to other groups. The leadership of women, decision making by women, matrilineality, matrilocality, and prototype of the mother are characteristics of these societies, which are not mirror images of patriarchies, but peaceful , balanced societies in which men, if they are to be leaders, must be 'like good mothers'.

Both matriarchal studies and gift economy studies generalize maternal values to the society at large. Mothering is not relegated to the nursery and there is not a break between the adult economy and the economy of childhood. Rather the importance of the relationships developed in giving and receiving is elaborated in understanding and developing all relationships in these societies. Many aspects of the world view coming from the society based on the market and homo economicus can be seen in radically different ways when mothering is the premise of social value. Modern matriarchal studies rejects the opinion of Bachofen and his followers who believed that matriarchy was a mirror image of patriarchy. Instead matriarchies are egalitarian societies that embrace the model of the mother as the model of the human.

The feminist vision based on the logic of the gift economy and the feminist vision of matriarchal studies support each other. The discourse of the gift economy emphasizes the distribution of goods to needs and the circulation of gifts while matriarchal studies provides concrete historical examples of matriarchal societies as well as modern societies that still function according to matriarchal principles.