Revisiting Matriarchy in Brazil (@theTable: “Racism and the Feminist Study of Religion”)
By Jamie Lee Andreson.
Matriarchy, understood as Black women’s leadership, has been a central criterion in public debates on leadership, race and gender in the West African derived Candomblé religion in Brazil. 1 In Candomblé, matriarchy expresses a counterpoint to the explicit historical patriarchy of the Brazilian Catholic Church. The female leadership of Candomblé priestesses of African descent (referred to as matriarchy rather than matriliny), stands in stark contrast to the official patriarchy of colonial rule by elite slave-owning Brazilian oligarchic families. The highly respected priestesses of Candomblé with the title of Matriarca (Matriarch)are women of visible African descent with an advanced age of initiation in the religion and occupy leadership positions as Mothers (head priestesses) of their temple. Candomblé Mothers belonging to biological family lineages with generations of Candomblé leadership are considered the most prestigious and potent holders of the ancestral force—axé. The most iconic Candomblé Matriarchs can document their biological ancestry through religious families from the African continent. 2
In contrast, in the United States debates on matriarchy have been fraught between academia, feminisms and policy. Anthropology’s turn from matriarchy since the 1970s reflects a growing discomfort with utopian projections of White feminism alongside a deconstruction of anthropology’s colonial and racist roots. More than a disciplinary corrective, matriarchy’s ostracization in U.S. social thought discouraged examinations of its usage in social and religious contexts. Consequently, U.S. based scholars have invalidated the concept even as expressed among Candomblé initiates, who use the title to show respect and reverence for primarily Black female leaders. Given contemporary interpretations of matriarchy, I look to the case of Candomblé priestesses in Brazil so that feminist studies might reconsider the concept as a specific articulation of kinship, race and gender in a hierarchical system.
White men and women characterizing Black and Brown female leaders as “matriarchs” has a long, oppressive and stigmatizing history in Western intellectual traditions. The term matriarchy was “invented” by nineteenth century European evolutionary social scientists. 3 They constructed matriarchy through myths and historical narratives as an earlier stage of development in a teleological progression to patriarchy as the highest stage of civilization. 4 Like most of the established anthropological cannon from that period, none of the early theorists of matriarchy were themselves women. 5
In the 1970s, feminist anthropologists like Paula Webster questioned “matriarchy” as an abstract term used mostly by White feminists to portray a utopian vision of women’s power in the “Third World” as a counterexample to Western patriarchy. 6 Marxist feminists approached matriarchs as primitive examples of female power, located in pre-industrial contexts where women held prominent political and religious positions, prior to the takeover of “modern” patriarchy and “civilized” social organization in the imperial metropoles of the global north. In the 1980s and 1990s African Feminists Ifi Amadiume and Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí demonstrated that the binary division of matriarchy versus patriarchy does not apply to the system of gender relations in West Africa. 7 Instead, these authors emphasized that Western feminists fabricated examples of “matriarchy” in Africa to conceptualize their own liberation from patriarchal oppression, assumed as a decontextualized universal. Without recognizing their own gender system as culturally specific, White Western feminists reinforced a binary sex system that did not equally apply in West African contexts.
Critiques of this genealogy and the violent application of matriarchy to Black women specifically contributed to the decline of the concept within the contemporary social sciences. Black feminists, most notably Patricia Hill Collins, pointed to the 1965 publication of the Moynihan report, which stigmatized single Black mothers in the U.S., blaming the matriarchal structure of the Black family as the cause for the community’s purported “social retardation.” 8 Shutting down White utopian visions of Matriarchs and the associated stigmatization and romanticization of Black women was a necessary disciplinary halt achieved by Black and African feminists between the 1970s and 1990s given its violent, white supremacist application.
Throughout the twentieth century, the cultural trope of the Black Matriarch upheld the ideal types of a maternal, strong, enduring domestic and selfless mother-figure and provider in the post-abolition Americas. In the US, this portrayal stigmatized Black single mothers specifically. Similar to the “Black Mammy” stereotype in the U.S., Brazil celebrated the Mãe Preta (Black Mother) as a folkloric nostalgia of the slave past constructed from the vantage point of the white gaze, where Black mothers birthed the mixed-race Brazilian nation from a position of servitude and disenfranchisement. Yet, even as governments, academics, cultural initiatives and the media distorted and manipulated the role of Black mothers in the Americas to reinforce discrimination and inequality, select Afro-Brazilian Candomblé priestesses at least since the 1970s have embraced the title of Matriarca as they lead and rule in the African religious territories in Brazil—the Candomblé terreiros. 9 The Mothers reclaimed the term to reorient its power as expressed in their ancestral ritual context. 10
The chief priestesses are responsible for maintaining continuities with the African past as they transmit ritual and historical knowledge to serve the deities in community. The Candomblé Mother is the supreme authority of the initiatory family, contrasting greatly with the racial fantasy of the “Black Mother”, which at the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy produces the Brazilian nation while being exploited by it. The leadership of dark-skinned elderly women in Candomblé temples in predominantly Black Brazilian neighborhoods provides a model of leadership and respect, especially necessary given the prevalence of violence, exclusion and disenfranchisement. The jurisdiction of the terreiro as an African territory on Brazilian soil demonstrates the actively oppositional stance of the religious community, which inverts the traditional order of Brazilian colorism and machismo by valorizing dark skinned elderly women for their knowledge, experience and leadership. 11
If social scientists and humanists may revisit the concept of matriarchy, it can only be as reframed by female leaders who deploy it as an expression of social organization in their own communities. If we continue to disregard the concept as an entry point into studying women’s leadership, what are we foreclosing in terms of acknowledging, understanding and amplifying the transformational power of women of color leading communities today?
Jamie Lee Andreson holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology and History from the University of Michigan. Currently she is a postdoctoral scholar with the Africana Research Center at Penn State University. As a scholar she is committed to engaged research and pedagogy on the topics of African Diaspora Religions, trans-American comparative histories of slavery, identity formation through race, gender and sexuality, and the politics of cultural heritage with a focus on the Candomblé religion of Brazil. Her dissertation Mothers in the Family of Saints: Gender and Race in the Making of Afro-Brazilian heritage uses interdisciplinary methods including ethnography, archival research, interviews, and oral histories to show how Candomblé priestesses and “matriarchy” are ritually valued and externally recognized as key sources of African heritage in Brazil.
- Ruth Landes, “A cult matriarchate and male homosexuality” (Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 35: 386–397, 1940); Ruth Landes, The City of Women (New York: The Macmillan Co, 1947); Antonio Risério, “O matriarcalismo negro no Brasil” (Folha de Sâo Paulo, August 17, 1986); Beatriz Góis Dantas, Vovô Nagô e Papai Branco: Usos e abusos da África no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, Edições Graal Ltda, 1988); J. Lorand Matory, Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, transnationalism and matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomble (Princeton University Press, 2005); Cléo Martins and Raul Lody (orgs), Faraimará: Mãe Stella 60 anos de iniciação (Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 1999); Patricia S. Pinho, Mama Africa: Reinventing Blackness in Bahia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); Júlio Braga, Candomblé: a cidade das mulheres e dos homens (Editora Vento Leste, 2014); Jamie Lee Andreson, Ruth Landes e a Cidade das Mulheres: uma releitura da antropologia do candomblé (Salvador: Editora UFBA, 2019); Mundicarmo Ferreti, “Matriarcado em terreiros de mina do Maranhão – Realidade ou ilusão?” In Revista Ciências Humanas: dossiê religião e religiosidade (5(1), 11-20 (UFV), 2005, julho/dezembro).
- José Félix dos Santos and Cida Nóbrega (orgs), Mãe Senhora: saudade e memória (Salvador: Corrupio, 2000); Maria Stella de Azevedo Santos, Meu tempo é agora (2ª edição, Assembleia Legislativa do Estado da Bahia, 2010); Cida Nóbrega and Regina Echeverria, Mãe menininha do Gantois: uma biografia (Salvador: Corrupio, 2006), iguel C. Alonso, The Development of Yoruba Candomble Communities in Salvador, Bahia, 1835-1986 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
- Johann Jakob Bachofen, Myth, Religion and Mother Right: Selected Writings by J.J. Bachofen (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967); Lewis Henry Morgan, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family (1870); Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society; or, Researches in the lines of human progress from savagery through barbarism to civilization (Cleveland: World Pub. Co, 1963); Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family Private Property and the State (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972). For a more comprehensive analysis of the nineteenth century social theorists involved in this project, see Elizabeth Fee, “Sexual Politics of Victorian Anthropology” in Feminist Studies. Vol. 1, No. 3/4, Special Double Issue: Women’s History (Winter – Spring, 1973), pp. 23-39.
- Friedrich Engels’ work was revisited by Marxist feminists in the 1970s including Eleanore Leacock, Karen Sacks and Kathleen Gough.
- Catherine Lutz, “The Gender of Theory” in Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon (eds.), Women Writing Culture/Culture Writing Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
- Paula Webster, “Matriarchy: A Vision of Power” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna R. Reiter (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1975).
- Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and sex in African society (London: Zed Books, 1987); Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, The Invention of Women: Making an African sense of Western gender discourses (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
- Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” An American Grammar Book” (Diacritics, Vol. 17, no. 2, Culture and Countermemory: The ‘American’ Connection, pp. 64-81, Summer 1987); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015).
- “A Cidade das Mulheres”, Direction and Production: Lázaro Faria (Salvador: Casa de Cinema da Bahia, 2005, 1 DVD, 72 min); Alexandre Lyrio and Dadá Jaques (org), Equede: A Mãe de Todos (Salvador: Barabô Editora, 2016).
- Jamie Lee Andreson, “Mothers in the Family of Saints: Gender and Race in the Making of Afro-Brazilian Heritage” (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2020).
- Cheryl Sterling, “Women, Space, Power, and the Sacred in Afro-Brazilian Culture” (The Global South, Vol. 4, No. 1, Special Issue: Latin America in a Global Spring, 2010, pp. 71-93); Rita Segato, “The Color-blind Subject of Myth; or where to find Africa in the nation” (Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 27, 1998, pp. 129-151); Jamie Sodré, “Ialorixá, O Poder Singular Feminino” In Faraimará: Mãe Stella 60 anos de iniciação (Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 1999); Helena Theodoro, “Mulher Negra: Dignidade e Identidade” In Faraimará: Mãe Stella 60 anos de iniciação (Rio de Janeiro: Pallas, 1999); Marcos Rezende (Org.), Mulheres de axé (Salvador, BA: Kawo-Kabiyesile).