matriarchy-in-the-philippines pic

Matriarchy in the Philippines

matriarchy in the philippines pic
Pic: Rod Fleming

Western feminists, for over half a century, have argued that gender itself has been the fundamental  agent of women’s oppression. But very few have considered the consequences of matriarchy. I suggest that matriarchy in the Philippines offers an alternative.

In ‘Why Men Made God’ we pointed out that powerful, high-status women in the patriarchy were those who became a part of the patriarchy itself.  Some become consorts of patriarchal men. Others, however, become better at being men than men are.

Where the patriarchy was based on forms of meritocracy — often on the power to make financial profit — artificial barriers that might exist in less fluid societies could be broken down by women excelling at being men, and so they could rise in the patriarchal hierarchy.

This was a consequence of patriarchy. In order to compete and succeed, women had to accept  rules designed by men. They had to become adept at playing a game that men had devised specifically to favour themselves. When we look at Hilary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher or Theresa May, we must ask, how much ‘woman’ is left? At least in terms of their public personas, none.

The counter to this has always been that if women do not do this, become better men than men, then men will always dominate. But how does it favour women for ‘women become men’ to rise? I have never, ever met a woman in the UK who thinks that Margaret Thatcher did anything at all for women — even among those who thought she did great things for the nation.


The requirement on women to ‘become men’ in order to succeed in the patriarchy leads inevitably to a compromise of gender.

Effectively, women who do rise to the highest levels in the patriarchy are themselves transgender. They may not be transsexual — that is, they have not modified their bodies to be more manly — but they have become transgender by adopting gender behaviours and roles specified and described by men. In short they are ‘women-become-men’.

Amongst many feminists today there remains a conviction that ‘gender is a social construct designed by men to oppress women’ and that the only way for women to advance to the status of men would be to erase gender itself.

Gender is conventional, so the expressions of it must be invented.

For example, 300 years ago, men wore long wigs, colourful brocades, velvet pantaloons, frilly lace collars and cuffs, stockings, high-heels and full make-up, and considered themselves very manly indeed. These conventions are fluid and change all the time.

On the other hand, when researching ‘Why Men Made God’ we could find no human culture — even amongst those where people habitually go naked or nearly so — that did not display it. So while gender expression clearly is conventional, gender itself is innate, or at least, universal.

That makes the idea of ‘getting rid of it’ seem much like Marx’s idea that the State would ‘wither away’ in Communism — which we have adequate evidence to show, gained at the cost of huge suffering, is not true. So it seems likely to also be the case with gender. You may hate it or love it, but it does not appear that you can do away with it.

‘Why Men Made God.’

In ‘Why Men Made God’ we did not argue for the abolition of gender. Instead we argued for the abolition of patriarchy. Yet if gender is real and cannot be done away with, then we have to ask ‘with what do we replace the patriarchy?’

The only possible answer is ‘a matriarchy.’

We in the West intimately know the consequences of patriarchy: war, inequality, violence, rape, homophobia, religious intolerance, corruption…the list of ills is endless. These are the consequences of patriarchy.

Many fine things have happened in the patriarchy: science, art, and so on. But these are not consequences of the patriarchy. The patriarchy just happens to be controlling them.

What might be the consequences of matriarchy?

We are fortunate, because we don’t have to speculate. There are many extant matriarchies that we can look at to find out.

We discussed several of these in ‘Why Men Made God. Many of those appeared in traditional societies, such as the Mosuo people, the Minangkabau and the Zo’é. However we also looked at the Philippines.

Matriarchy in the Philippines.

Matriarchy in the Philippines, as a model, exists across southeast Asia, with only small cultural variations. All of the societies there, whatever their more recent religious overlays, have their roots in animistic cultures, which remain extant in local tribal cultures within them.

Although these cultures are famously ‘macho’ they are in fact matriarchies. This is consistent with the ‘two-group’ structure we discussed in Why Men Made God. In this, societies are divided into an external group of men and an internal hierarchy of ‘not-men’ based around fertile women.

We can clearly see this at work in older hunter-gatherers societies. Men hunt large game and carry our heavier tasks, to which they are suited physically, while women forage, trap small game and look after the children. In our discussion of the !Kung San people of the Kalahari, we noted that women’s efforts in foraging and trapping were enough to feed the entire tribe in around 18 hours of work a week each, while the men’s hunting expeditions were only successful around 20% of the time. So the women were literally feeding everyone.

All of these cultures exhibit the ‘two-group’ social model. But how do these practises translate to a modern, urbanised society?

The traditional model.

Matriarchy in the Philippines conforms to the model evolved over hundreds — possibly thousands — of years, from tribal, to village-settled mixed hunter/horticultural/agrarian. This culture was based on small villages. With increasing population and urbanisation, these villages became subsumed into larger towns and cities, but retained their character. These became the barangays or ‘villages’ — as they are still often called — of the modern Philippines.

Within this culture, the old social split still prevails: in the streets, a powerfully ‘macho’ masculine patriarchy exists: within the home a matriarchy is in place. Men rarely socialise in the home, nearly always in the street, because within the home is a ‘not-men’ space. It is centred on the hierarchy of women.

Within traditional Filipino culture, the head of the household is the grandmother, Lola. Crucially, she looks after the family finances. If there is a business, she looks after the accounts, while the men do the work, the trading, the bartering and the deals. But when it comes to taking or paying money, the women, headed by Lola, are responsible. Usually her oldest daughter will learn how to take over.

You can see this anywhere that women have a presence. Filipino markets — called ‘palenke‘ or ‘wet markets’ — are women’s spaces. Women run nearly all the stalls. In certain areas, such as butcher’s stands, there might be men hacking up the meat. They may even serve the public — but when the customer pays, the man hands the money to the senior woman, and she returns the change.

Colonise and control.

In fact,  women colonise  any space where they are significantly represented — not necessarily in a majority. They turn it, de facto, into a women’s space. Women don’t allow men to be ‘bad boys’ in it. No farting, cursing, or brawling. No dirty jokes, no sexual innuendo. You behave. Mama is watching.

This extends to politics: since the fall of the dictator Marcos in 1986, the Philippines has had two women Presidents. These were Corazon Aquino (1986-1992) and Gloria Macapagal (2001-2010) . This means that women have governed the Philippines for exactly half the time since Marcos fell.

It is true that powerful political clans backed these women. But they did not get to be President by abandoning their gender. They did not do it by being ‘better at being men than men are’. Instead, they did it by being the matriarchs who ruled over their clans. They did it by being what they were — ‘Lolas’. They didn’t ‘erase gender’. These women used the gender-based system of external patriarchy/internal matriarchy to access supreme power. They used gender as a political tool.

And while these women were Presidents, they are no exceptions to the rule: powerful women are everywhere in Filipino life, in the legislature, the judiciary, academia and business.


The recently-elected President of the Philippines is Rodrigo Duterte. He exemplifies Filipino macho culture. Tough, vain, bombastic, foul-mouthed, cheeky, hot-headed, a brawler and larger-than-life, he has scared the living shit out of many observers, and with reason.

But despite the brutality of his tactics, he has a 91% popularity rating, far in excess of the 38% who voted for him. Why? Because he is exactly how Filipinos like their men. He is the epitome of ‘Filipino man’. He is popular with men because they see their idealised selves in him — and with women because they see their idealised sons and husbands in him.

I often wondered why so many Pinays go for ‘bad boys’: it’s because in taming the bad boy, they show their prowess, not just as women, but over men. ‘See, he may be the toughest guy in town, but I whistle, he comes.’


Duterte’s major rival for the Palace, Mar Roxas, is a classic ‘not-man’. Effete, polite, charming, allegedly gay, educated, sophisticated, urbane. He is everything Duterte is not. Yet the previous President, Benigno Aquino, had been of the same ilk as Roxas. The women of the Philippines wanted a real man, a fixer, so they rejected Roxas and elected Duterte. And he gets full support — and will do, till he goes too far, or fails.

What would be the point in electing an obvious ‘not-man’ like Roxas, when there was a man’s job to be done? (Grace Poe, the other serious contender in a multi-horse race, was rejected not because she is a woman, but because of questions over her loyalty to the mother country and the impression that she was neither experienced nor tough enough to do the job.)

Duterte is not governing despite women. He is not popular despite women. He is doing both because of women and because he exemplifies the kind of tough, masculine, no-nonsense leader that they believe the Philippines needs.

Restore order. Fix corruption. Clean up the streets. For goodness’ sake, a woman can’t walk to work without tripping over druggies. Rape is everywhere. Lawlessness. Men must do their job. Get to it.

Duterte personifies the idealised role of the Filipino man as defender of the family: go and sort this bloody mess out. Fix it. Make the house safe again.

An alternative illustration of the consequences of matriarchy.

Gender in the Philippines does not, in any way, work against women: it works for them.

Once again, the Phils, that magical, contradictory, confused and confusing, riotous place, provides an alternative example that we should look to carefully. And while I am focussing on the Phils, it’s not unique. Across southeast Asia we see the same, to a greater or lesser degree.

I am not suggesting that we should try to replicate the southeast Asian model in the West. Indeed I am not even suggesting that it would be a good thing. I am saying that before we condemn gender in the name of equality, we should recognise that we are shooting the wrong horse.

Gender is not the problem. The patriarchy is.

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Copyright 2016 Rod Fleming's World

6 thoughts on “Matriarchy in the Philippines”

    1. It’s a matriarchy in the sense that anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday defines it. While Christianity has made inroads into this, certainly in the provinces it still very much is.

  1. The social influence is masculine. Therefore, Philippines is patriarchal. Virginity is still valued in the Philippines. Virginity is a paternal law of men to prove that men own women like broken of hymen and bleeding. The social influence of feminine is sex, pregnancy and being a motherhood but majority of Filipino men believe that they control women through sex and Filipino men are sex dominant instead of women being sex superior because women gave life to all humanity and provide sexual knowledge. It became a sin and it now taught that women must keep their virginity to their first husband. There are many things to mention but I run of English. I’m not expert in spoken English. Haha. Sorry.

    1. Hello and thank you for commenting.

      In the first place, I should have to say that this article was written before my most recent visit to the Philippines. In that, I spent several months living in a traditional village upcountry, in Bulacan. I would now make some alterations to the piece in the light of that.

      Having said that, there is no doubt at all that within the village, a matriarchy was in force. Women I interviewed made that very clear; they said things like ‘Men make the money but we decide what goes on here.’ In addition, many of the women had their own businesses, some such as sari-sari stores but others in town; one ran a midwife clinic, others had jobs in town.

      However, though the detail of my view and my understanding of the relationships have somewhat changed, in principle I stand by them. In traditional Filipino villages — and this is replicated across SE Asia — matriarchies exist. Men are not in charge. I understand the argument you make about ‘virginity being prized’ but that flies in the face of the evidence — which is of large numbers of unmarried mothers. I accept that a lot of that has to do with FIlipino men not accepting their obligations, but if Filipina girls were all virgins, then it could not happen.

      I now think that matriarchy can only exist in partnership with a patriarchy. Essentially, you have to get the men out of the home space. That is what happens in a culture where most of the men work in distant cities or, as in the Philippines but also amongst the Minangkabau of Indonesia, they work abroad. The men, by their effort, support and maintain the matriarchy.

      This raises the interesting point that the matriarchy, as seen by western feminists, is a canard. In fact what they want to do is to colonise and take over the patriarchy. They want to be ‘women-become-men’ as I said.

      So I hear what you say, but I insist that I can take you to places in the Philippines where real matriarchies, run by matriarchs, exist. This is not just in traditional rural villages, I have seen it in the heart of major cities like Manila.

      Thanks again for your comment and I hope you’ll come again

      1. Regarding the concept of virginity in the Philippines, if you take a look at sources that documented pre-Hispanic Philippines, the concept did not even exist to begin with! The idea only came with the Spanish colonizers! But old habits that are part of thousands of years worth of cultural memory always finds a way to persist, and comes out in the forms that you described above Rod!

        All this talk by Filipino men calling their wives “kumander” definitely did not come out of thin air for sure! Good read though and generally makes sense to me being a man who was born and raised in the Philippines! Thanks for the post.

        1. Thanks again for your insight. Could you give me titles/refs for the sources on pre-Hispanic Phils? All I have is a very brief section in a general history book, I’d love to have more…it’s an area that interests me a lot

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