matriarchy-in-the-philippines pic

Matriarchy in the Philippines

Matriarchy in the Philippines IMG_2006-300x225
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.

That is at least problematic. Gender is a construct, yes. But gender is not responsible for the oppression of women in the patriarchy; the patriarchy is. The patriarchy and gender are not the same thing.

It is true that the existence of the patriarchy depends on gender — the division of behaviours and body-image based on biological sex. But that doesn’t mean the two are the same thing.

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

2 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.

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