Matrifocal Orientation

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Lori Blewett
The Evergreen State College

Because almost all contemporary societies are androcentric (male-centered), women's needs, interests, ideas, and perspectives on the world are often ignored or trivialized. Androcentrism perpetuates a patriarchal system that oppresses women and severely constrains (and damages) men's lives as well. An orientation toward social change that gives voice to women's perspectives and strives to replace patriarchy with an egalitarian, matrifocal society would go a long way toward creating a just and peaceful world for all.


Although societies differ in the degree and form which male dominance takes, male privilege is generally maintained through systems of beliefs, laws, discriminatory practices, and cultural norms (including direct or indirect perpetuation of male violence). Patriarchy concentrates social, political, and economic power in the hands of men at the expense of women. Because gender oppression is ancient and insidious, a conscious effort is needed to recognize the gendered dimensions of social problems. Looking at the world with a matrifocal orientation can help create contexts in which women-centered analyses of social problems are fully incorporated into problem-solving processes.


A matrifocal orientation to social change draws directly on women’s experience and knowledge and puts the needs of oppressed women at the center of social transformation. Matrifocal societies, real and imagined, do not challenge patriarchy by offering its mirror image--with women in positions of dominance over men. Rather, they embrace values traditionally seen as feminine: peace, nurturance, cooperation, and care for those most in need. A matrifocal society is one in which dominance over others is not supported (neither as an individual or collective goal). The needs and contributions of women are valued equally with those of men. Women’s interests are not special interests but human interests. Social distinctions between males and females may be minimized [depending on the culture], and those biological/social differences that remain do not inhibit women’s full participation in the society. A matrifocal orientation to social change recognizes that “the rising of the women means the rising of the [human] race” (1).

The need for women’s voices to be heard in order for society to become more just, has been recognized by progressive social reformers for centuries (and probably longer). This awareness led to the development of women-centered movements throughout the world. As a social/political orientation, the Matrifocus pattern is reflected in both feminist organizing in first world nations and community-centered women’s organizing in Third world nations. Historically, many Third World women’s organizations have been concerned with conditions of economic hardship, displacement, and state-sponsored violence affecting their communities as a whole, while first world feminist groups have focused more exclusively on women’s social and political rights. In recent decades the issue of violence against women has been a common theme of transnational women organizing (2). Regardless of the issue, whenever women organize with the goal of creating a more just and sustainable society, they are endeavoring to insert their voices and their perspectives into the public debate. By doing so, they are subverting the androcentric norm of male power and female silence.

Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, for example, were able to subvert androcentric norms after initially making use of them. The simultaneous cultural respect for motherhood and perceived political irrelevance of women, allowed Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo to protest relatively unhindered at a time when public demonstrations were officially illegal in Argentina. By also making themselves visible beyond national borders, Las Madres fostered a successful international advocacy network to pressured government investigation into state sponsored murders during the Pinochet regime. The powerful example of Argentinean mothers refusing to be silent has inspired other women’s groups, such as Women in Black in Israel and elsewhere, to stand out publicly against state sponsored violence.

Not surprisingly, many organizations that can be described as having a matrifocal orientation have been “women’s” organizations. But this is not required by the pattern. Labor groups reflect a matrifocal orientation when they strive for gender equity policies, family leave policies, the right to organize in traditionally female occupations, and increased female union leadership. Anti-globalization groups demonstrate a matrifocal orientation when they recognize the significant impact of trade policies on women, and when they give voice to women’s knowledge as farmers, workers, parents, and preservers of culture. Environmental groups like the Chipko movement in India or EcoFeminists in the U.S. reflect a matrifocal orientation when they draw upon and amplify the voices of women, highlight reproductive issues as environmental issues, and speak with reference to the future of all children on the planet.

Regardless of whether a group consists of men or women or both, having a matrifocal orientation means that people ask, “How is the problem we perceive exacerbated by patriarchy, and how has our way of responding to it been limited by patriarchal thinking?" Resisting androcentric norms by putting women’s perspectives in the center, rather than the periphery, of social debates is a first step toward undermining patriarchy and the social ills it perpetuates.

One problem with the Matrifocal pattern is its potential to reinforce male-female dichotomies. Whenever people speak up for traditionally “feminine” goals and values—particularly when they use the role of motherhood for political leverage--they run the risk of reifying patriarchal beliefs about the essential nature of women. Many reactionary movements have argued that their goals and strategies are in the best interests of women, and female voices are often used to promote these messages. Many western feminists, for example, have been hesitant to organize under the banner of motherhood not only because many women chose not to be mothers, but also because such representations may inadvertently bolster the idea that motherhood is women’s single most important function in society. Activist who use a matrifocal orientation must be careful to distinguish between biological femaleness and matrifocal goals. There are many males that value peace, nurturance, care for those in needs, collaborative problem solving, and an end to reward-oriented hierarchies. There are also many females that are not interested in creating a just society and prefer to amass what benefits they can within the current social order; some fully support patriarchy. Matrifocal is not synonymous with female or maternal.

A second problem with a matrifocal orientation is the misperception that everyone who adopts it will, or should, agree on particular social goals and political strategies. They wont. What is shared by people who adopt a matrifocal orientation is a consciousness that overcoming problems of violence, economic oppression, and gender oppression, requires replacing patriarchy with an alternative social order, and that increasing women’s participation in the public sphere is one step in such a transformation.


A matrifocal orientation keeps the system of patriarchy visible so that alternatives can be imagined and created.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Because almost all societies are male centered, women’s needs, interests, ideas, and perspectives are often ignored or trivialized. Matrifocal communities are organized around values traditionally seen as “feminine” such as peace, nurturance, cooperation, and care for others. A Matrifocal Orientation that gives voice to women’s perspectives would help promote a just and peaceful world for all. Women’s interests are not special interests, but human interests.

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