Not all matriarchs are loud and bossy, nor do they conspire to control the lives of their families. They are women who have embraced the authority that comes with age and are using it to help others.
There is a famous commercial in which Andie MacDowell looked into the camera and told us, “I don’t plan to grow old gracefully. I plan to fight it every step of the way.” That little slogan spoke of the two ways that we as women think of aging. In one, we are Jessica Tandy, and in the other, we are Cher. The sad thing about both models of aging is that they demonstrate how age diminishes women in our society.
As I muddle my way through my late 40’s, I am inspired by Deborah, a friend of mine, who has found a third option: Rather than allow age to diminish her, she embraces it as a source of authority and power. Deborah doesn’t color her hair, and she wears comfortable shoes. Even though she wears clothes that she likes without regard for fashion fads, her own sense of style makes her a strikingly beautiful woman. What impresses me the most is that Deborah carries the few extra pounds brought on by middle age in a way that gives her grace and gravitas rather than making her irrelevant.
Deborah calls herself a “matriarch,” and I like the label. It implies concern not just for your children, but for everyone’s children. It implies a sense of authority that commands respect.
But before more of us can embrace the role of matriarch, it seems that we need to clear up a few misconceptions about what it means to be one. Here are some common myths and the truth about what it means to be a matriarch:
1) Myth: Matriarchs are all mothers.
Truth: Matriarchs are women who have decided to grow old boldly, who take concrete action to make the world a better place and who speak the truth even when others would rather she keep silent. This is not limited to women who have biological children because matriarchs are concerned about every person, everyone’s child, not just their own. They are women who have embraced the authority that comes with age and are using it to help others.
2) Myth: Matriarchs are looking to replace patriarchy with a matriarchy.
Truth: True matriarchs have no interest in replacing one system of inequality with another. They do not seek power for its own sake, but rather as a tool to improve the lives of those they care about and to make a positive impact on society.
3) Myth: Matriarchs emasculate men.
Truth: Some men feel emasculated by strong women who refuse to defer to them. Matriarchs don’t indulge them by playing weak or by giving them symbolic deference. But they also don’t make jokes at the expense of men or deliberately undermine them when they are acting in positions of legitimate authority.
4) Myth: Matriarchs are women of color who are creating a black culture of poverty and crime.
Truth: According to this myth, which was created and propagated to justify the ongoing economic and social oppression of people of color, black women drive away the fathers of their children because of their tendency to act with power and authority. This has a detrimental impact on their entire community, creating poverty, immorality, crime, and a high rate of incarceration for black men. Matriarchs are women of all ethnicities who have chosen an alternative way of growing older. There is no research that shows that women of color have embraced this way of aging more readily. But if they have, it has certainly helped, not hurt, their families, communities, and society.
5) Myth: Matriarchs are women who have just “given up” or are too lazy to do the extra beauty work that comes with aging.
Truth: Matriarchs have decided to pick their battles. And they have opted not to fight to be the block’s hottest MILF or GILF (although there is nothing wrong with that.) Some of them color their hair, and some don’t. Some of them opt for Botox, and others don’t. The key is that they don’t slide into obscurity or allow themselves to be rendered invisible just because no one finds them fuckable anymore. They have the temerity to keep talking, keep showing up, keep working long after the average 20-something has stopped finding them attractive.
6) Myth: Matriarchs are not feminine.
Truth: It is true that matriarchs are women who have stopped trying to meet social expectations of what a woman is supposed to look like and act like. They are what femininity really looks like when you strip away much of the cultural artifice. They reject the idea that being feminine means feeling worthless and invisible as society says they should.
7) Myth: Matriarchs control other people’s lives.
Truth: This is not a soap opera or “Sons of Anarchy.” They are not Machiavellian manipulators who scheme to keep their children nearby and to get them to do as they please. They are interested in the bigger picture.
8) Myth: There can only be one matriarch per extended family.
Truth: Just as you don’t need to be a mother to be a matriarch, you don’t need a large extended family to lead. “Matriarch” is not an inherited title. More importantly, matriarchs do not need to compete among each other because their best interest is the common good, not using power for their own devices. They are too busy comforting and helping younger mothers to get into things like the mommy wars.
9) Myth: Matriarchs are loud and bossy.
Truth: Some of them are. But just as many of them are quiet and gentle. A person truly secure in her power does not need to prove anything.
The secret to being a matriarch, as best as I can tell, is having two things. The first is radical authenticity, which, over time, begets a certain fearlessness. The second is a kind and compassionate heart. That is what keeps their fearlessness from making them scornful curmudgeons.
Of course, matriarchs are not perfect, and they screw up as often as they get it right. And some of them will do nothing more radical with their lives than being authentic and kind. But acts of authenticity and kindness in a world of artifice and cynicism are nothing short of revolutionary, and are the best kind of civil disobedience.