Part 2: The (family) future is female

How the definition of family is radically different in matriarchal society.

This is the second post in a four-part series on Mosuo matriarchal culture.

  1. Introduction to the Mosuo
  2. Family organization
  3. Love & marriage
  4. Clash with modern lifestyles and values

Before I visited the Mosuo, I thought matriarchal societies would be a mirror image of our own societies, with women in power instead of men. It is thrilling to understand how truly differently a society can be structured. In Mosuo culture, it’s not just who holds the power that’s different. The entire way that society is organized has been shifted to focus on women. And the key aspect which underlies that culture is their concept of what constitutes “family.”

As a matrilineal society, family descent is traced down on the mother’s side. Inheritance is included in this too: all wealth and property ownership is passed on from mothers to their children instead of from fathers. But here is where the textbook definition ends and the Mosuo’s own unique social structure begins.

Parenthood and the concept of children

mosuo-house An upscale version of the typical Mosuo family compound, well-maintained in order to give tours to visitors.

The basic family unit is a static multigenerational household. Three or more generations will live together in a large compound, made up of several buildings surrounding a central courtyard. Wealthier families will have multiple compounds, located strategically for operations of the family businesses. One compound might be further outside town, next to farming fields. Another may be built on the lakeshore to double as an inn for tourists.

The key aspect of their family unit that feels exceptionally foreign to us is the fact that it’s static. Mosuo relatives live in the same household for their entire lives. You are born into your mother’s family and no life event causes you to leave. Getting married does not mean a major change in your family structure. An individual does not move out to live together with their spouse, and the spouse definitely does not move into their partner’s family home. This has fascinating repercussions for behaviors of married people, which we will discuss later in part three of the series.

mosuo-generations An example of Mosuo geneology — two women in the first generation and three children in the second generation. The husbands in the first generation live separately, as does the wife of the son in the second generation.

So if the married couple doesn’t live together, what does this mean for parenthood? The Mosuo apply no special meaning to the direct genetic parents of an individual. Instead, the most important thing is what maternal generation you are descended from. In other words, a child may know who her biological parents are but it is largely irrelevant. She doesn’t have “a father” and “a mother”. There is no distinction between a Mosuo child’s biological mother and her mother’s sisters. They are all called ‘Mom.’ As for the biological father, he does not have a significant presence in the child’s life at all. The role of the father is filled by her uncles, the mother’s brothers, who are in charge of educating the next generation.

Conversely for the uncles, they live with their sisters and their sisters’ children. Any children fathered by these men are outsiders — sons and daughters born live with their mothers in a separate household. For these men, their sisters’ children are their true children. Their nieces and nephews are the ones who will inherit the same last name and the family wealth. The men may occasionally see their own biological children and give them small presents, but they don’t have the same attachment towards their own offspring as we do.

And because all the children in the next generation are considered true children by the adults, inheritance does not follow specific rules according to birth order or direct genetic descendancy. Each family has a woman as the head of household, and when the matriarch has reached retirement age, the women of the current generation will collectively designate the next family matriarch amongst all the daughters. The selection is based on skill and competency. It is rare that families will not have any daughters to choose from, since each generation is typically very large. In rare circumstances, a Mosuo family may “adopt” the daughter of a male descendant into the household in order to continue the family line.

These accepted views towards the meaning of family and the details of inheritance have profound implications for family planning. Mosuo women from a single generation will mutually agree amongst themselves how many children they want to have. A woman may feel no need to have kids because her sisters have already given birth to multiple children. Others might remain single for life, not being in relationships at all. Individuals no longer feel isolated pressure to form attachments and carry on the family line.

Running the household like a corporation

Another striking aspect is work organization within the family. The family is run like a small corporation, with the head of household as CEO. The woman acting as head of household controls all of the finances. She will hand out money to each individual for use as needed. Each family member then is expected to return any remaining funds and profits back to the head of household. Upon selection of a new head of a household, the daughter is ceremonially given a key to the pantry and storerooms of the house, signaling transfer of control of the finances.

The matriarch also decides work assignments amongst the family enterprises. Farming, tending livestock, running hotels, and leading tourism activities are all possible businesses that a large family may be conducting simultaneously. The Mosuo elder emphasized to us that the jobs were typically allotted based on ability and interest. Work assignments also are flexible and can change depending on an individual’s ability or continued interest. This includes domestic work as well. “There are far fewer stereotypes on divisions of labor,” the Mosuo elder explained. He told us a saying that the Mosuo had about mainstream society:

Once a woman enters the kitchen, she never leaves.

If the head of household is the CEO of the company, then the older generations act as the board of directors. Disputes amongst the family are mediated by the oldest generation. Additionally, the Mosuo elder claimed that there were far fewer conflicts in Mosuo families compared to typical families. Since children grow up knowing they will live with their families for a lifetime, they are forced to learn conflict resolution.

When I asked about how they deal with persistently difficult family members, his response was: “What can you do? They are family.”

mosuo-main-room A typical main room where food will be set out to eat.

There is some recourse for lazy members of the family who don’t contribute to the household: how much food they get to eat. Mosuo families don’t eat meals together because, practically, family members may finish their work at a large range of times. The uncle farmer starts and ends his day with early, while the daughter innkeeper has to maintain later hours for her guests. Food is set out for each individual in the main room and they eat their meals at their leisure. The matriarch can set out less food for the lazy members as punishment.

The Mosuo family structure is pretty difficult to wrap your head around, especially their attitudes towards biological children. When I shared this information with friends, particularly male friends, they all exclaimed at how strange it would be to feel so little emotion towards your own offspring. On the other hand, I can’t help but wonder how odd our setup might seem to a Mosuo person: we isolate ourselves from the rest of our extended family and move in with our spouse, investing all expectations and hopes onto our own few biological children.

As a woman, I felt moved when I heard about the collective-style of family planning. I count myself lucky to have parents who don’t hound me about settling down and having children. (They actually advise me not to have any kids, which is a story for another day.) For young twenty- and thirty-something women, it’s almost farcical how often we hear about our biological clocks — whether it’s coming from our parents, our own anxieties and fears, or society at large. Even having siblings doesn’t seem to deflect the constant pressure of needing to start your own family. A system where it’s not all dependent on individuals to shoulder the burdens for the next generation would be a huge relief.

For happy families, I think a household like the Mosuo people could be a really nurturing environment. There would always be a support structure for family members, whether they’re old and need more care or they’ve just reached adulthood. It seems like every other week I read another article about millenials moving back in with their parents to save money.

But a lifetime of living together could be like an endless Thanksgiving, where old conflicts and complaints are continually rehashed. My San Francisco coworker was able to achieve a happy medium by moving her parents into the house next door; the grandparents could help take care of the kids and all three generations frequently spent time together, but each group still had their own private spaces. This is not a setup that many have the financial means to achieve, especially in San Francisco. At the same time, I wonder if it’s hard precisely because many married couples starting families don’t consider it normal or important enough to move closer to their own parents or to move their parents to them.

For unhappy families, the Mosuo-type of social organization could trap people into bad circumstances for lifetimes. Even within the Mosuo community, people experiencing domestic violence or abuse might find it harder to leave because the family unit is so essential to the social fabric of the Mosuo people. I don’t know what happens in these situations. Our cultural ambassadors were focused on giving us a positive impression of the culture, not necessarily an realistic one.

In terms of women running the households, it was less surprising to me and more refreshing that women were being acknowledged as the show-runners. I commonly see depictions in shows and the media of women acting as CEOs of their domestic lives. This definitely applies to many real people in my own life too. They handle the lion’s share of logistics and emotional labor, all without getting the credit for being the traditional “head of household.” As the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding put it,

The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.

That quote is funny but also a little depressing. I was just happy to see a place where it was natural for women to be in command of large, complex households and be celebrated by their communities for it.

My last thought about this family culture is that it would not be easily translated into the larger, increasingly globalized world. Now it’s easier than ever for working individuals to move to new cities or new countries where the best opportunities exist. For this kind of large multi-generational family to be maintained, all of the members need to be living in the same place. It seems more and more unlikely that mainstream society will be able to sustain a Mosuo family system. We will explore this more in the last part of this series, where we evaluate the impact of the modern world to traditional Mosuo culture.

In part three, we learn about the Mosuo understanding of love and marriage and how much it differs from our ways of conducting romantic relationships.

(This article was originally published on Medium, click here to read it there.)