Philosophy Phriday: She’s a Man(t)eater

The Daily Ant hosts a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which real philosophers share their thoughts at the intersection of ants and philosophy. This is the fourteenth contribution in the series, submitted by Amber Carlson.

She’s a Man(t)eater

What do Hall and Oates, anti-feminists, and myrmecologists have in common?

They’re each concerned with “maneaters.”

Hall and Oates are famous for their depiction of a woman who is beautiful, in control of her sexuality, but uses men for her financial benefit. “The beauty is there,” they say, but “money’s the matter” and so “if you’re in it for love, you ain’t gonna get too far.” But in addition to simply being a disappointing love interest for some, they liken her to a wild animal saying that “a beast is in her heart.” Any man interested in her must be warned. After all, “she’s deadly, man. She could really rip your world apart.” An empowering anthem for some women, but a fatal warning to men: “Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up,” they say. “She’s a maneater.”

Female ants surround a male. Hall & Oates say “Watch out!” Photo: Alex Wild

Misogynists and other anti-feminists sometimes depict women in a similar fashion; women are both coveted for their sexuality just as they are objectified, shamed, and demonized for it. Here the notion of a maneater takes on new shades of meaning. Maneaters are not just those who use their sexuality for financial gain, but they are also women who choose to have more sexual partners than is socially acceptable. Such women are called names and ridiculed even as men are praised for their sexual prowess.

With the recent discovery of a never-before-seen-alive ant, myrmecologists have new insight into one ant colony’s social dynamics. Although ant colonies are typically ruled by a single queen, scientist were unable to locate one in this colony. This inability, of course, does not indicate a queen-less society; it might simply be that she was not taken during the excavation. Scientists did, however, discover a single male ant among the exclusively female worker ants. Unfortunately, they were not able to glean much information about this lone male. Upon his emergence from the colony, the female workers inexplicably devoured him.

For the hypothetical Hall-and-Oates-loving misogynist myrmecologist, ant civilizations—and the newly discovered cannibalistic colony in particular—are the stuff of nightmares. Queen ants rule colonies with exclusively female workers, the value of male ants reduced to their reproductive usefulness, and, sometimes, male ants are literally eaten alive.

Setting aside for a moment the obviously frightening aspects of being eaten alive, what is so frightening about women (or lady ants) in power? The answer, I’d like to suggest, in part involves the way matriarchies are commonly understood.

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Usual conceptions of matriarchal societies run parallel to patriarchal ones. Just as patriarchies are defined by male-dominance, many imagine matriarchies as similarly domineering—except in matriarchal societies women hold positions of power. Understood this way, matriarchal societies must always be at odds with patriarchal ones. Each is defined by one group dominating the other. For those already enjoying social power (as we might imagine our hypothetical misogynist myrmecologist), it can be frightening to think that their power is threatened.

However, some scholars are moving away from the notion that matriarchies are essentially domineering. In her 2012 book Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe, Heide Goettner-Abendroth finds that many existing (human) matriarchal societies are marked by egalitarianism rather than domination. These societies are female-centered, but they are not built upon the need to dominate men.

Goettner-Abendroth notes that in its Greek roots, the term ‘matriarchy’ can be interpreted as “mothers from the beginning.” She provocatively suggests that since most women are literally able to give birth, their place at “the beginning” is secure. Women need not dominate as men do because their power lies in their sexuality and in their ability to reproduce. ‘Patriarchy’ must be defined as “male-dominant” (or, more accurately “father-dominant”) because from a reproductive standpoint men cannot claim to be “fathers from the beginning.”

Goettner-Abendroth’s suggestions should not be accepted without critical reflection and a fair number of caveats. Nevertheless, I include her intriguing explanation because it links societal dynamics with power inherent in sexuality and reproduction. Hall and Oates sing of this power, misogynists need to destroy it, and ant colonies can serve as a useful lens through which we can begin to rethink problems with usual matriarchal notions.

Hopefully, with enough thoughtful reimagining, women’s sexuality will be not feared but celebrated. And, with any luck, no men will be eaten in the process.

AmberAmber Rose Carlson is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Vanderbilt University who specializes in social epistemology, feminist philosophy, and trauma theory. Holding graduate degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div), Texas A&M (M.A., philosophy), and the University of Notre Dame (M.A., philosophy), Amber supplements her specializations with a broad philosophical background. Her areas of concentration include philosophy of religion, ethics, and the history of philosophy, especially Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern eras. In addition to her research, Amber works for women’s rights as a writer and advocate, with a specific focus on sexual assault.