The Maternal Gift Economy and its Paradigm

Tuesday, May 05, 2020 4:08 PM | Wise Woman (Administrator)

The Maternal Gift Economy and its Paradigm
by Genevieve Vaughan

The gift economy as seen through the eyes of Western anthropologists is well known in academia. It involves rules for reciprocal giving and giving back within communities. However. there is an earlier gift economy that takes place among mothers and children that has to be unilateral because young children cannot give back anything in return for the gifts they receive. My contention is that this unilateral gift economy is the economy of life, and all other economies are derived from it. Even exchange is only a gift made contingent and doubled back upon itself and requiring a presumeably equal return. The maternal economy of life sets down the patterns of who we are as humans, we learn everything about the world and develop communication, language and our sense of self in these earliest interactions. The interactions and the logic of quid pro quo exchange are usually only imposed and begin to be understood at 3 or 4 years of age. Then they gradually take over as what we judge to be ‘rational’.

Like all of patriarchal academia anthropologists have left out the maternal gift economy which is at the root of all economy.

My contention is that the economy based on exchange and particularly monetized exchange has transformed a maternal nurturing species into a species with an embedded gift exploiting psycho-social mechanism that is now causing planetary death.

The challenge is now to understand this new story about who we are and disentangle ourselves from the mechanism while maintaining ourselves and the other species alive. This requires shifting away from patriarchy and exchange and returning to the maternal model, which we all already have within us.

Many people are already behaving in this way, for example in generously responding to the pandemic, but  they do not connect it to a wider model for social change and when the emergency subsides they will return to what they consider normal and  real, the quid pro quo monetized market. It is as if the horses that had been led out of their stalls to safety returned into the burning barn.

The story of the gift economy can be seen in practice in so called ‘pre’ market indigenous cultures and in matriarchal societies that still exist. (‘matriarchy ‘ not as a mirror image of patriarchy but a society where maternal values rule for all). I have also developed a theory of language and communication based on gifting, which would let us see how much giving and receiving actually permeate our lives in practice.

If we can begin to reframe the many hidden gift elements of our lives as deriving from the maternal gift economy and the exchange elements as exploitative of the gift, even parasitic upon it, we can understand how to turn our society around.

Many projects use gift thinking and values without connecting them to the unilateral model that is present the relation between mothers and children. This impedes the generalization of that model, which is necessary for societies to consciously move towards it.

Many aspects of daily life and the market already contain gift giving, such as free housework and the gift content of profit. These make up part of a more complex analysis which I will talk about on the show.

Without understanding the maternal gift model as pan human and constitutive of all aspects of life, humans have looked at gift giving and exchange in many different ways - as part of the battle between good and evil, as love vs money, morality vs hard reality etc. These actually hide the paradigmatic and economic character of gift and of exchange and make it easier for exchange to validate itself at the meta level as it has most recently with neoliberal economics where profit and self interest are the highest human values and gifting seems a strange albeit heroic exception – not the normal human everyday way of being.

Just to list a few kinds of projects where gift giving is evident but usually not framed as maternal or unilateral.

  • Eco villages
  • Permaculture
  • Alternative schools
  • Volunteer work of all kinds
  • Internet sharing
  • Commons projects
  • Karma kitchens
  • Food Banks
  • Charities
  • Movements for social change


Genevieve Vaughan was born in Texas in 1939. She is an independent researcher. After finishing college in Pennsylvania in 1963 she married philosopher and semiotician Ferruccio Rossi-Landi and moved with him to Italy where they had three daughters. The couple participated in the beginnings of the Semiotics movement in Italy as well as in the Italian Left, where Genevieve got her political consciousness raised.

Genevieve's first book For-Giving, a Feminist Criticism of Exchange was published in 1997 by Plain View Press and has since been translated into many languages. She has edited two books: an issue of the Italian journal Athanor. IlDono/The Gift: A Feminist Perspective, Meltemi (2004) and Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different Worldview is Possible (Inanna Press 2007). An ebook Homo Donans appeared in 2006. Her most recent book is The Gift in the Heart of Language, the Maternal Source of Meaning (Mimesis International 2015). Another edited book of essays from an international conference held in Rome, Italy in 2015: The Maternal Roots of the Gift Economy is now in press.
Her websites are: www.Gift-Economy.com and www.GenevieveVaughan.org

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