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Matriarchy is a term, which is applied to a gynocentric form of society and family structure, in which the leading role is by the female and especially by the mothers of a community.[1] The word matriarchy is coined as the opposite of patriarchy, from Greek "mother" and "to rule". Gynecocracy (γυναικοκρατία), is sometimes used synonymously.

There are many existing matrilinear and matrilocal societies, such as those of the Minangkabau or Mosuo. However, strongly matrilocal societies sometimes are referred to as matrifocal, and there is some debate concerning the terminological delineation between matrifocality and matriarchy.

Most modern anthropologists and sociologists assert that there are no known examples of human matriarchies in recorded history,[2][3][4][5][6][7] and Encyclopedia Britannica describes their views as "consensus", listing matriarchy as a hypothetical social system.[8] Some examples of matrifocal societies, however, are known to exist. The Britannica article goes on to note, "The view of matriarchy as constituting a stage of cultural development now is generally discredited. Furthermore, the consensus among modern anthropologists and sociologists is that a strictly matriarchal society never existed."[9] For more information see the appendix Patriarchies in dispute. Speculation about prehistoric cultures can only be considered futile conjecture that can never be verified.

There also is dispute about matrifocality (see matriarchy vs. matrifocality). Matriarchy is defined by some as distinct from matrilocality, which some anthropologists use to describe known societies where the maternal side of the family manages domestic relations, owing to the husband joining the wife's family, rather than the wife moving to the husband's village or tribe. If, additionally, family property passes down the maternal line (matrilineality), the wife effectively is supported by her extended family, especially her brothers, these maternal uncles serving children of the couple as "social fathers", while the husbands tend to be more isolated.

History of the concept in relation to humans

Extrapolation from other animals is not possible. The first animals only had mothers, reproduction was asexual. Although not uniform, some higher animals, once there are two genders, are organized in social units that are maternally-based, but there is great diversity among populations about whom historical data exists. Historical studies of other primates reveal similar diversity in social organization.

The notion of prehistoric matriarchy and of its replacement by patriarchy can be linked to the historical "inevitabilities" which the nineteenth century's concept of progress through cultural evolution introduced into anthropology.[How to reference and link to summary or text] References to matriarchies exist in ancient texts, legends, and myths about even earlier or undocumented cultures such as Lybia, Lesbos, Amazons, and Etruscan groups, but without historical documentation no one can prove or disprove the concepts. Many examples of prehistoric religious images imply a feminine religious focus, but that is insufficient as a basis for judgment about the social organization of prehistoric human cultures.

Friedrich Engels, among others studying historical groups, formed the notion that some contemporary primitive peoples did not grasp the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Research indicated that sexual intercourse occurred from early ages and pregnancy only occurred much later, seemingly unrelated to the sexual activity. He proposed that these cultures had no clear notion of paternity, according to this hypothesis; women produced children mysteriously, without necessary links to the man or men with whom they had sex. When realization of paternity occurred, according to the hypothesis, men acted to claim a power to monopolize women and claim their offspring as possessions and patriarchy began.

Such records of these belief systems now often are criticized as the result of errors in early ethnographic techniques, which in return were the result of unsophisticated methods of field work. The criticism asserts that some respondents in cultures studied denied the concept of paternity and discussed culturally-determined religious concepts, myths, and legends about the origin of children and that in other cultures, when strangers arrived and started asking where babies came from, the urge to respond imaginatively was hard to resist, as Margaret Mead discovered in Samoa.

In fact, while prior to the relatively recent discovery of egg cells and genetics, there have been many different explanations of the mechanics of pregnancy and the relative contributions of either gender in reproduction. No human group studied after the late nineteenth century, however primitive, has been found to be unaware of the link between intercourse and pregnancy in humans.

There are, however, concepts of parthenogenesis among some animals and deities in the earliest of human records and the concept persisted for thousands of years in the writings of Ancient Egypt and other early historical cultures. Parthenogenesis does occur in some animals, but the lack of sexual dimorphism or extreme sexual dimorphism in some species seems to have been the strong influence for the wide-spread belief of great numbers of animals thought only to be female and reproducing through parthenogenesis.

Even more interestingly, much later there are myths and legends asserting that males had "given birth" among both deities and humans in some early historical cultures. In classical Greek mythology dating from approximately 500 B.C., for instance, Zeus is said to have swallowed a pregnant goddess, Metis, who was carrying her parthenogenetic daughter, Athene, and that when her child was born to her, the mother and child created havoc inside Zeus. He had swallowed the goddess to prevent her offspring from overthrowing him as predicted to him by an oracle. After suffering great discomfort and terrible headaches, Athene reportedly burst forth through his forehead, thereafter being described as "being 'born' of Zeus" and therefore subjected to him in myths of later origin. Mythologists such as Robert Graves suggest that this myth displaced earlier myths in which Athene and her mother existed in established religious beliefs that had to change when a major cultural change introduced a patriarchy to replace a matriarchy, interpreting it symbolically.

The knowledge that each child has a single father has come more recently, however; as recently as 400 B.C. classical Greek and Roman writers thought that the seed of two men might both contribute to the character of the child.

By the time early ethnographic records were corrected in anthropology, however, the idea that a pan-cultural matriarchy had once existed, based on discoveries of mother goddess images found at numerous paleolithic and neolithic sites, had been integrated into theories of comparative religion and archaeology, and was used as the basis of new hypotheses that were unrelated to the professed ignorance of primitive people about paternity.

Archaeological hypotheses

Whether matriarchal societies might have existed at some time before historical records is unknown and opinions about this remain controversial.

The controversy began in reaction to the book by Johann Jakob Bachofen Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Juridical Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World in 1861. Several generations of ethnologists were inspired by his pseudo-evolutionary theory of archaic matriarchy. Following him and Jane Ellen Harrison, several generations of scholars, usually arguing from known myths or oral traditions and examination of Neolithic female cult-figures, suggested that many ancient societies might have been matriarchal, or even, that there existed a wide-ranging matriarchal society prior to the ancient cultures of which we are aware.

This was reinforced further by the publication of The White Goddess by Robert Graves and his later analysis of classical Greek mythology and the vestiges of earlier myths that had been rewritten after a profound change in the religion of Greek civilization that occurred within its very early historical times.

From the 1950s, Marija Gimbutas developed a theory of an Old European culture in neolithic Europe which had matriarchal traits, replaced by the patriarchal system of the Proto-Indo-Europeans with the spread of Indo-European languages beginning in the Bronze Age.

From the 1970s these ideas were taken up by popular writers of second-wave feminism and, expanded with the speculations of Margaret Murray on witchcraft, by the Goddess movement, feminist Wicca, as well as work by Elizabeth Gould Davis, Riane Eisler, and Merlin Stone.

The concept of a matriarchal golden age in the Neolithic has been denounced as feminist wishful thinking in The Inevitability of Patriarchy, Why Men Rule, more recently by Philip G. Davis Goddess Unmasked, 1998, and Cynthia Eller, professor at Montclair State University The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 2000. According to Eller, Gimbutas had a large part in constructing a myth of historical matriarchy by examining Eastern Europe cultures that she asserts, by and large, never really bore any resemblance in character to the alleged universal matriarchal suggested by Gimbutas and Graves. She asserts that in "actually documented primitive societies" of recent (historical) times, paternity is never ignored and that the sacred status of goddesses does not automatically increase female social status, and believes that this affirms that utopian matriarchy is simply an inversion of antifeminism. The feminist scenarios of Neolithic matriarchy have been called into question and are not emphasized in third-wave feminism speculation.

The original evidence recognized by Gimbutas, however, of Neolithic societies being more egalitarian than the Bronze Age Indo-European and Semitic patriarchies remains valid. Del Giorgio in The Oldest Europeans (2006) insists on a matrifocal, matrilocal, matrilineal Paleolithic society. The records of the earliest human writings in Ancient Egypt support the concept that prior to that time, egalitarian social organization existed in other locations as well.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Ancient Egyptian women held property, had positions of power in the religious and social organization, and were able to divorce; furthermore, Ancient Egyptian lineage was traced along the maternal lines.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Some of their traditions seem to have roots in the paleolithic culture that preceded their historically documented records.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Matriarchy versus matrifocality

Due to a lack of any clear and consistent definition of the word matriarchy several anthropologists have begun to use the term matrifocality. Matrifocality refers to societies in which women, especially mothers, occupy a central position, and the term does necessarily imply domination by women or mothers.[10] Anthropologist R. L. Smith (2002) refers to 'matrifocality' as the kinship structure of a social system where the mothers assume structural prominence.[10] The Nair community in Kerala in South India is a prime example of matrifocality. This can be attributed to the fact that the community being warriors by profession, were bound to lose male members at youth, leading to a situation where the females assumed the role of running the family. Some consider the use of the term a euphemism, lacking a parallel to patriarchy, which is not redefined in the same fashion.

The Wemale culture of western Seram, studied by A. E. Jensen during the Frobenius Institute expedition of 1938, often is indicated as an example of matriarchy. See: Karl Kerenyi noted in passing (introduction to Eleusis : Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter 1967, p. xxxii). On the other hand, anthropologist Donald Brown's list of "human universals" (i.e. features shared by all current human societies) includes men being the "dominant element" in public political affairs (Brown 1991, p. 137), which he asserts is the contemporary opinion of mainstream anthropology. Feminist Joan Bamberger argues that the historical record contains no reliable evidence of any society in which women dominated (Bamberger 1974), although there are many known matrilineal societies.

The Trobriand Islands were considered a matriarchy by anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, however, Malinowski defined that matriarchy as the rule of a family by the wife's male relatives, such as her brothers, rather than literal patriarchy (the rule of the family by its father); the dispute this view has engendered is discussed at that entry.

Peter N. Stearns and other historians have speculated as to whether or not agricultural Japan was a matriarchy prior to contact with patriarchal China (Stearns 2000, p. 51).

Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday favors redefining and reintroducing the word matriarchy, especially in reference to modern, matrilineal societies such as the Minangkabau. This group lives in West Sumatra and numbers about four million; it is considered the largest and most stable matrilineal society in the modern world. Sanday argues that this society is a modern matriarchy defined, not in polar opposition to patriarchy, but on unique terms.

A clear and consistent definition has been given by Heide Goettner-Abendroth, who did cross-cultural research on all of the remaining contemporary matriarchal societies (in her major work on matriarchy). Her viewpoint is close to that of Sanday. One of her examples is the Mosuo people of Southwestern China. Furthermore, the Minicoy islanders also are considered to be one of the living matrilineal societies today.

Regardless of these documented cultures, the existence of any true matriarchal societies (as opposed to matrilineal or matrifocal societies) remains controversial among scholars. Similarly, application of concepts derived from contemporary cultures can not be expected to clarify cultural traditions about which there are no historical or anthropological records.

Some traditional matrifocal societies have been presented by scholars and indigenous speakers at two conferences. The first World Congress on Matriarchal Studies] was held in 2003 in Luxembourg, Europe; it was sponsored by the Minister for Women's Affairs of Luxembourg, Marie-Josée Jacobs, and was organized and guided by Heide Goettner-Abendroth. The second one took place in 2005 in San Marcos, Texas, USA; it was sponsored by Genevieve Vaughan and again led by Heide Goettner-Abendroth.

One problem seldom addressed in debates about matriarchy is the definition of power itself: in most societies, each gender holds more power in some areas of life, less power in others. For example, in the modern U.S.A., Federal-level lawmakers and policymakers are usually male; but some local (city and county) government bodies are made up mostly of women, while others are made up mostly of men, or are made up of roughly equal numbers of men and women. Likewise, while formal government overall is dominated by men, elementary and high schools--which influence everyone in the society--usually are female-dominated.

Existing matrifocal cultures

  • The Bunts community in Mangalore and Udupi (South India) historically follows a matrilineal system. This system was common to many communities in coastal Karnataka and Kerala. It was called Aliya-Sanatana and as well Aliya Kattu. The Gotras or bari were passed from mother to children. In Aliya-Santana, inheritance is passed through the matrilineal family. The brother managed the land on behalf of his sister. His sister's son in turn would inherit the management of the matrilineal family land. There are many Bunt households, each with their own name. In addition, each matrilineal household had a surname associated with it, and the children would take their matrilineal family surname. Traditionally, a Bunt would put the name of his matrilineal household in front of his or her name and his or her matrilineal surname at the end.
  • The traditional Nair community in Kerala, South India fits the new definition of 'matrifocality'. (Nowadays this system rarely is practiced. The members of the Nair community now live in nuclear families). A traditional Nair matrifocal family is called a Tarawad or Marumakkathayam family. A traditional Nair Tarawad consists of a mother and her children living together with their mother's eldest surviving brother or the eldest surviving maternal uncle, who is called Karanavan. The Karnavan exercises full powers over the affairs of the family. Until recently, the main significance of this system was that the heirs to the property were the women in the family and the men were only allowed to enjoy the benefits during their lifetime, not being able to pass any property as a possession. The naming system of the Nair community had the prefix of their mother's 'family name' and they adopted the maternal uncle’s surname. The Marumakkathayam system of Kerala was a legal right which determined inheritance through the female line. Thus if a family property was to be partitioned, all female members would receive one share and all male members who were their direct offspring would receive one share. Thus a brother might receive only one share while his sister and her children (and grandchildren by her daughters) would each receive a share.[clarify]
This traditional right was removed by the Kerala Joint Hindu Family System (Abolition) Act, 1975.
  • Mosuo people - Lugu Lake, bordering between Yunnan and Sichuan province, China
  • The people of Western Sahara (the former Spanish Sahara), occupied by Morocco retain semi-matriarchal customs [1]. See also Polisario Front
  • The people of the Bolama archipelago in Guinea-Bissau[2]
  • Guajiro tribes - inhabiting the Guajira Department in Colombia and the adjacent region in the Caribbean coast in Venezuela, South America, whose children are raised not by their father, but by their mother's brother (avunculism)
  • The Jewish religion is traditionally inherited through the mother. If the mother is Jewish, the child is Jewish, even if the father is not. If the father is Jewish and the mother is not, the child is not considered Jewish.

Interpreting the meaning of matriarchy in classical works

Matriarchy was recognized by J. Bachofen ("Das Mutterrecht") and was deeply investigated by Lewis H. Morgan, LL. D. Many researchers studied the phenomenon of matriarchy afterward, but the basis was laid by the classics of sociology. In their works Bachofen and Morgan used such terms and expressions as mother-right, female rule, gyneocracy, and female authority. All these terms meant the same: the rule by females (mother or wife).

The following excerpts from Morgan's "Ancient Society" will explain the use of the terms:

"In a work of vast research, Bachofen has collected and discussed the evidence of female authority, mother-right, and of female rule, gyneocracy."

"Common lands and joint tillage would lead to joint-tenant houses and communism in living; so that gyneocracy seems to require for its creation, descent in the female line. Women thus entrenched in large households, supplied from common stores, in which their own gens so largely predominated in numbers, would produce the phenomena of mother right and gyneocracy, which Bachofen has detected and traced with the aid of fragments of history and of tradition."

Although Bachofen and Morgan confined the "mother right" inside households, it was the basis of female influence upon the whole society. The classics never thought that gyneocracy could mean "female government" in polity. They were aware of the fact that gender-based structure of government had no relation to domestic rule and to roles of both genders.

Matriarchies in mythology

A famous legendary gynecocracy related by classical Greek writers was the Amazon society.

Bamberger (1974) examines several matriarchal myths from South American cultures and concludes that portraying the women from this matriarchal period as evil often serves to restrain contemporary women.

Historian Ronald Hutton has argued that there is no necessary correlation between the worship of female deities and relative levels of social or legal egalitarianism, noting the late classical Greek and Roman religions, where goddesses played an important role. The changes from the earlier mythology are not considered in her analysis, however, and the late classical myths were dominated by male deities. Hutton also has pointed out that in more recent European history, in 17th century Spain, there were many religious institutions staffed exclusively by women.


  1. 'Matriarchy', Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007.
  2. Steven Goldberg, The Inevitability of Patriarchy, (William Morrow & Company, 1973).
  3. Joan Bamberger,'The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society', in M Rosaldo and L Lamphere, Women, Culture, and Society, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1974), pp. 263-280.
  4. Robert Brown, Human Universals, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 1991.
  5. Steven Goldberg, Why Men Rule, (Chicago, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1993).
  6. Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
  7. Jonathan Marks, 'Essay 8: Primate Behavior', in The Un-Textbook of Biological Anthropology, (Unpublished, 2007), p. 11.
  8. 'Matriarchy' Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007."
  9. 'Matriarchy', Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Smith R.T. (2002) Matrifocality, in International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences (eds) Smelser & Baltes, vol 14, pp 9416.


  • Bamberger, Joan. (1974). '"The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society," in Woman, Culture, and Society, edited by Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, pp. 263-280. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Brown, Donald. (1991). Human Universals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press
  • Czaplicka, Marie Antoinette. (1914). Aboriginal Siberia, a study in social anthropology. Oxford. Clarendon press.
  • del Giorgio, J.F. (2006). The Oldest Europeans. A.J.Place, ISBN 978-9806898004.
  • Eller, Cynthia (2001). The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future. ISBN 0-8070-6793-8
  • Finley, M.I. (1962). The World of Odysseus. London. Pelican Books.
  • Gimbutas, Marija (1991). "The Language of the Goddess".
  • Goldberg, Steven (1993) Why Men Rule: A Theory of Male Dominance, rev. ed. ISBN 0-8126-9237-3
  • Hutton, Ronald (1993). The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles ISBN 0-631-18946-7
  • Lapatin, Kenneth (2002). Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History. ISBN 0-306-81328-9
  • Sanday, Peggy Reeves. (2004). Woman at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-8906-7
  • Shorrocks, Bryan. (2007). The Biology of African Savannahs. Oxford University Press. ISBN 019857066X
  • Stearns, Peter N. (2000). Gender in World History. New York Routledge. ISBN 0-415-22310-5
  • Smith R.T. (2002) Matrifocality, in International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences (eds) Smelser & Baltes, vol 14, pp 9416.
  • Sukumar Raman, (2006). "A brief review of the status, distribution and biology of wild Asian elephants Elephas maximus." International Zoo Yearbook. (40)1; 1-8.
  • Yoshamya, Mitjel & Yoshamya, Zyelimer (2005). Gan-Veyan: Neo-Liburnic glossary, grammar, culture, genom. Old-Croatian Archidioms, Monograph I, p. 1 - 1224, Scientific society for Ethnogenesis studies, Zagreb.

See also

External links

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