What Is Matriarchy? A Brief History Of Matriarchal Societies (2022)

A society where the female member leads a family is called matriarchy, and the female head of the family is called the matriarch. For a long time, men have dominated the better portion of society. However, there have always been cultures where women were in charge of things; they dominated families and society and were at the core of everything.

The concept of a society where women govern the political, social, and economic institutions may sound far-fetched to some. Yet, history shows that matriarchal communities have existed throughout centuries, and some still exist now. In this article, we explain what a matriarchal system is, how it functions, and more. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s dig into it.

In This Article

The Significance Of Matriarchy

Contrary to what you might think, matriarchy is not a system where women control and lord over men. As Heidi Goettner-Abendroth, the founder of the International Academy HAGIA for Modern Matriarchal Studies, put it to Dame Magazine:

“The aim is not to have power over others and over nature, but to follow maternal values, i.e., to nurture the natural, social and cultural life based on mutual respect.”

In other words, matriarchy is a system that revolves around the principle of mother-rule in which mothers or females are at the top of the power structure. They dominate in roles of moral authority, political leadership, social privilege, and control of property. For a social system to be viewed as a matriarchy, it would need the support of a culture that defined women’s dominance as desirable and legitimate.

A Brief History Of Matriarchy

While anthropologists question the existence of a true matriarchal society, there is a school of thought that believes the human society was originally matriarchal. During a period known as the ‘Gynocratic Age,’ women were allegedly worshipped for their ability to give birth. At this point, childbirth was a huge mystery, and men, not realizing that they actually played a part in it, held the belief that women “bore fruit like trees when they were ripe.” (We’re talking about a really long time ago.) Allegedly, the Gynocratic Age lasted from around 2 million years ago to 3000 BCE. Then, it is said that a grand transformation occurred, perhaps due to a groundbreaking discovery or a cataclysm, that sparked patriarchy.

(Video) Matriarchal Societies Around the World | Infographics about Female Rulers

Archaeologists and researchers have stumbled across evidence that supports the theory that gynocratic or matriarchal societies may have once existed. In the fall of 2016, an 8,000-year-old sculpture was discovered in Central Turkey of some sort of goddess. It is speculated that the statue depicts a fertility goddess, while others believe her plump figure represents a woman of social prominence. We also need to keep in mind that even literature such as the Bible and The Odyssey highlight the significance of women in society.

However, skeptics point out that just because women were described as goddesses in ancient literature and artwork does not necessarily mean they were more powerful than men. The thing is with no written historical records, we can never be a 100% sure about the legitimacy of a truly matriarchal society.

Difference Between Matriarchal And Matrilineal Societies

The term ‘matriarchy’ is often mixed up with the similar-sounding term ‘matrilineal.’ However, the two have notable differences. As we discussed earlier, ‘matriarchal’ refers to a society that is governed or controlled by women, while the anthropological term ‘matrilineal’ only denotes lineage. Children are identified in terms of the lineage of ancestors from the mother’s side rather than the father’s. They also inherit property through the female line. Also, tribal alliances and extended families form along female bloodlines.

So What In The World Is Matrifocality?

A family is considered to be ‘matrifocal’ if the mother heads the family without the presence of the father. Single-parent families headed by women, for example, are matrifocal since the mother plays a more important role at home and in the upbringing of the children.

(Video) Matriarchal Societies

Examples Of Matrilineal And Matriarchal Societies Around The World

Matriarchal societies exist around the world even today. Below are four diverse examples of female-led and matrilineal cultures from ancient times to today. Let’s take a look at the ways in which women ruled and continue to do so.

1. Umoja, Kenya

The Swahili word ‘umoja’ means ‘unity’ or ‘oneness.’ Umoja in Samburu, northern Kenya is home to survivors of gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and sexual assault. The matriarch of Umoja, Rebecca Lolosoli founded this village in 1990 with about 15 survivors of rape at the hands of British soldiers. The area is surrounded by a thorn fence to keep out men. In fact, this is a community where men are forbidden. The women learn trades, teach children, sell handicrafts like jewelry and show tourists around a cultural center. They also educate women in the neighboring villages on their rights.

2. Mosuo, China

In the far eastern foothills of the Himalayas exists a lush valley in south-west China. Mosuo’s culture is rooted in a matrilineal set-up where the family lineage of individuals is traced through the female line. Each household is ruled by an ‘ah mi’ (mother or an elderly female), who also make important decisions related to business. In Mosuo, there is no institution of marriage. Rather, women choose their partners by literally walking to the man’s home. Mosuo women are free to offer or accept sexual relations with a male, and the men are allowed to do likewise. Rejection and offering are in no way stigmatized.

(Video) Mother Knows Best: Structures of Matriarchal Societies

The couples never live together, and the child always remains in the mother’s care with little to no role of the father in the child’s upbringing. So, it comes as no surprise that Mosuo is also known as the ‘Kingdom of Women.’

3. Khasi, India

Meghalaya, a state in the north-eastern part of India, is home to three tribes that practice kinship based on matrilineality. In the Khasi tribe, the youngest daughter inherits all the ancestral property, the children take their mother’s surname, and men live in their mother-in-law’s home after getting married. Patricia Mukhim, a national award-winning social activist who edits the Shillong Times newspaper, says, “Matriliny safeguards women from social ostracism when they remarry because their children, no matter who the father was, would be known by the mother’s clan name. Even if a woman delivered a child out of wedlock, which is quite common, there is no social stigma attached to the woman in our society.” She adds that her society will not succumb to the dominant patriarchal system that exists in most of India.

4. Minangkabau, Indonesia

Made up of 4.2 million members, the Minangkabau ethnic group of West Sumatra, Indonesia is the world’s largest known matrilineal society today. In this obscure Muslim society, women rule the domestic realm while the men are involved in political and spiritual roles. However, it is the women who choose the clan chief and have the power to remove him if necessary. The tribal law requires all clan property to be held and bequeathed from mother to daughter.

There is still a large section of the intelligentsia that dismisses the notion of matriarchy. Cynthia Eller in her book, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, says that the concept of matriarchy is false and in no way compliments the feminist movement. She argued that equality and the rule of women are misplaced goals, and they should be rejected altogether.

In a matriarchal setup, women are placed at the top of the power structure, have control over property, and follow maternal values. The woman in charge of these responsibilities is a matriarch. However, at the most fundamental level, matriarchy as a concept is certainly worthy of discussion, and there is so much we can learn from it today.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does a matriarch have to be a mother?

No. Family or clan matriarchs may also make decisions for their members as representatives of the family.

Which Native American tribes were matriarchal?

(Video) Gender and the Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory

Native American tribes that are matriarchal include the Hopi and Haudenosaunee.

Key Takeaways

  • Matriarchy centers on the principle of mother-rule, where mothers or females stand right up there in the power structure.
  • A school of thought believes human society was originally matriarchal. However, many differ with this.
  • The term matriarchy is often confused with ‘matrilineal.’ However, the two have notable differences.

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FAQs

What Is Matriarchy? A Brief History Of Matriarchal Societies? ›

A Brief History Of Matriarchal Societies. A society where the female member leads a family is called matriarchy, and the female head of the family is called the matriarch. For a long time, men have dominated the better portion of society.

What is matriarchy society and it's origin? ›

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), matriarchy is a "form of social organization in which the mother or oldest female is the head of the family, and descent and relationship are reckoned through the female line; government or rule by a woman or women." A popular definition, according to James Peoples and ...

What are matriarchal societies? ›

A matriarchal society is when a female reigns politically or rules over a group of people. In matriarchal societies, a woman will be the autonomous head of culture. Females will make business decisions, and inheritance is often through the female line.

What is an example of a matriarchal society? ›

The Minangkabau people are a part of the largest surviving matriarchal society encompassing approximately four million people as of 2017. The common belief in this culture is that the mother is the most important person in society. Women rule the domestic realm of life.

What is matriarchy simple? ›

Definition of matriarchy

1 : a family, group, or state governed by a matriarch. 2 : a system of social organization in which descent and inheritance are traced through the female line.

Why is matriarchy important in history? ›

The Significance Of Matriarchy

They dominate in roles of moral authority, political leadership, social privilege, and control of property. For a social system to be viewed as a matriarchy, it would need the support of a culture that defined women's dominance as desirable and legitimate.

When did matriarchy begin? ›

There is a school of thought that believes human society was originally matriarchal. From around 1.5 million years ago, women were revered as priestesses and honoured for their ability to bear children. Archaeological evidence, such as ancient Venus statues, seems to support this.

Which country is matriarchy? ›

1. Minangkabau In Indonesia. With about 4.2 million members, Minangkabau is the largest matriarchal society in the world.

Who first used the term matriarchy? ›

J. J. Bachofen began the modern debate about matriarchy with his 1861 book on "mother right," in which he argued that one early social formation was a family which traced descent through the mother, and in which "government of the state was also entrusted to the women" (p. 156).

What are the values in matriarchy? ›

Matriarchies are mother-centered societies, they are based on maternal values: care-taking, nurturing, motherliness, which holds for everybody: for mothers and those who are not mothers, for women and men alike.

What is matriarchy in sociology? ›

matriarchy, hypothetical social system in which the mother or a female elder has absolute authority over the family group; by extension, one or more women (as in a council) exert a similar level of authority over the community as a whole.

What are the characteristics of matriarchal family? ›

The chief characteristics of matriarchal family:

(I) Descent is reckoned through the mother. (II) The husband is merely a casual visitor or stays with his wife at her residence. (III) The children are brought up in the home of the wife's relatives.

How many countries are matriarchal? ›

Through the millennia, the balance has wavered, but female leaders are making their mark in the modern world, too. Since 1960, at least 59 countries have elected their first female head of state—a milestone that the United States notoriously dodged in 2016, and could potentially meet in 2020.

What is another word for matriarch? ›

In this page you can discover 15 synonyms, antonyms, idiomatic expressions, and related words for matriarch, like: materfamilias, mother figure, head of the family, female ruler, ancestress, queen, matron, female, mother, ruler and sex-goddess.

What country is a matriarchy? ›

The Minangkabau is the largest matriarchal society in the world. They are the indigenous tribe of the Sumatra region of Indonesia which is made up of 4.2 million members. Ownership of land, as well as the family name, is passed from mother to daughter whereas men are involved in political matters.

Who first used the term matriarchy? ›

J. J. Bachofen began the modern debate about matriarchy with his 1861 book on "mother right," in which he argued that one early social formation was a family which traced descent through the mother, and in which "government of the state was also entrusted to the women" (p. 156).

What is the root word of matriarchy? ›

The word matriarchy, pronounced "MAY-tree-ar-kee," derives from the Latin word mater, meaning “mother,” and archein, or "to rule." A matriarchy is a social system is which women have more power in the community than men.

Was ancient India a matriarchal society? ›

Like all Neolithic and Bronze-Age urban cultures, the ancient culture along the Hindus River in Northwest India was based on matriarchy and remained matriarchal throughout his long history. Many archaelogists consider it to be an offshot of closely related early Sumerian culture.

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