Matriarchy is a social system in which females hold primary power, predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property at the specific exclusion of men, at least to a large degree. While those definitions apply in general English, definitions specific to the disciplines of anthropology and feminism differ in some respects.
- Definitions connotations and etymology
- Related concepts
- Words beginning with gyn
- Intergenerational relationships
- Words beginning with matri
- History and distribution
- African nations
- Ancient Near East
- Native Americans
- Earliest prehistory and undated
- Paleolithic and Neolithic Ages
- Bronze Age
- Iron Age to Middle Ages
- 20th21st centuries
- Celtic myth and society
- South America
- In feminist thought
- Ancient theatre
- Fine arts
- Video games
Most anthropologists hold that there are no known societies that are unambiguously matriarchal, but some authors believe exceptions may exist or may have. Matriarchies may also be confused with matrilineal, matrilocal, and matrifocal societies. A few people consider any non-patriarchal system to be matriarchal, thus including genderally equalitarian systems (Peggy Reeves Sanday favors redefining and reintroducing the word matriarchy, especially in reference to contemporary matrilineal societies such as the Minangkabau), but most academics exclude them from matriarchies strictly defined.
In 19th century Western scholarship, the hypothesis of matriarchy representing an early, mainly prehistoric, stage of human development gained popularity. Possibilities of so-called primitive societies were cited and the hypothesis survived into the 20th century, including in the context of second-wave feminism. This hypothesis was criticized by some authors such as Cynthia Eller in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory and remains as a largely unsolved question to this day. Some older myths describe matriarchies. Several modern feminists have advocated for matriarchy now or in the future and it has appeared in feminist literature. In several theologies, matriarchy has been portrayed as negative.
Definitions, connotations, and etymology
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 Garrick Bailey, is "female dominance". Within the academic discipline of cultural anthropology, according to the OED, matriarchy is a "culture or community in which such a system prevails" or a "family, society, organization, etc., dominated by a woman or women." In general anthropology, according to William A. Haviland, matriarchy is "rule by women". A matriarchy is a society in which females, especially mothers, have the central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and control of property, but does not include a society that occasionally is led by a female for nonmatriarchal reasons or an occupation in which females generally predominate without reference to matriarchy, such as prostitution or women's auxiliaries of organizations run by men. According to Lawrence A. Kuzner in 1997, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown argued in 1924 that the definitions of matriarchy and patriarchy had "logical and empirical failings .... [and] were too vague to be scientifically useful".
Most academics exclude egalitarian nonpatriarchal systems from matriarchies more strictly defined. According to Heide Göttner-Abendroth, a reluctance to accept the existence of matriarchies might be based on a specific culturally biased notion of how to define matriarchy: because in a patriarchy men rule over women, a matriarchy has frequently been conceptualized as women ruling over men, while she believed that matriarchies are egalitarian.
The word matriarchy, for a society politically led by females, especially mothers, who also control property, is often interpreted to mean the genderal opposite of patriarchy, but it is not an opposite (linguistically, it is not a parallel term). According to Peoples and Bailey, the view of anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday is that matriarchies are not a mirror form of patriarchies but rather that a matriarchy "emphasizes maternal meanings where 'maternal symbols are linked to social practices influencing the lives of both sexes and where women play a central role in these practices'". Journalist Margot Adler wrote, "literally, ... ["matriarchy"] means government by mothers, or more broadly, government and power in the hands of women." Barbara Love and Elizabeth Shanklin wrote, "by 'matriarchy,' we mean a non-alienated society: a society in which women, those who produce the next generation, define motherhood, determine the conditions of motherhood, and determine the environment in which the next generation is reared." According to Cynthia Eller, "'matriarchy' can be thought of ... as a shorthand description for any society in which women's power is equal or superior to men's and in which the culture centers around values and life events described as 'feminine.'" Eller wrote that the idea of matriarchy mainly rests on two pillars, romanticism and modern social criticism. The notion of matriarchy was meant to describe something like a utopia placed in the past in order to legitimate contemporary social criticism. With respect to a prehistoric matriarchal Golden Age, according to Barbara Epstein, "matriarchy ... means a social system organized around matriliny and goddess worship in which women have positions of power." According to Adler, in the Marxist tradition, it usually refers to a pre-class society "where women and men share equally in production and power."
According to Adler, "a number of feminists note that few definitions of the word [matriarchy], despite its literal meaning, include any concept of power, and they suggest that centuries of oppression have made it impossible for women to conceive of themselves with such power."
Matriarchy has often been presented as negative, in contrast to patriarchy as natural and inevitable for society, thus that matriarchy is hopeless. Love and Shanklin wrote:
When we hear the word "matriarchy", we are conditioned to a number of responses: that matriarchy refers to the past and that matriarchies have never existed; that matriarchy is a hopeless fantasy of female domination, of mothers dominating children, of women being cruel to men. Conditioning us negatively to matriarchy is, of course, in the interests of patriarchs. We are made to feel that patriarchy is natural; we are less likely to question it, and less likely to direct our energies to ending it.
The Matriarchal Studies school led by Göttner-Abendroth calls for an even more inclusive redefinition of the term: Göttner-Abendroth defines Modern Matriarchal Studies as the "investigation and presentation of non-patriarchal societies", effectively defining matriarchy as non-patriarchy. She has also defined matriarchy as characterized by the sharing of power equally between the two genders. According to Diane LeBow, "matriarchal societies are often described as ... egalitarian ...", although anthropologist Ruby Rohrlich has written of "the centrality of women in an egalitarian society."
Matriarchy is also the public formation in which the woman occupies the ruling position in a family. For this usage, some scholars now prefer the term matrifocal to matriarchal. Some, including Daniel Moynihan, claimed that there is a matriarchy among Black families in the United States, because a quarter of them were headed by single women; thus, families composing a substantial minority of a substantial minority could be enough for the latter to constitute a matriarchy within a larger non-matriarchal society.
Etymologically, it is from Latin māter (genitive mātris), "mother" and Greek ἄρχειν arkhein, "to rule". The notion of matriarchy was defined by Joseph-François Lafitau (1681–1746), who first named it ginécocratie. According to the OED, the earliest known attestation of the word matriarchy is in 1885. By contrast, gynæcocracy, meaning 'rule of women', has been in use since the 17th century, building on the Greek word γυναικοκρατία found in Aristotle and Plutarch.
Terms with similar etymology are also used in various social sciences and humanities to describe matriarchal or matriological aspects of social, cultural and political processes. Adjective matriological is derived from the noun matriology that comes from Latin word māter (mother) and Greek word λογος (logos, teaching about). The term matriology was used in theology and history of religion as a designation for the study of particular motherly aspects of various female deities. The term was subsequently borrowed by other social sciences and humanities and its meaning was widened in order to describe and define particular female-dominated and female-centered aspects of cultural and social life. The male alternative for matriology is patriology.
In their works, Johann Jakob Bachofen and Lewis 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). Although Bachofen and Lewis Morgan confined the "mother right" inside households, it was the basis of female influence upon the whole society. The authors of the classics did not think that gyneocracy meant 'female government' in politics. They were aware of the fact that the sexual structure of government had no relation to domestic rule and to roles of both sexes.
Words beginning with gyn-
A matriarchy is also sometimes called a gynarchy, a gynocracy, a gynecocracy, or a gynocentric society, although these terms do not definitionally emphasize motherhood. Cultural anthropologist Jules de Leeuwe argued that some societies were "mainly gynecocratic" (others being "mainly androcratic").
Gynecocracy, gynaecocracy, gynocracy, gyneocracy, and gynarchy generally mean 'government by women over women and men'. All of these words are synonyms in their most important definitions. While these words all share that principal meaning, they differ a little in their additional meanings, so that gynecocracy also means 'women's social supremacy', gynaecocracy also means 'government by one woman', 'female dominance', and, derogatorily, 'petticoat government', and gynocracy also means 'women as the ruling class'. Gyneocracy is rarely used in modern times. None of these definitions are limited to mothers.
Some question whether a queen ruling without a king is sufficient to constitute female government, given the amount of participation of other men in most such governments. One view is that it is sufficient. "By the end of [Queen] Elizabeth's reign, gynecocracy was a fait accompli", according to historian Paula Louise Scalingi. Gynecocracy is defined by Scalingi as "government by women", similar to dictionary definitions (one dictionary adding 'women's social supremacy' to the governing role). Scalingi reported arguments for and against the validity of gynocracy and said, "the humanists treated the question of female rule as part of the larger controversy over sexual equality." Possibly, queenship, because of the power wielded by men in leadership and assisting a queen, leads to queen bee syndrome, contributing to the difficulty of other women in becoming heads of the government.
Some matriarchies have been described by historian Helen Diner as "a strong gynocracy" and "women monopolizing government" and she described matriarchal Amazons as "an extreme, feminist wing" of humanity and that North African women "ruled the country politically," and, according to Adler, Diner "envision[ed] a dominance matriarchy".
Gynocentrism is the 'dominant or exclusive focus on women', is opposed to androcentrism, and "invert[s] ... the privilege of the ... [male/female] binary ...[,] [some feminists] arguing for 'the superiority of values embodied in traditionally female experience'".
Some people who sought evidence for the existence of a matriarchy often mixed matriarchy with anthropological terms and concepts describing specific arrangements in the field of family relationships and the organization of family life, such as matrilineality and matrilocality. These terms refer to intergenerational relationships (as matriarchy may), but do not distinguish between males and females insofar as they apply to specific arrangements for sons as well as daughters from the perspective of their relatives on their mother's side. Accordingly, these concepts do not represent matriarchy as 'power of women over men'.
Words beginning with matri-
Anthropologists have begun to use the term matrifocality. There is some debate concerning the terminological delineation between matrifocality and matriarchy. Matrifocal societies are those in which women, especially mothers, occupy a central position. Anthropologist R. T. Smith refers to matrifocality as the kinship structure of a social system whereby the mothers assume structural prominence. The term does not necessarily imply domination by women or mothers. In addition, some authors depart from the premise of a mother-child dyad as the core of a human group where the grandmother was the central ancestor with her children and grandchildren clustered around her in an extended family.
The term matricentric means 'having a mother as head of the family or household'.
Matristic: Feminist scholars and archeologists such as Marija Gimbutas, Gerda Lerner, and Riane Eisler label their notion of a "woman-centered" society surrounding Mother Goddess worship during prehistory (in Paleolithic and Neolithic Europe) and in ancient civilizations by using the term matristic rather than matriarchal. Marija Gimbutas states that she uses "the term matristic simply to avoid the term matriarchy with the understanding that it incorporates matriliny. l
Matrilineality, in which descent is traced through the female line, is sometimes conflated with historical matriarchy. Sanday favors redefining and reintroducing the word matriarchy, especially in reference to contemporary matrilineal societies such as the Minangkabau. The 19th-century belief that matriarchal societies existed was due to the transmission of "economic and social power ... through kinship lines" so that "in a matrilineal society all power would be channeled through women. Women may not have retained all power and authority in such societies ..., but they would have been in a position to control and dispense power."
A matrilocal society defines a society in which a couple resides close to the bride's family rather than the bridegroom's family.
History and distribution
Most anthropologists hold that there are no known societies that are unambiguously matriarchal. According to J. M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, and Jake Page, no true matriarchy is known actually to have existed. Anthropologist Joan Bamberger argued that the historical record contains no primary sources on any society in which women dominated. Anthropologist Donald Brown's list of human cultural universals (viz., features shared by nearly all current human societies) includes men being the "dominant element" in public political affairs, which he asserts is the contemporary opinion of mainstream anthropology. There are some disagreements and possible exceptions. A belief that women's rule preceded men's rule was, according to Haviland, "held by many nineteenth-century intellectuals". The hypothesis survived into the 20th century and was notably advanced in the context of feminism and especially second-wave feminism, but the hypothesis is mostly discredited today, most experts saying that it was never true.
Matriarchs, according to Peoples and Bailey, do exist; there are "individual matriarchs of families and kin groups."
The royal lineage of Ethiopia, including for the Kandake, was passed through the woman only.
Ancient Near East
The Cambridge Ancient History (1975) stated that "the predominance of a supreme goddess is probably a reflection from the practice of matriarchy which at all times characterized Elamite civilization to a greater or lesser degree".
Tacitus noted in his Germania that in "the nations of the Sitones a woman is the ruling sex."
Legends of Amazon women originated not from South America, but rather Scythia (present day Russia.) Historians note that the Sarmatians (present day Ukraine) are also descendants of the Amazonian women tribe.
Possible matriarchies in Burma are, according to Jorgen Bisch, the Padaungs and, according to Andrew Marshall, the Kayaw.
The Mosuo culture, which is in China near Tibet, is frequently described as matriarchal. The Mosuo themselves often use this description and they believe it increases interest in their culture and thus attracts tourism. The term matrilineal is sometimes used, and, while more accurate, still doesn't reflect the full complexity of their social organization. In fact, it is not easy to categorize Mosuo culture within traditional Western definitions. They have aspects of a matriarchal culture: Women are often the head of the house, inheritance is through the female line, and women make business decisions. However, unlike in a true matriarchy, political power tends to be in the hands of males.
In India, of communities recognized in the national Constitution as Scheduled Tribes, "some ... [are] matriarchal and matrilineal" "and thus have been known to be more egalitarian". According to interviewer Anuj Kumar, Manipur, India, "has a matriarchal society", but this may not be a scholarly assessment.
Manipur, in north-east India, is not at all a matriarchy. Though mothers there are in forefront of most of the social activism, the society has always been a patriarchal. Their women power is visible because of historical reason. Manipur was ruled by strong dynasties. The need for expansions of borders, crushing any outsider threats etc. engaged the men. And so women had to take charge of home-front.
In the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, many societies are matrilineal.
In Kerala, the Nair communities are matrilineal. Descent and relationship are determined through the female line.
Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday said the Minangkabau society may be a matriarchy.
According to William S. Turley, "the role of women in traditional Vietnamese culture was determined [partly] by ... indigenous customs bearing traces of matriarchy", affecting "different social classes" to "varying degrees". According to Peter C. Phan, that "the first three persons leading insurrections against China were women ... suggest[s] ... that ancient Vietnam was a matriarchal society" and "the ancient Vietnamese family system was most likely matriarchal, with women ruling over the clan or tribe" until the Vietnamese "adopt[ed] ... the patriarchal system introduced by the Chinese", although "this patriarchal system ... was not able to dislodge the Vietnamese women from their relatively high position in the family and society, especially among the peasants and the lower classes", with modern "culture and legal codes ... [promoting more] rights and privileges" for women than in Chinese culture. According to Chiricosta, the legend of Âu Cơ is said to be evidence of "the presence of an original 'matriarchy' in North Vietnam and [it] led to the double kinship system, which developed there .... [and which] combined matrilineal and patrilineal patterns of family structure and assigned equal importance to both lines." Chiricosta said that other scholars relied on "this 'matriarchal' aspect of the myth to differentiate Vietnamese society from the pervasive spread of Chinese Confucian patriarchy" and that "resistance to China's colonization of Vietnam ... [combined with] the view that Vietnam was originally a matriarchy ... [led to viewing] women's struggles for liberation from (Chinese) patriarchy as a metaphor for the entire nation's struggle for Vietnamese independence." According to Keith Weller Taylor, "the matriarchal flavor of the time is ... attested by the fact that Trung Trac's mother's tomb and spirit temple have survived, although nothing remains of her father", and the "society of the Trung sisters" was "strongly matrilineal". According to Donald M. Seekins, an indication of "the strength of matriarchal values" was that a woman, Trưng Trắc, with her younger sister Trưng Nhị, raised an army of "over 80,000 soldiers .... [in which] many of her officers were women", with which they defeated the Chinese. According to Seekins, "in [the year] 40, Trung Trac was proclaimed queen, and a capital was built for her" and modern Vietnam considers the Trung sisters to be heroines. According to Karen G. Turner, in the 3rd century A.D., Lady Triệu "seem[ed] ... to personify the matriarchal culture that mitigated Confucianized patriarchal norms .... [although] she is also painted as something of a freak ... with her ... savage, violent streak."
The Hopi (in what is now the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona), according to Alice Schlegel, had as its "gender ideology ... one of female superiority, and it operated within a social actuality of sexual equality." According to LeBow (based on Schlegel's work), in the Hopi, "gender roles ... are egalitarian .... [and] [n]either sex is inferior." LeBow concluded that Hopi women "participate fully in ... political decision-making." According to Schlegel, "the Hopi no longer live as they are described here" and "the attitude of female superiority is fading". Schlegel said the Hopi "were and still are matrilinial" and "the household ... was matrilocal". Schlegel explains why there was female superiority as that the Hopi believed in "life as the highest good ... [with] the female principle ... activated in women and in Mother Earth ... as its source" and that the Hopi "were not in a state of continual war with equally matched neighbors" and "had no standing army" so that "the Hopi lacked the spur to masculine superiority" and, within that, as that women were central to institutions of clan and household and predominated "within the economic and social systems (in contrast to male predominance within the political and ceremonial systems)", the Clan Mother, for example, being empowered to overturn land distribution by men if she felt it was unfair, since there was no "countervailing ... strongly centralized, male-centered political structure".
The Iroquois Confederacy or League, combining 5–6 Native American Haudenosaunee nations or tribes before the U.S. became a nation, operated by The Great Binding Law of Peace, a constitution by which women participated in the League's political decision-making, including deciding whether to proceed to war, through what may have been a matriarchy or gyneocracy. According to Doug George-Kanentiio, in this society, mothers exercise central moral and political roles. The dates of this constitution's operation are unknown; the League was formed in approximately 1000–1450, but the constitution was oral until written in about 1880. The League still exists.
In our society, women are the center of all things. Nature, we believe, has given women the ability to create; therefore it is only natural that women be in positions of power to protect this function....We traced our clans through women; a child born into the world assumed the clan membership of its mother. Our young women were expected to be physically strong....The young women received formal instruction in traditional planting....Since the Iroquois were absolutely dependent upon the crops they grew, whoever controlled this vital activity wielded great power within our communities. It was our belief that since women were the givers of life they naturally regulated the feeding of our people....In all countries, real wealth stems from the control of land and its resources. Our Iroquois philosophers knew this as well as we knew natural law. To us it made sense for women to control the land since they were far more sensitive to the rhythms of the Mother Earth. We did not own the land but were custodians of it. Our women decided any and all issues involving territory, including where a community was to be built and how land was to be used....In our political system, we mandated full equality. Our leaders were selected by a caucus of women before the appointments were subject to popular review....Our traditional governments are composed of an equal number of men and women. The men are chiefs and the women clan-mothers....As leaders, the women closely monitor the actions of the men and retain the right to veto any law they deem inappropriate....Our women not only hold the reigns of political and economic power, they also have the right to determine all issues involving the taking of human life. Declarations of war had to be approved by the women, while treaties of peace were subject to their deliberations.
Earliest prehistory and undated
The controversy surrounding prehistoric or "primal" matriarchy began in reaction to the book by 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. According to Uwe Wesel, Bachofen's myth interpretations have proved to be untenable. The concept was further investigated by Lewis Morgan. Many researchers studied the phenomenon of matriarchy afterward, but the basis was laid by the classics of sociology. The notion of a "woman-centered" society was developed by Bachofen, whose three-volume Myth, Religion, and Mother Right (1861) impacted the way classicists such as Harrison, Arthur Evans, Walter Burkert, and James Mellaart looked at the evidence of matriarchal religion in pre-Hellenic societies. According to historian Susan Mann, as of 2000, "few scholars these days find ... [a "notion of a stage of primal matriarchy"] persuasive."
The following excerpts from Lewis 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, gynecocracy." "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."
Kurt Derungs is a non-academic author advocating an "anthropology of landscape" based on allegedly matriarchal traces in toponymy and folklore.
Paleolithic and Neolithic Ages
Friedrich Engels, in 1884, claimed that, in the earliest stages of human social development, there was group marriage and that therefore paternity was disputable, whereas maternity was not, so that a family could be traced only through the female line, and claimed that this was connected with the dominance of women over men or a Mutterrecht, which notion Engels took from Bachofen, who claimed, based on his interpretations of myths, that myths reflected a memory of a time when women dominated over men. Engels speculated that the domestication of animals increased wealth claimed by men. Engels said that men wanted control over women for use as laborers and because they wanted to pass on their wealth to their children, requiring monogamy. Engels did not explain how this could happen in a matriarchal society, but said that women's status declined until they became mere objects in the exchange trade between men and patriarchy was established, causing the global defeat of the female sex and the rise of individualism, competition, and dedication to achievement. According to Eller, Engels may have been influenced with respect to women's status by August Bebel, according to whom this matriarchy resulted in communism while patriarchy did not.
Austrian writer Bertha Diener, also known as Helen Diner, wrote Mothers and Amazons (1930), which was the first work to focus on women's cultural history. Hers is regarded as a classic of feminist matriarchal study. Her view is that in the past all human societies were matriarchal; then, at some point, most shifted to patriarchal and degenerated. The controversy was reinforced further by the publication of The White Goddess by Robert Graves (1948) 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. According to Epstein, anthropologists in the 20th century said that "the goddess worship or matrilocality that evidently existed in many paleolithic societies was not necessarily associated with matriarchy in the sense of women's power over men. Many societies can be found that exhibit those qualities along with female subordination." 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, and in feminist Wicca, as well as in works by Eisler, Elizabeth Gould Davis, and Merlin Stone.
"A Golden Age of matriarchy" was, according to Epstein, prominently presented by Charlene Spretnak and "encouraged" by Stone and Eisler, but, at least for the Neolithic Age, has been denounced as feminist wishful thinking in The Inevitability of Patriarchy, Why Men Rule, Goddess Unmasked, and The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory and is not emphasized in third-wave feminism. According to Eller, Gimbutas had a large part in constructing a myth of historical matriarchy by examining Eastern European cultures that she asserts, by and large, never really bore any resemblance in character to the alleged universal matriarchy 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 original evidence recognized by Gimbutas, however, of Neolithic societies being more egalitarian than the Bronze Age Indo-European and Semitic patriarchies remains valid. Gimbutas herself has not described these societies as matriarchal, preferring the term woman-centered or matristic. J.F. del Giorgio insists on a matrifocal, matrilocal, matrilineal Paleolithic society.
According to Rohrlich, "many scholars are convinced that Crete was a matriarchy, ruled by a queen-priestess" and the "Cretan civilization" was "matriarchal" before "1500 B.C.," when it was overrun and colonized.
Also according to Rohrlich, "in the early Sumerian city-states 'matriarchy seems to have left something more than a trace.'"
One common misconception among historians of the Bronze Age such as Stone and Eisler is the notion that the Semites were matriarchal while the Indo-Europeans practiced a patriarchal system. An example of this view is found in Stone's When God Was a Woman, wherein she attempts to make out a case that the worship of Yahweh was an Indo-European invention superimposed on an ancient matriarchal Semitic nation. Evidence from the Amorites and pre-Islamic Arabs, however, indicates that the primitive Semitic family was in fact patriarchal and patrilineal. Meanwhile, the Indo-Europeans were known to have practiced multiple succession systems, and there is much better evidence of matrilineal customs among the Indo-European Celts and Germans than among any ancient Semitic peoples.
Women were running Sparta while the men were often away fighting. Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, responded to a question from a woman in Attica along the lines of, "why Spartan women were the only women in the world who could rule men?" Gorgo replied, "because we are the only women who are mothers of men".
Iron Age to Middle Ages
Arising in the period ranging from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages, several early northwestern European mythologies from the Irish (e.g., Macha and Scáthach), the Brittonic (e.g., Rhiannon), and the Germanic (e.g., Grendel's mother and Nerthus) contain ambiguous episodes of primal female power which have been interpreted as folk evidence of a real potential for matriarchal attitudes in pre-Christian European Iron Age societies. Often transcribed from a retrospective, patriarchal, Romanised, and Catholic perspective, they hint at an earlier, culturally disturbing, era when female power could have predominated. The first-century–attested historic British figure of Boudicca indicates that Brittonnic society permitted explicit female autocracy or a form of gender equality in a form which contrasted strongly with the patriarchal structure of Mediterranean civilisation.
In 1995, in Kenya, according to Emily Wax, Umoja, a village only for women from one tribe with about 36 residents, was established under a matriarch. Men of the same tribe established a village nearby from which to observe the women's village, the men's leader objecting to the matriarch's questioning the culture and men suing to close the women's village. The village was still operational in 2005 when Wax reported on it.
Spokespersons for various indigenous peoples at the United Nations and elsewhere have highlighted the central role of women in their societies, referring to them as matriarchies, or as matriarchal in character.
A legendary matriarchy related by several writers was Amazon society. According to Phyllis Chesler, "in Amazon societies, women were ... mothers and their society's only political and religious leaders", as well as the only warriors and hunters; "queens were elected" and apparently "any woman could aspire to and achieve full human expression." Herodotus reported that the Sarmatians were descendants of Amazons and Scythians, and that their females observed their ancient maternal customs, "frequently hunting on horseback with their husbands; in war taking the field; and wearing the very same dress as the men". Moreover, said Herodotus, "no girl shall wed till she has killed a man in battle". Amazons came to play a role in Roman historiography. Julius Caesar spoke of the conquest of large parts of Asia by Semiramis and the Amazons. Although Strabo was sceptical about their historicity, the Amazons were taken as historical throughout late Antiquity. Several Church Fathers spoke of the Amazons as a real people. Medieval authors continued a tradition of locating the Amazons in the North, Adam of Bremen placing them at the Baltic Sea and Paulus Diaconus in the heart of Germania.
Robert Graves suggested that a myth displaced earlier myths that had to change when a major cultural change brought patriarchy to replace a matriarchy. According to this myth, in Greek mythology, Zeus is said to have swallowed his pregnant lover, the titan goddess Metis, who was carrying their daughter, Athena. The mother and child created havoc inside Zeus. Either Hermes or Hephaestus split Zeus's head, allowing Athena, in full battle armor, to burst forth from his forehead. Athena was thus described as being "born" from Zeus. The outcome pleased Zeus as it didn't fulfill the prophecy of Themis which (according to Aeschylus) predicted that Zeus will one day bear a son that would overthrow him.
Celtic myth and society
According to Adler, "there is plenty of evidence of ancient societies where women held greater power than in many societies today. For example, Jean Markale's studies of Celtic societies show that the power of women was reflected not only in myth and legend but in legal codes pertaining to marriage, divorce, property ownership, and the right to rule."
Bamberger (1974) examines several matriarchal myths from South American cultures and concludes that portraying the women from this matriarchal period as immoral often serves to restrain contemporary women in these societies.
In feminist thought
While matriarchy has mostly fallen out of use for the anthropological description of existing societies, it remains current as a concept in feminism.
In first-wave feminist discourse, either Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Margaret Fuller (it is unclear who was first) introduced the concept of matriarchy and the discourse was joined in by Matilda Joslyn Gage. Victoria Woodhull, in 1871, called for men to open the U.S. government to women or a new constitution and government would be formed in a year; and, on a basis of equality, she ran to be elected President in 1872. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in 1911 and 1914, argued for "a woman-centered, or better mother-centered, world" and described "'government by women'". She argued that a government led by either sex must be assisted by the other, both genders being "useful ... and should in our governments be alike used", because men and women have different qualities.
Cultural feminism includes "matriarchal worship", according to Prof. James Penner.
In feminist literature, matriarchy and patriarchy are not conceived as simple mirrors of each other. While matriarchy sometimes means "the political rule of women", that meaning is often rejected, on the ground that matriarchy is not a mirroring of patriarchy. Patriarchy is held to be about power over others while matriarchy is held to be about power from within, Starhawk having written on that distinction and Adler having argued that matriarchal power is not possessive and not controlling, but is harmonious with nature.
For radical feminists, the importance of matriarchy is that "veneration for the female principle ... somewhat lightens an oppressive system."
Feminist utopias are a form of advocacy. According to Tineke Willemsen, "a feminist utopia would ... be the description of a place where at least women would like to live." Willemsen continues, among "type[s] of feminist utopias[,] ... [one] stem[s] from feminists who emphasize the differences between women and men. They tend to formulate their ideal world in terms of a society where women's positions are better than men's. There are various forms of matriarchy, or even a utopia that resembles the Greek myth of the Amazons.... [V]ery few modern utopias have been developed in which women are absolute autocrats."
A minority of feminists, generally radical, have argued that women should govern societies of women and men. In all of these advocacies, the governing women are not limited to mothers:
Some such advocacies are informed by work on past matriarchy:
Some fiction caricatured the current gender hierarchy by describing a matriarchal alternative without advocating for it. According to Karin Schönpflug, "Gerd Brantenberg's Egalia's Daughters is a caricature of powered gender relations which have been completely reversed, with the female sex on the top and the male sex a degraded, oppressed group"; "gender inequality is expressed through power inversion" and "all gender roles are reversed and women rule over a class of intimidated, effeminate men". "Egalia is not a typical example of gender inequality in the sense that a vision of a desirable matriarchy is created; Egalia is more a caricature of male hegemony by twisting gender hierarchy but not really offering a 'better world.'"
On egalitarian matriarchy, Heide Göttner-Abendroth's International Academy for Modern Matriarchal Studies and Matriarchal Spirituality (HAGIA) organized conferences in Luxembourg in 2003 and Texas in 2005, with papers published. Göttner-Abendroth argued that "matriarchies are all egalitarian at least in terms of gender—they have no gender hierarchy .... [, that, f]or many matriarchal societies, the social order is completely egalitarian at both local and regional levels", that, "for our own path toward new egalitarian societies, we can gain ... insight from ... ["tested"] matriarchal patterns", and that "matriarchies are not abstract utopias, constructed according to philosophical concepts that could never be implemented."
According to Eller, "a deep distrust of men's ability to adhere to" future matriarchal requirements may invoke a need "to retain at least some degree of female hegemony to insure against a return to patriarchal control", "feminists ... [having] the understanding that female dominance is better for society—and better for men—than the present world order", as is equalitarianism. On the other hand, Eller continued, if men can be trusted to accept equality, probably most feminists seeking future matriarchy would accept an equalitarian model.
"Demographic[ally]", "feminist matriarchalists run the gamut" but primarily are "in white, well-educated, middle-class circles"; many of the adherents are "religiously inclined" while others are "quite secular".
Biology as a ground for holding either males or females superior over the other has been criticized as invalid, such as by Andrea Dworkin and by Robin Morgan. A claim that women have unique characteristics that prevent women's assimilation with men has been apparently rejected by Ti-Grace Atkinson. On the other hand, not all advocates based their arguments on biology or essentialism.
A criticism by Mansfield of choosing who governs according to gender or sex is that the best qualified people should be chosen, regardless of gender or sex. On the other hand, Mansfield considered merit insufficient for office, because a legal right granted by a sovereign (e.g., a king), was more important than merit.
Diversity within a proposed community can, according to Becki L. Ross, make it especially challenging to complete forming the community. However, some advocacy includes diversity, in the views of Dworkin and Farley.
Prof. Christine Stansell, a feminist, wrote that, for feminists to achieve state power, women must democratically cooperate with men. "Women must take their place with a new generation of brothers in a struggle for the world's fortunes. Herland, whether of virtuous matrons or daring sisters, is not an option.... [T]he well-being and liberty of women cannot be separated from democracy's survival." (Herland was feminist utopian fiction by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1911, featuring a community entirely of women except for three men who seek it out, strong women in a matriarchal utopia expected to last for generations, although Charlotte Perkins Gilman was herself a feminist advocate of society being gender-integrated and of women's freedom.)
Other criticisms of superiority are that it is reverse sexism or discriminatory against men, it is opposed by most people including most feminists, women do not want such a position, governing takes women away from family responsibilities, women are too likely to be unable to serve politically because of menstruation and pregnancy, public affairs are too sordid for women and would cost women their respect and femininity (apparently including fertility), superiority is not traditional, women lack the political capacity and authority men have, it is impractical because of a shortage of women with the ability to govern at that level of difficulty as well as the desire and ability to wage war, women are less aggressive, or less often so, than are men and politics is aggressive, women legislating would not serve men's interests or would serve only petty interests, it is contradicted by current science on genderal differences, it is unnatural, and, in the views of a playwright and a novelist, "women cannot govern on their own." On the other hand, another view is that "women have 'empire' over men" because of nature and "men ... are actually obeying" women.
Pursuing a future matriarchy would tend to risk sacrificing feminists' position in present social arrangements, and many feminists are not willing to take that chance, according to Eller. "Political feminists tend to regard discussions of what utopia would look like as a good way of setting themselves up for disappointment", according to Eller, and argue that immediate political issues must get the highest priority.
"Matriarchists", as typified by comic character Wonder Woman were criticized by Kathie Sarachild, Carol Hanisch, and some others.
Some theologies and theocracies limit or forbid women from being in civil government or public leadership or forbid them from voting, effectively criticizing and forbidding matriarchy. Within none of the following religions is the respective view necessarily universally held:
Feminist thealogy, according to Eller, conceptualized humanity as beginning with "female-ruled or equalitarian societies", until displaced by patriarchies, and that in the millennial future "'gynocentric,' life-loving values" will return to prominence. This, according to Eller, produces "a virtually infinite number of years of female equality or superiority coming both at the beginning and end of historical time."
Among criticisms is that a future matriarchy, according to Eller, as a reflection of spirituality, is conceived as ahistorical, and thus may be unrealistic, unreachable, or even meaningless as a goal to secular feminists.