Matriarchy is a term we use with two main meanings:
(1) domination by female members of society and
(2) women-centeredness in society (such as in descent, place of residence, economy, politics, religion, family). Scholars who use the term in the second sense stress that the concept of matriarchy does not parallel the concept of patriarchy (domination by male members of a society) insofar as the patriarchal domination structure does not exist in a matriarchal society.
In the 19th century, matriarchy or “mother-right” was thought to be representative of an early and primitive stage of social evolution. This stage was overcome by the “higher” stage of the “male principle.” The idea of matriarchal prehistory, however, has not only been used to justify patriarchy but also to overthrow it. In the early 1970s, a feminist understanding of matriarchal pre- and early history and interest in ethnographic studies of matriarchal societies redeveloped.
Matriarchal Pre- and Early History
The question of matriarchal prehistory is especially associated with the Swiss jurist Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-1887). In 1861 he published Das Mutterrecht (Mother Right), in which he proposed a theory of social evolution as a development from an era in which women were defenseless and degraded, followed by an era with mother-right and perfected in classical times with the rise of men and the “male principle.” Bachofen, who actually never used the term matriarchy but gynaecocracy, revived the story of women-dominated societies in prehistory from classical Greek sources. The existence of matriarchies was explained by the assumption that some primitive peoples did not grasp the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. They therefore had no clear notion of paternity. When men discovered paternity, according to this hypothesis, they claimed the power to monopolize women and began to claim children as their own offspring. Hence, in 19th-century anthropology, women-dominated societies were regarded as a primitive stage of human evolution and patriarchy as an evolutionary advance. Bachofen was joined in this account by pioneers of the new discipline of anthropology along evolutionary lines (including Herbert Spencer). Socialists (e.g., Friedrich Engels) and feminists (e.g., Charlotte Perkins Gilman) of these times were also attracted by the theory of prehistoric societies in which women dominated.
However, in the early 1970s, as part of second-wave feminism a feminist understanding of matriarchal prehistory came to be articulated. In this new tradition, matriarchal refers to women-centeredness, which does not deny equal power to men. This new feminist understanding of matriarchy is heavily indebted to archaeological finds that 19th-century scholars knew nothing about. Elizabeth Fisher, for example, used the early Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk (located in present-day Turkey) to illustrate patriarchy’s gradual encroachment into human society. Other scholars refer to the work of the Lithuanian/ American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, who argued for a widespread matriarchal (in the sense of woman-centered) culture in pre-Indo-European Old Europe of the Neolithic. In excavations in southeastern Europe, she uncovered a wealth of female figurines, which she identified as goddesses. Gimbutas’s work is taken by some as proof of the claim that prehistoric societies were woman centered and goddess worshipping. However, some historians claim that this “evidence” is not reliable enough to allow for any conclusions. Nevertheless, women’s status, role, and living conditions in prehistory and early history form a wide field of investigation in feminist and gender-sensitive anthropology, with new insights to be expected.
Contemporary Matriarchal Societies
Anticipating Bachofen, anthropologists and missionaries had begun to address the issue of female power as they encountered non-European societies in colonial contexts. They were shocked by senior priestesses and female chieftains. It was not later than 1724 when the French missionary J.-F. Lafitau expressed astonishment at the power of Iroquois women. Later on, Iroquois society was described by Lewis Morgan, who spent four decades studying them. Contrary to United States and European women in those days, Iroquois women spoke in council and selected the men who would be chiefs.
This early and more recent ethnographic data is referred to by supporters of the theses that there are (or, until recently, have in fact been) matriarchal (women-centered) societies among contemporary, scientifically observed, and documented societies. Due to the studies of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, the Trobriand Islanders have become one of the most frequently cited examples. He stated that mother-right is the most important and the most comprehensive principle of law, underlying all customs and institutions on the Trobriand Islands, an archipelago lying east of New Guinea in the Western Pacific. On the Trobriand Islands, kinship is established through females only (matrilineal descent). When a male reaches maturity, he goes to live in the village of his mother’s brother. And while the father has a warm relationship with his children, it is the mother’s brother who is responsible for them. Because of these and further characteristics, researchers like Heide Gottner-Abendroth, the most important German researcher on matriarchy, classify the Trobriand Islanders as matriarchal. The same holds for other matrilineal societies in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and America. Examples include the Bemba and Luapula in Africa, the Nayar in India, the aforementioned Iroquois and the Hopi in America, and the Minangkabau—one of the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia.
Whether these societies are not only matrilineal but also matriarchal is a matter of debate. Most anthropologists sharply distinguish matrilineal descent from matriarchy and refuse the term matriarchy for these societies. They point to studies showing that matrilineal descent and the distribution of power, though interrelated, are separate. Descent theorists maintain that even in matrilineal societies, power and positions of authority are generally held by men (though transmitted through women) and that women can have a high status in patrilineal societies. Their opponents, however, argue that to focus on matrilineality or matrilocality is inadequate and hides the existence of matriarchies. They point to the fact that in most of these societies, it is not only matrilineality and/or matrilocality that can be found, but that in addition, the celebration of life stages (birth, initiation, marriage, death, ancestor cult) are women-only ceremonies, the Earth is seen as the creation of one or more goddesses, and so on.
Due to the disagreement on the meaning of the term matriarchy and its loaded history, alternative terms have been proposed, including matristic, gynarchic, or matrix society. Gottner-Abendroth continues to use matriarchy as a strategy to expose the sexist bias still ingrained in academia and the media, as does anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday.
- Eller, C. (2000). The myth of matriarchal prehistory. Why an invented past wont give women a future. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Gimbutas, M. (1982). Goddesses and gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 BC: Myths and cult images. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Sanday, P. R. (2002). Women at the center: Life in a modern matriarchy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.