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Matriarchy is usually defined as a political system in which women are the dominant political actors, as opposed to patriarchy, in which men are the exclusive or primary heads of families, social groups, or political states. But matriarchy has always been a controversial term, since whenever it is mentioned, there are debates about whether matriarchies are imagined utopias or real societies, whether they existed at some time in the distant past or could be re-created in a possible future, and how the definitions of gendered power themselves might have shifted in relation to varying social and historical contexts. The idea of matriarchy has served to inspire a whole series of legends and myths, experiments in alternative lifestyles, feminist spirituality, and woman-centered collectives, but it has long been rejected within mainstream anthropology. In the early twenty-first century new field research in Indonesia, Melanesia, and China has raised new questions about the definition of the term itself, and reinvigorated debates about whenif everit can be used responsibly.

Nineteenth-Century Evolutionary Theory

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). Bachofen developed a three-stage model: In the barbaric or hetaeristic stage (from the Greek hetero, meaning both), neither men nor women had control, and people engaged in indiscriminate sexual activity, worshipping Aphrodite and valuing the erotic above all else. Then women tired of this system and banded together for their own defense, creating a matriarchy in which Artemis and Athena emerged as the main deities. Agriculture was developed during this period, and so were the stories of Amazons and Furies. Bachofen argued that "matriarchal people feel the unity of all life, the harmony of the universe" (p. 79), and embraced a philosophy of "regulated naturalism" in which maternal love was the basis of all social ties. In the final stage of the development of civilization, men seized control from women, and their struggle to assert their domination was reflected in stories of Zeus triumphing over the Titans, Hades raping Persephone, Perseus slaying the Medusa, and Oedipus killing the Sphinx. Bachofen interpreted mythical accounts of sexual conflict as evidence for a historical transition from matriarchy to patriarchy.

Friedrich Engels developed a materialist version of this theme in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), arguing that matriarchy developed from a situation of group marriage, in which paternity was uncertain so only female blood lines could be traced reliably. Early human societies were presumed to have been egalitarian, and various forms of inequality were introduced in conjunction with the emergence of private property. When property rights came to be invested in men, the development of patriarchy was tied to the birth of capitalism, in which laborers were no longer the owners of the products of their labor.

Anthropologists working on comparative evidence from a number of societies tried to develop a more rigorous definition of matriarchy. E. B. Tylor grouped matrilineal descent with postmarital residence in the wife's household and evidence that "the wives are the masters" in the family (p. 89), and described the Minangkabau of Indonesia as one possible matriarchy. He later reconsidered this position and decided that the term maternal family would be preferable to matriarchy, since "it takes too much for granted that the women govern the family" (p. 90). Lewis Henry Morgan's intensive studies of the Iroquois documented political institutions in which women played important roles, and his Ancient Society (1877) formed the basis of Engel's speculations. But as more field studies of matrilineal societies were completed, few of them seemed to have anything approaching female rule over men, and by 1921 Robert Lowie's Primitive Society concluded that there was no evidence that women had ever governed the primitive equivalent of the state.

Twentieth-Century Gender and Kinship Studies

In Matrilineal Kinship (1961), David Schneider reexamined several decades of scholarship on the subject and concluded that "the generalized authority of women over men, imagined by Bachofen, was never observed in known matrilineal societies, but only recorded in legends and myths. Thus the whole notion of matriarchy fell rapidly into disuse in anthropological work" (p. viii).

The possibility of matriarchy was also denied in one of the founding texts of feminist anthropology, Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere's Women, Culture and Society (1974), which started with an infamous (and later retracted) assertion of the universality of male dominance: "It seems fair to say, then, that all contemporary societies are to some extent male-dominated, and although the degree and expression of female subordination vary greatly, sexual asymmetry is presently a universal fact of human and social life" (p. 3).

Twenty years after that statement was published, several contributors to the Rosaldo and Lamphere book specifically recanted this assertion, but none of them went so far as to embrace the idea of matriarchy. Sherry Ortner writes that in the early 1970s, when interest in feminist anthropology began to grow, she and many other anthropologists were asked about matriarchies: "Was it not the case, people wanted to know, that there were societies in which women had the kind of powers and authority men have in our own society? With a reasonable degree of unanimity, anthropologists said no. Well, then, continued the questioners, weren't there matriarchies in the past? Here there was somewhat less unanimity among the anthropologists, but by and large no professional scholar in the field was willing to make a strong claim for any past matriarchies either" (p. 139). But she noted that the anthropological consensus fell apart completely when the issue of egalitarian societies was raised. Revisiting her own argument that women's closeness to nature was used as a universal structural principle to justify their subjugation, she later explained that gender egalitarian societies may indeed exist, but "the egalitarianism is complex, inconsistent, andto some extentfragile" (p. 175).

Ortner's later position is nuanced in relation to late twentieth-century terminology, which distinguishes between cultural ideologies and cultural practices, and looks at "gender hegemonies" rather than gender dominance. A belief that men are superior to women may be posited in mythology or even institutionalized in the formal ranking of social groups, but it is never total. In many cultures, women have a great deal of power that actually counterbalances claims of male prestige, and notions of charisma and social value are always subject to individual adjustments and reevaluations. Women can in fact have significant amounts of power, authority, autonomy, and prestige in systems where men are the formal leaders, and systems that appear "hegemonically egalitarian" may also contain subtle ways to give men the edge over women in a number of informal contexts.

Joan Bamberger's contribution to Women, Culture, and Society argued specifically that myths and legends about female rule were told not because they reflected a previous history of matriarchy (as Bachofen believed) but instead as "social charters" for male dominance. Looking in some detail at a series of myths about the rule of women in Amazonian societies, she found that the myths themselves justify the rule of men "through the evocation of a vision of a catastrophic alternativea society dominated by women. The myth, in its reiteration that women did not know how to handle power when in possession of it, reaffirms dogmatically the inferiority of their present position" (p. 279). Men stole the sacred objects that gave women supernatural power, and women have since been "forever the subjects of male terrorism," so that these "myths of matriarchy" are in fact arguments for patriarchy.

It is possible that Bamberger's interpretation of myths of matriarchy is a more astute reading of Western mythmakers than of indigenous traditions. The myths and legends that Bachofen surveyed were indeed told in patriarchal Rome and Greece in order to justify the abandonment of matrilineal kinship and certain female-centered cults. But the idea of a simple reversal of gender roles within a similar system of domination and control may obscure other possibilities, which are not so easily reducible to a looking glass inversion of male domination and female subjugation.

Virginia Woolf echoed Bamberger's argument when she wrote in A Room of her Own :

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of men at twice its natural size. Whatever may be their use in civilized societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insisted so emphatically on the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men." (p. 37)

Early-twenty-first-century research suggests that there is a much wider range of social alternatives than the simple binarism invoked by the terms matriarchy and patriarchy. Looking for a chimeric inversion of Western forms of male dominationwhich are, as Woolf notes, accentuated in the specific contexts of fascism and imperial conquestis too limiting, since not all societies treat male/female relations in terms of colonization or domestication. Inequality can be constructed through sexual difference, but when this happens it is useful to recall Marilyn Strathern's argument that gender appears not as an immutable construct, but as a transactable one: "The difference between men and women becomes a vehicle for the creation of value, for evaluating one set of powers by reference to another" (p. 210).

Examined from this perspective, gender as a principle of contrast for social classification does not carry a consistent positive or negative valuation as part of its conceptual baggage. As Third World women and "native anthropologists" become more involved in academic discussions of gender equality, many of them criticize what they call the "false utopias" of the search by European-American feminists for hope and inspiration from exotic others. As Shanshan Du argues: "Ironically, by projecting diverse utopian ideals into cross-cultural studies, the declaration of the non-existence of gender-egalitarian societies became a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, there is always an unbridgeable gap between a utopian fantasy and a real society because the latter never operates on seamlessly coherent principles" (p. 4). She notes the example of the Crow Indians, who have many egalitarian institutions and ideologies, and where women are at least as prominent as men in many significant rituals. However Western anthropologists described the Crow as "male dominant" because of the existence of a menstrual taboo, although later studies have shown that menstrual taboos are complex and can also serve to empower women and grant them access to certain spiritual powers. Du calls this a "Eurocentric bias" which sets its own standards for sexual "political correctness" and is not sensitive to contextual meanings and configurations.

Alternatives to Matriarchy: Matrism, Gender
Egalitarianism, and Diarchy

In order to expand the conceptual tool kit of anthropologists for understanding gender relations in other societies, several writers have proposed alternative terms designed to avoid the simplifications implied by matriarchy. Riane Eisler argues in The Chalice and the Blade (1987) that patriarchy and matriarchy are "two sides of the same coin," because both of them involve "the ranking of one half of humanity over the other" (p. xvii). She prefers a partnership model that is "primarily based on the principle of linkage rather than ranking," so that gender differences between men and women can be spoken of in ways that do not equate them with either inferiority or superiority. Instead of matriarchy and patriarchy, Eisler proposes the term gylany for societies where gender relations follow the partnership model, and androcracy for others characterized by male dominance and ranking relations. Her title derives from symbols for these two paradigms: the chalice, symbolizing life begetting, community, and sharing; and the blade, symbolizing the power to take rather than give lifethe militaristic ideal to establish and enforce domination. She represents the Neolothic as an era of peace when people worshipped the goddess, which was then destroyed by the invasion of Hebrews and "Kurgans." The blade came to displace the chalice, and men came to displace women as the central power in the society.

These terms have not been widely adopted, and they are based on the work of Marija Gimbutas, who has excavated hundreds of female figurines from the period 7000 to 3500 b.c.e., which she interprets as mother goddesses. Several archaeologists, such as Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey, have argued that her interpretations are highly speculative, but they have had tremendous popular appeal, and her ideal of an early cult of a fertility deity represented as a large, possibly pregnant, woman has been widely disseminated. Gimbutas writes critically of the "indolent assumption" that ancient societies must have resembled those of the present, and presents her own theory that these figurines were produced by groups of people whose social forms she describes as "matristic":

Indeed we do not find in Old Europe, nor in all of the old world, a system of autocratic rule by women with an equivalent suppression of men. Rather, we find a structure in which the sexes are more or less on equal footing. [T]he sexes are "linked" rather than hier archically "ranked." I use the term matristic simply to avoid the term matriarchy, with the understanding that it incorporates matriliny. (p. 324)

Gimbutas's work provides an archaeological argument for ideas about the importance of goddesses in early Europe that have also been developed by Robert Graves (1946), and many contemporary neopagans (Adler; Pike). Graves argued that goddess worship coincided with the time when calendars were primarily determined by the moon, and noted the correspondence of the lunar and menstrual cycles, and that the Earth Mother was associated with the Moon Goddess. He traced the changeover to patriarchy with the changeover to the solar calendar and the worship of a solar deity. His work is more a poetic vision of artistic inspiration than a work of scholarship, and has been widely discredited.

Eisler and Gimbutas consider themselves "revisionist" historians who have brought together neglected evidence of a nurturant, female-centered society, but they (like the nineteenth-century evolutionary theorists) base this universalist theory solely on evidence from Europe and the Middle East. Even within that area, their scholarship has been widely criticized as biased, selective, and unscientific, and most anthropologists consider their work to present a view of the "matrist" past as unlikely as their utopian vision of a partnership future. The phenomenon of these revisionist feminist visions is itself of great interest, however, and has proved important in inspiring the neopagan movement, Wicca, and best sellers such as The DaVinci Code.

Anthropologists have invoked a number of other terms that are close to matriarchy but not exact equivalents: David Hicks describes the patrilineal Tetum of Viqueque, East Timor as having "a maternal religion," in which men dominate the affairs of the upperworld, but women play a central role in rituals of death, birth, and regeneration. Annette Weiner (1976) describes the Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea as giving value and autonomy to women through their matrilineal institutions, while men travel from island to island to seek renown and political positions of power. She has specifically argued that Bronislaw Malinowski failed to pay attention to certain crucial ways in which Trobriand women played important roles in their society because he focused too exclusively on a male-dominated politics:

The discovery that Trobriand women have power and that women enact roles which are symbolically, structurally, and functionally significant to the ordering of Trobriand society, and to the roles that men play, should give us, as anthropologists, cause for concern. We have allowed 'politics by men' to structure our thinking about other societies; we have let ourselves believe that, if women are not dominant in the political sphere of interaction, their power remains at best peripheral." (227228)

Others have been more assertive in presenting case studies that directly counter ideas of pervasive inequality. Maria Lepowsky claims to have discovered on Sudest Island "a sexually egalitarian society that challenges the concept of the universality of male dominance and contests the assumption that the subjugation of women is inevitable" (p. vii). The example of the Vanatinai shows, she argues, that gender equality is possible when there is little emphasis on class, rank, age grades, or other forms of social stratification. The decentralization of political power allows for the equal treatment of all categories of individuals, allowing for a much greater sense of personal autonomy for both women and men, and little formal authority of any one person over another. Strength, wisdom, and magical power are valued as characteristics that enhance communal solidarity, and individuals who have these may become "big women" or "big men" without gender bias. Descent is matrilineal, but its influence is buttressed by gender blind institutions like a bilocal pattern of postmarital residence, in which married couples live alternately with their two natal families for many years. So this egalitarianism is defined more by a respect for idiosyncrasy and the absence of formal structure than by a positive value attached to women.

Studies of bilateral societies in Indonesia where gender receives relatively little emphasis, such as the Wana of Sulawesi (Atkinson) or the Meratus of Kalimantan (Tsing), also document a lack of any formal ideology about male supremacy, and ideas of gender crossing (male "pregnancy," female shamans speaking in male voices) that suggest gender is not conceptualized as fixed. Ortner (1996) compares these to the example of the Andaman Islanders, who had a clear but balanced division of labor (men hunted, women gathered), and a spiritual world in which supernatural beings of both sexes played significant, generally complementary, and sometimes reversible roles, with one deity of variablebut usually femalegender who seemed to represent fertility. All of these societies can be described as gender balanced and flexible, in which men and women were allowed to participate equally in all forms of social relations, but men nevertheless tended to emerge as leaders in some of these domains.

Feminist scholars such as Ortner, Atkinson, and Tsing stress religion and ideology in their portraits, while scholars in the Marxist tradition build on the work of Engels to argue that nonstratified societies in which both sexes have control over the means of production and their own labors are gender egalitarian. Eleanor Leacock (1978) argues that many precapitalist societies were egalitarian, and Karen Sacks (1979) suggests that, when relating to each other as siblings rather than spouses, men and women can be institutionally equal even in patrilineal, patrilocal societies.

Two early-twenty-first-century ethnographies by Chinese scholars bring together Marxist and symbolic approaches to argue that gender equality is possible and often found in the minority groups of the Chinese highlands. Shanshan Du's "Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs" (2001) stresses complementarity among the Lahu people in Yunnan and the importance of the husband-wife dyad in kinship, labor, and social leadership. She argues that mythology and religion reflect a "dyadic world view," based on cooperation between men and women, since "a single chopstick cannot pick up food" (p. 30). Lahu origin myths feature cross-sex twins who combine male and female attributes in an image of overarching power. While her account places heavy value on the marital unit, Cai Hua's A Society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China (2003) looks at another group near the Burmese border where brothers and sisters live their whole lives together, raising the sister's children, and reproduce through short term "visits" which are never socially sanctioned as marriage. This arrangement does give women greater autonomy than the traditional Confucian family, and also challenges the usual anthropological orthodoxy about the universality of male-female pair bonding. Hua argues that in this society "sexuality is not a piece of merchandise but a purely sentimental and amorous matter that implies no mutual constraints" (Hua, p. 181). The Na, like the famous Nayar of India studied by Kathleen Gough (Schneider and Gough), are matrilineal, and have resisted communist efforts to bring then into mainstream values. The sibling relationship defines the household completely, and visiting lovers have no connection with the family, have no responsibilities, and do not acknowledge their fatherhood; the children, in turn, do not know their fathers.

Another alternative to matriarchy that works with dyads and sibling symbolism is diarchy, which some scholars grouped with egalitarian structures as a form of "partnership societies." Diarchic societies are marked by a pervasive system of symbolic gender dualisms, "an ideology of balanced powers" in which the members of the male/female pair are ordered by difference and interdependence, rather than dominance and subjugation (Hoskins, 1988, p. 51). A doctrine of mutuality and shared concerns is expressed in ideas of delegation and oscillating rule.

European travelers to the Amazonian jungle and the New Guinea highlands encountered "myths of matriarchy" that presented an apparent confirmation of their own fantasies of Amazon warrior princesses and Melanesian "free love." But travelers in the Indonesian archipelago who visited the islands of Sumba, Flores, Timor, and Savu found a mixture of matrilineal and patrilineal groups who shared an ideology of dual governance often express as a "male ruler" and "female ruler," oreven more paradoxicallya man specifically referred to as a woman who held a position of sovereignty. This pattern had first been documented in Indian kinship, where Georges Dumezil described the idea that "sovereignty aligns itself in two planes, at once antithetical and complementary," and it is also found in Chinese and Vietnamese popular religion. The division between spiritual authority and temporal power was predicated on the conceptual opposition between female and male, in a pattern also familiar in Polynesia.

The complementarity of diarchic systems operates with the principles of male and female as abstract entities, and associates them with ideas of a proper balance of action and passivity. Women are typically associated with origins, fertility of the earth, and human reproduction, while men are associated with military and executive power, differentiation, and rank. Diarchic divisions assign to the female principle an equal role in the creation of the world, but at times the passivity of their role as Earth Mother may seem to place real women at a disadvantage, bound by the restrictions inherent to their ritual prominence. Among the Kodi of Sumba, for instance, the conceptually female priestess of the Sea Worms is secluded for several months before the rice harvest to protect the crop. In the early-twenty-first-century, a man, who is both empowered and restricted by the central symbolic role he plays, is cast as the priestess.

Gender dualism, which can be defined for comparative purposes by the formal requirement that a female and male component be included in each unifying hierarchical entity, is found throughout Eastern Indonesia. It occurs in patrilineal as well as matrilineal societies, and coexists with polygyny, occasional violence against women, and male leadership, so it is not necessarily a vision of gender equality, but it does highlight interdependence and complementarity. The importance of opposite sex couples, portrayed as parents, siblings, or ancestors, in Eastern Indonesian sexual imagery is an index of the value given to heterosexual relations, and what can only be called a vision of sexual unionthe bringing together of male and female in an act of pleasure, release, and potential reproduction.

Are the Minangkabau a Modern Matriarchy?

In 2002 Peggy Sanday revived controversies about the anthropological use of the term matriarchy by titling her study of Minagkabau gender relations Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Well aware that the term had been rejected by serious scholars for about a century, she provocatively decided to challenge this usage with an argument that matriarchy should be redefined to correspond to the usage of a Dutch-Indonesian term (adat matriarchaal ) used by roughly 8 million Minangkabau to describe their own customs. The Minangkabau are one of the world's largest matrilineal societies, and they are also almost all committed Muslims in the nation with the largest Islamic population in the world. While Sanday describes the term as an "indigenous category," its early-twenty-first-century use is obviously the hybrid result of several centuries of dialogue with European traders, scholars, and administrators, who have long been intrigued by the mixture of matriliny and Muslim piety found in the Minang homeland in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Sanday argues that

the definition of matriarchy as the control of political power by women should be abandoned in favor of a definition emphasizing the role of maternal symbols in webs of cultural significance. The focus should be on the structure and content of dominant gender symbols, not just the linked relationship between the sexes as Eisler suggests. The partnership is important, but it alone does not define matriarchy because there are at least three types of symbolic structures representing gender in partnership societies: egalitarian, diarchic and matiarchic. Egalitarian structures are those in which gender differences are not symbolically marked, although sex differences may play a role in the division of labor. Diarchic societies are marked by a pervasive system of symbolic gender dualisms, Matriarchic structures, like those of the Minangkabau, are based on a maternal model. In all three, although the content of the symbols differ, male and female function as two equal halves of the larger whole and neither dominates the other. (p. 236)

The Minangkabau have been the focus of many anthropological and historical studies, but no other contemporary scholar has chosen to describe them as matriarchic. While Sanday's claims are based on long-term ethnographic research, her colleagues have not for the most part been convinced that such a change in terminology is needed or helpful.

Sanday notes that her usage is in some ways a return to the original Greek meaning of the term. The root matri, from the Latin mater, means "mother, nurse, origin, source," while the suffix archy, from the Greek arche, refers to "beginning, foundation, source of action, first principle," and also the idea of "political power, rule, control of the state" (p. 237). Sanday says Mingkabau customs correspond to the first meaning, while they do not fulfill the conditions of the second. She calls for a new cross-cultural definition of matriarchy as "cultural symbols and practices associating the maternal with origin and center of the growth processes necessary for social and individual life" (p. 237). According to this definition, many of the societies studied by gender researchersthe Trobriand Islanders, the Vanatinai of Sudest Island, the Crow Indians, the Lahu and Na of southern China, and the Tetum of Vicenque, Timormight qualify as matriarchies, since they do emphasize maternal symbols and nurturance, although in many other ways they are quite different from each other.

The use of matriarchy as an umbrella term for societies that value women's reproductive and nurturing powers seems too broad to be of much use for comparative purposes. What Sanday wants to call matriarchic has been described by Annette Weiner as "woman focused" (1976), by Sherry Ortner as an "egalitarian hegemony," by Karen Sacks as a "sister-based society," and by Eleanor Leacock as a "precapitalist form of sexual equality." It is also close to the sacred ideals of the Okinawans of Japan (Sered), the dualistic Kodi of Sumba (Hoskins, 1993, 1998), and the highland Wana and Meratus of the Indonesian islands of Sulawesi and Kalimantan (Atkinson; Tsing). All of these examples provide evidence for diversity of gender relations that cannot be reduced to a simple stereotype of male supremacy, but which are also stubbornly idiosyncratic and unlike each other in important ways. Anthropology has long been a celebration of difference, and while it does need a comparative vocabulary, this vocabulary is only helpful if it is very rigorously defined. Expanding the notion of matriarchy beyond its largely discredited nineteenth-century significance does not seem to advance this process.

See also Family ; Feminism ; Gender ; Kinship ; Motherhood and Maternity ; Womanism .


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Janet Hoskins

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Matriarchy is a complex and controversial term. It is emotionally and politically loaded, and has been seen as suppressed history (Walker 1996b), utopian theory (Perkins Gilman [1915] 1992), deluded fantasy (Marshall 1998), and dangerous degeneration or dysfunction (Frazier 1949; Moynihan 1965). Barbara Walker, citing Wolfgang Lederers Fear of Women, argues that Amazon was a Greek name for Goddess-worshipping tribes in North Africa, Anatolia, and the Black Sea area whose women were warlike (1996a, p. 24). In Eurasian Scythia women were not only warriors, but also important in politics (Walker 1996a). Similarly, Lewis Henry Morgans, whose work was a basis for that of Engels, description of the Iroquois certainly points to women holding an important base of power in choosing the leadership and controlling resources, which are contexts of political control of a society (Engels [1884] 1972).

These are relative descriptions, made by those writing the history and/or anthropology of the Other. The fact that there are a variety of versions of mythological and popular renderings of, for example, the Amazonsthat they removed a breast for better archery, that they disallowed adult men from living with them, that they practiced infanticide on malesas well as actual evidence of women engaged in both war and politics outside of classical Greek society and ideals, suggests distortional bias. That both the Greeks and the Americans excluded women from soldier and politician roles would make any comparative society in which women were found in these roles on a regular and ordinary basis seem to us like the world turned upside down, and indeed monstrous.

The concept of matriarchy encompasses several component parts that delineate arenas of power and control granted to women. Matriarchy is of course based on motherhood, and how social relations are arrangedespecially in terms of the distribution of resourcesin relation to how motherhood (and thus fatherhood and other kin relationships) is understood. The two most important components of matriarchy are matrilineal descent or inheritance, and matrilocal living patterns.

If a group determines descent or distribution with a focus on the mother or the mothers kin network, we refer to this focus as matrilineal. If a group determines where a new couple or family will live with a focus on the mother or the mothers kin network, we refer to this focus as matrilocal. If these practices are determined with a focus upon the father, they are termed their opposite, patrilineal and patrilocal. Neither matrilineal nor matrilocal practices necessarily add up to matriarchy in the sense of woman-domination of politics, which brings us to the first dilemma in discussing matriarchy, wherein arguments over the meaning of social practices come to the fore. Why is evidence of patrilineal and patrilocal arrangements taken at face value to equal patriarchy (male-domination)? Why does evidence of their opposites (which are abundant) not equal matriarchy? Matriarchy is often discussed as nonexistent, with scholars insisting that there is no evidence of it, that it has never existed in any human society (Marshall 1998, p. 402).

In his synopsis of matriarchy, Gordon Marshall points to Friedrich Engelss reliance upon a notion of evolutionary progress from mother-right to father-right that is now out of favor (1998). Thomas Laquer argues this point from a very different perspective, arguing that patriarchy was embedded in valuing the idea over matter (the body)historically, fatherhood was considered far more factual than motherhood. Thus materiality (bearing the child) does not always make for the logical understanding of connection, where mother is assumed as a natural fact and ontologically, whereas fatherhood is often an idea, and not understood as a physical connection (Laquer 1992, pp. 158164). However, there is more to the Engels argument than Marshall discusses.

As noted above, Engels relied heavily on the anthropology of the Iroquois developed by the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan ([1884] 1972). Morgan noted that Iroquois kinship and economy was organized matrilineally, and thus that the women held considerable political power, although they were by no means all-powerful. He interpreted this situation as a matriarchy comparable to the more familiar patriarchal male-domination in his own culture, and interpreted matriarchy as a universal stage that preceded patriarchy in the development in human civilization. Engels took this idea of stages of family development and connected it to the Marxist idea of progressive stages of economic development. Certainly, interpreting a contemporaneous social situationthe existence of womens political power in the Iroquois confederationas evidence of a worldwide historical stage of evolutionary development in social structure is problematic. However, it is at least equally problematic to ignore what is certainly evidence of a very differently gendered system of distributing power and resources.

Although it is repeatedly stated by scholarly authorities that there are no matriarchal societies in the world today (and many argue there never were), Heide Göttner-Abendroth and the International Academy for Modern Matriarchy Studies and Matriarchal Studies contest this position. Göttner-Abendroth traces the discussion of matriarchal societies to J. J. Bachofen in 1861 (2004; see also Walker 1996). She argues that one of the root words of matriarchy arche has a double meaning in Greek: both beginning and domination. She argues that matriarchy can thus mean the mothers from the beginning. But Göttner-Abendroth also asserts that patriarchy is correctly translated as domination of the fathers. Her interpretation seems to be a feminist understanding of womans power that is always more benevolent than that of mans. She defines matriarchy as women hav[ing] the power of disposition over the goods of the clan, especially the power to control the sources of nourishment, and distinguishes this actual distributive power from mere matrilineality or matrilocality (2004). Although in this situation women have this powerand men do not Göttner-Abendroth and others define matriarchy as egalitarian or consensus-based (see also Walker 1996, and Perkins Gilmans fictional utopia Herland ).

Göttner-Abendroths outline of the criteria for a matriarchy is highly formal and detailed. She incorporates a fundamentally different diffusion of the power of women in these societies, one that is based upon consensus in which women are key, because even the process of taking a political decision is organized along the lines of matriarchal kinship (2004). She argues further,

In contrast to the frequent ethnological mistakes made about these men, they are not the chiefs and do not, in fact, decide. Therefore, from the political point of view, I call matriarchies egalitarian societies or societies of consensus. These political patterns do not allow the accumulation of political power. In exactly this sense, they are free of domination: They have no class of rulers and no class of suppressed people, i.e., they do not know enforcement bodies, which are necessary to establish domination. (2004; emphasis in the original)

Thus, according to a definition that takes into account matri-based kinship strategies, there have indeed been any number of matriarchal societies. According to this definition, there are contemporary matriarchal societies, but they are exceedingly rare, indeed endangered (Jacobs 2003).

Matriarchy and patriarchy are systems of distributing resources and arranging status. In writing about the African American family structure, Robert Staples asks an important question: does the family determine the economic status of individuals, or does the economy determine the structure of a family? (1999, p. 19). This emphasis on the relationship between the economy, the family, and the economic success or survival of particular familiesand particular individuals in familiesis useful. Stapless argument is problematic in that he labels the entire continent of Africa patriarchalwithout ever defining the termand never notes from where exactly on that continent the vast majority of African Americans came (West Africa, where there were and are several cultures that can be characterized as matriarchal at least in terms of matrilineal descent, and some in the more robust usage of Göttner-Abendroth; see especially Bergstrom 2002). Although critical of both racism and sexism, Stapless structural view of the situation tends to assume that the conventional patriarchal marriage pattern is the one deviants must adhere to, and assumes that pattern to be an inherently stable (read normal) one, as did Talcott Parsons, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and E. Franklin Frazier, among others.

When discussing matriarchy (or more accurately, female-headed families) as a deviation from the norm of patriarchy, Staples does not descend into labeling matriarchy as a dangerous degeneration or a pathology, but he compares the dictatorship of patriarchy to the democracy of gender equalityequality is here valued, but recognized as more of a struggle to maintain (1999, pp. 2021; see also Frazier 1949 and Dill 1990). Although Moynihans report The Negro Family also was in part an indictment of a racist system that deprived blacks of the normative family relations of their society, its language of pathology tended to normalize what many had already arguedand would continue to arguewas also a pathological social systempatriarchy itself (see Perkins Gilman [1915] 1992, Beauvoir [1949] 1972, and Friedan [1963] 1983).

It is possible to examine the arrangements of sexuality, procreation, management of land and resources, and other essentially political processes as they have existed in every group of people that is an ongoing concern (see Allen 2000). Although we can trace the historical (or even at times the prehistorical) development of particular practices among humans, it is a mistake to view history as inevitable evolution or progression. It is also a mistake to uncritically use one social standard as a measurement device for all others (see Dill [1979] 1990, Dilworth Anderson et al. 1993, and Allen 2000). In the end, both matriarchy and patriarchy may be overly polarizing ideal types that make it difficult for scholarly and everyday analysis of social, cultural, and political arrangements of power. Getting at the nuances of both systemic and individual-level arrangements of power is arguably what is needed here (see Genovese 1972 and Mann 1990 for a brief study that does this admirably).

SEE ALSO Frazier, E. Franklin; Gender; Hierarchy; Patriarchy


Allen, Walter. 2000. African-American Family Life in Societal Context: Crisis and Hope. In Upon These Shores: Themes in the African-American Experience, 1600 to the Present, ed. William Scott, 303318. New York and London: Routledge.

Beauvoir, Simone de. [1949] 1972. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Penguin.

Bergstrom, Kari. 2002. Legacies of Colonialism and Islam for Hausa Women: An Historical Analysis, 18041960.

Dill, Bonnie Thornton. [1979] 1990. The Dialectics of Black Womanhood. In Black Women in America: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Micheline R. Malson, Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi, Jean F. OBarr, and Mary Wyer, 6578. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dilworth-Anderson, Peggye, Linda M. Burton, and Leanor Boulin Johnson. 1993. Reframing Theories for Understanding Race, Ethnicity, and Families. In Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach, ed. Pauline G. Boss, William J. Doherty, Ralph LaRossa, Walter R. Schumm, and Suzanne S. K. Steinmetz, 627649. New York: Plenum.

Engels, Friedrich. [1884] 1972. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. New York: Pathfinder.

Frazier, E. Franklin. 1949. The Negro Family in the United States. New York: Macmillan.

Friedan, Betty. [1963] 1983. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Laurel/Dell.

Genovese, Eugene. 1972. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon/Random House.

Göttner-Abendroth, Heide. 2004. Matriarchal Society: Definition and Theory. In The Gift, ed. Genevieve Vaughan. Rome: Athanor.

International Academy for Modern Matriarchy Studies and Matriarchal Spirituality. Winzer, Germany.

Jacobs, Marie-Josée. 2003. Opening Words of the First World Congress on Matriarchal Studies: Matriarchy and Gender.

Laquer, Thomas. 1992. The Facts of Fatherhood. In Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions, ed. Barrie Thorne and Marilyn Yalom, 155175. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Lederer, Wolfgang. 1968. The Fear of Women. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Mann, Susan A. 1990. Slavery, Sharecropping, and Sexual Inequality. In Black Women in America: Social Science Perspectives, ed. Micheline R. Malson, Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi, Jean F. OBarr, and Mary Wyer, 133158. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marshall, Gordon. 1998. Matriarchy. In Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, 402. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. 1965. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Washington, DC: Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor.

Parsons, Talcott. [1949] 1954. The Kinship System of the Contemporary United States. In Essays in Sociological Theory, 2nd ed., 189194. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. [1915] 1992. Herland. In Herland and Selected Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ed. Barbara H. Solomon, 1148. New York: Penguin.

Staples, Robert. 1999. Sociocultural Factors in Black Family Transformation: Toward a Redefinition of Family Functions. In The Black Family, ed. Robert Staples, 1824. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Walker, Barbara G. [1983] 1996a. Amazons. In The Womens Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, 2427. Edison, NJ: Castle Books.

Walker, Barbara G. [1983] 1996b. Matrilineal Inheritence. In The Womens Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, 620624. Edison, NJ: Castle Books.

Sarah N. Gatson

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matriarchy, familial and political rule by women. Many contemporary anthropologists reject the claims of J. J. Bachofen and Lewis Morgan that early societies were matriarchal, although some contemporary feminist theory has suggested that a primitive matriarchy did indeed exist at one time. Claims for the existence of matriarchy rest on three types of data: societies in which women make the major contribution to subsistence, societies in which descent is traced through women (i.e., matrilineal), and myths of ancient rule by women. But myths of ancient female dominance invariably highlight women's failure as rulers and end with men assuming power. Anthropologists believe that these myths function as a rationalization of contemporary male dominance. Women may have greater political power in matrilineal societies than in other societies, but this does not imply matriarchy. Thus, while Iroquois women could nominate and depose members of their ruling council, the members were male and enjoyed a veto over women. Crow women could take ritual offices, but their power was severely limited by menstrual taboos. Women may also have indirect influence through their involvement in material production. In many horticultural societies women produce the bulk of the group's dietary staples. Even so, men often devalue this vital contribution, and usually have the power to expropriate it. The universality of male dominance is not, however, natural or biological, because the form of, and reasons given for, patriarchy differ in most cultures. Through studying the various ways that male dominance is organized and justified, anthropologists have concluded that it is culturally constructed.

See M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, ed., Woman, Culture, and Society (1974); R. Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women (1975); C. Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (2000).

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matriarchy There are two uses of the term matriarchy. The first is identical to common usage, denoting a type of social organization in which mothers head families, and descent may be reckoned through them. The occurrence may be idiosyncratic rather than the basis of social structure.

The second usage, which is speculative and based in evolutionary theories, refers to a society in which mothers hold the main power positions. This theory was popular in the nineteenth century; it was, for example, a vital ingredient in Friedrich Engels's Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Engels argued that early hunter-gatherer societies, in which property rights did not exist, would have been ruled by women because of their reproductive powers. However, once land and goods became private property, in the development of sedentary agriculture or pastoralism, it became important for men to ensure the legitimacy of their offspring in order to transfer wealth by descent. Thus arose the system of patriarchy, in which men began to control the reproductive power of women, who lost the political power they had enjoyed under matriarchy.

Like all evolutionary theories the claim that human prehistory was characterized by a shift from mother-right to father-right fell out of favour in the early twentieth century. Despite the attractiveness of this speculation for feminist theory, there is no accredited evidence from either archaeology or anthropology for the existence of matriarchy in this second sense, at any time in history or in any human society.

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ma·tri·ar·chy / ˈmātrēˌärkē/ • n. (pl. -chies) a system of society or government ruled by a woman or women. ∎  a form of social organization in which descent and relationship are reckoned through the female line. ∎  the state of being an older, powerful woman in a family or group: she cherished a dream of matriarchy—catered to by grandchildren.

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ma·tri·arch / ˈmātrēˌärk/ • n. a woman who is the head of a family or tribe. ∎  an older woman who is powerful within a family or organization: a domineering matriarch. DERIVATIVES: ma·tri·ar·chal / ˌmātrēˈärkəl/ adj.

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matriarchy Any society or group that is ruled by women. Matriarchal societies exist among some primitive peoples in South America. See also patriarchy

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matriarch XVII. f. L. māter, mātri- MOTHER1, after PATRIARCH, apprehended as being f. L. pater FATHER.

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matriarcharc, ark, Bach, bark, barque, Braque, Clark, clerk, dark, embark, hark, impark, Iraq, Ladakh, Lamarck, lark, macaque, marc, mark, marque, narc, nark, Newark, park, quark, sark, shark, snark, spark, stark, Vlach •matriarch, patriarch •tanbark • ringbark • stringy-bark •Offenbach • ironbark • oligarch •salesclerk • titlark • skylark •meadowlark • woodlark • mudlark •landmark • checkmark • Denmark •benchmark • waymark • trademark •seamark • Bismarck • telemark •tidemark • Kitemark • pockmark •Ostmark • hallmark • Goldmark •Deutschmark • bookmark • footmark •earmark • watermark • birthmark •anarch • car park • skatepark •ballpark •Petrarch, tetrarch •hierarch, squirearch •exarch • Pesach • loan shark •Plutarch • aardvark

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matriarchyackee, Bacchae, baccy, cracky, Jackie, lackey, tacky, wacky •latchkey • talcy •cranky, Frankie, hanky, hanky-panky, lanky, manky, swanky, wanky, Yankee •Askey, Pulaski •Polanski • Blavatsky • Stanislavsky •ticky-tacky •Iraqi, Kawasaki, khaki, larky, malarkey, menarche, Nagasaki, narky, parky, raki, saké, saki, sarky, souvlaki, sparky, sukiyaki, teriyaki •passkey •matriarchy, patriarchy •diarchy • oligarchy • synarchy •hierarchy •Becky, recce, techie •Elkie • Palenque •Esky, pesky •Dostoevsky, Paderewski •achy, Blakey, flaky, quaky, shaky, snaky, wakey-wakey •headachy •beaky, cheeky, cliquey, cock-a-leekie, creaky, freaky, Geikie, Kon-Tiki, Leakey, leaky, peaky, reeky, sleeky, sneaky, squeaky, streaky, Thessaloníki, tiki, tzatziki

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