Matriarchy (also gynecocracy) refers to a gynecocentric  form of society, in which the leading role is taken by the women and especially by the mothers of a community.[1]

There are no known societies that are unambiguously matriarchal,[2][3][4][5][6][7][8] although there are a number of attested matrilinear, matrilocal and avunculocal societies, especially among indigenous peoples of Asia and Africa,[9] such as those of the Minangkabau, Mosuo, Berbers or Tuareg, and Basques and Sardinian people[10][11] in Europe. Strongly matrilocal societies sometimes are referred to as matrifocal, and there is some debate concerning the terminological delineation between matrifocality and matriarchy. Note that even in patriarchical systems of male-preference primogeniture there may occasionally be queens regnant, as in the case of Elizabeth I of England or Victoria of the United Kingdom.

In 19th century western scholarship, the hypothesis of matriarchy representing an early stage of human development — now mostly lost in prehistory, with the exception of some “primitive” societies — enjoyed popularity. The hypothesis survived into the 20th century and was notably advanced in the context of feminism and especially second wave feminism, but this hypothesis of matriarchy as having been an early stage of human development is mostly discredited today, most experts saying that it never existed.[12]

Modern feminist scholars and archeologists such as Marija Gimbutas, Gerda Lerner and Riane Eisler [13] describe their notion of a “woman-centered” society surrounding Mother Goddess worship throughout prehistory (Paleolithic and Neolithic Europe) and ancient civilizations, by using the term matristic rather than “matriarchal”.

The notion of a “woman-centered” society was developed by J. J. Bachofen, whose three-volume Myth, religion, and mother right (1861), impacted the way classicists such as Jane Harrison, Sir Arthur Evans, Walter Burkert and James Mellaart,[14] looked at the evidence of pre-Hellenic societies.


The word matriarchy is coined as the opposite of patriarchy, from Greek matēr “mother” and archein “to rule”. According to the OED, the term “matriarchy” is first attested in 1885, building on an earlier matriarch, formed in analogy to patriarch already in the early 17th century. By contrast, gynæcocracy “rule of women” has been in use since the 17th century, building on an actual Greek γυναικοκρατία found in Aristotle and Plutarch.[15][16]

The near-synonyms matrifocal and matricentric “having a mother as head of the family or household” are of more recent coinage, first used in the mid 20th century. Matriarchy can be understood as the public formation, in which woman occupies ruling position in a family (a primary cell of society). Some authors depart from the premise of a mother-child dyad as the core of human group where the grandmother was the central ancestress with her children and grandchildren clustered around her in an extended family.[17]

Other 20th century formations are gynocentric, gynocentrism (simplified by using the reduced prefix gyno- for gynæco-) is the “dominant or exclusive focus on women”, as opposed to androcentrism.

A recent school of “Matriarchal Studies” led by Heide Göttner-Abendroth is calling for a 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”.[18] Similarly, Peggy Reeves Sanday (2004) favors redefining and reintroducing the word matriarchy, especially in reference to contemporary matrilineal societies such as the Minangkabau.

A claim of “matriarchy” in the Ancient Near East is also found in The Cambridge ancient history (1975):[19] “the predominance of a supreme goddess is probably a reflexion from the practice of matriarchy which at all times charactherized Elamite civilization to a greater or lesser degree”.

History of the concept

Matriarchy was discovered by Joseph-Francois Lafitau (1681–1746), who was first who named it “ginecocratie”, then was recognized by J. Bachofen (“Das Mutterrecht”) and was deeply investigated by Lewis H. Morgan, LL. D.[20] Many researchers studied the phenomenon of matriarchy afterward, but the basis was laid by the classics of sociology. In their works Bachofen and Morgan used such terms and expressions as mother-right, female rule, gyneocracy, and female authority. All these terms meant the same: the rule by females (mother or wife).

The following excerpts from Morgan’s “Ancient Society” will explain the use of the terms: “In a work of vast research, Bachofen has collected and discussed the evidence of female authority, mother-right, and of female rule, 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.”

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

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

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

20th century

Ethnographer Bronisław Malinowski from London School of Economics lived among aborigines of Trobriand Islands (Western Melanesia) and studied their society in 1914-1918. In his book “Argonauts Of The Western Pacific” [21] B. Malinowski pointed at matrilineal construction of islander’s societies and at high female position:

“Their system of kinship is matrilineal, and women hold a very good position, and wield great influence.” (Chapter I)

“The Trobrianders are matrilineal, that is, in tracing descent and settling inheritance, they follow the maternal line. A child belongs to the clan and village community of its mother, and wealth, as well as social position, are inherited, not from father to son, but from maternal uncle to nephew.” (Chapter II)

“As regards kinship, the main thing to be remembered is that the natives are matrilineal, and that the succession of rank, membership in all the social groups, and the inheritance of possessions descend in the maternal line.” (Chapter II)

Property was succeeded inside the mother-line: “The ownership of trees in the village grove and ownership in garden plots is ceded by the father to his son during the lifetime of the former. At his death, it often has to be returned to the man’s rightful heirs, that is, his sister’s children.” (Chapter II)

Man had life-long obligation to work for women and their relatives in that society: “They entail a life-long obligation of every man to work for his kinswomen and their families. When a boy begins to garden, he does it for his mother. When his sisters grow up and marry, he works for them. If he has neither mother nor sisters, his nearest female blood relation will claim the proceeds of his labour”. (Chapter VI)

Malinowski gave confirmations (by study several different tribes of the Western Pacific, which reprecent a stage of human history; method of comparison is popular in ethnography) of Morgan’s idea that matriarchy (gyneocracy) was common feature of primitive societies at early stages, and that female rule needed matrilineality for its existence. He also confirmed that matrilineality often goes with promiscuous free-love[22] (that was discovered by Bachofen).

Austrian writer Bertha Diener, also known by her American pseudonym as Helen Diner, wrote Mothers and Amazons (1930) which was the first work to focus on women’s cultural history. She is regarded as a classic of feminist matriarchal study.[23] 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.

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

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

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”. Del Giorgio in The Oldest Europeans (2006) insists on a matrifocal, matrilocal, matrilineal Paleolithic society. Kurt Derungs is a non-academic author advocating an “anthropology of landscape” based on alleged matriarchal traces in toponymy and folklore.

Feminist authors adhering to the Modern Matriarchal Studies school of thought[24] consider any non-patriarchic form of society as falling within their field, including all examples of matrilineality, matrilocality and avunculism, regardless of discussions on the extent of “matrifocality”.

Comparison with matrifocality

Due to a lack of a clear and consistent definition of the word matriarchy several anthropologists have begun to use the term matrifocality. Matrifocality refers to societies in which women, especially mothers, occupy a central position, and the term does necessarily imply domination by women or mothers.[25] Anthropologist R. L. Smith (2002) refers to ‘matrifocality’ as the kinship structure of a social system where the mothers assume structural prominence.[25] The Nair community in Kerala and the Bunt community in Tulunadu in South India is a prime example of matrifocality. This can be attributed to the fact that the community being warriors by profession, were bound to lose male members at youth, leading to a situation where the females assumed the role of running the family. Some consider the use of the term a euphemism, lacking a parallel to patriarchy, which is not redefined in the same fashion.

While the existence of numerous matrilineal or avuncular societies is undisputed, it has been recognized since the 1970s that there are no societies which are matriarchal in the strong sense that some societies are patriarchal. Joan Bamberger in her 1974 The Myth of Matriarchy argued that the historical record contains no reliable evidence of any society in which women dominated. Anthropologist Donald Brown’s list of “human cultural universals” (i.e. features shared by all current human societies) includes men being the “dominant element” in public political affairs (Brown 1991, p. 137), which he asserts is the contemporary opinion of mainstream anthropology.

In mythology

A famous legendary gynecocracy related by classical Greek writers was the Amazon society. 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”. In the story related by Herodotus, a group of Amazons was blown across the Maeotian Lake (the Sea of Azov) into Scythia near the cliff region (today’s southeastern Crimea). After learning the Scythian language, they agreed to marry Scythian men, on the condition that they not be required to follow the customs of Scythian women. According to Herodotus, this band moved toward the northeast, settling beyond the Tanais (Don) river, and became the ancestors of the Sauromatians.

Amazons came to play a role in Roman historiography. Caesar reminded the Senate of the conquest of large parts of Asia by Semiramis and the Amazons. Successful Amazon raids against Lycia and Cilicia contrasted with effective resistance by Lydian cavalry against the invaders.[26] Diodorus relates the story of Hercules defeating the Amazons at Themiscyre. Philostratus places the Amazons in the Taurus mountains. Ammianus places them east of Tanais, as neighbouring the Alans. Procopius places them in the Caucasus. Although Strabo shows scepticism as to their historicity, the Amazons in general continue to be taken as historical throughout Late Antiquity. Several Church Fathers speak of the Amazons as of a real people. Solinus embraces the account of Plinius. Under Aurelianus, captured Gothic women were identified as Amazons.[27] The account of Justinus was influential, and was used as a source by Orosius who continued to be read during the European Middle Ages. Medieval authors thus continue the 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.[28]

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

In classical Greek mythology, Zeus is said to have swallowed his pregnant wife, the goddess Metis, who was carrying their daughter, Athene. The mother and child created havoc inside Zeus. He had swallowed the goddess because a prophecy had been foretold that the child of Metis would become greater than her father. After suffering great discomfort and terrible headaches, Hephaestus split Zeus’s head, allowing Athene, in full battle armour, to burst forth from his forehead, thereafter being described as “being ‘born’ of Zeus.” The prophecy was later proven true, as Athene’s worship, as goddess of both wisdom and the strategic aspect of battle, surpassed that of Zeus, king of Olympus. Robert Graves suggested that this myth displaced earlier myths in which Athene and her mother existed in established religious beliefs that had to change when a major cultural change introduced a patriarchy to replace a matriarchy, interpreting it symbolically.

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

In popular culture

Mary Renault’s historical novels about Greek mythology and history such as The King Must Die combine motifs of political conflict between goddess and god worshippers with The Golden Bough’s hypothesis about dying and reviving gods. The patriarchal conquest of matriarchy motif is found in dozens of fantasy novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s historical revisions of Arthurian romance and the Trojan War to works such as Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne. Gender roles and the conflict of patriarch vs. matriarchy is a major theme in the Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan.

The remake version (not the original) of The Wicker Man, starring Nicolas Cage, takes place within a fictional matriarchy in the state of Washington. The society, Summersisle, is modeled after honeybee culture and behavior.

The Asaris and Salarians sentience species from Mass Effect each possesses a distinctive matriarchy, both politically and culturally.

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