In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Matriarchal Studies

  • Introduction and Definition
  • Australia and Tasmania

Anthropology Matriarchal Studies
Barbara Alice Mann, Heide Goettner-Abendroth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0113

Introduction and Definition

Evidence of matriarchy had always existed in Western chronicles, albeit scattered or hidden amid other ethnographic tidbits, all of them filtered heavily through the androcentric lens of Christian missionaries or European travelers. Most of these old European sources were either puzzled or horrified by women-led cultures, having had nothing to attach them to but scary stories from Herodotus about the ferocious Amazons as “men-slayers” or the Christian theological depictions of sinful Eve, resulting in the “burning times” (witch hunts). Moving out from Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, especially into Africa and the Americas, home to many matriarchal cultures, was very unsettling to the patriarchal paradigm of Europe. Until quite recently, this culture shock combined with colonialism to ensure that scholarship on matriarchy was crafted exclusively by elite, Western scholars, nearly all of them male and coming from nothing remotely resembling a matriarchal culture. Scholars in the 19th century were all infiltrated by the unilinear, universal evolution theory, as a part of European American colonialism, sporting racist and sexist roots. These disabilities distorted comprehension of the matriarchal form of society, allowing Western scholars either to dismiss it outright as a fantasy or to portray it crudely, as a wicked, Amazonian domination of men. This background left enduring marks on the scholarship around matriarchy until new interest was piqued among German and American scholars in the 19th century, moving thought from the Amazonian conception to the definition of matriarchy as a “mother right.” These scholars remained mired, however, in the racist and sexist premises of European colonialism, well into the 20th century. As colonial Eurocentrism lifted in the mid- to late 20th century, scholars from non-Western, matriarchal cultures worldwide began chiming in on the conversation, in order to revamp old ideas together with Western female scholars. The “maternal values” in matriarchal studies do not indicate Western sentimentalism, but principles formulated by Indigenous, matriarchal societies themselves, in their sayings (e.g., Minangkabau) and in their social rules (e.g., Iroquois), based on the prototype of Mother Nature, as conceptualized in mythology, proverbs, songs, etc. Collating all the evidence of non-Western and Western 21st-century scholarship, matriarchy is here defined as mother-centered societies, based on maternal values: equality, consensus finding, gift giving, and peace building by negotiations. Gift economies, defined by modern matriarchal studies as a transitive relation in closed communities, is a core concept of all matriarchies. The result is a gender-egalitarian society, in which each gender has its own sphere of power and action. All these societies are characterized by matrilinearity, matrilocality, and women as keepers of the land and distributors of food, based on a structured gift economy. As derived from inductive studies of singular matriarchal societies and in collaboration with Indigenous scholars writing on their own communities, the current definition of matriarchy is a mother-centered, gender-egalitarian society that practices the gift economy. Modern matriarchal studies primarily assesses the patterns of those cultures, past and present, in their unique displays of gender egalitarianism and generally social egalitarianism.

Historical Development of Matriarchal Theory

Aside from Herodotus 1806, Lafitau 1974 is one of the first works to describe matriarchy, acting as a prelude and, perhaps, a prod to succeeding theorists, including Adair, who was astounded by “petticoat government” (Adair 1930). Committed academic inquiry into matriarchal societies started with US anthropologist Henry Morgan in his study of the Iroquois League (Morgan 1901). Independently of Morgan, the Swiss historian Johann Bachofen discussed the structure of “mother right” (Bachofen 1967). Morgan 1877 returns to decry Indigenous matriarchies as primitive, with Carr 1884 closely describing Iroquoian matriarchy, but with a shudder.

  • Adair, James. 1930. History of the American Indians. Edited by Samuel Cole Williams. Johnson City, TN: Watauga Press.

    In the process of attempting to “prove” that Native Americans were the “Ten Lost tribes of Israel,” James Adair necessarily encountered the matriarchies of the eastern Woodlands. His shocked characterization of Indigenous matriarchies popularized among settlers his slur of “petticoat government” as a wanton and immoral way to live (p. 232). Originally published in 1775.

  • Bachofen, Johann Jakob. 1967. Myth, religion and mother right. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    With Das Mutterrecht, or “Mother right,” Bachofen worked from classical Antiquity, laying the groundwork of the cultural-historical branch of matriarchal research. His significant contribution lay in comprehending his topic as “mother right,” creating a theoretical understanding of its features and development. But his theory remained problematic, shaped by the patriarchy of his own time and place. Originally published in German in 1861.

  • Carr, Lucien. 1884. On the social and political position of women among the Huron-Iroquois tribes. In Reports of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology. Vol. 3. Edited by Frederic W. Putnam, 207–232. Salem, MA: Salem Massachusetts.

    Carr described to denounce Iroquoian matriarchy. Declaring the system a “pure mockery of the man’s helplessness,” Carr lamented that “from the cradle to the grave, there was never a time when the Iroquoian man was not subject to some woman” (pp. 222–223). His review of the powers, rights, and duties of the clan mothers nevertheless described a functioning matriarchy.

  • Herodotus. 1806. Herodotus. 2d ed. 4 vols. Edited by William Beloe. London: Luke Hansard.

    In discussing the women warriors of the ancient world, Herodotus recounted scary stories about Amazons as self-mutilating “men-slayers” (3:12), seeding and cementing a long-standing Western resistance to considering the topic. Originally published in Greek, c. 425.

  • Lafitau, Joseph-François. 1974. Customs of the American Indians compared with the customs of primitive times. Edited and translated by William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moore. 2 vols. Toronto: Champlain Society.

    A Jesuit missionary, Lafitau described daily Iroquoian life, recording that “nothing was more real” than the “superiority” of the women in northeastern North America (1:69). Comparing Iroquoian matriarchal society to ancient “classical” texts led Lafitau to present the matriarchal Iroquois women in terms of the European ancients, starting an unfortunate but long-lasting habit. Originally published in French in 1724.

  • Morgan, Henry Lewis. 1901. League of the Ho-dé-no-saunee or Iroquois. 2 vols. New York: Burt Franklin.

    Heavily advised on Iroquoian culture by renown Seneca chief Häsanoanda (“Ely S. Parker”), Morgan helped found the social science of anthropology with his landmark study of the North American Iroquois League. The League of the Ho-dé-no-saunee study made possible, for the first time, a systematic look into the world of a highly developed, contemporary matriarchal culture. Originally published in 1851.

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