In This Article Matriarchal Studies

  • Introduction
  • Studies of Recent and Extant Matriarchal Societies
  • Australia and Tasmania

Anthropology Matriarchal Studies
Barbara Alice Mann, Heide Goettner-Abendroth
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0113


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 Eve resulting in their own “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 old Europe. Until quite recently, this culture shock, combined with colonialism, ensured 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. Nineteenth-century scholars 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, 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, pushing western scholars to revamp old ideas. The “maternal values” in matriarchal studies do not indicate western sentimentalism, but rather 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, and so on. Collating all the evidence, ancient and modern, non-western and western, 21st-century scholarship defines matriarchy as mother-centered societies, based on maternal values such as equality, consensus finding, gift-giving, and peace-building by negotiations. Gift economies, defined by modern matriarchal studies as a transitive relation in closed communities, are 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. Societies are bound together by matrilineality, matrilocality, and women as keepers of the land and distributors of food, based on a structured gift economy. As derived from inductive studies of 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 different patterns of these cultures, past and present, in their unique displays of gender egalitarianism.

Historical Development of Matriarchal Theory

Aside from the horrified Herodotus in his History (c. 425; see Beloe 1806), one of the first to describe matriarchy was Joseph-François Lafitau, in 1724 (see Lafitau 1974–1977), acting as a prelude and, perhaps, a prod to succeeding theorists, including James Adair, who in 1775 was astounded by “petticoat government” (see Adair 1930) Committed, academic inquiry into matriarchal societies started with the U.S. anthropologist Henry Lewis Morgan in his 1851 study of the Iroquois League (see Morgan 1901). Independently of Morgan, the Swiss historian Johann Jakob Bachofen discussed in 1861 the structure of “mother right” (see Bachofen 1967). Morgan returned to decry indigenous matriarchies as primitive, in Morgan 1877 (cited under Rightist Use of Matriarchy), with the anthropologist Lucien Carr closely describing Iroquoian matriarchy, but with a shudder, in Carr 1884.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    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: Selected writings of J. J. Bachofen. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    With Das Mutterrecht, or “mother right,” Bachhofen 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 development, but his theory remained problematic, shaped by the patriarchy of his own time and place. Originally published in German in 1861.

  • Beloe, William, trans. and ed. 1806. Herodotus. 2d. ed. 4 vols. London: Luke Hansard.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

  • Carr, Lucien. 1884. On the Social and Political Position of Woman among the Huron-Iroquois Tribes. In Report of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology Vols. 16–17.3–4, 207–232. Salem, MA: Salem Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Carr denounced 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.

  • Lafitau, Joseph-François. 1974–1977. 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: The Champlain Society.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442618053E-mail Citation »

    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-sau-nee or Iroquois. 2 vols. New York: Burt Franklin.

    E-mail Citation »

    Heavily advised on Iroquoian culture by the renowned 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-sau-nee study made possible, for the first time, a systematic look into the world of a highly developed, contemporary matriarchal culture. Originally published in 1851.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.