Matriarchy or matriarchies are not just a reversal of patriarchy, with women ruling over men – as the usual misinterpretation would have it. Matriarchies are mother-centered societies, they are based on maternal values: care-taking, nurturing, motherliness, which holds for everybody: for mothers and those who are not mothers, for women and men alike.
Matriarchal societies are consciously built upon these maternal values and motherly work, and this is why they are much more realistic than patriarchies. They are, on principle, need-oriented. Their precepts aim to meet everyone’s needs with the greatest benefit. So, in matriarchies, mothering – which originates as a biological fact – is transformed into a cultural model. This model is much more appropriate to the human condition than the way patriarchies conceptualise motherhood and use it to make women, and especially mothers, into slaves.
Modern Matriarchal Studies
This is the subject of Modern Matriarchal Studies, which investigates and presents matriarchal societies found all over the world. These investigations focus not only on the past, but also pay attention to still existing societies with matriarchal patterns in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific area. Contrary to common belief, none of these is a mere reversal of patriarchy. Rather, they are all gender-egalitarian societies, and many of them are fully egalitarian. This means they have no hierarchies, classes nor domination of one gender by the other.
Matriarchal studies started more than 140 years ago with the pioneering theories of Johann Jakob Bachofen and Lewis Henry Morgan. Bachofen`s work is in the field of history of cultures, and it represents a perfect parallel to the work of Morgan (in the field of anthropology/ethnology), who did research in the indigenous society of the Iroquois of his time. For more than a century, the discussion on “mother right“ and “matriarchy“ continued: the subject now was used and abused by all the intellectual schools of thought, and all political parties, each with its distinctly different point of view.
Unfortunately, their research didn’t have a really scientific foundation because of the lack of a clear definition of this type of society, and because of a lot of patriarchally biased presuppositions which distorted their findings. This situation continued. Up until recently, research in the field of matriarchy – often covered under false headlines – has lacked scientific defining and an elaborated methodology, in spite of the existence of several competent studies and extensive data collection. This absence of scientific rigor opens up the door to the emotional and ideological, i.e. sexist and racist entanglements that have been a burden for this socio-cultural science from the very beginning. Patriarchy itself has not been critically considered in the treatment of this subject, while stereotypical views of women – and a neurotic fear of women’s alleged power – has often confused the issues.
Over the past few decades matriarchal studies have been undergirded with a scientific foundation, given by the pioneering work of Heide Goettner-Abendroth, thus making way for Modern Matriarchal Studies.
This enterprise differs in several ways from the previous matriarchal studies:
it articulates a specific and comprehensive definition of terms, it uses an explicit methodology, it presents a systematic criticism of the ideological patriarchal bias that characterizes existing social and cultural sciences. In this way a new socio-cultural science has been created, one that represents a new paradigm. The central tenet of this paradigm is that women have not only created society and culture over long periods of human history, but that all subsequent cultural developments originated there.
World Congresses on Matriarchal Studies
At three World Congresses on Matriarchal Studies, organised and guided by Heide Goettner-Abendroth, these largely misunderstood societies were presented to a wider public. In 2003, the first World Congress on Matriarchal Studies titled SOCIETIES IN BALANCE took place in Luxembourg/Europe; the second World Congress on Matriarchal Studies, titled SOCIETIES OF PEACE, was held 2005 in Texas/USA; and in 2011, the third one on Matriarchal Studies and Matriarchal politics presented this new field again to a large audience in Switzerland/Europe. All three congresses brought together international scholars (Peggy Reeves Sanday, Hélène Claudot-Hawad, Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, to name only few), and indigenous researchers from several of the world’s still existing matriarchal societies (Barbara Mann, Iroquois; Usria Dhavida, Minangkabau; Savithri de Tourreil, Nayar; Patricia Mukhim, Khasi; Lamu Gatusa, Mosuo; Malika Grasshoff, Kabyle; Wilhelmina Donkoh, Akan; and others). They spoke not only about the matriarchal patterns their societies have preserved, but also about the societal and political problems that colonization and missionization have caused to their communities. In this way, they corrected the distorted perspective often held by non-indigenous peoples.
Defining the deep structure of “matriarchal society” in Modern Matriarchal Studies (as given by Heide Goettner-Abendroth in her major work, based on cross cultural research of extant indigeous societies of this type in Asia, Africa, and America):
With matriarchal cultures, equality means more than just a levelling of differences. Natural differences between the genders and the generations are respected and honoured, but they never serve to create hierarchies, as is common in patriarchy. The different genders and generations have their own dignity, and through complementary areas of activity, they function in concert one other. More precisely, matriarchies are societies with complementary equality, where great care is taken to provide a balance. This applies to the balance between genders, among generations, and between humans and nature. Maternal values as ethical principles pervade all areas of a matriarchal society. It creates an attitude of care-taking, nurturing, and peacemaking.
This can be observed on all levels of society: the economic level, the social level, the political level and the areas of their worldviews and faiths.
At the social level, matriarchal societies are based on the clan, and on the “symbolic order of the mother”. This also means maternal values as spiritual principles, one that humans take from nature. Mother Nature cares for all beings, however different they may be. The same applies to motherliness: a good mother cares for all her children, embracing their diversity.
This holds true for men as well. If a man in a matriarchal society desires to acquire status among his peers, or even become a representative of the clan to the outside word, then he must be like a “good mother”.
But in matriarchies, you don’t have to be a biological mother in order to be acknowledged as a woman, because matriarchies practice the common motherhood of a group of sisters. Each individual sister does not necessarily have to have children, but together they are all “mothers” of any children that any of them have. This motherhood is founded on the freedom of women to decide on their own about whether or not to have biological children.
This is possible because matriarchal people live together in large kinship groups, formed according to the principle of matrilineality. The clan’s name, and all social status and political titles, are passed on through the mother’s line. Such a matri-clan consists of at least three generations of women, along with their brothers, nephews and maternal uncles. In classic cases, the matri-clan lives in one big clan-house. This is called matrilocality. Their spouses or lovers stay only over-night, in a pattern called “visiting-marriage”. These principles of matrilineality and matrilocality put mothers at the center; in this way women guide their clans without ruling.
In order to achieve social cohesion among the clans of a village or city, complex marriage conventions have been developed that link them in mutually beneficial ways. The intended effect is that all inhabitants of a village or city are related to each other by birth or by marriage. This shapes a society that sees itself as a big clan, where everybody is “mother” or “sister” or “brother” to everybody else. Thus matriarchies are defined at the social level as non-hierarchical, horizontal societies of matrilineal kinship.
This social order based on motherhood includes far reaching consequences for the economical level: Matriarchal economy is a subsistence economy. There is no such thing as private property, and there are no territorial claims. The people simply have usage rights on the soil they till, or the pastures their animals graze, for Mother Earth can not be owned or cut up in pieces. She gives the fruits of the fields and the young animals to all people. Parcels of land and a certain number of animals are given to each matri-clan, and are worked on communally.
Most importantly, women have the power of disposition over goods and clan houses, and especially over the sources of nourishment: fields, flocks and food. All the goods are put in the hands of the clan mother, the matriarch, and she, mother of all the clan members, distributes them equally among her children and grand-children. She is responsible for the sustenance and protection of all clan members.
In a matriarchal community, the clans enjoy perfect mutuality: every relative advantage, or disadvantage, in terms of acquiring goods is mediated by social guidelines. For example, at the seasonal festivals of the agricultural year, clans that are comparatively better off will invite all the inhabitants to be their guests. The members of such a clan organize the banquet, the rituals, and the music and dances of one of the annual festivals – and then give away their goods as a gift to all their neighbours. By doing this, they gain nothing except honor. At the next festival in the cycle, another lucky clan will step up, outdoing itself by inviting everybody in the village or neighbourhood, entertaining them all, and dispensing presents.
Since this is the general attitude, matriarchal economy can be called a “gift economy”. It is the economic manifestation of maternal values, which prevents development of an exchange economy and instead fully achieves a gift economy. Due to these features, matriarchies are defined at the economical level as societies of balanced economic reciprocity, based on the circulation of gifts.
The patterns of the political level follow the principle of consensus, which means unanimity regarding each decision. To manifest a principle like this in practice, a society must be specifically organized to do so, and matrilinear kinship lines are, once again, the starting point.
The basis of each decision-making is the individual clan house. Matters that concern the clan house are decided upon by the women and men in a consensus process, of which the matriarch is the facilitator. Each person has only one vote – even the matriarch – and no member of the household is excluded.
The same applies to decisions concerning the whole village. The clan delegates meet together in the village council, but do not make decisions themselves; they simply communicate the decisions that have been made in their clan houses, and move back and forth, until a consensus decision is reached by the whole village. The same applies at the regional level. The delegates move between the local council and the regional council until consensus of all the villages is reached.
The origin of all politics is in the clan houses, where the people live, and in this way, a true “grass roots democracy” is put into practice. The result of these practices is that matriarchies can be defined on the political level as egalitarian societies of consensus. This clearly shows how maternal values also permeate political practice.
The Great Goddess
But such a societal system as matriarchy could not function as a whole without a deep, supporting and all-permeating spiritual attitude. At the spiritual and cultural level, matriarchal societies do not have hierarchic religions based on an omnipotent male God. In matriarchies, divinity is immanent, for the whole world is regarded as divine: as feminine divine. This is evident in the widely held concept of the universe as the Great Goddess who brought forth everything by birth, and of the earth as the Great Mother who created everything living. And everyone, and everything, is endowed with divinity by virtue of being a child of the Great Mother Nature.
In such a culture, everything is spiritual. In their festivals, which follow the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life, everything is celebrated. There is no separation between sacred and secular, so the everyday tasks also have ritual significance. In this sense matriarchal societies are sacred ones.
The entire societies are constructed in the image of the creative Mother Nature. This divine mother is reflected in every woman’s being, and in her abilities to create. Every social, economic and political action is informed by the principle of the world’s – and the universe’s – all-encompassing maternal attitude.
Therefore, on the spiritual level, matriarchies are defined as sacred societies and cultures of the Divine Feminine or Goddess.
In regard to terminology, using the term “Modern Matriarchal Studies” implies understanding matriarchal societies’ organization as not simply the reversal of the patriarchal form of society, but as a system with its own rules. The confusion about this term is partly due to the incorrect use of Bachofen’s Greek term gynaikokratie, or “rule by women,” a term which has been confused with the term “matriarchy”. “Rule by women” has never existed in the patriarchal sense of “rule”, but matriarchies have existed, in various forms, over very long periods of human history.
Not all the scholars promoting Modern Matriarchal Studies call this form of society by the same name; it is variously referred to as “matrifocal, matristic, matricentric or gylanic” society. However, they do agree to the same concept: a form of society which does not have patriarchal patterns and demonstrates a high degree of balance.
However, there are several good reasons to use the term “matriarchy” which has already been adopted by many scholars in this field:
- The term “matriarchy“ is well known from the ongoing discussion, and it is by now a popular term.
- Philosophical and scientific re-definitions mostly refer to well-known words and redefine them. After that, scholars can work with them, but they do not lose contact with the language of the people. In this process, the word often takes on a new, clearer and broader meaning even in the popular language; this is also influenced by the re-defining activities of scholars. Additionally, to redefine this term would be a great advantage, especially because for women, reclaiming this term means to reclaim the knowledge about cultures that have been created by women.
- It is not always be helpful to create new scientific terms because they are very artificial and have no connection to popular language. Others are too weak. The result can be a somewhat reduced view of these societies – by the researchers as well as the critics – a view that neglects the intricate network of relationships and the complex social networks that characterize these cultures.
- From linguistic respect, there is no need to follow the current, male biased notion of the term “matriarchy“ as meaning “domination by the mothers“. The only reason to understand it in this way is that it sounds parallel to “patriarchy“. The Greek word arché has a double meaning. It means “beginning” as well as “domination”. Therefore, “matriarchy” can accurately be translated as “the mothers from the beginning”.
- Several scholars use the term “matriarchy” in its re-defined, clarified meaning, because it is also of political relevance. They intentionally adopt it, because they think that matriarchal values show how life can be organized in such a way that it is based on needs, is non-violent and peaceful, is simply humane.
- Johann Jakob Bachofen, Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected Writings of J.J.Bachofen (Princeton University Press, Princeton 1967, first published in German 1861);
- Heide Goettner-Abendroth, Matriarchal Societies. Studies on Indigenous Cultures across the Globe, Peter Lang, New York 2012/2013, (first published in German 1988-2000, Verlag Kohlhammer, Stuttgart);
- Heide Goettner-Abendroth (ed.), Societies of Peace. Matriarchies in Past, Present, Future, (Inanna Publications, Toronto 2009, York University);
- Barbara Mann, Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas, (Peter Lang, New York, 2000 and 2004);
- Lewis Henry Morgan, League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois (Sage & Brother, 1965, first published 1881);
- Peggy Reeves Sanday, Women at the Center. Life in a Modern Matriarchy, (Cornell University Press 2002).