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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  1992), deluded fantasy (Marshall 1998), and dangerous degeneration or dysfunction (Frazier 1949; Moynihan 1965). Barbara Walker, citing Wolfgang Lederer’s 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 Morgan’s, whose work was a basis for that of Engel’s, 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  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 Amazons—that they removed a breast for better archery, that they disallowed adult men from living with them, that they practiced infanticide on males—as 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 arranged—especially in terms of the distribution of resources—in 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 mother’s 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 mother’s 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 Engels’s 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. 158–164). 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 ( 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 situation—the existence of women’s political power in the Iroquois confederation—as 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 GöttnerAbendroth 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 woman’s power that is always more benevolent than that of man’s. 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 power—and men do not— Göttner-Abendroth and others define matriarchy as egalitarian or consensus-based (see also Walker 1996, and Perkins Gilman’s fictional utopia Herland).
Göttner-Abendroth’s 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 families—and particular individuals in families—is useful. Staples’s argument is problematic in that he labels the entire continent of Africa “patriarchal”—without ever defining the term—and 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, Staples’s 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 equality—equality is here valued, but recognized as more of a struggle to maintain (1999, pp. 20–21; see also Frazier 1949 and Dill 1990). Although Moynihan’s 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 argued—and would continue to argue—was also a pathological social system—patriarchy itself (see Perkins Gilman  1992, Beauvoir  1972, and Friedan  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  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).
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- Marshall, Gor 1998. Matriarchy. In Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, 402. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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- Staples, Rober 1999. Sociocultural Factors in Black Family Transformation: Toward a Redefinition of Family Functions. In The Black Family, ed. Robert Staples, 18–24. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
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- Walker, Barbara  1996b. Matrilineal Inheritence. In The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, 620–624. Edison, NJ: Castle Books.
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