Matriarchy as a Sociocultural Form: An Old Debate in a New Light



An Old Debate in a New Light



In the following I argue for a reconfiguration of the term matriarchy not as a construct based on the gendered division of political power, but one based on gendered divisions in the sociocultural and cosmological orders. Aware of the disdain that the term matriarchy evokes in the minds of many anthropologists, I suggest that matriarchy has never been theorized in and of itself. From the start its meaning was fashioned by analogy with “patriarchy” or “father right.” Because patriarchy developed as a code word for male tribal leadership, matriarchy was restricted to female-oriented social rule. In the nineteenth century, the term was mired in the conceptual swamp of evolutionary theorizing about a primordial matriarchy. In the 20th century the term suffered from the fortunes of sexual politics in which matriarchy came to be associated with exclusive female rule in response to the definition of patriarchy in similarly exclusive terms. In reconfiguring the term matriarchy I exclude any consideration of universal stages of cultural evolution. I also exclude the concept of female rule, on the grounds that a more appropriate term exists, found in the ancient Greek sources, namely gynecocracy after the Greek gyne, woman, + kratos, rule.

The key to my reconfiguration is in the meaning of the -archy stem [from the Greek arche] found in Liddell’s Greek-English Lexicon (l961:252). Under the first of two broad categories of meaning presented, arche is defined as: “beginning, origin; lay a foundation; source of action; from the beginning, from the first, from of old; the original argument; first principle, element; practical principle of conduct; principles of knowledge.” (1) Combining these concepts with the matri- prefix (after Latin mater, mother cf. OED) suggests a different approach to the definition of matriarchy as compared with the one traditionally followed using the second category of meaning, which alludes to “sovereignty” or “empire.”

Based on the first meaning of arche together with the theoretical and ethnographic grounds discussed below, I suggest that the term matriarchy is relevant in societies where the cosmological and the social are linked by a primordial founding ancestress, mother goddess, or archetypal queen. To qualify as “matriarchal” such mythical or real figures must embody and articulate first principles which are socially channeled in principles of practical conduct. Thus, in these cases the archetypal qualities of feminine symbols do not exist solely in the symbolic realm but are manifested in social practices that influence the lives of both sexes, not just women. These practices involve women (usually in their roles as mothers) in activities that authenticate and regenerate or, to use a term which is closer to the ethnographic details, that nurture the social order. By this definition, the ethnographic context of matriarchy does not reflect female power over subjects or female power to subjugate, but female power (in their roles as mothers and senior women) to conjugate-to knit and regenerate social ties in the here-and-now and in the hereafter. Because this approach stresses the connection between the archetypal (or cosmological) and the social, rather than between power and politics it can not be interpreted as the female equivalent of patriarchy.

My approach is inspired by long time fieldwork in a Minangkabau village, a matrilineal people located in West Sumatra, Indonesia. I was drawn to West Sumatra for the first time in l981 by the female-centered nature of the Minangkabau social system described by Tanner (l974; see Tanner and Thomas 1985 for a later description.) Although Tanner does not label the Minangkabau a matriarchy, I learned much later (in the mid-nineties) that the Minangkabau play a prominent role in the history of thinking about matriarchy. The first article on the subject of matriarchy written by an anthropologist (Tylor l896) relies on ethnographic observations from West Sumatra published by a Dutch colonial official in l871.

Tylor’s description of the Minangkabau “matriarchal family system” conforms with information I collected on l9th century social organization in West Sumatra. Today, Minangkabau intellectuals use the term “matriarchaat,” the Dutch term for matriarchy, to describe their social system. The term also crops up in philosophical treatises on Minangkabau natural law penned by a famous Minangkabau philosopher (cf Nasroen l957.)(2) When the Minangkabau use the term matriarchaat they refer to the economic advantage women enjoy due to matrilineal descent and matrilocal residence, not female political domination. However, fieldwork on the meaning of matriarchy in village life yielded a far more complex picture (see Sanday 2002.) With respect to the relationship between the sexes most people separate male and female spheres of influence suggesting that males and females complement one another–like the skin and nail of the fingertip-as one individual liked to tell me.

The theoretical arm of my project is motivated by the absence of appropriate “experience distant” terms adequate for characterizing the power of Minangkabau women. None of the current terms for female-oriented social systems (matri-centered, matri-focal, or any of the other versions of matri-) do justice to my observations in West Sumatra. Such terms subsume women’s activities in a male-dominated sociopolitical sphere. As the reading of ancient Greek plays (Sophocles’ Antigone is one notable example) tell us and as Annette Weiner (l976) establishes in her pathbreaking Trobriand ethnography, the sociopolitical never stands alone. Seen in the context of Weiner’s analysis of Trobriand women, Antigone is not an idle woman obsessed with a brother’s death, but a voice reflecting the power of tradition. By giving as much weight to the cosmic as to the social order, Weiner shows that Trobriand women have power which is publicly recognized on both the sociopolitical and cosmic planes. Cast in these terms, Antigone’s life and death struggle against her uncle Kreon is a struggle between laws dictated by an overarching cultural order which Antigone upholds and laws at odds with that order formulated by a man obsessed with political power. Antigone is willing to risk death at the hands of her power-hungry uncle rather than abandon her cosmologically authenticated role to bury the dead. If she follows her uncle’s dictates Antigone knows that she, her brother and her family lose much more than life itself, they lose their place in eternity.

This is not to suggest that either Sophocles’ ancient Thebeans or Weiner’s Trobrianders should be characterized as matriarchies. We don’t know enough about the ancient Thebeans to venture even a guess. Weiner ‘s (l976) argument with respect to the Trobrianders demonstrates the role women play in the overarching cultural order (the -archy portion of my argument), but doesn’t speak to the matri- portion because although she has much to say about the brother/sister tie as central in the Trobriand social and cosmological orders she offers little information on the mother/daughter tie.

I call the Minangkabau social system a matriarchy for several reasons, which both subsume and go beyond local meanings regarding the Minangkabau matriarchaat. These reasons can be summarized as followed: There is an archetypal maternal symbol, a dominant symbol in anthropological terms, who condenses in her being primordial principles of conduct. According to these principles, the mother/child bond is sacred, part of natural law. Being grounded in natural law, customs associated with matrilineal descent are treated as an inalienable part of the foundation of Minangkabau identity. The overarching defining principles of conduct in family, clan, and village life pivot around men and women connected through females to a common ancestress. This is not to say that all matrilineal societies should be labelled matriarchal. Nor does this view imply female dominance or male subordination. Although Minangkabau men figure prominently as leaders in some realms of social/public life, their titles are inherited through females and their political activities are grounded not just in the matrilineal principle but in women’s ceremonies as well. Women are leaders in the public realm by virtue of the life cycle ceremonies around which tradition pivots and on which face-to-face political action depends. Women’s life-cycle ceremonies oil the traditional political machinery by bringing members of the different clans together. Women nurture and uphold tradition (called adat ) in today’s world by giving male and female leaders and opinion makers a stage on which to function and an audience for whom to perform. Because women follow the old ways in their ceremonies, men have a raison d’etre for following these ways also. Together, men and women keep the traditional social order going despite the tremendous pulls of the modern world and the nation-state in other directions.


Although most anthropologists associate the term matriarchy with the work of J. J. Bachofen (l861) and L. H. Morgan (l851; 1877), E. B. Tylor (l896) was the first to apply this term in an article entitled “The Matriarchal Family System.” Tylor’s (l896: 82) concern in this article was “with the history and meaning of the great ancient maternal system,” which he says McLennan (l865) “first brought into prominent notice” in his “Primitive Marriage.”According to Tylor, McLennan inspired a major scholarly controversy because he proposed a theory which was intended to upset “the received patriarchal view” set forth in Maine’s (l861) earlier Ancient Law. Tylor sided with McLennan saying that McLennan “brought forward a collection of evidence as to ancient and modern peoples accustomed to trace their descent not on the father’s but the mother’s side” (1896:81). In Tylor’s view this finding upset Maine’s postulation of a primordial patriarchal system, which at the time had the status of common knowledge in Western Europe.

McLennan’s arguments were not new as Tylor recognizes (ibid.) referring to Bachofen’s conclusions. McLennan himself acknowledged his debt to L. H. Morgan citing a letter published by Morgan in l860 and circulated by the United States Government in which Morgan wrote:

Among the Iroquois….[t]he children are of the tribe of the mother, in a majority of the nations; but the rule, if anciently universal, is not so at the present day. Where descent in the female line prevailed, it was followed by several important results, of which the most remarkable was the perpetual disinheritance of the male line. Since all titles as well as property descended in the female line, and were hereditary, in strictness, in the tribe itself, a son could never succeed to his father’s title of Sachem, nor inherit even his medal or his tomahawk (quoted in McLennan 1970 [1865]:51).

Tylor’s contribution to the controversy was to introduce the term “matriarchal,” which he saw as the female parallel to Maine’s usage of the term “patriarchal.” For example, Tylor says (p. 84):

All, then that can be properly meant by saying that a patriarchal tribe follows male and a matriarchal female kinship, is that their social arrangements, such as membership of the family and clan, succession, and inheritance, are framed on the one line rather than the other.

Tylor cautions (p.90) the reader that matriarchy does not mean that “women govern the family,” but that actual power is rather in the hands of their brothers and uncles on the mother’s side. Being true to his parallel use of the two terms, and wanting to avoid the conflation of matriarchal with female rule, Tylor suggests that “[o]n the whole, the terms ‘maternal’ and ‘paternal’ seem preferable” (ibid.).

Although Bachofen is the most frequently cited figure in the matriarchy debate, the term does not appear in his work. Bachofen’s (l967 [l861]) analysis builds on two analytically distinct concepts:

  1. mother right (maternal law) from the German–mutterrecht–which forms the main part of the title of Bachofen’s famous book, Das Mutterrecht, and applies to customs giving women qua mothers and their daughters certain rights (including descent in the female line), which anthropologists came to call matrifiliation;

2.gynecocracy (rule by women) from the German–gynaikokratie— which stems from the Greek gyne, woman, + kratos, rule, and which appears in the subtitle of the German edition of Das Mutterrecht (1861) but was translated as “matriarchy” in the English edition (Bachofen l967.)

One can only speculate as to why Bachofen’s English translator substituted the word matriarchy where Bachofen had written gynecocracy. The explanation may lie in the fact that when the translation was published in l967 popular usage made matriarchy a synonym of gynecocracy. It is also the case that Bachofen himself frequently (but not always) conflated customs subsumed under the term “mother right” with gynecocracy as if to say that no society could possibly develop female-oriented customs if not ruled by women.(3) Georgoudi (l992:450-451) notes that Bachofen often used the terms “maternal law” and “gynecocracy”

side by side, without establishing any firm distinction between them. It is clear, however, that in his mind these two compound terms referred to a series of social and juridical facts exhibiting two inextricable characteristics: the superiority of women over men in the family as well as in society; and the exclusive recognition of maternal kinship, or, in the jargon of anthropology, matrilinear filiation, which meant that only daughters could legally inherit property.

Georgoudi (p. 451) points out that the term matriarchy was forged in the late nineteenth century by analogy with patriarchy. She suggests that the term caught on (“among Bachofen’s admirers as well as his foes”) because it had the advantage of suggesting both mother-right and gynecocracy. If this is the case then the term matriarchy as presently used obscures some of Bachofen’s original ideas.

The early twentieth century saw the demise of the term matriarchy, a victim both of the tendency to confuse it with exclusive female rule and the exhaustion of the evolutionary paradigm. In l924, Rivers (p. 85) described the terminological box into which the term matriarchy had been stowed:

I now come to a subject which, though not really difficult, has yet been the occasion of an extraordinary amount of misunderstanding, the subject of mother-right and father-right. These institutions are often known as the matriarchate and patriarchate respectively. But these inappropriate terms are rapidly going out of use, owing to the general recognition of the fact that there is no question of rule by women in the great majority of states to which the name matriarchate has been applied….

Summarizing matriarchy’s fate vis-a-vis the evolutionary paradigm, in this article Rivers (l924:96) noted that the doctrine of the universal priority of mother-right had been abandoned a decade before in Britan and even earlier in the U.S. While he agreed with this result, Rivers cautioned the reader that it would be wrong to revert to Maine’s doctrine of the priority of father-right, which he noted was still prevalent “in writings on the history of political institutions.” According to Rivers, Maine’s theory was “even more untenable” than pronouncements concerning the priority of mother-right (p. 98.)

Rivers, a British anthropologist, argued for more particularistic ethnographic practice in which institutions were treated not as the result of a simple process of evolution but the consequence of the blending and interaction of cultures with complex structures (l924:97). In America, this paradigm had already been founded by Boas, who with his students turned away from grand theorizing and “conjectural history” to grand descriptions such as found in the work of Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture) and Margaret Mead (Sex and Temperament) or to highly specific, locally based historical reconstructions. The particularistic approach however was not universally adopted by anthropology with respect to the matriarchy debate.

The topic of matriarchy was revisited briefly by Schneider in Matrilineal Kinship, the book he edited with Kathleen Gough published one-hundred years after the publication of Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht. In the Preface, Schneider echoes the words of Rivers.

Thus Bachofen’s contention that matriliny (descent through women) and matriarchy (rule by women) were but two aspects of the same institution was accepted only briefly. For as evidence was sought in terms of which his contention could be evaluated it became clear that the generalized authority of women over men, imagined by Bachofen, was never observed in known matrilineal societies, but only recorded in legends and myths. Thus the whole notion of matriarchy fell rapidly into disuse in anthropological work (l961:viii).

In his theoretical Introduction, Schneider reverted to the generalizing mode Rivers warned against. In a quintessential collapse of the social order to the sociopolitical authority of men, Schneider claims that there are three conditions which “are constant features of unilineal descent groups” regardless of whether they be based on male (patrilineal) or female (matrilineal) descent principles (p.5).

The role of women as women [is] defined as that of responsibility for the care of children….the role of men as men is defined as that of having authority over women and children (except perhaps for specially qualifying conditions applicable to a very few women in society). Positions of highest authority within the matrilineal descent group will, therefore, ordinarily be vested in statuses occupied by men (p. 6).

Thus, even though Schneider admits that the brother-sister pair is stronger in matrilineal descent groups and women play more of a role in social life than they do in patrilineal descent groups he sees women as subordinated to men by virtue of the givens of their biological gender. Casting this conclusion in broader historical terms, one is reminded once again of Maine’s prior assumption of a universal “patriarchal” order.

In the early seventies the notion of primordial matriarchies at the dawn of human history was revisited by feminist activist theorists. Their rhetoric recreated matriarchy as the female equivalent of patriarchy. If patriarchy, which feminists were working against, was male rule, then matriarchy was female rule and had to be reinstated. As Maine’s notion of a universal primordial patriarchal law had been the argument a century earlier, feminists’ notion of matriarchal law became the watchword of the day. Once again anthropologists were drawn into the argument and once again they introduced ethnographic evidence to support their generalizations, this time in opposition to the claims of matriarchy. Whereas anthropologists like Morgan and Tylor had argued for the priority of universal matriarchy, feminist anthropologists now argued for universal male dominance in response to such claims. In their widely influential edited volume, Rosaldo and Lamphere (l974:2) stated that the evolutionary theories of Bachofen and Morgan positing “an earlier stage of human development” in which ” the social world was organized by a principle called matriarchy, in which women had power over men” could be dismissed on both archeological and ethnographic grounds. Going one step further, they made their famous (but later retracted) statement: “It seems fair to say then, that all contemporary societies are to some extent male-dominated, and although the degree and expression of female subordination vary greatly, sexual assymmetry is presently a universal fact of human and social life” (Rosaldo and Lamphere l974:3; but see also Rosaldo 1980 and Lamphere l995).

In her contribution to the Rosaldo and Lamphere volume, Bamberger (l974:263) revisits the matriarchy argument more directly to claim that “the existence and constitution of female-dominated societies can only be surmised” because neither archeologists nor social anthropologists have “uncovered a single undisputed case of matriarchy” (p. 266). While Bamberger (pp. 266-267) admits to casting doubt “on the historical evidence for the Rule of Women,” she says her project is not to challenge “whether women did or did not hold positions of political importance at some point in prehistory, or even whether they took up weapons and fought in battle as the Amazons allegedly did,” but to investigate the meaning of what she refers to as “the myth of matriarchy” found in ancient and modern societies. She defines this myth as stories “claiming women did these things, which they no longer do.” Bamberger sees these stories as posing “as interesting a problem as any generated in the nineteenth century about the credibility or viability of matriarchy as a social system.” Why do we find in so many societies stories about the time when females ruled? she asks. Her answer lay in the “insistent message of the myth,” which justifies

male dominance through the evocation of a vision of a catastrophic alternative-a society dominated by women. The myth, in its reiteration that women did not know how to handle power when in possession of it, reaffirms dogmatically the inferiority of their present position (p.279.)

Thus, in Bamberger’s view, the myth of matriarchy lobbies for male dominance.

There are many stories of female dominance around the world that don’t necessarily follow the pattern that Bamberger suggests. In some cases these stories reflect real female power; in others the stories are not about chaos and disorder caused by women but tell of chaos and disorder befalling males who dislodge women from their natal home. The variety of themes that exist is the subject of a very interesting collection of commentaries on myths of matriarchy by anthropologists working in one very small part of the world: the Southwestern Pacific (cf Gewertz l988.) One crucial difference between Bamberger’s account and those included in this volume is variation in the ethnographic context of the stories.

In his contribution Michael Allen describes his field work in a society very much like those Bamberger associates with myths of matriarchy, but in which no myths of matriarchy exist. Contrary to Bamberger he suggests that these myths develop where females have significant power. Summarizing his major theme, he says (l988:80):

…such myths do not simply validate or give legitimacy to extreme forms of male hegemony, but rather…they provide a rationale for those relatively weakly articulated patriarchal social systems in which the principal male power symbols not only incorporate a less than fully articulate female component, but in which the men precariously attempt to assert dominance over women who are in fact the possessors of substantial power.

The key, he says, is not in so much in the existence of female power but in men’s “political dependence on appropriating the valued products of female labor.” The myths, he concludes, “indicate an exploitative element in gender relations” (l988:91-92).

Also based on fieldwork, in the same volume Martha Macintyre reports myths of the disorganization and chaos created by husbands and fathers who try to disrupt the mother/daughter tie in a “matrilineally produced universe.” For example, the main message in one of the stories she collected about an unhappy wife cut off from her mother is that “bereft of the power that is transmitted matrilineally-supernatural fecundity” this woman is deprived of reproductive powers which makes her barren and affects the fertility of the gardens (l988:189.) In this case social disorder is created by men who go against tradition.

Working in Eastern Indonesia, an area where a pervasive system of complementary dualism projects male/female pairs onto the symbolic universe, in the same volume Janet Hoskins (l988:34) suggests the term “diarchy” as a substitute for “matriarchy,” which she defines narrowly as female rule. She proposes this term because it reveals a more complementary relation between the sexes, one “of shared powers and oscillations in control, structured by a doctrine of interdependence and mutuality” (ibid.) While I agree with her analysis of the shared nature of power and her evidence of the archetypal male/female couple, I cannot accept diarchy as an appropriate term for the Minangkabau case. I retain the root matri- rather than turn to the closely related root di- to distinguish between the focus on the ancestral heroine (or the mother) and the symbolic representation of male/female dualities described by Hoskins.

The cases described by Allen, Macintyre, and Hoskins (along with other articles in the Gewertz volume) raise a point almost always neglected in traditional discussions of matriarchy and patriarchy. Whether a society be “matrilineally produced,” “patriarchally” organized, or marked by complementary dualism the opposite sex always plays a crucial role. No sociopolitical order is single sexed. Even where males dominate, women are always heard from. Whatever the nature of the dynamic duo of male and female, whether the terms of the sex pair be posed in dialectical tension, benign opposition, or harmonious synthesis each member of the pair gives legitimacy to the other. Considerations of matriarchy, patriarchy, or diarchy should not be about which sex rules but how gender is represented in archetypal scenarios and reflected in social practices. Certain questions need to be asked: which sex bears the symbolic and social burden for conjugating the social universe? Which sex is imbued (naturally or socially) with the reproductive powers that recharge the sources of supernatural fecundity? What is the gender of the dominant symbols tying the archetypal to the social? How do males and females complement one another in the political arena and how is this arena tied to the cosmological order? As an examination of Antigone and the Trobriands suggests, in a strongly tradition-based society ultimate authority does not rest in political roles but in a cosmological order. If this cosmological order pivots around female oriented symbols and if this order is upheld by ritual acts coordinated by women whose social salience is also grounded in this order we can speak of matriarchy.

* The argument of this paper is greatly expanded in my ethnography of the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy (Sanday 2002.)

  1. The second set of meanings listed are more commonly found in contemporary usage: “first place of power, sovereignty; empire, realm; magistracy, office.”
  2. For usage by a Dutch scholar see Westenenk, L.C., De Minangkabause Nagari, page 161, Batavia l915. For usage by a Minangkabau scholar see Prof. Mr. M. Nasroen, Dasar Falsafah Adat Minangkabau, Bulan Bintang:Djakarta, 1957, page 34. Throughout my stay in West Sumatra spanning the l980’s and l990’s I encountered this term in the villages, usually employed by an adat expert.
  3. Bachofen may have been inspired by ancient Greek sources which sometimes talked of “woman-rule” when describing female-oriented customs (see Strabo Vol 2:115 trans Jones l923.)


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