“I do think that women could make politics irrelevant; by a kind of spontaneous cooperative action the like of which we have never seen; which is so far from people’s ideas of state structure or viable social structure that it seems to them like total anarchy — when what it really is, is very subtle forms of interrelation that do not follow some heirarchal pattern which is fundamentally patriarchal. The opposite to patriarchy is not matriarchy, but fraternity, yet I think it’s women who are going to have to break this spiral of power and find the trick of cooperation.”
— Germaine Greer
For many years, scientists hypothesized that matriarchal, or maternal, societies in which women rather than men enjoyed greater political power existed before the current patriarchal structure of most modern societies. Since history is written by the winners, evidence of such societies was not easy to find. Although many second wave feminists believed it to be true, the hypotheses was criticized by others including Camille Paglia and Cynthia Eller. The question of how many maternal societies have existed throughout history remains unanswered.
Types of Maternal Societies
Scientists and academics make a distinction between matrilineal societies, matrifocal societies, and matriarchal, or maternal, societies.
- In a matrilineal society, property and the family name are passed down through the mother’s family. In Spain and many other Hispanic countries, when a woman marries, it is common for her to have two surnames, the first her father’s, or “family” name, and the second, her mother’s.
- “Matrifocal” is not used to describe a society, but rather, is used to describe a single family structure or the structure of a group of families within a larger society. While that group may be large, such as the current number of single mothers within many societies, mothers belonging to these matrilocal groups may or may not enjoy any greater political power within the society as a result of membership.
- “Matrilocal” is used to describe new families being established near the bride’s family or origin, rather than the groom’s.
Political Power in Maternal Societies
Political power is one of the elements that differentiates matriarchal societies from other types of maternal societies. In a matriarchal society women are the primary decision-makers and make political policy. Great Britain, despite being a monarchy in which women have held considerable political power, is not considered a matriarchal society. Women have only ascended the throne in the absence of a male royal heir.
Some modern examples of matriarchal or maternal societies include the 40,000 member Mosuo society in Southwest China. Their language doesn’t even contain a word for “husband” or “father” because the women never marry. In addition to women controlling the finances, property is passed down through maternal lineage.
Some anthropologists have argued for the redefinition of matriarchal or maternal societies to include those that contain a mixture of matriarchal and matrilineal characteristics. One example of this is the Minangkabau society in West Sumatra, Indonesia. Their matrilineal society is based on maternal clans. While the religion is Islam and men govern political affairs, they do so according to the rules of “adat”, a local system of cultural traditions that had been in place for generations before the arrival of the Islamic religion.
As the world’s largest matrilineal society with over four million members living in West Sumatra as well as three million more, they continue to be influential in the region. One reason for their influence is a traditional custom in which boys, beginning as young as seven years of age, leave their homes to be culturally educated at a community center. As teens, they travel to other regions to continue their educations and gain life experience before returning to become members of a council of “uncles” which helps administer community resources.
Another example of a surviving matrilineal society in which women share religious and political power is that of the Bribri, an indigenous people of Costa Rica. In their society, only women are permitted to inherit land. Additionally, men are also not permitted to prepare the sacred cacao drink that is used in their religious rituals. However, power is shared, in that only men are permitted to perform certain rituals as well, such as that preparing the bodies of the dead for burial. Another example of power sharing is that only men from certain clans, which are matrilineal, can become shamans. Additionally, male shamans, who receive training in herbal medicine and healing for ten years, are not permitted to teach their own sons, but only the sons of their female relatives.
There have been maternal societies of some type on nearly every continent in the world at some time throughout history. Perhaps one day men and women will learn to share power to the extent that historians of the future will have as much difficulty locating evidence of patriarchal societies of the past as current historians have locating evidence of matriarchal ones.