Matriarchal Societies in History

Matriarchy is a term used for a society where the political government and moral authority resides in the hands of women, especially the senior members. The evolution of this concept has been fashioned by inputs from various systems of thoughts ranging from religion and mythology to sociology, anthropology and more recently feminism. In the nineteenth century the works of such classicists as J.J.Bachofen and Lewis Morgan developed the hypothesis that matriarchal society represented an early stage of development of human society which has now been lost in pre-history and remains in vestigial form only in certain primitive societies around the world. Eventually however this hypothesis came to be discredited in the later twentieth century with anthropologists and researchers pointing out that there is no definite proof that matriarchy existed as a form of ‘proto-society’.

Because of the lack of concrete information on the patterns of the earliest societies all over the world, contemporary theorists point out the difficulty of arriving at a watertight definition of matriarchy. Thus theorists prefer the more specific terms like matrifocal, matrilineal or matricentric social structures when describing social groups in history where women held power in some capacity or other. Some of these are:

  1. Nair community in Kerala, India

    Tucked away in the southern tip of India, is the state of Kerala. The Nair or Nayar community of Kerala has been put forward as an example of social group which was strongly matrilineal till the nineteenth century. A matrilineal society is a social structure where the lineage is passed along the female ancestors of the family – in other words a person takes on the name of the mother and property too is often passed along female lines. Historically, Nairs lived in large family units called tharavads that housed descendants of one common ancestress and could consist of 80 or more members. Only the women lived in the main house; men lived in separate rooms and, on some occasions, lived in a separate house nearby. Despite the largely matrilineal traits, the karnavan or the oldest male member in the tharavad, had the decision making authority including the power to manage common property. This qualifies the notion of purely matriarchal societies and because of this fact, the Nairs can also be described as an avunculocal society where the mother’s brother often exercises financial and social authority. One of the best known researchers into the matrilineal underpinnings of the erstwhile Nair community was E. Kathleen Gough who is famous for her works like The Traditional Kinship System of the Nayars of Malabar, Harvard University, 1954 .

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  2. The Iroquois in North America

    Far from forming a single tribe, the Iroquois are an association of several tribes of indigenous people of North America. In the 16th century or earlier After the Iroquoian-speaking peoples coalesced as distinct tribes,  based mostly in present-day central and upstate New York. Following this they came together in an association known today as the Iroquois League, or the "League of Peace and Power". When Americans and Canadians of European descent began to study Iroquois customs in the 18th and 19th centuries, they observed that women assumed a position in Iroquois society practically equal in power to that of the men. Individual women could hold property including dwellings, horses and farmed land; moreover their property before marriage stayed in their possession without being mixed with that of their husband's. Also a husband lived in the longhouse of his wife's family. Far more importantly, the product of a woman’s labor belonged to her completely and she had complete control over its economic worth. These clans were basically matrilineal that is the lineage passed from the mother to the child. However it also had some qualities of a matriarchal society since women held some amount of political power too. Thus the chief of a clan could be removed at any time by a council of the mothers of that clan, and the chief's sister was responsible for nominating his successor. Among the researchers who did memorable work studying the matriarchal tendencies of the Iroquois is Lewis Henry Morgan, an American anthropologist, who  delivered a lecture, The Laws of Descent of the Iroquois1856 and whose seminal work remains Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity written in 1871.
  3. Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea

    Ethnographer Bronisław Malinowski, from the London School of Economics, lived among aborigines of the Trobriand Islands in Western Melanesia and studied their society from 1914-1918. In his book Argonauts Of The Western Pacific, Malinowski reveals a matrilineal construction of the islanders' societies and the high position enjoyed by the females of the social group. a matrilineal system indicates that the succession of rank and membership in all the social groups descended in the maternal line. Property too was succeeded along the female line, though in a circuitous manner. for instance the ownership of trees in the village grove and ownership in garden plots would be ceded by the father to his son during the lifetime of the former. however at his death, it would often have to be returned to the man's rightful heirs, that is, his sister's children. interestingly though, despite a matrilineal basis, the Trobrianders followed a patrilocal system where the wife would go and stay with the family of her husband.
  4. Garo, India

    The Garos are a tribal people in the north-eastern state of Meghalaya, India and are also present in some neighboring hilly areas of Bangladesh. They are the second-largest tribe in Meghalaya after the Khasi and comprise about a third of the local population. The Garos are not only matrilineal but matrifocal as well where a woman continues to stay with her mother’s family after her marriage. Sons leave the parents' house at puberty, and are trained in the village bachelor dormitory. After getting married, the man lives in his wife's house. like other matrilineal groupings, he individuals take their clan titles from their mothers. Traditionally, the youngest daughter inherits the property from her mother. at the same time though, the men folk govern the society and domestic affairs and manage the property. this prevents Garos from being completely matriarchal in nature. still however Garos are one of the few remaining matrilineal societies in the world, even though modern life and Christianity have brought about vast changes in their culture.
  5. Nakhi, China

    The Nakhi are an ethnic group inhabiting the foothills of the Himalayas in the northwestern part of Yunnan Province, as well as the southwestern part of Sichuan Province in China. The Nakhi are thought to have come originally from Tibet and now form one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the People's Republic of China. The Nakhis had a matrilineal family structure till the beginning of democratic reform, when it changed to an overtly patriarchal structure. In the matrilineal stage, women acted as heads of the family and thus gave inheritance to the children either through the mother, or to her nephews through her brothers. Women also acted as the main work-force and enjoyed respect both at home and in the larger society. Most of the research work into the matrilineal underpinnings of Nakhi society was done by Joseph Francis Charles Rock, an Austrian-American explorer, geographer, linguist and botanist. The two histories that he wrote of the Nakhi people and language of northwestern Yunnan, have been widely used for the study of Nakhi culture, language and religion. They are The Ancient Nakhi Kingdom of Southwest China in two volumes ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1948) as well as A Nakhi-English encyclopedic dictionary (Rome: I.M.E.O., 1963). These have long been out of print and accordingly are highly sought after not only by students of anthropology but collectors as well.

    Today experts in anthropology and sociology believe that is highly unlikely matriarchy ever existed in a pure, unambiguous form. Rather what existed were social structures where women in certain capacities held power and authority equal or greater than men, but rarely ever exercised universal and complete control.