Matriarchy: history or reality?

Is matriarchy impossible?

Anthropology of women

History of women


Is matriarchy impossible?

One of the most persistent claims of feminist historians who concentrate in ancient and pre-historic societies has been the rebuttal of a possibility to a matriarchal society anytime in the distant past. It seems to be a way for them to legitimize their feminist research by distancing themselves from such outrageous extremities. On the other hand, several popular writers, like Riane Eisler, have energetically promoted ideas of an ancient Great Goddess, and the matriarchal society which worshipped her. Some archaeologists, like Marija Gimbutas and Lucy Goodison, have also contributed to the science of old goddesses by digging up and interpreting prehistoric finds from a new perspective.

The latest critical study into the goddess question is edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris: Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence. Avoiding extreme positions, the "Women and Goddess Traditions" collection of research articles (edited by Karen King) gives a more balanced overview of the recent scholarship and views. Bruhns and Stothert make a very interesting and up-to-date overview to Women in Ancient America. See list of sources.

I find it very unfortunate that the discussion of a possibility for female dominance in prehistoric or early historic societies has to be so strongly ideologically coloured. (One of the few exceptions is the collection of articles Manifesting power. Gender and the interpretation of power in archaeology edited by Sweely.) First of all, I do not see any reason for even ardent feminists to take either positive or negative view into the question on ideological reasons. The oppression of women in many present-day societies remains the same even if patriarchy is proved universal, thus the need for improvement in women's status is as urgent were there any matriarchal societies in the past or not. Maybe anti-feminists feel like gaining ideological ground if it is proved that males have always been dominant. On that ground it could be seen as a biological necessity, but the logic is so weak that I wish to steer away from such argumentation.
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Anthropology of women

The anthropology of women has developed strongly since the 1975 publication of "Toward an anthropology of women", the first ground-breaking collection of articles on the subject. We know much more about the status and roles of women in contemporary non-Western cultures than twenty years ago. Women (and some men, as well) making anthropological fieldwork are better aware of possible male bias or Eurocentric bias in their work. This has lead to a partial re-writing of ethnographies about several societies. One of the first brave reviews of traditional anthropological beliefs was Annette Weiner's 1976 work on the famous Trobriand islanders, "Women of value, men of renown". Weiner showed that, in addition to the widely published men's kula-exchange, there existed many other exchange-networks which involved women in central roles, and that these exchanges were in no way seen marginal or less important by the population. Very important in this context is work on Australian aborigines as well. In many studies until 1960s their societies have been depicted as strongly oppressive to women, men occupying a sacred status in contrast to the profane, polluting women. Diane Bell and other anthropologists working in the 1980s have found women to be influential, independent and having a position separate but as valued as men's among the societies studied. See list of sources.

In describing and analyzing non-Western societies, several frameworks like structuralism and functionalism have been in use until recently. Many anthropologists have come to see that these are rather problematic and fail to portray the societies adequately (Wikan, Schneider, etc), as they are based on Western thinking in dichotomies, dualism, separable categories in the organization of society, and unpronounced assumptions about the human nature, and male nature, in particular. Not every society separates biological women and men in opposing social categories; other social and kin relationships could determine the social position of an individual, as Oyeronke Oyewumi points out.

Margaret Mead states in her "Male and Female":
"In every known human society, the male's need for achievement can be recognized. Men may cook or weave or dress dolls or hunt humming-birds, but if such activities are appropriate occupations of men, then the whole society, men and women alike, votes them as important. When the same occupations are performed by women, they are regarded as less important. In a great number of human societies men's sureness of their sex role is tied up with their right, or ability, to practise some activity that women are not allowed to practise."

The present state of studies about hunter-gatherer societies which are still numerous around the globe is, nevertheless, summarized as follows by John Gowdy (1999):

1) the economic notion of scarcity is a social construct, not an inherent property of human existence,
2) the separation of work from social life is not a necessary characteristic of economic production,
3) the linking of individual well-being to individual production is not a necessary characteristic of economic organization,
4) selfishness and acquisitiveness are aspects of human nature, but not necessarily the dominant ones,
5) inequality based on class and gender is not a necessary characteristic of human society.

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History of women

Stella Georgoudi who writes about Creating a myth of matriarchy in Antiquity in A history of women in the West illuminates the historian’s view. She tries to show that the proofs for matriarchy are rather frail, based mainly on interpretation of Greek myths and Herodotus’ Histories. (See list of sources.) Her conclusion, that there was no matriarchy because of weakness of the proof, is however logically wrong. The proof of silence is not a good proof, not even in history.

Another matter is the interpretation of ancient writings related to women, which according to for example Winkler, could be less straightforward than the conventional science wants to believe. After all, we have to know who wrote and for what purpose those texts which have survived to our time.

Some basic laws of logical reasoning should be kept in mind:

  1. to state that something never exists, a theoretical proof of its impossibility is required, as well as
  2. when stating that something applies to all cases, a proof is needed. Only one counter-example is needed to refute a claim that a fact is always true.

When we apply this to the insistence that there ever was or could be a matriarchy, we must require a theory of society which implies it. This would mean an assumption that human society has only a limited number of possible ways of organizing itself, and in none of these ways women are dominant.

I wish to prove the contrary, and even by two independently separate arguments. First, that the variety of human societies seems to be infinite and no Western theory is able to cover it all. This argument is not elaborated here, I only refer to the anthropological writings listed in sources below.

My second argument is even bolder: that there are in fact matriarchal societies among contemporary, scientifically observed and documented peoples. These are small societies living in horticulture, nevertheless, they are functional, real human societies with long histories. As stated previously, one example would be enough, but I present here three: the Nagovisi of Bougainvillea in the South Pacific, the Khasi of Meghalaya, India, and the Machinguenga of Peru (Johnson and Johnson 1988).
See list of sources.

In addition to these "matriarchal" examples there is a large number of societies where women enjoy full sexual, and economical control over themselves. To the group of matriarchies, or egalitarian societies, depending on how to define it, several Pacific and Native American cultures could be added, for example Pueblo Indians (the Zuni, Laguna and Hopi), the pre-19th century Iroquois and Innu (Montaignais-Naskapi), the Vanatinai, and Hawaii under Queen Liliuokani. Take a look at the list of matrifocal societies around the world.

There are some widely cited theories which promote the universality of patriarchy. They generally tend to be based on a Eurocentric / Western view of societies "developing" from "primitive" towards "highly developed" industrial societies, following certain stages or paths. (A view which received a last stroke with the collapse of communism which according to Marx and Engels was the highest level of society.) If we admit that the history of societies has no predestined internal logic, and societies can adopt a wide range of organizations within their economic and environmental constraints, we are free to see for example gender as one variable or factor within the framework of numerous possibilities.

This attitude to stress male dominance in all possible circumstances seems to be an expression of over-cautiousness, an effort to interpret the data in the least exceptional way. My argument is that this is a misconception based on the false premise of universality of patriarchy and on the European world view! It is well known that males are dominant in many, and in all most populous present day societies, but that is a historical result of last 500 years of European military expansion and extermination of native cultures. Native cultures, of which most were not sexually dichotomized nor oppressive to either sex. Even in many stratified societies, the highest positions in any field could be available to either gender - or at least to two genders, in case a third gender (or more) was acknowledged. This usually made it possible for a person of either sex to adopt an intermediate gender and thus gain access to otherwise inaccessible roles.

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Bell, Diane. 1983. Daughters of the Dreaming. Melbourne: McPhee Gribble.

Bernal, Martin 1991 Black Athena II: The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press

Bruhns, Karen Olsen, and Karen E. Stothert.1999. Women in Ancient America. University of Oklahoma, Norman

Coler, Ricardo 2000. El último matriarcado. (Los mosuo) Viva, Clarin 23.4.2000: 68-73.

Diamond, Jared. 1993. What are men good for? Natural History 1993(5): 24-29.

Duby, Georges and Perrot, Michelle (editors). 1994. A History of Women in the West. 1. From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Ehrenberg, Margaret. 1989. Women in prehistory. London: British Museum Publications.

Eisler, Riane. 1987. The Chalice and the Blade. New York: Harper&Row

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Goodison, Lucy and Christine Morris, editors. 1999. Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison 1998.

Gowdy, John. 1999. Hunter-gatherers and the mythology of the market. in the Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gatherers. Cambridge University Press.

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Herodotus. 1972. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised. London: Penguin Books.

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Copyright J. Holvikivi
Last updated: 25 Apr 2009