Sunday, June 16, 2013

Was Matriarchy Written Out of History?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Matriarchy. You know, societies who were governed by female leaders. For most people the perception that comes to mind are the fabled (or perhaps not) Amazonians who were said to have been great warriors and for whom the Amazon River is said to have been named. The Amazons whose story may have originated in Greek Mythology were said to have mated with their enemies and kept only their female children. I seem to have a Hollywood imprinted image of women who are tremendously tall, scantily clad, bear bows and arrows and are cruel to men. In fact matriarchal societies have and do exist in various indigenous civilizations where men are not perceived to be the enemy but where women lead in terms of household, finances and societal rule making. The Austrian Writer and early feminist Bertha Diner wrote in 1930 that she believed that all human societies were matriarchal then evolved to more male-dominated societies and worsened. I wonder if Diner’s theory could be true. I often wonder what a matriarchal earth would look and feel like.

Yesterday morning I woke to learn that bombs in the provincial capital of Quetta, Pakistan targeted a bus carrying students from Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University. Fourteen women were killed and nineteen were wounded. Although reports indicate that no groups have come forward to claim responsibility, the assumption that it was a radical statement made in objection to women’s education doesn’t seem unreasonable. As with most violent acts targeted at women in attempt to demonstrate some sort of supreme masculine act of control, I am left with the inability to comprehend this ignorant mindset.

Unfortunately we do not have to look as far as Pakistan to find examples of violence against women. Rape is commonly used as a tool of control and exists at epidemic levels throughout the world. RAINN ( estimates that 1 in 6 US women have been a victim of sexual violence. That translates to 17.7 million women in the US alone. Meanwhile in the US, domestic violence is the most common cause of injury to women. Domestic Violence Statistics ( indicate that three women in the US will be killed by their husbands or boyfriends daily. If I understand correctly,  more women are killed by men who claim to “love” them, than by strangers.

The strongly Islamic Minangkabau people of Sumatra in Indonesia are an ethnic group who originated in the Highlands of West Sumatra. Traditionally, property and land are passed down from mother to daughter. Some people believe that because the custom was for Minang men to travel to seek work, it was in the best interest of the family’s future generations for property to follow the women as women were traditionally more stationary. Minangkabau men believe that men can live anywhere, but women need shelter. The matrilineal custom seems to be a highly valued custom among the Minang as they live with relative equality.

The Mosuo are a very small ethnic group that live in China very near the Tibetan border in the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan who are also considered to be matriarchal. Women are the property owners and the decision makers in business. Many say lightheartedly that the men have very little responsibility as they must save their energy for nighttime activities. As with the Minangkabau lineage is traced through the female side of the family. Unlike the Minangkabau the identity of the father might be unknown and that fact is unimportant. There is no traditional marriage among the Mosuo. Children produced by sexual unions are the responsibility of the mother and the mother’s family. Women choose their sexual partners and sex occurs at the discretion of the woman. Domestic violence is almost non-exsistant.

My personal favorite, the Bayaka are a nomadic pygmy tribe found largely in the Central African Republic and Northern Congo. Bayaka fathers are the primary caregivers for the children. Couples share responsibility for hunting, cooking and house chores. Bayaka fathers are said to interact with their children five times as much as in other societies. The babies are held almost constantly which explains why the Bayaka are known as the best fathers in the world.

Matriarchy has existed throughout history and still exists among some ethnic societies. Though we tend to associate matriarchy with some sort of female domination, in most cases it seems to be less about power and more about equality. It also stands to reason that when the question of dominance is eliminated violence against women decreases.

I do wonder if Bertha Diner’s hypothesis on matriarchal societies could be true. Is it possible that   women were the leaders in ancient civilizations? Could it be that over time history was rewritten to suit the needs of men? Is it possible that men began to feel the need to exert their supremacy in order to gain more control over their environment? Is it possible that ethnic groups like the Minangkabau were the norm in ancient civilizations and the remoteness of their geographical location allowed them to maintain their culture?

Inevitably when I have a conversation regarding equality, I am quickly accused of being a “man hater”. I assure you that I am not. I love men. I love their masculinity. I love their intellect and their intensity. I love the protective nature of a man. I love the feeling of their muscularity beneath my hands and against my body. I love their confidence. I love men, not insecure cowards who fear loss of power or feel emasculated by a woman’s potential. In my perception the bombers of the bus carrying students from the women’s college in Pakistan were not men. Husbands and boyfriends who carry out domestic violence are not men. Rapists are not men. They are some sort of sub-species with a penis who use their physical strength to control their environment because they are ultimately powerless. 

As I write this the sun is rising on the other side of the earth as it has for billions of years. Amazingly, no matter how many women are killed and injured by car bombs, regardless of how many women are murdered by their loved ones, no matter how many women endure the tragedy of sexual violence, the sun continues to rise day after day. It is the same sun that has shone over our mothers and grandmothers and those before them. Like the earth that sustains us, women too carry life and we are truly powerful beyond measure. We must simply remember who we are.


  1. Read : When God Was a Woman
    by Merlin Stone

  2. This is such a beautifully strong written article. Thanks for posting. It always brings me back to my center when I am reminded of women's strength and power. Your second to last paragraph was absolutely amazing and true. Men need to realize that being a man isn't about how hard you can punch your wife or how much sex you can have various women. I think that the definition of manhood needs to evolve as well. I think there is a slight shift occurring in society and hopefully it will continue to evolve towards equality.

    I read "When God Was a Woman" and it was one of the best books I've read. It really confirmed a lot of the things that I was wondering about. It also helped me make sense of a lot of things about society.

    1. Hi Mims! Thank you so much for your comments. I am touched by your words. I do think also that a shift is occurring. I feel so impatient for those who will not be spared by the time involved in making change. I am looking forward to reading "When God Was a Woman". I think it was recommended to me long ago. Why didn't I read it sooner?

      Thank you again,


  3. The problem with Matriarchy is it's not salable to larger populations. Even the Austrian Feminist Writer believed that matriarchal societies, in whatever frequency that they occurred, eventually evolved into Patriarchies. The likely reason is that pressures in the environment, lack of food, warring neighbors, ect caused these "noble savages" to seek a better solution. Equality is a nice thought/ideal, but hardly an obtainable goal in modern society. There will always be men that don't want to be equal. They will want more that their fair share. These men want to compete and be the victor and they will work harder to win or simply take what they want if there isn't any other option. So like Soviet Block Communism, Matriarchies are great in theory but they haven't held up over time.