Matriarchy By Peggy Reeves Sanday

The following is a guest post written by Peggy Reeves Sanday, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is one of the founders of the anthropology of sex and gender and author of several foundational books including Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy.

2008. Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. See below for full citation at end of article.


The role of matriarchy in women’s history has been obscured by the stereotypes used within male-centered Western social theory regarding the nature of power. In the late nineteenth century the concept of matriarchy played a role in discussions of presumed stages in the cultural evolution of society from “primitive” female rule to more advanced male rule. In the late twentieth century this definition of matriarchy was rejected in favor of a comparative and ethnographically based approach that yielded a more nuanced understanding of the logic of gendered responsibilities in particular societies. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, this new approach was the basis of the burgeoning field of matriarchal studies.

Matriarchy has changed from being thought of as merely a prepatriarchal evolutionary stage to being applied to women-centered societies founded on principles of gender balance and a gift-giving economy. This new definition reflects a maternal social philosophy for a global culture that seeks peace and stresses the importance of nurturing the young, the old, the sick, and the poor.

History of the Definition of Matriarchy.

Historically, the word “matriarchy” evolved from the much earlier use of the words “matriarch” and “patriarch” to denote the female or male head of a family or tribe—the older women and men who are powerful within a family or group. The ancestors of the Jewish people are the three patriarchs Abraham , Isaac , and Jacob and the four matriarchs Sarah , Rebecca , Rachel , and Leah . Abraham, whose name in Hebrew means “father of many,” is the first of the great biblical patriarchs and the traditional founder of the ancient Hebrew nation. The name “Sarah” is given a similar meaning in chapter 17 of Genesis when God tells Abraham that his wife Sarah “shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her” (Genesis 17:15–16).

The word “matriarchy” came into use in the nineteenth century to mean governance by women over family and society in the early stages of human society. This development was in part a reaction to the then widely held belief that male dominance was at the foundation of early human society. The conceptual foundation for matriarchy was laid by several nineteenth-century cultural evolutionists—Johann Jakob Bachofen, with Das Mutterrecht ( 1861 ), Lewis Henry Morgan , with League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois ( 1851 ), and John McLennan , with Primitive Marriage ( 1865 ). Although these authors did not use the term “matriarchy” per se, their characterization of early human society with terms like Mutterrecht (mother law or rule), “descent in the female line,” and “gynecocracy” paved the way for the definition of matriarchy as the mirror image of patriarchy. For example, Bachofen equated Mutterrecht with gynecocracy, perhaps because for him, no society could develop female-oriented customs if it was not being ruled by women. Or perhaps he was influenced by the early Greek sources that sometimes talked of “woman-rule” when describing female-oriented customs.

The notion of an evolutionary progression from maternal to paternal social forms is a theme that remains embedded in the matriarchy debate to this day. The most widely cited book on this subject was Friedrich Engels’s Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigentums, und des Staats ( 1884 ; English trans., The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State). Drawing heavily on Bachofen, Morgan, and McLennan, Engels argued that the transition from primate societies to the earliest human social structure was achieved by granting social importance to female-centered solidarity that transcended sexual competitiveness and jealousy because of the assumed practice of group marriage. Under this type of marriage it was assumed further that descent was traced in the female line because only the mother of the child was known. Engels’s debt to his predecessors is reflected in his use of the term Mutterrecht as well as in his model of the alleged progression from the maternal to the paternal in which he spoke of “the world-historical defeat of the female sex” when men “took command of the home.” Like those who preceded him, Engels did not use the term “matriarchy,” though Mutterrecht is very close.

The first extended analysis of matriarchy appeared in a little-known article by the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor . Published in 1896 , “The Matriarchal Family System” discussed “the history and meaning of the great ancient maternal system” (p. 82). According to Tylor, when McLennan “brought into prominent notice” the ancient maternal system in describing the relationship between group marriage and descent in the female line, he inspired a major scholarly controversy because his theory upset “the received patriarchal view” set forth in Henry Maine’s Ancient Law ( 1861 ), a postulation of a primordial system of paternal power. Tylor noted further that, like Bachofen and Morgan, 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” (p. 81).

Presenting the family system of the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, Indonesia, as a prototypical example of a matriarchy, Tylor cited the work of a Dutch colonial administrator who in 1871 described the senior woman as being at the center of life in the Minangkabau longhouse. According to Tylor, the longhouse, which can be occupied by more than a hundred people, “forms a sa-mandei or motherhood” (p. 86).

Despite his lively description of a number of what he calls “matriarchal” family systems in various parts of the world, Tylor rejected the term “matriarchal” on the grounds that although this was “an improvement on earlier definitions … it takes too much for granted that women govern the family.” In its place he substituted the term “maternal family” because “the actual power” is rather in the hands of brothers and uncles on the mother’s side (p. 90). This conclusion is not borne out by any of the twentieth-century observations of the Minangkabau—those by, for example, Franz von Benda-Beckmann and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann , Evelyn Blackwood , and Peggy Reeves Sanday . As in many matrilineal societies, Minangkabau mothers and brothers share power and are responsible for different realms in the governance of the family and society.

The early twentieth century saw the demise of the term “matriarchy” in anthropology and sociology, a victim both of the tendency to confuse it with exclusive female rule and of the exhaustion of the evolutionary paradigm. Speaking in the early 1920s on the subject of “mother-right and father-right,” which he also referred to as the matriarchate and the patriarchate, the British anthropologist William Halse Rivers ( 1864 – 1922 ) claimed that “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.” Though Rivers agreed with the abandonment of the term in Britain and in the United States, he cautioned that it would be wrong to revert to Maine’s doctrine of the priority of father-right. According to Rivers, Maine’s theory was “even more untenable” than pronouncements concerning the priority of mother-right (p. 98). Rejecting the nineteenth-century model of evolutionary stages, Rivers argued for more particularistic ethnographic descriptions in which institutions were treated not as the result of a simple process of evolution but as the consequence of the blending and interaction.

The particularistic approach was not adopted by anthropologists with respect to the matriarchy debate until Peggy Reeve Sanday’s ethnography of the Minangkabau later in the twentieth century, in which she offered a revised definition of matriarchy based on her study of the system of customs that the Minangkabau refer to as adat matriarchaat (matriarchal customs). Though the Minangkabau most likely adopted the word “matriarchate” from their Dutch colonizers, Sanday found that the phrase meant much more than matrilineal descent and women-centered households. Adat matriarchaat, also called adat ibu (women’s customary law), refers to a system of symbols and a set of life-cycle ceremonial practices that places senior women at the social, emotional, aesthetic, political, and economic center of daily life along with their brothers. When performing their ceremonial functions, senior women are referred to as bundo kanduang. The title means “our own mother” and refers to the common ancestress of each clan as well as to one’s own biological mother. The title is also that of the semihistorical mythical queen mother of the Minangkabau who was thought to have lived in the fourteenth century. A popular sung narrative drama called the Minangkabau state myth tells of the exploits of this queen and her sons, who worked together to uphold adat law, which is notable in giving matrilineal descent the status of divine law.

The maternal carries sovereign authority in Minangkabau gender logic. Wielding power by using force or adopting an attitude of dominance by either men or women is antithetical to the Minangkabau ethos, which is notable in its emphasis on politesse and maintaining peaceful relations. Based on the predicating power of maternal symbols and on the women-centered nature of much of village public life, Sanday concluded that “the time is long overdue for rethinking the Western definition of matriarchy” (p. 231).

Redefining Matriarchy.

In rethinking matriarchy, Sanday suggests that for societies where the social foundation is forged by maternal principles, attention must be shifted from forcible power to the persuasive force of tradition. In their leadership roles in these societies both men and women exert influence by upholding tradition. Barbara Alice Mann , an Iroquoian scholar, presents an example in her analysis of women’s sovereign influence in Iroquoian society. Like the Minangkabau, the Iroquois have a special label for senior influential women.

Matriarchy is not a system of governance of the family or society associated with exclusive female rule. Matriarchy is a balanced social system in which both sexes play key roles founded on maternal social principles. As the symbolic originators, women, in their roles as mothers and senior women, are the performers of practices that authenticate and regenerate or, to use a term that is closer to the ethnographic details, nurture the social order. By this definition, the ethnographic context of a redefined matriarchy does not reflect female power over subjects or female power to subjugate, but female responsibility (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, through their leadership in upholding tradition. Tradition determines the rules for appropriate leadership and knitting social ties through the economy of gift giving. Power conceived in this way is balanced in the sense that it is diffused among those who work in a partnership to uphold social rules and practices. There are many well-described examples of matri-centered societies like the Minangkabau and the Iroquois. Others that could be mentioned are the Zapotec of Mexico and the Mosuo of southwestern China.

The gender logic in such societies may be either predominantly matri-centered, as is the case of the Minangkabau, or cast in a diarchic, complementary relationship in which the “original mother” is associated with a male mythical figure who works in conjunction with the female, as is the case of the Iroquois. In both types of society men and women work as partners, albeit in different spheres. Examples of matriarchal societies with complementary gender logics are the Tuareg of the Sahara and the Sahel, the Kabyle of North Africa, the Trobriand islanders of the Pacific, and the Lahu of southwestern China.

Gender Balance and Peace in Matriarchal Societies.

Men and women share responsibilities in all societies. The question to be asked concerns the degree to which the sharing is symmetric and balanced. Riane Eisler , in The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future ( 1987 ), and Marija Gimbutas , in The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe ( 1991 ), argue that there is an ethic of gender balance and peace in societies with maternal values. The work done by Genevieve Vaughan on the gift, in For-giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange ( 1997 ), suggests that the balance is inspired and maintained through the values motivating gift giving, which acts as the glue for social bonding. In her extensive work on the social logic of gift giving in comparison with market exchange, Vaughan distinguishes between the transitive logic of gift giving and the intransitive logic of giving to receive an equivalent. According to Vaughan, “the manhood agenda in Patriarchy imposes goals, which are consonant with the market and opposed to gift giving/mothering” (p. 55). Like the supreme gift of mothering through which the generations bond, the giving and receiving of gifts weaves the net of social relations.

There has been, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, an explosion of interest in the subject of matriarchy reflected in the developing field of matriarchal studies, spearheaded by the philosopher and feminist Heide Göttner-Abendroth through the First World Congress on Matriarchal Studies that took place in Luxembourg in 2003 . Like Sanday, Göttner-Abendroth claims that matriarchy is not parallel to patriarchy and notes that the Greek root arche “means both ‘dominance’ and ‘beginning’ ” (p. 3). Unlike Sanday, Göttner-Abendroth casts her understanding of matriarchy in a universalistic evolutionary framework when she claims that humanity’s earliest religions were indisputably matriarchal.

What is most important in this new field is the commitment to both research and action in joining with indigenous women in working toward a global culture that represents matriarchal values. In a world seemingly rushing toward extinction through sectarian violence and environmental degradation, disseminating matriarchic values of peace, partnership, balance, and respect for difference is a civilized response in a fractious world.


Peggy Reeves Sanday

This article was posted with permission.

Peggy Reeves Sanday “Matriarchy” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History . . © Oxford University Press 2008. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History : (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. University of Pennsylvania. 20 July 2010

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Categories: Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Matriarchy

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6 replies

  1. Peggy Reeves Sanday’s Female Power and Male Dominance is one of the books that I have learned enormously from and treasure!

  2. I too have been hugely indebted to Peggy Reeves Sanday’s work and am thrilled with this particular article. Thank you so much for making it available here!


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