carol-christFor me the word “matriarchy” expresses the certainty that “another world” can exist—a world not based in domination and hierarchy or violence and war. 

The word “matriarchy” makes people’s hair stand on end as they imagine the mirror-image of patriarchy: societies in which women dominate men, beat men, rape men, hold men as slaves, and demand obedience from men.  Some who do not protest very loudly or at all against patriarchy are horrified by the very idea of matriarchy. To be fair, most feminists have also been schooled not to use the “m” word.

Early in my academic career, I read “The Myth of Matriarchy” by Joan Bamberger and learned that the idea of matriarchy gone wrong has been used by men to justify patriarchy. From other academics I learned that in matrilineal societies, uncles have a great deal of power—so therefore there never was a matriarchy.  I was also aware that Jungian and other proponents of a “matriarchal stage” in the development of culture have argued that matriarchy had to be succeeded by patriarchy in order for societies to evolve to a “higher” stage. Unlike many of my colleagues I stubbornly held onto the belief that there must have been “a better way” prior to patriarchy.

But I also learned that to use the “m” word was equivalent to committing academic suicide. So I choose my words carefully and spoke of “pre-patriarchal” societies where women were honored, people lived in harmony with each other and nature, and there was no war. Or like Marija Gimbutas, I spoke of societies that were “matrilineal and matrilocal” and worshipped the Goddess as the symbol of the cycles birth, death, and regeneration in all things.

I didn’t have a clear picture of how such societies might be organized until I read Societies of Peace by Heide Goettner-Abendroth. Through her work and that of a growing cohort of indigenous people who have come forth to speak about their own societies, matriarchy has been given a new and more precise definition.

Mosuo woman farmer
Mosuo woman farmer

Goettner-Abendroth rejects the common definition of matriarchy as “mother-rule” with the connotation of “female domination.”  Instead she argues that matriarchies are societies that honor mothers and consider care and generosity–values they associate with motherhood–to be the highest values.  In affirming values associated with motherhood, matriarchal societies are not essentialist. They do not affirm that only women can be nurturers of life. Quite the opposite, they assert that the highest role for anyone–male or female or other–is to nurture life.  This is so far from the way we think, that it will be easy to misconstrue what is being said.

Matriarchal societies are generally in the early stages of agriculture (small scale or before the plow), they are egalitarian, they are matrilineal (tracing descent through the motherline), and they are usually matrilocal (with women and sometimes men staying in the mother clan).

In matriarchal societies, men are not dominated, and as anthropologists have long understood, men do hold power as brothers and uncles.  However, men do not dominate, because mothers and grandmothers also hold power. Together great-uncles and grandmothers create an egalitarian system where everyone’s voice can be heard. The power to dominate is not held to be the highest value.

In matriarchal societies sex and love really are free because they are not tied up with providing for a family or caring for children. The matriarchal clan remains at the center of life; children are brought up by the maternal clan, including mothers, aunts and grandmothers, brothers and uncles. Lovers are free to come together and to part.

Cretan feast
Cretan feast

Land is held by the female clans and inequalities are erased by a wide-spread practice of gift-giving.  Those who have more hold parties and feasts where what they have is shared rather than hoarded.  In matriarchal societies the earth is generally understood to be a Great and Giving Mother and her generous gift of Life is celebrated in rituals that celebrate her as the Source of Life.

In some parts of the world matriarchies have been superseded by patriarchy, but not everywhere. Matriarchal societies still exist today in the Himalayas and in parts of Indonesia, as well as in areas in Africa and the Americas.

When I first read Societies of Peace a few years ago, I found it to be the “rosetta stone” that made sense of a series of individual insights I had about the ancient culture of Crete.  Among those are the following.

Over years of visiting museums, I realized that a large number of the artifacts from ancient Crete were pouring vessels. As most of these were found in ritual contexts, it made sense to think of them as having been used to pour libations of liquid onto altars and the earth, returning the gifts that had been given to human beings to Mother Earth.

Over the years I have been struck many times by the generosity of the Cretan people, especially those who live in rural areas.  Could it be, I wondered, that the idea that the earth is a Great and Giving Mother is connected to the “teaching” still alive today in Crete that nothing is more important than to give and to receive in the circle of life?

It seemed to me that the spirit of great generosity I experienced in Crete was not rooted in the idea of giving as self-denial that I had been taught in Sunday school. Although I experienced great generosity in my childhood—especially from my grandmother who fed us all on Sunday afternoons—I was also taught that “giving to others” is a duty and that it should be done “selflessly” with no expectation of return, and perhaps “joylessly” as well.

In Crete I learned a different lesson. I met people who love to give and who consider giving to others on a daily basis to be a part of life.  The people I met also enjoyed receiving.  For them life is a circle that includes self and other. Self-denial was not a part of it.  To give is to live. But so is to receive. Recognizing the two together is, I believe, the essence of the matriarchal worldview.

Recently, I have begun to use the words “matriarchy” and “matriarchal” even though recognizing that they may be misunderstood. For me the word matriarchy expresses the certainty that “another world” can exist—a world not based in domination and hierarchy or violence and war.  I have experienced matriarchal values in Crete and learned about them from the work of Heidi Goettner-Abendroth and her colleagues, but these values were also passed on to me by my grandmother.

I proudly use the “m” word in honor of her and of all of those who have taught me that “another way” is possible.

(However I intend to use the word precisely. Worshipping the Goddess or Goddesses does not make a society matriarchal.)

See “Matriarchy” by Peggy Reeves Sanday and my “Exciting New Research on Matriarchal Societies.”

Carol P. Christ created a newly released new website for the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute.  Early bird special for the spring pilgrimage extended.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions

Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

45 thoughts on “MATRIARCHY: DARING TO USE THE “M” WORD by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Matriarchy. It amazes me that the Greeks and other ancient societies had no goddesses of freedom. Gods of war, goddesses of love and of fertility, but why are there no Statues of Liberty? We ourselves have one though, in our era—amazing, amazing!! And she holds high a great light, a beacon. I love that it’s not a sword she has there in her hand, not a jewel of wealth, but rather the emblem of her leadership, her great power, is a light of freedom for all the world, as well as for our own emancipation from any and all shackles we might place on ourselves!!


    1. The Greek Goddesses with the exception of Demeter tend to prove the point that Goddesses symbols can be co-opted in patriarchy. Classical Greece was no matriarchy, though the prominence of women in Goddess ritual affairs suggests an earlier matriarchy preceded may have Greek patriarchy.


  2. Thank you for this wonderful piece that helps make a matriarchal society of peace and equality more alive in the human imagination. Because we can’t create what we can’t imagine.


  3. Thank you for memory and vision of matriarchy and especially for the reminder that it is present today on this earth and if we know how to look in our own lives.


  4. Thank you so much for this, Carol! It is so important to keep the “M” word in our vocabulary, and to keep defining it in terms of “sharing” and “power with” rather than the patriarchal “power over” paradigm.


  5. Brava! It’s good to get such a thorough definition of a difficult word. I wish every man on the planet could read this blog. I wish every woman on the planet could read it, too. Then everyone could talk to everyone else, perhaps while sitting around a big table loaded with good food. That sure would be better than the so-called conversations that currently take place, where the women cook and serve and do all the work, but are seldom allowed to sit at the table in equality with the men. Maybe there’s also equality in the cleaning up and dish washing after the feasts?? These new feasts should take place in some of the patriarchal churches where the men are the bosses and the women the handmaidens and servants.


  6. Thank you. I am leading Rise up and Call Her Name to a wonderful group of women and I will share this with them on Wednesday night. Blessed be.


  7. Excellent article. I just recently had ordered a used copy of “.Societies of Peace”. I look forward to finding out more about the indigenous people who still practice matriarchy.


  8. Is “matriarchy” the right word, since it appears that binding governing decisions are made by both male and female elders?

    The word “matriarchy” has taken on very negative connotations, same as “liberal” in the USA. Is it time to find a new word or push a new, specific definition?


    1. matriarchy is absolutely the right word. you are thinking inside a patriarchal framework. binding decisions is a patriarchal concept. matriarchy is stepping outside the authoritarian model and into a cooperative model. whereas patriarchy is a point up triangle built with heirarchy, matriarchy is a circle with strength being spread around the edge of the circle to protect everyone within. as for the negative connotations, that is in large part due to the fact that people don’t understand what matriarchy means. even wikipedia defines it as a ‘woman dominated’ society, when in fact dominate is not a part of the vocabulary of matriarchy.


  9. For me the key is that it is the values associated with motherhood that are valued–which means mothers are valued and everyone is encouraged to be nurturing of life, caring, generous. Is there a better word?


  10. I have heard, too, that matriarchy is no better than patriarchy because they both imply who is in power. However, I agree with you, Carol, that a matriarchal society uses power differently than a patriarchal one (not to dominate, control and subjugate men as the patriarchy has done to women). I also like the idea of a partnership society in which women and men honor the feminine and masculine in each of us and work together to create peace and harmony within and without.


  11. I absolutely loved this. It felt good as I read it. The idea is fascinating, wonderful, and “life-choice-affirming” to those of us who consider ourselves feminists–but who often feel marginalized in the feminist community because we choose to devote our lives to raising and nurturing our children, or in more modern terms, we choose to be stay-at-home mothers (*cringe, i dislike the term and it’s connotations).

    But, once again, why must we attack–mildly or not–those who love to care for their children? Who find it to be the greatest gift? Here, you write, “In matriarchal societies sex and love truly are free because they are not tied up with providing for a family or caring for children.” I find that contradictory to the mother/nurturer-affirming gist of the whole piece (if you are nurturing life, you are involved deeply with that life) and that conclusion to be a bit skewed in order to fit a particular view point. Look, I am no fool and understand the practical risks of what I choose to do, but I choose it anyway because I believe deeply and wholly in nurturing the life I created.

    Thank you for sharing this.


    1. Alisha, I agree with you that “matriphobia” is rampant in many feminist discussions–fear that if anything about mothers or motherhood is affirmed women won’t be able to do anything else but be mothers.

      In matriarchal societies motherhood is valued but as the photo shows women also work in the fields and do other non-childcare work, such as weaving and sewing.

      The Mosuo family is not nuclear–the family is made up of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, male lovers return in the mornings to their natal families. You can read about this in Societies of Peace.


    2. i do not consider myself a feminist because to me feminism feels like a fight for equality in patriarchy. thus, i consider myself a matriarchist. this has been my belief for a long time and only very recently have i seen it being discussed by others. i’ve been attacked so many times by feminists for standing up for my right to be equally valued as a woman who chooses to put her children first. i’ve been shut down in very patriarchal fashion as being uneducated for having different beliefs (when in fact i have a degree from a highly accredited university and am a consummate reader) because i disagree with the most commonly fought for objectives and/or tactics of feminism. i don’t care about my position in a board room or my right to twerk – i care about the value given to the choice of child centered living, and that is an aside in feminism.

      i don’t read the sex and love not being tied to family contradictory because in matriarchy, nurturing life is the objective of the whole society, not just the primary responsibility of women and mothers fighting for their right to do so. sex and love resulting in children in our society leaves a woman having to fight for her kids. in matriarchy, children are supported by the whole community.


  12. Like Katharine and Saladd, I also use Riane Eisler’s term “partnership”, even though your definition of “matriarchy” and Riane’s definition of “partnership” are exactly the same. I fear the “archy” has too much baggage from the dominating nature or the word “patriarchy”. It seems to me that part of the problem is that the Greek root for “archy” is αρχηγός which means chief or ruler. So the root word itself is patriarchal.


  13. Personally I don’t find that the term partnership expresses the idea that the values associated with motherhood–nurturing, care, generosity–are central. arche is discussed by Goettner-Abendroth. She prefers the root meaning “beginning” and defined matriarchy as mothers at the beginning. I would also suggest that it could be translated mother principle. Sanday titled her book Mothers at the Center.


  14. I would like a world where women are central, and I think women need one country where all is female. Matirachy of the past has been well documented, 1000 years of peace with no war at all, that was matriarchy. Perhaps, men, in all their evil, fear the wrath of women, because they have raped and killed and destroyed for so long. Who wants the world men have created?
    I don’t have time for grand retribution, although I feel happy when evil men are killed, and would certainly clap the day Woody Allen was hanged by the neck until dead, or when the child raping priests were put to the fire. I have no love for men at all, don’t care if they live or die, as long as a women’s nation someday is made. I’ll go there. Women who want men in their lives, fine with me, but let us have at least one country where I never have to deal with the species ever again. That’s not much to ask, just one country where no men are ever allowed to set foot, and where lesbians will be free at last.


  15. Turtle Woman, I understand your anger and I understand that far too many women are afraid to speak up because they are afraid where their anger will lead them.

    It is interesting to me that in matriarchal societies men are not the enemy because they respect women–their mothers and their lovers.

    Woody Allen is a vile human being and too many women are defending him and liking or loving him this very minute.

    But I personally hope for a world where men respect women and nurture life with a generosity of spirit–not a world without men. I have known such men in my life and I am thankful for that.


  16. Wow, that is interesting that saying “matriarchy” was academic suicide. I knew a woman who studied what she understood to be the only matriarchal society in the world (in China, I do not remember the details this was years ago). Even though she held a firmly non-matriarchal view of the world (the community was the exception that proved the rule of patriarchy and other models), she was treated as if her work was academic suicide both in Woman’s Studies (she was openly black-balled from conferences focused on women’s issues…openly meaning, they told her she was not welcome) and without. Although her work was deemed important by those in her field, there was distrust all the same. It seems just discussing matriarchy is a bit threatening!

    I like the definition of matriarchy here. Gender/Sexuality-Free Nurturing as the primary value of life.


  17. I imagine she studied the Mosuo — see photo. Yes it is truly threatening to the academy to suggest that “the Greeks” or at least “the patriarchal traditions” represent the highest value the world has ever seen or could ever see–never mind slavery, rape, war. This is why to mention the name Marija Gimbutas is also to be categorized as a kook, a dreamer, a utopian, anything but a serious scholar.


    1. I like using the idea of the mother principle applied in my ordinary life. Perhaps if I keep that as my guiding spirit and apply it in my daily life I will make a difference in changing the larger world. I like paying attention to the small things that can bring peace and well being to myself and my neighbors/friends/family/community. Small scale matriarchy. Jana


  18. Agreed, Nick Manolukas. An -archy means someone is ruling over someone else. I do not use the word matriarchy unless I am referring to a society that is ruled by women. I even minimize my use of “patriarchy” except for specific situations. As others just mentioned, I prefer Eisler’s descriptors, partnership culture or dominator culture.

    But to go into the briar patch even deeper, I have come to believe there were indeed matriarchies that abused their power. Now, for years, I advanced the same arguments that Ms. Christ does here. It was in one of our Venus & Her Lover presentations that a member of the audience pointed out that I was comparing the pathologies of patriarchy with the healthy aspects of matrilineal partnership cultures — and that was not fair. I realized he was right.

    Why, in my talk, did I present feminine values as care & compassion, and masculine values as domination & conquest? (healthy Feminine vs. pathological Masculine). I could just as easily have compared them thus: Feminine obedience & fusion vs. Masculine justice & rights (pathological Feminine vs. healthy Masculine). I have learned I must speak about specific time periods and the corresponding developmental stages of the humans during those times.

    Far more accurate to describe tribal values (indigenous and ancient Goddess cultures), for example, in comparison to rational values (the Enlightenment). In the tribal paradigm, the rights of the individual must be submitted to the will of the collective. (It is because of our over-emphasis on individuality these days that we have much to learn from tribal cultures, to balance the pendulum swing). But back then, free-thinking individuality could threaten the group, so even though one matriarch may not have been cracking the whip, the matriarchal value was. This dawned on me while I was meditating at some ruins in Crete.

    Only then could I allow in the old myths that talked about the springtime lover of the goddess (such as the Stag King) who was ritually sacrificed. I always thought they were speaking metaphorically. But what if there were, in fact, blood sacrifices to the Goddess? Pathological matriarchy. I’ll opt for individual rights any day.

    I am not suggesting we toss the Goddess out with the bathwater here. We need partnership values. But I think we must place ancient people in their cultural contexts, and recognize that all “-archies” are held up by the people — women as well as men. Otherwise, we may see men as perpetrators and women as victims. We all feed the current dominator culture; though admittedly, most of us here on this blog are withdrawing support as fast as our consciousness is expanding . . . ¡Yay!


    1. There are a lot of issues here, I can only comment on a few.

      Yes both the woman who is beaten and the man who beats his wife or girlfriend are victims of patriarchy. But is the responsibility for “feeding patriarchy” equal? A woman who leaves a battering man may be stalked and even killed, when she gets away, if she has children she will most likely find herself in poverty. Where power relations are unequal, there are times when there are perpetrators and victims. Recognizing that can be the route to change and transformation of culture.


    2. I lost my post so I am reposting twice.

      Robert Graves was the great perpetrator of the notion that the king must die–in all Goddess cultures. He was a complex man with masochistic proclivities who viewed the Goddess as muse as “overpowering” the male poet. Sigghhh. Not my view.

      The evidence for the sacrifice of kings in thin on the ground. If it ever occurred we are not talking about matriarchy, as kingship itself is one of the marks of patriarchy. Kings are warrior kings and war is another of the marks of patriarchy.


  19. How about “rule of reciprocity”? Only I don’t like reciprarchy because it sounds like “rule of the recipes” and some of those chefs are pretty darn tyrannical.

    What is the Greek word for “reciprocity”?


  20. Depends. Thailand is matriarch in the sense that the man moves in with the daughter to take care of her family; however, this does not mean the sexes are equal. Divorce laws are still in the mans favor, it often said that 90% of men have side girlfriends at some point. That said, I think feminism is moving there too.


  21. we have matrilocality in Lesbos too as the traditional norm. this is better for women because they don’t have an uphappy mother in law to contend with, but the culture is still formally patriarchal and the man is supposed to have the last word. so it is a kind of mixed system.


  22. I believe the Minoan civilisation to have been Matriarchal and its legend was passed down as Atlantis. When Santorini erupted it destroyed the peace loving woman led society of the Minoans.

    I think the accumulation of wealth due to the agricultural revolution led to elites and classes which we are still saddled with today. So A modern Matriarchy should evolve rom the current patriarchal capitalist one.


  23. I don’t want to sound a miss contrarian but the more I read about matriarchy the more I find them problematic. The women control the key point of the society as family, economy, spirituality and politics, or at least tree of the mentioned. Can somebody explain me how this is egalitarian? as I see it there is a power unbalance between men and women, and people are again forced into a gender box (men are this, women are that). I also see a clear defined hierarchy as elder women, mothers, daughters, gran daughters, men with feminine attributes and everybody else. Looking beyond all the glamour the concept of matriarchy leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t see any traces of egalitarianism aka men and women are equal. Sorry but I dont see it. Let me add if this is our future (women become the oppressors) and negating our beloved feminism, I prefer to move on another planet.


    1. There are no male and female qualities (gender boxes) as both males and females are encouraged to be loving and generous amd sensitive to others (no aggressive males or females). Power is shared between elder women and elder men with structures for listening to everyone. With war and domination missing the society is not a mirror image of our own.


      1. We must protect them… they worshiped the goddess Gemu. .. there are organization that want they learn “writhen language” and make more money (and they are almost self sufficient) .Thay say that they no have education…. want that Mosuo look like with us..but its wrong !!!!!! WE must look like mosuo.. i dont like the way brazilian man “date” with me…. Ave Maria? IT HURTS.. I want to love like a Goddess, you know ? love myself…leave in beautiful places with nature and peace… But if we want different things…we must DO different things…but i dont see nobody doing different things… please say something to me…


  24. I have a couple questions. They’re born of genuine inquiry, and not meant to be contrarian. First, if motherhood is associated with nurturance of life, care, and generosity, what is fatherhood associated with? Also, if matriarchy is social organization based on mothering characteristics, how are immature or shadow aspects of motherhood (ie – smothering, intrusion) to be understood and acknowledged?


    1. The father role is played by brothers and uncles of the mother. The “male” role is also defined as nurture, care, generosity. There are no big differences in what girls and boys are taught is the best way to live. Somothering and intrusion can be understood as created by the lack of roles other than motherhood for many mothers under patriarchy. With no legitimate power of their own, mothers often attempt to control the lives of their children, often especially the lives of their sons. In matriarchy, all women work in the fields and childcare is shared, so the problems you describe are less likely to occur. If they did, I suspect the grandmothers would step and try to stop it.


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