Matriarchy: What Does a Society Run by Women Look Like?

By: Jessika Toothman  | 
Four elephants walk across grass, their lower halves damp with mud
Elephants typically adhere to a matriarchal society, with the females leading herds and the males going out on their own after a certain age. Krzysztof Baranowski / Getty Images

Prehistoric people recognized the value in hunting large, dangerous animals as important for survival. The strongest, fastest members — typically men — were therefore seen as valuable, which may be how patriarchies became the dominantly established social order in all but a few cultures.

But what if things had evolved differently, with a matriarchy at the center of human society? In this article, we'll explore different versions of matriarchies and look at an example of a women-ruled society.


What Are Matriarchal Societies?

There are different ways to define the word "matriarchy," and it can get a little confusing. For example, some people consider matriarchies to mean women are the dominant gender in a society. They make the decisions, they drive the economy and they rule the politics — basically the flipside of patriarchies.

In 1861, Swiss anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen wrote that matriarchies derived from hetaerism, a system where women had no power and were the property of their tribes. However, he posited that women fought back, taking total control of their families, properties and political power.


But others expect a matriarchy to manifest more as an egalitarian society where gender equality is the norm. Everyone stands on equal footing and works in partnership with one another. Experts who endorse this interpretation believe it's unfair to assume a matriarchy would look anything like a patriarchy in practice.

In an article titled "Matriarchies as Societies of Peace: Re-thinking Matriarchy," Heide Goettner-Abendroth, a German feminist and researcher of matrilineal societies, argues that a female-dominated society is not merely the opposite of a patriarchal system, and as such there isn't gender hierarchy or a social organization built on gender inequality:

"These patterns are not just a reversal of patriarchy, with women somehow ruling over men — as the usual misinterpretation would have it — rather they are, without exception, gender-egalitarian societies, and in many cases fully egalitarian societies. Hierarchies, classes and the domination of one gender by the other are unknown to them. They are societies that are free of domination but are stabilized by certain guidelines and codes. With matriarchies, equality does not mean a mere leveling of differences. The natural differences between the genders and the generations are respected and honored, but the differences don’t lead to hierarchies, as is common in patriarchy. The different genders and generations each have their own value and dignity, and through a system of complementary activities, they are dependent on each other."
— Heide Goettner-Abendroth

The Matriarchal Myth

In "The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future," author Cynthia Eller says it's tempting to believe that before recorded history, ancient societies worshiped women and propelled them to leadership positions, but that this interpretation could be false. In her book, she examines both sides of the ancient matriarchy debate.


An Example of a Society Where Women Rule

While there are differing views on whether women ruling was a widespread phenomenon, matriarchal societies do exist. An example of a group with female rule is the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra.

Around 4 million in number, the Minangkabau are an ethnic group that considers themselves a matriarchy, and this, combined with a philosophy called adat that emphasizes nurturing both people and nature, forms a core tenet of their society [source: Sanday].


Women own the land, which passes down through a female line, from mother to daughter. Rather than women moving in with their husbands upon marriage, the men join their new brides' households.

Women are central to the community, and older women — regarded as the strongest pillars in the society — even more so. The men aren't oppressed; they're simply peripheral in familial organization. All the members of a family work for the betterment of everyone else.


Management, the Matriarchal Way

While strength and stamina helped propel male domination in the workplace, some argue that this isn't what we need in a work environment and that women's social smarts and communication skills can make a difference.

Women today hold more managerial and professional jobs than they ever have. In terms of education, women are getting degrees three to two over men.


In terms of money, women control more than half the wealth in the United States, and in terms of purchasing power, their control is even greater. Women generally manage some 80 to 90 percent of their families' buying power [sources: PBS, Pittsburg Post-Gazette].

Whether these statistics are signs of a domineering or egalitarian matriarchy is not yet completely clear. But it does appear that a strong social shift has been occurring and still is. Although a wage gap remains between the genders, women workers are slowly but steadily closing that divide.

In the past few decades, women have taken the workplace by storm, they still largely rule the home and they comprise a huge portion of the consumers pushing the demand side of the market as well. Even if that's not technically a matriarchy, it challenges some of the earmarks of a typical patriarchy.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Barreca, Regina. "Run By Women, The World Would Be Better and More Fun:
  • History would have been better had women been the dominant sex." Psychology Today. March 17, 2010. (8/25/2010)
  • Eller, Cynthia. "The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future." Beacon Press. 2000. (8/25/2010)
  • Gannon, Joyce. "When it comes to spending, dad gets the hook: Studies show moms still control bulk of purchase decisions in the home." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. June 17, 2007. (8/25/2010)
  • Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. "Modern Matriarchal Studies: Definitions, Scope and Topicality." 2nd World Congress on Matriarchal Studies. (8/25/2010)
  • Meese, Mickey. "What Do Women Want? Just Ask." New York Times. Oct. 29, 2006. (8/25/2010)
  • Kosty, Pam. "Indonesia's matriarchal Minangkabau offer an alternative social system." EurekAlert! May 9, 2002. (8/25/2010)
  • "Return to the Ice Age: The La Brea Explooration Guide." La Brea Tar Pits. (8/25/2010)
  • Rosin, Hanna. "The End of Men." The Atlantic. (8/25/2010)
  • Sanday, Peggy. " Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy." Cornell University Press. 2002. (8/25/2010)
  • "The emerging power of women!" (8/25/2010)
  • "Women and Philanthtopy: Sharing the Wealth." PBS. (8/25/2010)