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familial and political rule by women. Many contemporary anthropologists reject the claims of J. J. BachofenBachofen, Johann Jakob
, 1815–87, Swiss legal historian and antiquarian. Bachofen studied in Berlin, Göttingen, Paris, and Cambridge, and accepted only honorary offices in order to safeguard his independence.
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 and Lewis MorganMorgan, Lewis Henry,
1818–81, American anthropologist, b. Aurora, N.Y., grad. Union College, Schenectady, 1840. Practicing as a lawyer, he became interested in the Native Americans of his locality, and in 1847 he was made an adopted member of the Seneca tribe.
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 that early societies were matriarchal, although some contemporary feminist theory has suggested that a primitive matriarchy did indeed exist at one time. Claims for the existence of matriarchy rest on three types of data: societies in which women make the major contribution to subsistence, societies in which descent is traced through women (i.e., matrilineal), and myths of ancient rule by women. But myths of ancient female dominance invariably highlight women's failure as rulers and end with men assuming power. Anthropologists believe that these myths function as a rationalization of contemporary male dominance. Women may have greater political power in matrilineal societies than in other societies, but this does not imply matriarchy. Thus, while Iroquois women could nominate and depose members of their ruling council, the members were male and enjoyed a veto over women. Crow women could take ritual offices, but their power was severely limited by menstrual taboos. Women may also have indirect influence through their involvement in material production. In many horticultural societies women produce the bulk of the group's dietary staples. Even so, men often devalue this vital contribution, and usually have the power to expropriate it. The universality of male dominance is not, however, natural or biological, because the form of, and reasons given for, patriarchy differ in most cultures. Through studying the various ways that male dominance is organized and justified, anthropologists have concluded that it is culturally constructed.


See M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, ed., Woman, Culture, and Society (1974); R. Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women (1975); C. Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (2000).


any social organization based on female POWER. The literal meaning refers to the rule of the mother as head of the family and can therefore be contrasted with the term PATRIARCHY, referring to the rule of the father.

The term is subject to much dispute both within the discipline of sociology and within feminist theory. Historically, the term was adopted by a number of 19th-century anthropologists and social theorists concerned with the origins of social organization and the family. Bachofen (1861) argued that the original family structure was matriarchal. In 1865 McLennan published Primitive Marriage in which he claimed that the origins of social organization were characterized by a matriarchal structure. ENGELS, influenced by the work of Lewis Henry MORGAN, wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) in which he argued that the primitive matriarchal clan predated patriarchy Engels believed that the overthrow of mother right’ led to the defeat of the female sex and culminated in the institution of the patriarchal family. Both women and children were thereby subordinated to the power and control of adult men. Thence arose the monogamous family unit based on the supremacy of the man. The main purpose of this unit was to produce heirs of undisputed paternity. Such accounts of the origins of social organization were disputed by writers such as Henry MAINE (Ancient Law, 1861) who argued that the original form of social organization was a corporate family group ruled over by a despotic patriarch. Such debates have assumed fresh impetus with the rise of feminist anthropology and feminist sociology. Much interest has been directed at the work of Engels as providing a possible explanation of the roots of female oppression, although recognized as flawed.

Debates continue as to whether matriarchal societies ever existed. Radical FEMINISM has focused more attention on this issue than other strands of feminist thought. Radical feminists argue that such societies did exist but patriarchal history has erased knowledge of them. The Greek island of Lesbos, 600 BC, is taken as an indication of the existence of a matriarchal era.

Within contemporary feminist thought, wider meanings of the term denote female supremacy, female-focused or female-orientated societies, and women-centred culture.


1. a form of social organization in which a female is head of the family or society, and descent and kinship are traced through the female line
2. any society dominated by women