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matriarchy, familial and political rule by women. Many contemporary anthropologists reject the claims of J. J. Bachofen and Lewis Morgan 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).

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  1. a form of social organization in which a male (the patriarch) acts as head of the family/household, holding power over females and children (e.g. in Roman society).
  2. any system whereby men achieve and maintain social, cultural and economic dominance over females and younger males. The term may refer to a pattern of organization within the family and households, etc., or within a whole society.
Although historically sociologists have mainly used the term descriptively, more recent usage by feminist sociologists has emphasized mainly its negative features. Analysis in sociology has been concerned with the origins and the implications of patriarchy. Although biological differences between men and women (e.g. physical strength in warfare) have sometimes been seen as the basis of patriarchy, the cultural and social sources of patriarchy, and its variations in form and importance, are equally striking.

Within FEMINIST THEORY, use of the term patriarchy has lead to the politicization of discussion of GENDER relations, enabling gender relations to be understood as predicated on inequalities of power.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the most widespread form of primitive communal relations during the period of their breakdown. The patriarchy is characterized by the dominant role of men in the economy, society, and family.

The transition to patriarchy took place during a period of significant development in the productive forces and an increase in labor productivity in all aspects of the primitive communal economy: agriculture, cattle raising, hunting, and fishing. The development of production caused the growth of exchange and the rise of private property. Almost everywhere men replaced women in the sphere of basic production and confined them primarily to domestic labor. The patriarchy is also characterized by patrilinear inheritance. The kinship group loses its economic unity but retains other elements of kinship. In addition, the patriarchy is marked by the transition from pairing marriage to monogamy, the settling of the wife in the husband’s communal group (patrilocal marriage), and the formation of large patriarchal families. Patriarchal relations were further strengthened with the growth of property differentiation, the emergence of patriarchal slavery, and the rise of class divisions.

The question of the place of the patriarchy in the history of society has been discussed for many centuries. One widely held theory claimed that human society had always been patriarchal. The ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle supported this theory, which dominated medieval thought on the history of society. In the 19th century it was advocated by H. Maine. In the 1860’s and 1870’s J. Bachofen and later L. H. Morgan refuted the idea of the primordial character of the patriarchy. Key features of Morgan’s views were supported and developed by F. Engels, and they have been accepted by most Soviet scholars. But even in the 20th century a significant number of bourgeois ethnologists adhere to the theory of the primordial character of the patriarchy.


Engels, F. Proiskhozhdenie sem’i, chastnoi sobstvennosti i gosudarstva. In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 21.
Morgan, L. H. Drevnee obshchestvo. Leningrad, 1934. [Translated from English.]
Kosven, M. O. “Perekhod ot matriarkhata k patriarkhatu.” Tr. ln-ta etnografii, vol. 14. Moscow, 1951.
Problemy etnografii i antropologii v svete nauchnogo naslediia F. Engel’sa. Moscow, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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